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Why Are Witches Called Witches?

by Johanna-Hypatia Cybeleia

The adept who can bend and shape these swirling energies is the original magician, the original Witch, pioneer of the sacred

Why do we call Witches Witches? What else could they be called? What did the word witch mean originally?

Debate continues to surge over the question of what a Witch is. Leaving aside that identity issue as too large to be contained in an article of this length, I took an interest in a side issue kicked up in the course of this debate: how the word witch got into our vocabulary in the first place, and what does it say that equivalent words don’t say.


The etymology of witch has never been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, although I favor one theory, discussed below, as most likely to be the real one. Different etymologists have promoted several different theories and it does not look like they will reach consensus any time soon.


First, one of the most popular theories circulating in the Witch community is that the word comes from an Old English root meaning "to bend." In this light, a Witch is an adept at bending forces to her will, at bending the course of reality which she shapes by her mastery. It’s easy to see why this explanation is widely accepted. It confirms our preference for how we wish to see ourselves. There is in fact a Proto-Indo-European root *weig- or *weik- which combines related meanings including "to change," "to turn," "to bend," and "to weaken." Both forms probably came from a more basic form *wei-- "to twist, weave, braid." Latin vicis "turn, change" and German Wechsel "change" show the first sense. The two senses of bending and weakness are found in, for example, willow osiers and withy weirs made of thin, pliable tree branches. From this concept is derived the word wicker, something made of osiers; and weak, originally something that could be bent easily, like a willow branch.

Another sister word branched from this same root is the witch in witch hazel. In an article about the witch-word, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) deserves a passing mention to clarify its origin in relation to the "magick woman" meaning of witch. Was it named "witch hazel" because of wise women’s use of such healing herbs? Sorry, romantic as that sounds—no. Witch hazel is called that because of its pliant branches, from Old English wice. Still, given that Hazel is also a girlname, the temptation to name comical cartoon Witches "Hazel" must be irresistible. Other plant names that come from this same Indo-European (IE) root are wych elm (from the same Old English word wice) and vetch (from Latin vicia—because of its twisty tendrils).

From the concept of turning, in the root *weig-/weik-, we get the words week and wicket (originally "door that turns"). In addition, vicar and vice- in compounds like vice-president (changing roles), and vicissitude, all from the above mentioned Latin vicis. All in all, I find the constellation of meanings around this root quite fascinating and thought provoking, and it would be nice to derive the word witch from it. After all, many of us Witches like to sing, "She changes everything She touches," to express our sense of the Goddess at work in our Witchcraft. But there is, I feel, a stronger case to be made for another etymology.

Eric Partridge, in Origins, connects witch with the Latin word victima, referring to ritual sacrifice, and he says these both derive from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *weig- "to sacrifice." The Germanic origin of witch refers to the concept of sacredness connected with the ancient religious use of sacrifice. Partridge connects it with Old High German wihen, German weihen "to consecrate," and OHG wih, Middle High German wich, "holy."

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins and Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Word Origins both echo Partridge in connecting witch with victima "sacrificial offering" and weihen "consecrate." What this suggests to me is that the name of Wicca comes from the very concept of religion itself. Shipley also relates the idea of victim to the root of victory.

The etymology in the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., cites "Old English wicce, witch and wicca, wizard, sorcerer." These are derived from Proto-Indo-European *weg- "to be strong, be lively." Derivatives include wake, watch, wait, vigilante, reveille, vegetable, and velocity.

Specifically, the AHD connects wicca with the concept of being awake, and traces it back to the suffixed form *weg-yo- (the Germanic *wikkjaz necromancer, "one who wakes the dead").

The AHD does not corroborate Partridge’s etymology connecting wicca with victim; it does not even trace a PIE root for victima, but stops at Latin without going any further back.

But note that the fourth edition of the AHD, published in 2000, disagrees with its witch-etymology from its first edition of 1969. The first edition derives witch from the PIE root *weik-2 and says: "In words connected with magic and religious notions (in Germanic and Latin)." The first edition derives both witch and victim from this root, but says *weik-5 "to conquer" is a different root. There are so many differences between the etymologies in the fourth and first editions of this dictionary, it looks as though the etymology department had been overthrown in a coup d’état and replaced by a radically different faction.

Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology says:

Witch. n. About 1250 wiche, in Genesis and Exodus; sorceress (about 1000), feminine of wicca sorcerer, wizard (about 890). These words are related to, and probably derivatives of Old English wiccian to practice Witchcraft, itself related to Old English wigle divination, wiglian, to divine, and wig idol — all cognate with Old Frisian wigila sorcery, Witchcraft, and probably wicken, wikken to bewitch, divine, Old High German wih, wihi holy, Old Icelandic ve temple, and Gothic weihs holy.

So Barnhart agrees with Partridge about connecting it with Germanic religious words meaning "holy, sacred," but doesn’t trace it back to Proto-Indo-European.

The etymology in Webster’s New World Dictionary has a different explanation for the source of the witch-concept: "IE base *weik- to separate (hence set aside for religious worship), whence Gothic weihs, holy, OE wig, idol." This dictionary’s etymology for victim derives it from the same root and cross-references it to witch. However, I have not found any other source that has *weik- as an IE root meaning "to separate."


