Witchcraft is a part of my personal spiritual identity as a practitioner of Northern European animism. But is witchcraft animism?
The word witch traces back to the Old English wicce/wicca meaning wise person, magician or sorceress, and possibly futher back into Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo_European with a relation to words meaning sacred, to divide, to divine or to wake.
In the modern world, witchcraft encompasses a vast array of practices, beliefs and traditions. Many of these have roots in ancient Northern European paths, while others are rooted in other lands and cultures. It’s relationship with animist is fluid and complex; these are areas of living experience that aren’t easily defined into tidy boxes, and they vary between people, place and time.
But for me, witchcraft is a part of animism and also a religion that grew out of animism. It’s a part of animism because much of non-religious witchcraft in the UK and other European countries is a continuation of deeply animistic folk magic, mysticism and reverance for the land and ancestors. These are practices that our ancestors have held and worked with for millenia, and while in witchcraft they take on a particular aesthetic, structure or intent, they are still deeply concerned with the relationships between people, their land and their community.
In this way witchcraft is a branch of the tree of animism, a particularly Northern European branch with rich modern resources.
But witchcraft can also be a religion, when it becomes hierarchical and organised around specific rules, such as which deities to honour and which ceremonies to practice at certain times. As we’ve talk about, animism is not a religion; and while our animistic ancestors would certainly have recognised the deities and ceremonies used in modern religious witchcraft, the highly ordered practice between separate communities would be alien to them.
And neither is all animism witchcraft; many people who practice animism use no folk magic at all. They work with angels or ancestors but no pantheistic deities or land spirits, and their ceremonies draw from completely different animistic roots and lands.
When we’re talking about deeply personal spiritual experiences and concepts like this, it’s important to remember that we can’t – and dont need to – define the experiences of others for them. While I call my spiritual practices animism, others who have the same viewpoints and methods use different words, like witchcraft. While shared language is helpful, so that we can share and learn from each other, we have to remember that these words are simply viewfinders that help us work within a vast and ambiguous field of experience.
What matters more is our own personal understanding of the terms we use and the methods we apply, and our ability to work with them is a way that’s helpful for ourselves and for others.