A Conjuring of the Male Mysteries in Modern Witchcraft
An expanded version of this article appeared in Witch Eye #16.
I am a warlock!
With pride I claim my right,
To travel to the sabbat-feast,
to ride the wind across the night.
With the stang the circle cast,
the crossroads marked and trodden
By breath, by sweat, and semen spilled
I summon forth the Old Ones!1
The varied threads of cultural mythos that comprise much of modern witchcraft is centered largely on the concept of the divine feminine. In the pre-Christian roots from which modern Wicca draws inspiration, different magics, rites, and mysteries were encouraged for each gender. While there should be full awareness that there has always been precedent for individuals involving themselves in types of magic not commonly associated with their own gender, the magics of midwife, healer, and conjurer tended to be seen as “women’s mysteries”, while the blacksmith, diviner, and warrior tended toward the men’s. While modern Wicca has preserved and championed the female mysteries –and in so doing inspired generations of witches to discover the Goddess –there has been very little regard in the modern Craft for those magics handed down by fathers to sons, and as a result much has been lost. But every so often, remnants remain, even if just enough to point the way.
I am one of those practitioners of witchcraft that finds myself outside of the Wiccan banner. As an initiate of the Faery tradition I am not bound to the same culture, rules, or restrictions as my Wiccan counterparts which is perhaps a factor in my decision years ago to adopt for myself the term and title of ‘warlock’, a decision that has prompted more than a few questions and raised eyebrows from by brothers and sisters of the art.
I have been practicing various forms of the Craft for over 25 years at the time of this writing. In the early days of my study I came to know witchcraft through its embrace of the divine feminine. As a gay boy in the 1970’s and 80’s I naturally gravitated toward spiritual images that were in contrast to the staunchly masculine and repressive ones offered by the popular ideas of religion and culture. Not being able to identify with the hard and uncompassionate images the masculine ideal (i.e. “God”) I began to seek the Goddess; a softer, more mysterious power that encouraged truth, magic, and power-from-within. Those people who called upon this power, I learned, were ‘witches’. While the word ‘witch’ was used to refer to someone who called upon these divine feminine powers, it also often carried with it connotations of evil; a throwback to a less enlightened time in which all acts of magic were seen as ‘tools of the devil’ in opposition to the Church, and all practitioners of such enchantments thus in league with the prince of darkness. Because of this the neo-pagan movement was quick to begin a campaign to reclaim the word from its derogatory past, and mold it into an image of their own choosing, thus creating from the ashes of the old a new identity to rally around and from which to gain power. Wicca, a relatively new religion, by claiming the term witch was successful in drawing into itself the poetic and cultural energy of older practices, thus empowering itself with a core of spiritual energy that helps to fuel its rites. The act was both magical and political; magical because it connected modern practitioners to something older: an egregore or thought-form of the ancient witch, an image of tremendous power, thus gaining magical and spiritual momentum; political because it helped to give a small group a focused identity by which they could organize into an actual movement.
Over the years that I have spent in the Craft I have noticed an obvious imbalance that very few individuals and groups address or are even aware of. In many sects of neo-paganism (and especially in the Wiccan-styled groups whether they use that term or not) there is an obvious leaning in favor of the feminine principal over the masculine one. This is usually explained away as a response to the over-culture’s obsession with patriarchal values; that for so long the images of spiritual power have been exclusively masculine and so to bring a counter-balance “the pendulum must swing the other way”, giving us modern groups that focus exclusively on the Goddess, or those that even when they do acknowledge the God as a positive force, usually demote him to the role of “consort”, implying that the feminine Goddess is the supreme power thus reversing the values of the over-culture, but ultimately still giving us an imbalanced view.
Perhaps because of this I began to identify less and less with the word ‘witch’. For me the imagery is decidedly feminine; a priestess representing the Goddess in Her triple form of Maiden, Mother and Crone… she flies across the full moon on her broom… she incants over her cauldron, a symbol of the womb. The identification with women and witchcraft runs deep. More and more I came to feel that ‘witch’ was a woman’s word, and being a male, I had no real claim to it. So what then? What term could I and other men use to describe our own mysteries? Just as women celebrate the mysteries of womb and of blood, so too men have powers that are unique to our bodies, and as such are deserving of a name that can speak to our unique and emerging culture. Time and time again I would ponder the word ‘warlock’. Like any true word of power, it just wouldn’t go away…
Like its counterpart ‘witch’, the word ‘warlock’ is a loaded one. The common dictionary definition describes a warlock as “a man who practices the black arts; a male witch; sorcerer”2, a definition that has endured for hundreds of years3. To those who do not practice the magical arts, this definition is usually the most common, as it has been reinforced by popular media, such as Hollywood movies and television shows like Bewitched and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those who are magically inclined, however, the word is used in different ways.
