There is a disturbing idea touted about within the witchcraft (and Pagan, by extension) community and by those who neither practice witchcraft nor have any interest in understanding the practice from the perspective of people who not only live and breathe this path, but have been doing so for quite some time. This idea is that belief is all you need to carry you through a religion and/or magickal practice, that magick works simply on the basis of belief. This is a bit larger a topic than merits the scope of this blog, so let’s just focus on the idea that belief is all you need to be a witch and why this is utter bullshit.
Firstly, witchcraft is not a religion. It is a practice, much like knitting or wood carving, and like those examples, it is something that requires skill and practice to be good at it. So, in order to be a witch, the only requirement is that… you practice witchcraft. Why? Because witchcraft is a craft, a practice, and it is defined by the doing of that craft. One is a teacher because they teach, not because of their training to be a teacher and obviously not because they believe in their training to be a teacher. It is the same with witchcraft: one is a witch because they practice witchcraft. There are no other requirements.
So, if you’ve been reading books and websites on witchcraft but have never cast a spell, conjured a spirit, or even charmed a pot of soup you were cooking, guess what? You’re not a witch. But you could be –if you made the choice to be. It is the doing that makes you a witch. Believing in spirits or a divine pair of heteronormative entities or that nature is really groovy is not enough. Do the witchcraft if you want to be a witch.
This emphasis on actual practice and the experience gained from the practice has a name for it and is a big thing that sets religious witchcraft* apart from other religions. It’s called “orthopraxy” and basically means that to be a member of X, do what members of X do. Its counterpart is “orthodoxy” –to be a member of Y, believe what members of Y believe. I’m sure you can think of a religion or two that counts its membership based upon holding to a shared belief –regardless of whether that individual actually acts upon that belief. Within an orthodoxic religion, the belief is fundamental, the doing is the ideal. But that’s not how it is with witchcraft, religious or otherwise. Passive belief and hope don’t cut it, one actually has to try, to do the work and pull their own share, if they want to see results.
Here’s a little comparison to exemplify the difference a bit more. It’s become quite common to compare spells to prayer (especially in interfaith settings in order to convince others that we’re not just a bunch of kooky kids burning shit in our parents’ basements or dancing naked in the woods beneath a Full Moon, which are both perfectly acceptable and certainly demand doing once in a while.) But what is a prayer? In its simplest form, it’s an individual approaching an outside force (often a deity) and asking for Their help in achieving something. The individual assumes a passive role, asking that that entity take the active role in accomplishing this goal. On the flip side, a spell cuts out the middle man and demands the individual take action themselves. You do the work, you make the change. Prayer puts the individual in a passive position; spellcraft puts the individual in an active position. Being passive requires hope and belief, being an active witch creating your own destiny does not.
Now, this is not to say that belief doesn’t have a role in witchcraft, it most definitely does -just not in any sense as is being proclaimed by nonwitches and the misinformed alike. Belief only gets you so far. And it’s needed when you’re first learning witchcraft, when you’re sitting there working up the courage to take the plunge and do it. But after that, once you have actually developed the skills that are a necessary part of and consequence to practicing witchcraft, belief plays no part. Belief is not what powers a spell and makes magick happen. Belief is what gives you the courage to try. Once you’ve tried, that’s when you’re doing, that’s when you’re working magick, that’s when you are a witch because you are practicing witchcraft –not just crossing your fingers and hoping all of this is real.** And, yeah, obviously I’m not touching the topic of how frequent or how much practicing is required. You figure that out for yourself and apply it only to yourself, I’ll do the same.
Working magick, working a spell, is similar to lifting a tea cup off of a table and setting it back down. When you lift the tea cup, you flex and contract the muscles in your arm, hand, and fingers to grab and move it. You feel the warm ceramic against your skin, the texture, the weight of the cup and its contents, and how that weight is gone when you set the cup back down. When working a spell, you flex your magickal muscles, raising energy or reaching out for energy outside yourself, you feel that energy within you or about you, perhaps even see it, you focus it, and then you let it go, feeling the lack of its presence, feeling the physical sensations within your body that you just did something and that now it’s over. Both actions, lifting a tea cup then setting it back down and working a spell, require action on your part, require a use of skills, and provide real time feedback that you are doing something and that something happened. Neither action requires belief, as your senses and experience confirm the action. You don’t believe you lifted the tea cup, you know you did. Same thing with working a spell.
The doing along with the experience and wisdom you gain from the doing are what matter most. This is why it is possible to be a witch within or without any religious context (though, depending upon what religion the witch prescribes to, a certain amount of double faith may be required…) because it doesn’t matter what you believe. It doesn’t matter if you’re a monotheist, polytheist, henotheist, or atheist. It doesn’t matter what your cultural background, family heritage, or country of origin are. All that matters is that you do it.
If you want to be a witch, practice witchcraft.
*Religious Witchcraft: a religion that employs or makes use of the practice of witchcraft as a fundamental basis for its identity. Wicca is an example of such, as is Stregheria, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and 1734. Obviously, not a comprehensive list and it is quite possible to practice a nondescript form of religious witchcraft: I present myself as evidence, but I am hardly unique.
** If each individual witch didn’t have repeated experiences telling them this is real and that they are accomplishing something (i.e. the magick they work achieves the desired results,) do you really think any of us would continue to practice witchcraft? Or take the time to write ranty blog posts like this? (I try to not ever speak for others, but I feel this is a pretty obvious moment where I can safely do so.)
Throwing the Bones