Differences between witchcraft and ceremonial magick

The more I read about witchcraft and ceremonial magick, the more differences I see. These are two very different systems of magick. I can only speak for ceremonial magick personally, since that is what I have the most experience with, but I think the differences are worth ferreting out.

The people I’ve known have been Thelemites, Discordians, pagans, Wiccans, eclectics and occultists who have a background in many things. Generally, pagans and Wiccans tend to be suspicious of Thelemites as “Satanic” or engaing in black magick. I think they are too caught up in getting Christians to accept them. If all you have done is simply change the sex of the deity, what’s the point? Needless to say it is very rare that I meet anyone who says they are a Thelemic witch or both a witch and magickian.

And this is still not enough. It seems the definition of magick is clearer and more consistent than of witchcraft, because every person I’ve asked gives me a different answer, especially given the New Age/Neopagan movement. Yet witchcraft cannot simply be whatever one wants it to be; words mean things. So I would like to deepen my knowledge of witchcraft. Here is my understanding of it so far. Note there are lengthy excerpts from a few sources.

I have found witchcraft to be a type of spellworking, whereas ceremonial magick is very ritualistic. The former is based on nature, lunar and primordial aspects, while the latter is solar and stellar or celestial. There are also differences in the ethics. Witches can be white, black or grey and ceremonial magickians can too. However, if Thelema is involved – and it has always been explicitly associated with ceremonial magick, not witchcraft – then doing one’s Will is the Law (Do what thou wilt), and anything against that or imposing upon another’s Will is black magick. This does not mean to say that there aren’t grey areas, only that black magick is strongly condemned against.

With Thelema being about one’s Will, I think we can also establish that ceremonial magick is very individualistic and focused on the magickal circle as being an extension of one’s Will. On the other hand, witchcraft is about creating the sacred space to commune with nature spirits and deities, with their own bodies being the most important “tool” as a conduit and sometimes after invocation, leading to spirit possession and trace-states. It is also about intent and the manifestation of (earthly) desires. Someone told me that women tend to make better witches because they “bend with nature,” but I’m not sure about that; if witchcraft is in fact more about the women’s mysteries, then men cannot understand these mysteries because they can’t menstruate, it’s a biological difference. I think it is for this reason that some witches say “men can’t be witches.”

Some witches only do spells as needed, but ceremonial magickians usually do regular rituals as part of their daily practices. Furthermore, witches are dreamers (I refrain from saying “shamans”) and magickians strive to maintain and integrate unconscious elements into their everyday waking consciousness. And while there are some necromantic magickians, and of course many goetic ones, the primordial and lunar aspects of witchcraft lean on the chthonic Nightside of the Tree and qliphoth rather than the Dayside of the Tree of Life. Drugs are used for astral projection and shapeshifting, whereas for magickians it is a form of worship.

There is also a good deal of classism and sexism as far as who tends to practice what, and since our practices and beliefs do not exist in a vaccuum, I will include descriptions here as best as I can. Witches were herbal healers and peasant, country folk. They were poor. Many were women, and they probably doubled as midwives. Women tended to be demonized and accused of witchraft though, whether they were actually witches or not

“There was in ancient Greece, for example, a defined category of professional, or at least semi-professional, root cutters, who has great knowledge of plants and other natural elements, and who could fashion medicines and potions from them. Homer, in the iliad, described the woman Agamede, who possessed special knowledge of all the plants in the world. This sort of person could be well respected and valued for her medical expertise, but there was certainly also a danger in claiming such knowledge or such skills, for those who could heal were also believed to be able to harm. Someone accused of being a poisoner, pharmakeus in Greek, or a veneficus in Latin, was probably most often a person such as this.”
– Magic and Superstition in Europe

Currently they still deal with herbal healing and some are doulas. Spellworking for the most part involves items from nature or which one already owns (like crystals) and can convert for magickal purposes. Then there are the accounts of folk magick from indigenous peoples such as Haitians (voodoo): they demonstrate that they used it in order to rebel against their oppressors. Yet there is a trend of white people appropriating from other cultures without any respect or understanding of this, much less being initiated by such people.