Male members of the Church of Satan regularly use the term to describe themselves, while their female counterparts are described as witches; terminology much in line with the larger culture’s understanding of those terms. That the Church of Satan freely uses this term is one potential reason that practitioners of neo-pagan witchcraft have continued rejecting it, lest the two groups become even more enmeshed with each other than they already are in the popular mindset.
Few terms are as controversial within the movement of modern witchcraft as the word ‘warlock’. Ask a practitioner of the Wiccan variety and you will be told –in no uncertain terms –that ‘warlock’ stems from the Old English wǣrloga, a term used to denote a deceiver, a liar, and an oathbreaker, and so its use would be unconditionally derogatory. To use this term, we are told, is an insult to genuine practitioners of witchcraft and that no self-respecting practitioner of the Craft would ever lower themselves to use such a word in describing themselves, and that those who do must be ignorant of real witchcraft, our practices, and our history.
The word warlock has been used for centuries to describe a male witch. Since the term only came about during the time that Christianity was in power, one might be safe in assuming that whatever ‘oaths’ are supposedly being broken are Christian ones.
Lady Abigail remarks:
In existing medieval records, male Witches are often called Warlock by Christian persecutors and judges. If one of its meanings is indeed traitor, then it is reasonable to assume that the oaths that were being broken were Christian oaths, and that Warlocks were perceived as being traitors to the Christian beliefs and religion.4
Alternate etymologies exist, however. One alternative that has been suggested is that the word warlock actually comes from the Old Norse word varð-lokkur, which means a “caller of spirits”5 and one that refers specifically to the singing of sacred chants or songs. While a poetically strong case has been made for this origin of warlock, according to the Oxford English Dictionary this usage appears too infrequently to be seriously considered.6
Lady Abigail goes on to say:
The Old English word “waerloga” does mean oath-breaker, but ironically, the Scottish version of the word, which has been used so often as a reason for disliking the word, does NOT. It means “cunning man, ” or male Witch. Varðlokkur is also translated by some as ‘ward-locks’ or ‘protections, ‘ and is an invocation chant used in scrying.
While the lack of hard etymological evidence is apparently enough to stop many from pursuing the topic further, the word itself demands its’ due. It is a magical one, and as such should not be dismissed. It is a thing of power, and like all powers can be tapped into for the purposes that we see fit. In this, language is no less ours to command as the powers we call upon in ritual; with the careful and deliberate use of words we are able to call upon and shift energies, spirits, and magic to our will; entering into ecstatic communion with the unseen powers of the natural world. It is a living thing, and we can summon its life to assist us.
English is a living language. As such many words that have certain common definitions now often did not have those same definitions as they did in the past. One good example of this is the word ‘gay’ which today almost universally is used as a synonym for ‘homosexual’, but as far back as the 12th century meant, “full of joy or mirth” only acquiring its “new” definition sometime in the late 1800’s when it denoted promiscuity, before morphing into its current use in 1971.7 This is equally true of words such as ‘awful’ (originally meaning ‘deserving of awe’), ‘brave’ (the original definition is ‘cowardice’), or ‘girl’ (‘a young person of either sex’).8 Simply put, words carry whatever meanings we attach to them, and while the current popular definitions may be unrelated or even contradict original meanings, definitions as held by the larger culture will continue to hold sway. Unless, of course, an alternate view is presented, and it takes off. This is what was proposed by Wiccan writers in the 50’s onward; if the term could be tethered to its supposed original meaning of deceit, and the religion as a culture distances itself from such a word, then Wicca is successful in promoting itself as a philosophy of spiritual honesty. Or at least it would have, if not for the annoying fact that ‘warlock’ continues to be associated with male witches in the popular mindset, forcing Wiccans to address the issue time and time again.
