The following writing is a collection of thoughts about both similarities and differences between core shamanism and witchcraft. I’ve been walking some form of spiritual path in a conscious way for about 26 years, the past 12 of these as a witch, and the last 6 as a core shamanic practitioner. My thoughts are by no means definitive and the aim is to open discussion, for those who are interested. I have some clear views about where my witchcraft and shamanism overlap, and where they definitely do not! It should be acknowledged at this stage that any perspectives on this subject will, to an extent, depend on the type or style of witchcraft practices, and the cultural background of our shamanism. Enough of the introductory preamble…
I want to start with the similarities between the two, hopefully this will be a positive beginning, and possibly a little less controversial – though who knows! One of the first and most obvious aspects is that both witch and shaman work with spirits, we are deeply concerned with spiritual practice, and with the world of spirit. The language and packaging may vary, but without any belief or trust in spiritual reality. the title shaman or witch would be somewhat irrelevant. Following on from this initial assumption, both witch and shaman work in different realities, we move between the worlds, from ordinary to non-ordinary realities. The style of transition may vary, but the awareness of our movement I think is shared in common. As part of our walking / crossing / moving, both practices create sacred space, in some shape or form. We respect both the power and the safety of forming a space, usually a circle, where we are held by whoever or whatever we’ve called in the forming. The who or what may change with different disciplines, but the creation remains!
Another part of common practice is that we mostly work with a purpose or intent, usually a conscious one. We hold an intent as we journey, or we design a ritual for a purpose, giving our work an effective direction. This may be a result of Westernised cultural influence, it might be interesting to compare our practices with those of very different cultures. However, I’m writing as a white, Western European woman, with all the bias that brings! There is also a whole other debate on the extent to which core shamanism has kept or lost links with cultures of origin, but I digress. So alongside working with spirits, walking the worlds, from our sacred circles, the next point almost goes without saying. We both work with helpers or guides – spirit teachers in whatever form they choose to appear – human / animal / Goddess or God / faery … et al. Witches may have familiars and shamans their totems, both use the power of these spirit helpers.
This leads me fairly easily into another essential place we hold in common, which again may feel very obvious. We are aware of the spirit in all life – we do not confine what is spirit or what has spirit to one shape. We know the power of shapeshifting! This knowledge comes from a fundamental belief about life – and death – in that all spirits and all life are connected. We as humans dance on the same web as every other human, animal, plant, tree, creature… all life is one. Many other writers have voiced this dance far more poetically than myself, but I think it always bears repeating. If one thread of the web is affected, then the whole web changes its dance. Shamans and witches know this connection and sense of union, even though there are always times when we feel more or less strongly linked to the web.
Flowing right along, another part of our similarity is our respect for our environment, our planet earth and all that dwells upon Her. No matter how challenging and frustrating acting out that respect may be, we share a care and concern for the land, for nature, for the waters of the world. We work in various ways to demonstrate that care, because we know that all parts of nature hold their own unique spirits. Some of our work will be to meet those spirits of places (ancient or otherwise!), of plants, trees, springs, lakes, hills, mountains, forests, deserts – the list is endless and infinite. Other work may be much more political, perhaps campaigning for specific environmental causes. Both shamans and witches share a sense of the seasonal changes and will often celebrate or mark those cycles with particular rituals, such as solstice or equinox times. Living in close relationship with the earth offers an intimacy of awareness of cycles and mutual interdependency. Would that governments could do the same!
I think that its because of both the idea of connection and our environmental relationship that the next aspect of sharing is evident. We both offer service to the community, having received the gifts of spirits and the land, we offer something of ourselves in return. The nature of that service may vary a great deal, as may the definition of community, but the existence of service remains valid for witches and for shamans. For some, that service becomes central in their lives, perhaps a paid job, and for others, it may be a different type of commitment. Service may be developed as part of a deepening faith or trust in the path we walk. To me, it is an essential balancing of relationship with spirit, I receive therefore I must give, and I am also committed to working as a healer, in one of the many forms that can take.
One last comment about similarities, before moving on to the differences. This is part of the methods used by core shamans and by some witches – (a growing number, I think). We use sound, mostly drumming or singing, to move between worlds, whether on shamanic journey or in drum-trance. We recognise the power and effect of sounds to change our state of consciousness and to move energy – the use of sonic driving in whatever style we choose is both worldwide and ancient.
