If you look around the Pagan internet you will find more people calling themselves Warlocks nowadays, a word which has a definite ring to it. This is in sharp contrast to 30 years ago, when (as is still quite commonly stated) you would be told in no uncertain terms that “Warlock” was a term of insult meaning “oath breaker”, and that a male Witch was still a Witch. Pretty much the only people who were publicly identifying with the term were Satanists, and well, you know how Pagans are about Satanism (usually in some form of denial).
Nowadays there are quite a lot more people picking up the term and identifying with it, eg the Feri initiate Storm Faerywolf, and he’s not alone.
The Online Etymology Dictionary says the following of the word:
“Old English wærloga ‘traitor, liar, enemy,’ from wær ‘faith, a compact’ (cf. Old High German wara ‘truth,’ Old Norse varar ‘solemn promise, vow;’ see very; cf. also Varangian) + agent noun related to leogan ‘to lie’ ….
“Original primary sense seems to have been ‘oath-breaker;’ given special application to the devil (c.1000), but also used of giants and cannibals. Meaning ‘one in league with the devil’ is recorded from c.1300. Ending in -ck and meaning ‘male equivalent of a witch’ (1560s) are from Scottish”
Storm Faerywolf adds a reference to the Old Norse word “varð-lokkur”, which means “‘caller of spirits’ and one that refers specifically to the singing of sacred chants or songs”, but he notes that this derivation doesn’t have the backing of academic consensus, something which I have read elsewhere.
“Warlock” did pass into common understanding at one time as meaning a male witch, sorcerer or worker of magic, though with a slightly different flavour to “wizard”, as there seems to have been a greater association with witchcraft and being “in league” with the Devil. Men were accused and tried for witchcraft, though the only place where men were the majority of the accused was Iceland as far as I know. The majority of the persecuted in the historical witch craze were women, though men were executed for supposed witchcraft or sorcery, and form part of the “diabolic imagination” of the time.
I like the term “Warlock”. It retains a counter-cultural charge, an unassimilated, deviating quality, some semblance of mystery and outlawhood. And it is a male term, and that is a valuable relief from the femino-centrism of so much neopaganism and Wiccan derived Paganism. It is not a term which speaks of male sacrifice, usable chivalry, soldiery and war service or a reproductive donation of sex or semen. Oath breaking is a good thing, when your oaths are coerced and in service to an oppressor. So I have to ask, if this term is an insult, who is it an insult to? A free man, or a good slave?
I am however disinclined to link the term to male bodies rather than male gender. Not that I own the word (in fact I really despise the tendency within neopaganism for people to get their magic underwear in a twist over the ownership of words). But for me personally, words like “Witch” and “Warlock” are poetic realities, and they speak to the soul that lives a life. I am happy for any word to be given a liberating and progressive meaning, but I have to be honest and note that the word “Witch” is not exactly built to liberate me, and neither is neopaganism as a whole. I really wonder just how liberating a fertility centred religion is for women too (maiden-mother-crone sometimes just seems like pre and post-motherhood to me as a motif, so what about the “no thanks” option?), but that’s not my personal issue to argue.
In some ways I feel torn between the terms “Witch” and “Warlock”. I like the genderlessness of the modern usage of the word “Witch”, but one only has to look at popular conceptions of modern Witches, and the finely woven sexism that the dominant streams of Wiccan-influenced Paganism retain, to see that it both is and isn’t genderless. Furthermore, the term “Witch” is associated with streams of occult mysticism which are either likewise female centred, or deeply heterosexual, or respectable enough to have tea with the vicar and sit on umpteen committees. It’s a long, long way from the Sabbat, and its polymorphous perverse promise.
The term is there and in many ways, as a gay male Witch, it suits me better. It captures a romance more fully, and acts as a gateway to an under-represented reality. And it bypasses a whole load of stuff that I have nothing to do with. Though I am undecided on it, I am very tempted to follow that trail in my own way.
Who’s up for some oath breaking?