Other uses have been attributed to the word ‘warlock’. It also has connotations of a warlord, a clan chief, or warrior… it is also associated with the demarcation of territory… to ward or bar against hostile invasion… as well as of a person who secures something (such as a horse to a post) with a fetterlock9. Continuing with the theme of binding, a warlock is the person who binds the applicant in a traditional witchcraft initiation rite.10
Besides ‘warlock’ there are other usually gender-specific terms that may be used. “Sorcerer” is one that I sometimes use as it speaks to the practice of magic and spells. In my mind it draws its power from the descriptions that Don Juan gave to Carlos Castaneda; a sorcerer is a “man of knowledge”, a master of perception who can manipulate reality to bend to his will, i.e. someone who practices magic. For me it carries further associations, however, making it difficult to use; poetically I often see the sorcerer secluded away in a castle, as he researches his otherworldly spells, conjuring spirits and demons alike. This description begins to bleed over into my view of a wizard, who in my mind unfortunately carries the imagery of blue robes embroidered with silver stars and moons, long white beards, and blue conical hats, ultimately causing it to be rendered near to useless for my purposes. “Cunning man” is another, but sounds so archaic to my ear that it too falls flat. “Conjurer”, though gender-neutral, is one that I often use, but its use also tends to be specific to practitioners of hoodoo and Southern-style folk-magic (which I also practice, but it is only part of what I do). “Shaman” has been used but I am wary to adopt the term as it denotes a specific cultural role that does not truly exist in our society as well as it being gender-neutral. Some men have adopted “Druid” for the very reasons I have proposed, but it too is culturally specific, making it inaccurate for me to adopt this for myself. I return to warlock again and again.
And I am not alone. Years ago I discovered an article on the internet describing the word ‘warlock’ that proposed the varð-lokkur etymology. Afterward a scholar friend of mine who also self-identifies as a warlock shared with me his article11 that demonstrated both the Norse etymology, as well as provide his own reasons for adopting the term for himself. A movement, however small, is born.
Part of my reasoning for not identifying with the term ‘witch’ has to do with what images are evoked for me at its utterance. With this in mind I have pondered the mental image of the warlock for some time, trying to delve into what power it holds for me. The adoption of a term to describe oneself is in itself a magical act; imagery is therefore an important detail to consider when creating the form the spell will take. While the mental image of a wizard or sorcerer almost invariably translates to the popular mind as being of advanced age, a warlock appears in my mind as any age, making him more accessible to those of us who have not yet reached our “silver years”. It radiates life-force, vitality. It, like its counterpart witch, poetically reaches back to an earlier time, connecting it to both the witch trials and to pre-Christian beliefs giving us an anchor to history.
The warlock has been depicted in popular culture in a variety of forms, drawing from different threads of cultural knowledge. That they also appeared as female in Charmed is an interesting twist, forgoing the primary definition that would specify gender, and draw instead from the view that the Wicca have of the word with all of its malevolent overtones intact, when they defined warlocks as being simply “evil witches”. The vast majority of other examples in pop culture describe warlocks as specifically male, Bewitched, Buffy, that series of bad (but ultimately lovable) Warlock movies starring Julian Sands that came out in the 90’s… We are all products of our generation. I was raised with the knowledge that warlocks were male witches, most definitely from seeing episodes of Bewitched as a boy. It wasn’t until I found Wicca that I was told I couldn’t use the word. It wasn’t until I found my own power that I realized I could do whatever I want.
Besides the mental image I perceive the word itself as being somewhat severe; it commands attention. The very sound of the word conjures the idea of warriorship, a quality often stressed for men in indigenous traditions, as well as that of binding, perhaps as in spirits to his will. The severity of the word acts as a reminder that the powers that we invoke are not always friendly, easy to control, or safe. The poetics of the word serve quite well as a key that enables access to an egregore of the archetypical warlock so that we may draw from it powers to assist us in our own work.
Toward this work we must gather our tools. One that I very much associate with warlocks is the stang. In pre-Gardnerian Traditional Witchcraft the stang can be said to be the male equivalent of the witches besom (broom) and, according to traditional woodcuts and stories told at the time, were used, just as brooms were, to fly to the sabbat rites. The stang is an Old Norse word for ‘pole’ and as a ritual tool of the Craft denotes a “forked” or bifurcated staff that can represent the Horned God, the altar, the ancestors, the center of the circle or crossroads, the World Tree, or all of the above. It is related to both Poseidon’s Trident, as well as the pitchfork used in the popular image of the devil.