Now for the differences! Its hard to know where to start, and these, like the similarities, are not in any kind of order of importance. Those kinds of priorities you will decide for yourself, I hope. I’m going to start with one which is distinctive between core shamans and witches, and that is the belief in and work with deity. For witches, that’s polytheistic, i.e. we believe in many aspects of Goddess and God and work with a number of those aspects as individuals. One of the reasons I am a witch is that we value and at times prioritise the Goddess. She has at least equal power with the God, if not greater, one of the few spiritual paths where this is true! (Spot the feminist bias here). For some people, any beliefs about Goddesses and Gods are inevitably and negatively linked with organised religion. I share some of these concerns in that I value witchcraft’s independent and more anarchic aspects, but I live in social communities and also value some organisation, e.g. of festivals and public rituals. Where do we draw the lines between helpful religious thinking and the legacy of negative experiences, particularly in Western society? Many witches want to shape their witchcraft into a different kind of religion. In addition, part of the job involves being priestess or priest at different times. The priestess role is being reclaimed as one of womens powers, along with our shared Goddess divinity, which for me are vital experiences.
Given this is supposed to be an article, I haven’t time to do justice to many of these ideas, so please bear with me. Another major difference is in how we work with magic. Witches believe in, and practice, the creative art of changing reality by conscious will. Usually this would involve spell-craft, and the outcome (as in the shaman’s journey) relies heavily on the intent. The saying of beware what you ask for, you might get it is very appropriate in this context! However, in working magic or spells, witches can move into the domain of what shamans could identify as sorcery. I would suggest that in any working with magical energies, the nature of our intent is very important, as is our relationship with ourselves and our spirits. Are we working a spell with a respectful heart and spirit? Are we trying to manipulate others? Witches have a useful reminder in that what we send out can return threefold to the sender. This is a taste of some thinking, just to open the arguments.
Another area of difference, depending how tightly we define our core shamanism, is the use of stories, of myth-truth and history. Myth-truth is the idea that myths (legends, stories, histories…) take on the truth of peoples belief in them, using a subjective view of truth. The stories are culturally based, and reflect a particular time and place in history. Witches may draw on ancient matriarchal civilisations, e.g. Sumerian worship of the goddess Inanna, or Celtic cultures, or any other mainly European and Middle eastern myth-truth. There is a rich supply of stories and beliefs from these cultures which we use to deepen our spiritual practice, and add to our creativity. Our music, art and writing reflect mostly pre-Christian (or early Christian) times, e.g. reclaiming ancient tools and symbols like the labyrinth.
There are differences in our language, the words we use, even though shamans and witches may both be speaking English! Many witches (and pagans) will give human labels to parts of nature – e.g. Mother Earth, whereas with core shamans it might depend which cultures we feel closest to. Many shamans can use Native North American culture and stories, or perhaps South American, and shift their language accordingly. For European shamanic practitioners, our traditional roots as shamans were mostly lost, or changed, a lot farther back in linear history than in other countries so it can be harder to know our shamanic cultural identity. Of course, there is the idea that witchcraft in Europe was a later development of shamanic practice!
Two final comments about differences which Ill throw into the pot before ending. My feeling is that witches are working more predominantly in ordinary reality, and shamans in non-ordinary reality. Witches tend to use the everyday and this social world, for creating magic and change, whereas I think that shamans often do their work in other worlds, then can return with the changes already affected. That doesn’t take away the witch’s power in other worlds, or the shamans in this one, its more a difference in style of working. The other aspect, especially in my tradition of witchcraft, is the work with faery. I see the world of faery and those who inhabit that world almost as another kind of reality; – a bit like a fourth world alongside upper, middle and lower. Many witches will visit this world, some more frequently than others! Core shamans wouldn’t necessarily see this as a shamanic practice, though they may see or meet faeries regardless! The definitions can get a little blurred on this point, as some of the spirits of a place may overlap with what witches would be calling faeries. Id welcome further thoughts!
I want to end with some questions which have occurred to me as I’ve been writing. One is to what extent does any or all of the above thinking apply to any spiritual path? Many people who wouldn’t define themselves as shamans or witches could share a sense of connection, or a belief in the earth, for example. So the next question is – how many of the ideas expressed are specific to shamans or witches? And how far does our cultural heritage shape the spiritual path we choose? Do we share common beliefs on the journey of the soul, through life, death, and rebirth? Do shamans practice techniques of divination, or is this another area of difference? I’m aware I’ve skimmed the surface of a large number of issues. I also have to say that any of my thoughts are subject to change, depending on my moods, and my teachers! Needless to say, I enjoy being a witch and a shaman – for me they fit together extremely well.
Suzanne White is a core shamanic practitioner and lives in London England.