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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Were Wiccans Originally "Wakers of the Dead"?

Well, didn't see that one coming.

According to philologist Calvert Watkins, the word Wicca is actually related to wake.

And Wiccans were originally necromancers, “wakers of the dead.”

Watkins is the well-respected author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, which I will freely admit (word-wonk that I am) is one of the thirteen books that I would take with me to the desert island. When I saw Wicca in the index as one of the words whose origins were listed, I'll admit to having felt a moment of pride. We've made an impact: we're a cultural presence.

According to Watkins, the Witch story starts about 5500 years ago with the Indo-European root *weg-, "to be strong, be lively." (Now there's an origin anyone could be proud of.) 3000 years later, this has become the Proto-Germanic root that's the source of wake, watch, and vigil.

In suffixed form, this same root becomes *wikkjaz, literally a "waker." Watkins reads this as "waker [of the dead]," and translates "necromancer" (Watkins 98). This becomes the source of witch, Wicca, and (incidentally) wicked as well.

Admittedly, the ultimate origins of the word witch have been something of a moving etymological target. During the course of my (gods help us) nearly 50-year career in the Craft, I've seen the witch go from having originally been the wise (kin to wit), to the bender (kin to wicker), to a magico-religious functionary (kin to wile, guile, and victim), and now to the waker of the dead. Frankly, the Quest for the Etymological Witch is starting to resemble the Quest for the Historical Jesus, In Which the Quester Inevitably Finds Exactly What He Expected to Find In the First Place. As usual, the search tells more about the seeker than it does the sought.

Whatever origin for witch etymologists may eventually settle on (if ever they do), it's important to beware of what's called the "etymological fallacy." This is the belief that any given word continues now to mean what it originally meant. This, of course, is patent nonsense. The simple linguistic fact is that words change meaning over time. 

Of Watkins' "wakers of the dead" reading, one can only say that it makes sound historical sense. (Witches have always sought assistance from the Other Side.) Even so, it's important to bear in mind that "of the dead" is Watkins' supposition. Whether part B was originally implied or not, one has to admit that the witch as waker is a powerful image.

My buddy Mike Howard, father of Old Craft studies, always used to contend that witchery is, at heart, the quest for knowledge, gnosis, and so, ultimately, of enlightenment.

So, who knows?

The one you wake may be yourself.

 

Calvert Watkins, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, Third Edition (2011). Houghton Migfflin Harcourt

 

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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.
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