With this connection firmly made, let us take a good look at the devil. Obviously stolen in part from our Horned God and then made to be the embodiment of everything evil, let us look beyond the hype and the horror to see the great teacher; Lucifer, the bringer of light. An angel fallen for his pride brings that heavenly light to earth and is punished, like Prometheus, for giving it to humankind. In this Lucifer as Horned God becomes a martyr for the “rebel wisdom”; the ethic of struggling against any and all pacts and covenants that would restrain you from enlightenment. If the warlock is indeed in league with “the devil” (or the devil himself, as some nuances of the ancient word suggest) then he establishes himself to be relentless in his pursuit of knowledge and freedom; the “Luciferian Gnosis” which reveals that true divinity is within.
African traditions have a much more balanced view of “the devil”. Far from being the embodiment of all evil, he was seen as a trickster who imparted knowledge to those who sought him. ‘The Black Man’ or ‘Man in Black’ that was said to attend the witches’ sabbat (as well as that figure that provides assistance at the crossroads) holds a special place in our current study; sometimes he is said to be the devil himself, he was a teacher of magic. He is the Horned God of the witches as well as His human priests when they are carrying His power, a “High Priest”, “Magister”, “Master”, or “Grandmaster”; a definite male figure in witchcraft and one that is associated with status or rank within the cult.
While certainly not everyone will feel the need to adopt any new term (let alone ‘warlock’) it is for those that do that I make this offering. With the several threads of power available to ‘warlock’ we can begin to weave a cord of cohesion enabling us to bind the image into form and then begin –through magical identification –to build and draw power through it. For those of us who are called to adopt a new term, this is one such way in which we might connect to this image.
I am proud to call myself a warlock. In doing so I am claiming the word from its negative past and am reshaping it as an act of magic, much like my sisters have done with the word ‘witch’ over the years since the Craft has been public. I claim myself as a man who calls upon the dark and ancient powers of the night; who cavorts with spirits and who casts spells; who draws upon the primal powers of the earth and my own sex to enter states of power beyond normal waking consciousness. I assert my right to self-defense and claim my path as a warrior, refusing the blanket assertion that baneful magic is anathema to the Craft. I declare with honor that I will protect my brothers and sisters of the Craft. I will hex and I will heal as I see fit. I reject the notion that any person or group is entitled to any authority over my own Godhood. I renounce any and all oaths that would keep me ignorant and powerless.
Drawing from as many threads as I can muster, I claim myself as warlock; a true image of male magical freedom, and I encourage my brothers to join me as we collectively weave a spell upon ourselves that we may use this chosen identity as a key by which to gather power and awareness, and to reclaim or forge anew what it means for each of us to be a man who practices the Craft.
1. From my Book of Shadows.
2. warlock. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/warlock (accessed: July 26, 2010).
3. This usage can be traced back to 1568 Scotland, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=warlock (accessed: July 26, 2010).
4. Lady Abigail. Warlocks. March 4, 2007. http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=usin&c=words&id=11371 (accessed July 27, 2010).
5. Warlock. BBC h2g2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A4123946 (accessed: July 26, 2010).
6. Warlock. Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warlock (accessed: July 26, 2010).
7. Gay. Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=gay (accessed July 26, 2010).
8. Etymology- How Words Change Over Time. Maria Boomhower. http://ezinearticles.com/?-Etymology–How-Words-Change-Over-Time&id=12709 (accessed July 26, 2010).
9. What is a Warlock? Mathew Sandow. 1992. http://www.boudicca.de/warlock-e.htm (accessed 7/26/2010).
10 “I also found the translation of ‘binder’ for warlock of interest, as this would seem to relate directly to the term’s usage within the Alexandrian Book of Shadows, here being used as a reference to both the action and the role of that person who does the binding of the applicant during the initiation rite.” Warlock. Matthew Sandow. http://www.ladyoftheearth.com/witch/warlock.txt (accessed July 26, 2010).
11 http://www.scribd.com/doc/4915033/Warlock-Etymology (accessed June 27, 2010).
For more of my writings on the term ‘warlock’ click HERE