Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Vocabulary of Witchcraft

"English is the sacred language of the Witches." (Stephen Warlowe)

Every word's a story.

The vocabulary of modern Wicca, like the religion itself, is late and composite.

Wicca < Old English wicca, “magic-worker [male]” That the word retains its Anglo-Saxon form and has been both redefined and re-pronounced (OE pronunciation: witch-ah) shows that this is a modern, not a continuous, usage.

Athame < Med. French atamer, “to cut”

Skyclad < Loan-translation (19th c.) of Sanskrit digambara, "dressed in air"

Coven < Latin

Sabbat < Latin < Hebrew. Murray's frolicsome s'esbattre derivation is non-historical. The term is a wholesale and hostile borrowing from Jewish vocabulary; compare yet another Trial Era name for the witch-meeting, the “synagogue of Satan.”

These two last are both clearly "words from without." What, one wonders, would be our "words from within"?


If what has come to be called Witchcraft were indeed derived from an ongoing indigenous tradition—say from the theedish (tribal) religion of the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce, as maverick archaeologist Stephen Yeates proposes—then one would expect, instead, to find a native vocabulary.


So, say that there were witches of our sort during Anglo-Saxon times: what would they have called things? The creative act of re-imagining ourselves into the past is, I would contend, a necessary and logical extension of imagining ourselves into the future. (Our novelists have been doing it for years.) What, as speakers of English, would our native word-hoard (vocabulary) for our native Craft be? The question is, in my opinion, well worth the asking.

During the Anglo-Saxon period, lords both earthly and heavenly were called dryhten, because they were leaders of the dryht. These terms fit quite neatly with the Early Modern notion of the “devil” and his coven. Had these concepts been active categories at the time of the Hwiccan kingdom, as likely as not, they would have been described using the same terms that one would apply to any leader—human or divine—and to his companions. And if those terms had continued in use to our time, we would today (as some of us still do) refer to them as the Drighten (rhymes with “tighten”) and his dright.

The Theodish (Anglo-Saxon heathen) movement has done much pioneering work along these linguistic lines, but has too often been content to canonize Old English as the language of liturgy without asking, If this word had survived in continuous use in English, what would we say today?

Had Harald won at Hastings, might we not today call a solstice a sunstead?  A custom a thew? A tribe a thede? Might we not call the sabbat (as they did in Swedish) a witch-thing? How much the richer are we for having these words at our disposal? For wrighting for ourselves a native vocabulary? For thinking in Witch?

What, after all, is witchery without audacious imagining?

Swa wiccan tæcað, wrote Halitgar in his 9th c. Penitential, “Thus teach the witches.”






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Tuesday, 21 April 2015

    Actually 'wicce' the female form of the word is pronounced 'witch-uh' but the male form is pronounced 'wick-uh, because of the back vowel.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 22 April 2015

    I'd wondered about that myself, Kate. I think it's a matter of orthography. My understanding is that Anglo-Saxon scribes conventionally used cc for the sound that we would transcribe ch. (The spelling ch is Norman French.) That would explain how wicca eventually became "witch" and wiccung became "witching" in a absence of back vowels.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Wednesday, 22 April 2015

    I think it's more likely to be the gendering of the concept of witch that happened in the wake of the conflation of learned and popular magic that Michael Bailey writes about, so by the time you get to the early modern era and the witch hunting madness, the female form of the word is the one people most often choose.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 23 April 2015

    That makes eminently good sense. Does Bailey deal specifically with the situation in Anglo-Saxon England? If there's a monograph dealing with wicca/wicce in the OE corpus, I don't know it.

    As my friend Volkhvy always says, "There's no rest for the Wicca." Sigh.

  • Kate Laity
    Kate Laity Tuesday, 21 April 2015

    And the most common word for lords, both heavenly and earthly is 'hlaford' which incorporates the word for loaf, thus the one who feeds you.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 22 April 2015

    Old English sure did have a lot of words for "lord," as you imply; I can think of 4 just off the top, and I'm virtually certain there are more. "Loaf-ward" gets my vote, too: the lord as food-protector. Dryhten, as above; frea (= Old Norse Frey, although there's no evidence I know of that this god was known to the Anglo-Saxons) the lord as beloved; bealdor ( = Old Norse Balder ditto) the lord as bold one. Clearly a concept more important in that culture than it is today.

  • m
    m Tuesday, 21 April 2015

    Sabbat Hebrew. Murray's frolicsome s'esbattre derivation is non-historical. The term is a wholesale and hostile borrowing from Jewish vocabulary; compare yet another Trial Era name for the witch-meeting, the “synagogue of Satan.”

    Now the Word Sabbath is very very close

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 22 April 2015

    Yes, sabbat and sabbath both stem from Hebrew shabbat. Sabbat reflects Latin sabbatum; Latin didn't have a way to spell sh. Of course the concept of the witches' sabbat entered English through Latin, the international language of scholarship (and witch-hunting) at the time. English sabbath gets its final -th from a spelling convention of the KJV translators to distinguish between Hebrew's two ts, tet and tav.

    Like I say, every word's a story.

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