Ceremonial magick, though, is predominantly practiced by wealthy (white, straight) men and has historically been so in the West, with the magickians sometimes being little more than mercenaries, loyal to whoever was willing to pay. It is also known as “high magic,” the implication of course being that witchcraft or folk magic is “low magic” – I mean in the literal sense of lowliness, not the practical. In ancient times, ceremonial magickians were priests who served the ‘divine” kings. Being wealthy they could afford the elaborate tools and furnishings and did not have to work, so they had plenty of time to focus on things like rituals, meditation and yoga. In this sytem, their tools are extensions of their Will. So too do tools of witchcraft practices (crystals, herbs) end up being mere mnemonic devices for highly ritualized ceremonies. These guys tend to frown upon and wrinkle their noses at witches as being merely superstitious, fluffy, or wishful thinkers, the assumption being that only ceremonial magick is *real* magick and men are of course rational and know better than hysterical women, which explains why there are so few females into it. Ceremonial magick also has some precedents in Jewish mysticism which got its knowledge from ancient Sumeria. Just read the Old Testament of the Bible sometime; all those commandments to get things with specifics to create or sacrifice for God are all about ceremonial magick.

I must note here that there is also the Golden Dawn system of ceremonial magick preceded Thelema before Crowley came along to reformulate it and created the A.’.A.’. It relies heavily on Christian mysticism and group workings. Another key difference is the belief in the divine spark. There are of course many other systems but they are not relevant here; many of them tend to be offshoots of the Golden Dawn or OTO, anyway.

That being said, Wicca, or “modern witchcraft as a religion” has its roots in Thelema. Nevermind the dubious stories of the Old Tradition, or the Burning Times (the “witches” were said to in fact be monks and nuns), you don’t need an appeal to tradition for legitimacy: “An it harm none, do what ye will” (the Wiccan Rede) comes from “Do what thou wilt.” Gerald Gardner created Wicca as a branch of the OTO, and since the OTO is a religious organization this makes sense. The Law of Three however was coined by someone later, and is not a universal tenet among Wiccans.

Some people may argue that one group is more difficult to get into for teacher-student initiation than the other, but I think some witch covens are very secretive and will only allow someone in after they have proven themselves. Not so for ceremonial magick, where you sign and oath and receive your tasks, remaining as long as you successfully complete them. In either practice, however, it is possible to be a lone student of the mysteries.

Here is a chart I made with the features I’ve described:



Both witches and ceremonial magickians use a fire weapon to cast the circle (athame for witches, wand for magickians) and invoke the four guardians/elements of the cardinal directions. They also have banishing rituals. Both of course have been known to experiment with drugs/hallucinogens in order to aid them in practices such as astral projection or to do them faster but the emphasis is generally on learning how to do astral projection without the use of drugs, especially magickians and Wiccans (as opposed to traditional witches who make use flying ointment, aka green oil).

Author Brandy Williams (who just so happens to be both practicing witch and magickian) in her book The Woman Magician has this to say:

“What some call Ceremonial Magic, meaning magical lodges from lines such as the Golden Dawn, Aurum Solis, Ordo Templi Orientis, Stella Matutina, and the Society of Light, grew out of Freemasonry in the late Victorian era. What we now practice as Witchcraft developed out of the marriage of the forms of Ceremonial Magic with European folk religion.” (p.11)

“Witchcraft does not yet possess a personal exploration and development such as the initiatory magical systems offer. There is a primary emphasis on experience, with a concomitant de-emphasis on study and intellectual pursuit.” (p.42)

“There are two defining characteristics that set Western Traditional Magic apart from its predecessors. The first is the reinterpretation of magical philosophy to incorporate insights from psychology, casting magic less as a set of formulas or interaction with divinely controlled spirits and more as a personal development system. The second is the deliberate incorporation of the divine feminine in magical philosophy and woman in magical groups, in sharp contract to Freemasonry and the magical texts of previous eras. Lady History’s book traces this lineage back in time at least two thousand years, to the Hellenistic period.”

Damn. Old habits die hard, I guess.

“Just as Romans conquered the Celtic and Egyptian worlds, writing their own versions of the histories of those peoples, modern scholars write the history of the Western world from the perspective of privilege. In Black Athena, Martin Bernal pointed to the unconscious assumption made by white scholars that Egyptian history is white history, and noted that Egypt is an African country, which in its long history has often been governed by blacks. While European historians value Greek (read: Indo-European) culture as the wellspring of Western civilization, Bernal makes the point that Egyptian culture was already ancient by the time Greece developed a coherent culture (Bernal 2006). Historian Gloria Harper Dickinson notes that while ancient Greek writers acknowledge their debt to Egypt (ancient Kemet), nineteenth-century ethnocentric and racist scholars minimized the contributions of Egyptians, African, and Semitic peoples to Western culture. Dickinson calls Egypt a prime cradle of human development (Dickinson nd).

Nineteenth-century esotericists drew heavily on Celtic and Egyptian sources to create their rituals. Contemporary esotericists, including myself, continue to draw on these sources, precisely because Egyptian magic sidesteps many issues inherent in Indo-European magic, including but not limited to racism, sexism, the mind/body split in Greek philosophy, and the marginalization of magic in the ancient and modern worlds.

