What exactly do witches do? What are their special arts that help define them as witches? Witches around the world participate in all kinds of activities, ranging from healing to divination, from spell casting to spiritual guidance and leadership.
This section explores those magical arts historically identified with witchcraft. It is highly unlikely that any one witch practiced all these arts; individuals have specialties, preferences, areas of interest and expertise. However, all of the arts described below have at one time or another been associated with witchcraft, sometimes to the displeasure of their adherents. Snobbery and class-consciousness exists among the magical arts, too. It’s no accident that certain types of magic are known as “High Ritual” or “Ceremonial” magic while others are known as kitchen witchery or “low magic.”
For centuries, literacy and education was reserved for an elite male few: not all men were educated but an extremely high percentage of educated people were male. Women lacked formal schooling; during certain periods it was considered subversive for women to receive academic educations. Women were prohibited from entering many universities, guilds, and medical schools. Thus the magical arts closely identified with women were those that did not require literacy: divination, spell-casting, root-working, and necromancy, for instance.
The more intellectual, academically demanding arts—those that frequently demand literacy, such as alchemy, commanding and compelling, sigils, and astrology—have historically been identified with well-educated men, many of whom would be appalled to find themselves in the company of what were perceived as illiterate witches. This desire to disassociate themselves from witchcraft did not save them, however, from charges of witchcraft and the same punishments (usually burning at the stake) meted out to the humblest root-worker.
Many of these men were theologians who practiced occult arts secretly and probably genuinely perceived themselves as totally divorced from the women’s art of witchcraft. A famous exception is the Swiss alchemist and pioneering physician Paracelsus, who advised others to throw away their medical texts saying he had learned everything he knew from wise women and Gypsies.
Brief descriptions of some of the most famous magical arts are listed alphabetically below; devotees would suggest that each is worthy of a lifetime’s study.