An Indo-European Comparative Dictionary by Stuart E. Mann does not show witch or wicca among its daughter language derivatives. But it does derive the Old English word for "idol" from a different root: from *ueik- "like; likeness," the source of the Greek word oikos, icon. Mann derives the Germanic root for "sacred" this way: from *ueik- "settlement, dwelling" (the source of Greek eikona, "house, home," from whence we get ecology, and Norse vik "village"). According to Mann, the Germanic forms of this root produced Gothic weihs, "village," Old High German and Old Saxon wih, "temple," Middle High German wich "dwelling, town; (adj.) holy," cf. also wihe, wiwe "dedication."


It seems etymologists cannot quite agree on the ultimate source of witch, but I would say the connection of wicca with other ancient Germanic religious words meaning "sacred" and "holy" is the strongest. This corroborates the Wiccan claim that they are reviving (or rather reconstructing) the Old Religion.

A large part of the fascination that this specific English word witch holds for me is the sense of its unique aptness for the subject. Perhaps modern English-speaking Witches benefit from having a special readymade name for people in magickal Earth-based religion, a name that already has a strong, deep resonance behind it. Words for Witches in other languages often simply amount to the grammatically feminine version of "magician." For example, Arabic sahirah, French sorcière, Greek magissa, Hebrew mekhashefah, Lithuanian burtininke all mean "Òfemale magician, sorceress." In Persian, a completely genderless language, the unisex word jadugar has to serve indiscriminately for magicians, sorcerers, Witches, warlocks, and all other such occult practitioners, male and female alike.

While I think I like the English word witch best of all for its uniqueness and its many levels of suggestibility, some other languages as well have interesting witchwords.

Italian strega, like witch in English, has this unique sense of "woman who works with magick in an Earth-based religion." It comes from Latin strix meaning "screech owl." The screech owl being a symbol of Hecate, the Goddess of ancient Witches, its name has been transferred to the Witches themselves. Going further back in mythology, the screech owl was also a symbol of the Mesopotamian Lilith. The continuing presence of this symbol, this creature of the night, associated with the Dark Feminine, takes us back through the hidden story of women throughout the ages, across the shadows of time.

In Italian, the female meaning of strega is primary, the reverse of usual gendered patterns in languages where the word for the male magician takes the unmarked, hence more important, form. Here the feminine form is unmarked, while the word for warlock, stregone, is derived by adding a masculine ending. In this sense, strega is a close match with English witch, derived from the Old English feminine form wicce.

That the feminine definition of witch is primary is shown by the definition of warlock as "a male Witch," not the other way around. This focus on the feminine is two-edged: Witchcraft or stregheria got a special name to mark it as a specifically feminine type of magick. This may have been because male domination set it apart to denigrate it as inferior to male-controlled magick. But that in turn, taking it further back, attests to women’s original mastery of the Craft, their independent female power which had to be suppressed.

Both genders of Spanish bruja and brujo are apparently equal, with precedence given to neither, as a simple vowel switch at the end is enough to change gender. Bruja comes from a similar semantic origin as the English words heathen and pagan. The source of bruja is Latin brucus "heather." The English word briar, from French bruyère "heath," also originates in this Latin word. The implication is that brujas were pagans of the rural areas where heath and heather grow.

But the Latin word itself was borrowed from an ancient Celtic word, *bruko in Proto-Celtic. This is, for example, the source of Irish fraoch "heather." The Celtic word derives from—and this is where it gets interesting—the Proto-Indo-European root *werk- "turn, twist, bend." This is an extension of the more basic root *wer- "to turn, bend," which has produced many daughter words including worth, weird, verse, vertex, wreath, wring, wrench, verge, wrist, wrestle, ribald, warp, to name a few. Somehow these two Proto-Indo-European roots *wei- and *wer-, with the suffixed –k making them *weik- and *werk-, both produced words for Witch in English and Spanish. It’s downright uncanny. We even find an etymological connection to the Weird Sisters!

German Hexe is another woman-specific Witchword, and goes back to the same Germanic root that apparently produced English hag. Old High German hagzisse and Old English hægtesse are clearly both from the same Common Germanic origin, said to have referred to a terrifying female spirit, perhaps along the lines of Lilith. It literally means "hedge rider" or "hedge straddler," i.e. one with a foot in both worlds, between the worlds as a Witch. The later development of English hag into a pejorative synonym for crone is part of a well-known syndrome associating wise women with cronehood. For a further discussion on the history of the word hag, see the entry in Womanwords: A Dictionary of Words About Women by Jane Mills.


Bending and Shaping Energy


To sum up my feelings on the question of where the English word witch came from: while my research has inclined me to think that witch can be traced back to the root *weig- referring to the sacred, I also feel attracted by the derivation from *weig- or *weik- meaning "bend."

I feel like speculating on an even deeper connection linking these two concepts, one rooted in women’s early shamanism, perhaps inspired by some entheogenic mushroom. The shamanic realm of the sacred is where energies flow, swirl, bend, twist, and writhe like the totemic serpents of wisdom.

The adept who can bend and shape these swirling energies is the original magician, the original Witch, pioneer of the sacred.

Johanna-Hypatia Cybeleia is a grandmother, linguist, musician, and queer activist in the Washington, DC area. She loves to indulge in foreign languages, espresso, and silk scarves.

For a fascinating look at the history and semantics of words used for Witches in various languages, especially Hebrew, see Alexei Kondratiev, "Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: an Enquiry into Biblical Mistranslation." Enchantéz #18 (1994) pp. 11-15. Might be found online?

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