Our magic directly descends from Hellenistic magic. Rituals preserved in the Greek Magical Papyri can be performed by the education magician today. These magical texts blended Egyptian and Greek magic with bits of surviving Babylonian lore and early alchemy, and Gnostic insights combined with neo-Platonic philosophy and Hellenized Judaism.” (p.46)

She then talks about the grimoires of the Middle Ages and continues on with the modern periods. In the early modern period of natural philosophy she states

“Magicians practicing astrology and alchemy were attached to courts and wealthy families. Scholars were employed at court also, translating Greek and Islamic sources. For example, Cosimo de Medici commissionied Marsilio Ficino to translate the Corpus Hermeticum, one of the first works to be printed and distributed in Europe.” (p.48)

Additionally, she writes,

“Ceremonial magicians learn the Hebrew alphabet, Qabalah, the names of the archangels, and techniques such as assuming god-forms. Ceremonial magic also incorporates knowledge and practices from older traditions such as Enochian magic, alchemy, and Goetia. Thelemites additionally learn  yoga, Thelemic theology, and general philosophy. Witches learn energy work, including grounding and centering, and raising and sending energy, as well as techniques for channeling deity, which differ from the Ceremonial assumption of god-forms. Witches learn the eight sabbats of the yearly round, and practice and preserve folk magic customs that have survived from European folk religion.” (ps.53-54)

The implication is clear: with ceremonial magick so male-dominated, it is men who are meant to have personal/spiritual development, not women. She corroborates this by writing:

“The magical gender narrative developed in the modern period. It built on the idea of male as ultimate deity by adding female deity. At the same time, women entered into modern lodges alongside men. The moment the female divine became visible, women also began to be included in the Western magical tradition. This is a definite improvement over the tradition’s predecessors, which largely excluded women and which saw deity as only male. Inclusion, however, does not guarantee equality; the male-masculine side of the equation is valued more than the female-feminine side. For example, reason is held to be superior to emotion; the tradition teaches that emotion should be governed by reason.” (ps.66-67)

“In Witchcraft, priestesses embody the earth, the moon, nurturance, and one of the three fertility-related goddess aspects. Witchcraft, however, is not designed to aid the journey of the individual toward wholeness. That is not to say the individual does not develop in the system, but that individual development is not the primary concern of the system. Witchcraft has priests and priestesses but not magicians in the sense of making the development of self the center of the work.” (p.65)

I have discussed with a sister radical feminist (WW) and she disagrees that modern witchcraft is simply a blend of ceremonial magick and folk magick. She is of the opinion that it is the other way around – that ceremonial magick derives heavily from witchcraft the knowledge of which men stole from women, sometimes burning their books (which were monopolized in monasteries) and often persecuting any women they deemed “witches”. She also thinks that the Abrahamic organized religions (undoubtedly patriarchal and enforced with black magic – cf. Astral Attack and Defense on this) use witchcraft as a male-dominated, political institution. I think this is a fair assessment given women’s history under patriarchy, but especially under matriarchy (in which, among other things, the 30-day month was realized by way of the female menstrual cycle). The fact that witchcraft is primordial and precedes (modern) civilization and its likewise supposedly ‘civilized’ ceremonial magick also speaks to this.

“In contemporary usage… the words ‘crone,’ ‘witch,’ ‘bitch,’ and ‘virgin’ describe women as threatening, evil, or heterosexually inexperienced and thus incomplete. In prepatriarchal times, however, these words evoked far different images. The crone was the old woman whose life experience gave her insight, wisdom, respect, and the power to enrich people’s lives. The witch was the wise-woman healer, the knower of herbs, the midwife, the link joining body, spirit, and Earth. The bitch was Artemis-Diana, goddess of the hunt, most often associated with the dogs who accompanied her. And the virgin was merely a woman who was unattached, unclaimed, and unowned by any man and therefore independent and autonomous. Notice how each word has been transformed from a positive cultural image of female power, independence, and dignity to an insult or a shadow of its former self so that few words remain to identify women in ways both positive and powerful.”
— Allan G. Johnson, “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them or an Us” (1997)

It so happens that black magic tends to be classed as witchcraft because it deals with dark forces, negative emotions and selfish desires (such as love spells). These aspects were then projected onto and attributed solely to women demonized as witches (whether they really were or not) and “evil temptresses.” It was witchcraft that was also seen as wholly pagan although that didn’t stop a few Christians from practicing either, much less Satanists and Luciferians; the Horned God/Pan/Baphomet simply became the Devil per the Christian pantheon. Whereas Crowley defined magick (with a “k” to distinguish it from sleight-of-hand*) as “causing change in accordance with Will” or stated that all intentional acts are magickal acts, here is another definition, an older one that looks like it has more to do with folk magic or witchcraft:

“The category of magic is often quite vague and its boundaries can be quite fluid. Seemingly clean enough in a very general sense – everyone know more or less what is meant by “magic” or “magical” after all – the term proves terrible difficult to define coherently and satisfactorily for all the in the contexts where it can be used. This has been true historically as well as in the modern world. Moreover, while beliefs and practices that can be categorized as magical have been present in every human culture known to history, what has been meant or just as often merely connoted by specific terms for magic has changed significantly over the millennia.

For example, medieval Christian Europe, drawing on doctrines established in no small part by Augustine, struck upon a fairly definite means of defining magic, as a method of invoking or employing supernatural spiritual forces as well as occult natural powers, in opposition to religious ritual and ceremony. Religion drew on divine power, asserted after generation after generation of clerical authorities, while magic functioned mainly by invoking the power of demons. In theory this distinction was clear enough. In practice, the boundary demarcating divine from demonic forces proved terribly difficult to distinguish in many cases, and uncertainty in such matters was a constant element in European thought on magic. Yet even this problematic distinction cannot be applied to the pre-Christian cultures of the ancient world.

Most ancient peoples did not conceive of a single divine force animating the entire universe. Rather, they believed in numerous deities, both their own gods and also those of other peoples, which were usually held to be real and powerful, albeit foreign, entities. IN addition to deities, most ancient cultures believed in a range of lesser spiritual beings inhabiting the world. The Greeks referred to such spirits generally as daimones, which for the Romans became daemones. Early Christian authorities, writing in both Greek and Latin, conceived of these creatures as demons, inherently evil beings and ultimately fallen angels assailing humanity at the command of their prince, Satan. Yet for the ancients such creatures were not necessarily evil or hostile to humanity. Instead they were part of a vast, often morally ambiguous realm of spiritual powers, including the gods themselves, which could prove dangerous, harmful or destructive, but which could also be accessed by humans for aid and protection through ritualized acts, verbal formulae, or ceremonies.”

In the classical world, the moon-goddess most associated with magic was Hecate. A lunar deity often placed in a sort of triumvirate with Diana and the goddess Selene, Hecate was also closely associated with the underworld as was very much a figure of malevolence and terror. She was imagined as a three-face spirit who roamed the night and haunted crossroads, visible only to dogs. The howl of dogs at night was believed to be a sign that Hecate was approaching. She was a patron of magic and magicians. The Greek power Theocritus (cs. 320-250 BCE) composed a poem appropriately entitles the sorceresses (Pharamakeutriai) in which a young woman named simatha attempted to rekindle the passion of her lover by magical means. She gathered various ingredients and implements and performed a ritual on a moonlit night that summoned Hecate. She then used the goddess’s power in a binding spell of some sort.

– Magic and Superstition in Europe

Gooood stuff. Although I feel compelled to note that Hekate is not always considered a “lunar” Goddess. And there is considerable debate over whether even the Triple Faced depictions of Hekate indicate a lunar deity, or simply refer to her tightly bound triplicity (which we can trace to her associations with triple crossroads).

(via theheadlesshashasheen)

Specific rites that may vary from society to society are essential in all kinds of magic. A simple classification would be: 1 rites that reinforce the dynamis of an individual or community, promising success in hunting, fishing or war; 2 rites that reduce the dynamis of an enemy (black magic); 3 apotropaic measure (protection from the evil eye, from daemons, e.g, by means of amulets) 4 purification rites; and 5 healing rites.Natural magic is defined as “the art or ability created by an effort [via creata] not supernatural, to produce strange and unusual effects whose idea is beyond the common sense and the understanding of people…I am speaking of an ‘ability to create by an effort’ in order to exclude true miracles.”
– Arcuna Mundi, Georg Luck, 2006
Yet another definition of magic – this one relating to magicians** – states:
“’There is such a thing as magic’. It was one of the first things Mark Hedsel said to me, shortly after we had started on this book. ‘There is such a thing as magic,’ he said, ‘but it has been misunderstood.’
‘Most people think of magic as subverting of natural laws,’ he continued. ‘however, real magic is merely the result of directing the creative activity of the spiritual world into material plane. those who know the rules for inviting such spiritual intervention are called magicians….’
I write here about magic, yet we are really dealing with the secrets of initiation, which is one from of magic. I should make myself quite clear. The path of initiation, in its simplest form, consists of a series of techniques for speeding up ordinary human development. To an outsider, such a development may appear magical. Yet, in truth, it is in accord with the laws of chemistry and physics. If it all goes well with the evolution of the Earth, in a distant future a great many people will entirely spiritualise their bodies, and development faculties and abilities which would now appear miraculous. The one on the Path of initiation is merely seeking to speed up this normal development, to attain these developed faculties and abilities more quickly”
— [cover synopsis]. David Ovason discussing Mark Hedsel’s book, The Zelator
This one talks about how “magician” in the sense given by Porphyry and Cicero means divina sapientia (divine knowledge) and inquirers into the hidden mysteries of nature:
“…the Magi were  holy men, who, setting themselves apart from everything else on this earth, contemplated the divine virtues and understood the divine nature of the gods and spirits, the more clearly; and so, initiated others into the same mysteries, which consist in one holding an uninterrupted intercourse with these invisible beings during life.”
— H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled

