Wizards, Witches, Warlocks, and Sorcerers

How did our ancestors make sense of the universe? It is far more comfortable to have some explanation than no explanation at all, and magic is always an easy explanation of the unknown.

One might wonder why their town suddenly got a plague? It must have been that woman who lives alone. She probably used witchcraft magic to make something vile and now we’re all paying for it!

Why are opposing nations able to accrue such strong forces? It must have been that man who criticized our governing people rather than praising them. He has broken his pact with our country, magically cursing us, and now we’re all paying for it!

Witches, wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers all have one common trait: they are able to do something which the common person cannot understand or explain. For good or bad, people who were wise in the ways of obscure knowledge were labeled as magic users in different cultures around the world.


The Proto-Indo-European word “magh” meant “to be able” to do something. At the time, the most skilled people in a society were able to understand the stars, their movements, how to use them to help figure out travel routes, plant crops, and what the gods themselves desire. The old religion of Zoroastrianism, dating as early as 5 BCE, focused on star interpretation, and their leaders were known as Mages or Magi; those able to read meaning in the heavenly night sky.

Magic was what were the mages/magi were able to do.

Adoration of the Magi from Christian lore – Note the stars on the robes


Being wise was mostly being able to interpret the stars, but it was not the only path to wisdom: herbal components, bodily humors, and the ways of the world could be interpreted through many esoteric rituals. Those who could explain the world through these means were considered wise, the origin of wiz.


You will find this suffix in many words to indicate that the person is regularly associated with this activity (eg. drunkard, dullard, coward). Those who were wise enough to interpret the world around them were therefore a wise-ard. Wizard.


The Germanic peoples used the terms wicca and wicce to describe their wise men and women (respectively), who were able to practice magical interpretation.

With the spread of Christianity, those who continued to interpret the world through the old ways were now considered suspicious. They seemed to understand inhuman things through unknown and in-explainable abilities. Since they operated outside the accepted religion, there was no knowing what they were capable of, which lead to fear and distrust.

The positive association of being wise, in the sense of clever and quick witted, became negatively associated with someone who used devious or in-explainable reasoning or abilities for evil intent.


Two of the earliest family names associated with witchcraft was Demdike and Chattox, from Northern England in the 1600s. These two families profited from utilizing their wisdom (wicce) to create the means to heal or affect other people, for whatever purpose their clients desired

With the rise of competition came the desire to elevate your own craft above others. Rumors were easy to create, describing how a competitor might be able to offer services, but at the cost of the customer’s dignity and morality. Rumors lead to accusations of evil-doing which lead to legal action and often execution.

It’s no wonder that this elevated conflict lead to the famous Pendle witch trials, which is where we first see pointy hats and black clothing, creating the archetypal image of the witch.

Illustration by John Gilbert. From William Harrison Ainsworth’s “The Lancashire Witches”


Around the 7th and 8th century, accusations of people “making deals with the devil” are recorded. Because “wise” people are utilizing their abilities to do something perceived as inhuman, it becomes distrustful, even evil. Who is more likely to grant this power than the Devil or Satan?

Not only could you explain how someone was able to do unthinkable things, but you could now also insult them and paint them as morally corrupt.

In many cases, people accused of “dealing with the devil” had actually found their inspiration from other religions or cultures. These accusations meant fortifying a community’s own beliefs as true, and continued to demonize other cultures.

  • Pope Sylvester II bought an astrology book from an Arab philosopher
  • Sæmundur Sigfússon returned to Iceland with wisdom from Europe

So, where does the term warlock come in? (No, it’s not a combination of war and lock. English is not a logical language!)

Woer” and “waer” were old Germanic words for truth, faith, or oath.

Loga” or “Lugo” were the words for a liar, or breaking.

When someone has made a deal with the devil, they are breaking their faith and oaths to God. Waer-loga. People who were exploring different ideas were not only straying from the philosophy of the people, but were breaking moral grounds. They were abandoning God in favour of the Devil.

Saint Wolfgang and the Devil (1475) by Michael Pacher

Sorcery and Sorcerors

While the Germanic people were coping with the divisiveness of religious views, the French people were developing their own dialects for similar concepts:

Sors” was an old French word for fate, which would be the paths and design the gods.

Seh” was an old French word for sorting, being able to move, manipulate, or change.

“-ery” is a common suffix for a practice or occupation (eg. archery, fishery, reinfery, etc)

We have someone who is practicing the ability to manipulate what the gods have created. Sor-seh-ery! The arrogance of someone playing with these higher powers was obviously looked down upon and dealt with in similar ways as witches and warlocks throughout Europe.

So much history!

At length, there is a lot of history here, and I’m really offering a lot of conjecture on why these words came about being used. It also intrigued me how religion was a fantastic tool to organize people and create a sense of community, but that these things come at a cost: the alienation and ostracizing of people who don’t follow the rules.

Thankfully, we can use compassion to understand why this happened. Without any alternative explanation available, people of antiquity were inclined to make at least some explanation. During times of war and plague, it makes perfect sense to try and protect your people and your community. Hopefully we can look back on this past and learn how panic can exacerbate conflicts, and better protect our people as a whole.

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