Practitioners of Witchcraft understand that the definition is much more complicated and detailed than this.
The definition of Witchcraft varies by culture, religion, and time period in history.
Witchcraft in Academia
In the academic community and the definition posited by Social Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, witchcraft refers to the belief observed in central Africa that certain individuals have the innate ability to cause things to happen by the force of their thoughts and emotions, particularly jealousy. These individuals may or may not be aware of their own power. A witch doctor may then be employed to help the individual undo any damage he or she might have done. Dr. Evans-Pritchard himself recognized that this definition does not correspond to common usage. Magical acts involving physical manipulation of tools he defined as Sorcery.
European Witchcraft in History
Historians of European history identify Witchcraft as the ability to cause change or harm by thought alone coupled with the use of tools, charms, and other materials, actions, incantations, and rituals. Witchcraft was materialistic Low Magick, concerned with everyday living (marriage, conception and childbirth, healing, fertility, and health of crops and livestock, bringing in enough to pay the bills, protecting the home and property, maybe bringing down a rival) as opposed to some higher ideal or ideology; though many witches were very spiritual. It was usually, but not always, something the common folk did to help them get by, though rumor had it that a rich Lord might bring in a witch once in awhile for political maneuvering.
In this view, witchcraft can be used to harm or to heal, but historically, the term witchcraft was only applied to the harmful sort. Those who simply practiced magic on behalf of the community without specific negative connotations might be called “cunning folk” rather than witches. Many witches who were imprisoned and killed had been respected cunning folk at some point, though just as many were just unfortunate folk who caught someone’s eye in the wrong way.
In Christianity and Islam, particularly during the Middle Ages, Witchcraft was associated with heresy and apostasy against these religions. The practice is seen as aligning oneself with Satan or the enemy of their God. Christianity in particular has viewed practitioners of Witchcraft as voluntary recruits in Satan’s war against their God. These Witches were believed to have made a pact with the Devil and to have been gifted with a familiar demon spirit to aid them in wreaking havoc with the people of God. This belief helped fuel the witch hunts of the past that have come to be known as The Burning Times.
A Modern Definition
The modern, Western definition of Witchcraft refers to the combination of knowledge and skills, that is, the craft, that allows one to manipulate reality in positive or negative ways through the use of personal energy in the form of focused thought or emotion, the casting of spells and the creation of magical items using natural materials.
The religion Wicca is a witchcraft-based religion. Sometimes the words Wicca and Witchcraft are used interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. While all active Wiccans practice Witchcraft as part of their religious observance, not all practitioners of Witchcraft are Wiccan.
Witchcraft is a spiritual practice that may be observed in the context of religion, but it is not a religious practice of itself. Some who practice Witchcraft claim no religion at all. Others may belong to one of the many modern Pagan religions, or they may belong to one of the Abrahamic religions.
Diversity in Witchcraft
Modern Witchcraft comes in many different flavors, but there are some similarities across traditions.
Witchcraft is often used in the modern context as a catch-all term. Many Witches practice the more traditional forms of Witchcraft but blend them with magical and spiritual practices also found in modern sorcery, shamanism, and alchemy. Some embrace New Age ideologies with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Most practitioners of Witchcraft will argue that Witchcraft is not supernatural but is simply one of the many ways we humans harness nature. The energy used in Witchcraft can be likened to electricity being channeled into a wire to light our homes or fire in a combustion engine to power a vehicle. Witchcraft works with the forces of nature to bring about a desired result. As such, Witchcraft cannot cause anything to happen that couldn’t have otherwise happened naturally if the situation was just right.
While some Witches believe that the ability to practice witchcraft is a hereditary trait, most Witches agree that anyone can practice Witchcraft if they are willing to take the time to learn and practice the skills required to do so. While some Witches learn the Craft from parents or grandparents, many learn on their own or from other, unrelated Witches. Most covens and individual Witches will not accept students who are not related to them until they are 18 or even 21 years old.
Some Witches practice in covens of various sizes or in more casual circling groups. Many solitary witches practice alone or with just close family members. Most who practice Witchcraft in groups also practice alone as well.
Different Witchcraft traditions and covens have different rules governing the practice and solitary witches also set rules for themselves to follow. These rules can vary greatly between traditions. Some forbid the use of Witchcraft for personal benefit while others insist that if you can’t use Witchcraft to help yourself, you can’t help anyone else. Some forbid the use of Witchcraft to interfere with the free will of another person or to hurt anyone. Others say that letting a wrong go unhindered or unpunished is a crime in itself. The phrase “If you can’t hex, you can’t heal” or “if you can’t curse, you can’t cure” has been heard in many Circles. Most believe that whatever energy you send out, positive or negative, will return to you in some way; though the details can vary widely. Some believe that these natural laws of return can be circumvented by certain actions or rituals, while others believe that they are inescapable. The only constant seems to be that every Witch’s experience with and definition of Witchcraft and the rules associated with it is unique.
There are many styles of witchcraft, more than we can possibly cover here. Some or more practical, some are more spiritual, some are religious and some are atheistic or animistic. Many witches combine multiple types of witchcraft and styles of magick within their practice.
Witchcraft is the manipulation of natural forces to bring about change for practical purposes. There are innumerable ways to go about it.