I do not think that witchcraft and ceremonial magick are incompatible or unable able to both be practiced by the same individual, just that they are very different from each other and there remains (some righteous, some not-so-righteous) hostility between their adherents. It may be the case that ceremonial magick is just highly stylized, ritualistic and extended from simple folk magick or witchcraft. If there are precedents for witches in Thelema, I have not heard of them. More on that, prophecy, and the female presence in Thelema in other posts. Besides that, I hope there is some liminal space between ceremonial magick and witchcraft (beyond co-opting words and practices) where both are respected and understood in their own right; more importantly, that ceremonial magick groups become egalitarian so they can benefit from the inclusion of women.

* Not that it has stopped scientists and other skeptics from conflating the two and thinking magick is a form of deception.

** It also seems that explicit blasphemy in regards to the established/organized religions is a tool that magicians use.

Related: Traditional Witchcraft Definitions – Review and Summary: Apocalyptic Witchcraft – Thelemic Wicca – The pitfalls of syncretism – The places in between – “The old religion” or a “new creative synthesis”?


About Heretic

female knitter bookworm 31 years old bisexual spiritual atheist 420 friendly traveler occasional poet anything else you want to know, take the time to get to know me and ask. concern trolls need not apply.
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4 Responses to Differences between witchcraft and ceremonial magick

  1. To me, Hekate is not a triumvirate at all. She is a Titan. I think there’s a fair amount of mixing of the disciplines of ceremonial magic and witchcraft, now. I know I’ve studied different systems and I mix it at will. I might’ve been living with my ferrets too long, however; I just steal whatever I want from wherever I find it.

    • Heretic says:

      Well, I wasn’t talking about individual outliers or eclectics, although I have issues with cultural appropriation. I could care less if people mix practices rather than whole systems and ideologies – and did you see the link for ‘Thelemic Wicca’?) and if they do it probably comes up under “magic” or “witchcraft” and not “magick”. I just think according to their traditions and histories, ceremonial magic and witchcraft have been practiced by very different people and served different purposes, and I am skeptical of authors who try to make a switch on their audience. Like, for example, I read a book about the scarlet path in Thelema (sex magick for women), and it turns out it was about “Thelemic witchcraft,” whatever that was. I had no idea, and the author didn’t explain. And it sure needed an explanation, because Thelema has always been explicitly associated with ceremonial magic. (I’ve edited the essay to add: If witchcraft IS more about the women’s mysteries, then there are things men cannot understand because they can’t menstruate. I have also heard from some witches that “men can’t be witches.”)

      Everyone starts somewhere, and I’m pretty sure they want to stick with one path at a time before they mix. And if one type of practitioner is going to be convinced to practice the other, then they need to know why – otherwise the implication is “witchcraft is for women and ceremonial magic is for men (except a few tokens here and there)” without any rhyme or reason. I’m a magician, and most things I’ve read are geared towards men with a male view of the universe – not women! That’s my whole gripe.

  2. I am both a witch and a magician, and I can say that Nevill Drury’s “The Shaman and The Magician” – although not necessarily about witchcraft – really catches the different flavors of the two.

    Again, speaking for myself, ritual magick can tend to be more cerebral, using will and ritual to shape intention up and outward. Witchcraft is a little more intuitive, also using ceremony, but in a more “passive” way. It’s more about co-creation with forces outside yourself – dieties, spirits nature.

    I largely think of the first five cards of the Tarot. Ritual magick could be a little more represented by The Magician and The Emperor, while Witchcraft would be The Priestess and The Emperess.

    If you find this explanation helpful at all, please feel free to contact me. I *love* talking about this stuff, and always welcome the opportunity!

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