Witchcraft Explained: The Basic Facts*
What is it? Witchcraft is often referred to as "the Old Religion" and "Craft of the Wise." Witchcraft has been present since the beginning of humanity, in many forms, by many names. It can be seen as the culmination of folkloric traditions, mythic and esoteric practices, and inherent spirituality of an area, region, or culture, often passed down from generation to generation through family and/or trade/apprenticeship. Some define Witchcraft as the continuation of the native cultural beliefs and practices of the ancient Europeans as named after the advent of the Christian religion.
Who can be a Witch? Those who practice Witchcraft often call themselves Witches, regardless of gender.
What about Warlocks? At the time when this site was first authored (in the late 90's), my studies associated the term warlock with the root meaning of"oath breaker" and the general consensus of the larger community working for social acceptance and positive press at that time typically eschewed the term. My personal experience from that time were the people who chose to use that term, did so primarily for shock value, with very little care or understanding about metaphysics, magick, or spirituality. Nearly 20 years later, there are responsible, considerate, educated individuals who have found a different meaning and stance on the word. I invite you to read Storm's writing on the subject. Really at the end of the day, whatever you call yourself is your personal decision and choice of label - what matters most is how you conduct yourself.
Are Witches evil? Witches are not evildoers, rather, they are the most moral, most aware and sensitive people you will ever come across. They realize that every action has a reaction in every reality and work maintain balance, bringing about change, being sure not to intentionally harm any innocent. Most Traditional Witches are also familiar with the old saying,"A Witch who can't hex, can't heal." What does this mean? To most Witches, it means if someone is harming you, your family or friends, by all means do something about it. Turn the other cheek is not necessarily the best motto when dealing with people whose intent is to harm.
What do Witches believe or worship? Witches tend to be pantheists---that is they recognize the divine in all things. Many Witches in some fashion worship multiple deities (gods and goddesses), so they can be considered polytheistic as well. Depending upon their practices and Tradition, a Witch will have different concepts of deity: general divine energy, ancestral spirits, specific deities, etc.
But what about Witches worshiping the Devil? Long before the advent of Christianity, the gods of the Witches reflected the nature of the world around them. There are antlered deities, such as Cernunnos and Hernes - representing aspects of fertility and death - and the raw and sexual Pan - part man, part goat (satyr). Their likenesses can be found in cave paintings, sculptures, and writings from all over the ancient world, and their worship was integral to early humanity. So one can easily see where the Christian concept of the devil originated its form from. It is always wise to remember that the gods of the old religions become the devils of the new in many cultures. The rise of the witchhunts had much more to do with the Church wanting to seize land and wealth, and hold a spiritual monopoly over the people.
*This is meant to be a general explanation and isn't intended to cover every nuance. Not all Witches hold the same beliefs, so no one can make a statement that covers all Witches completely (or people who just happen to call themselves witches). I write mainly from my beliefs and experiences, and encourage the reader to do further research in regards to history and anthropology.
The Differences Between Wicca & Witchcraft
Wicca is the faith made public by Gerald Gardner in the 1940's, and is believed (and debated) to contain some traditional Witchcraft mixed with ceremonial magic (OTO, Golden Dawn, Crowley, Freemasonry, the Rosicrucians), collected folklore (Leland's Aradia), and Eastern philosophies. The origins of Wicca are still hotly debated today (as in how much did Gerald make up, who did he really learn from, etc), but regardless of its origins, it has become an established religion with significant branches spreading throughout the world. There are many people who contributed to the growth and development of Wicca over the last 60+ years, from the Farrars and Doreen Valiente to Scott Cunningham, Silver Ravenwolf, and Raymond Buckland, and many many more.
Where Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft differ (in my opinion) has a lot to do with the heavy infusion of ceremonial magic and related structures found within Wicca. There is a specific hierarchal system of initiation through degrees, set coven structures, specific rites and guidelines for ritual (including formal circle casting, use of magical tools, the Great Rite, etc), the concept of the Wiccan Rede, etc.
In contrast, Traditional Witchcraft tends to take on a more fluid form. Houses/families may have an organized structure, or they may not. Meeting within a coven structure is not typical, and there is a lot of focus on individual practice and honoring the ancestors. The beliefs and practices tend to be more rooted in specific cultural folklore and myth than the branches of ceremonial magic. For example, if a circle is cast, it's nowhere as formal as the one found within Wiccan ritual.
To add to the confusion, there are also some Wiccan branches (particularly the ones closest to its origins) that refer to themselves as Traditional Witchcraft (particularly Gardnerian and Alexandrian). I also remember hearing "Not all Witches are Wiccan, but Wiccans are often Witches.) It is not for me to argue what someone chooses to call or not call themselves. But it's helpful to be aware of this, depending on what you are looking for.
Perhaps most of the confusion lies in the term Witchcraft itself. Most people tend to think of spellcraft when they hear Witchcraft, but spellcraft is only an aspect of it. Spellcraft is often a collective term for magical and metaphysical systems, folkloric practices, charms, etc, and could be used by any number of faiths, including Christianity and Judaism.
Some Witches may take offence at referring to Witchcraft a religion. I personally have no hang-ups about the term religion and look to the roots of the word, meaning "to re-link." I consider religion a personal experience between the practitioner and the Divine, as well as a means for social celebration and growth. It is also a profession, lifestyle, and spiritual system all rolled into one.