The Green Man The Green Man Draeconin's Background Designs
Pagan Info
Contents Optimized Tiles Original Tiles Pagan Info Articles

Etymology
of the words
Wicca and Witch

The history of the term itself and a possible etymology are actually two things... The term "wicche" appears in texts prior to the time of Ælfric, and is usually glossed as "divinator" [sic]. This term was used for both males and females.

With Ælfric (c. 980 c.e.), the term "wiccan" [O.E., plural] takes on a more sinister connotation, as the quotation below will illustrate:

"mor slagan and mandædan and unmæ fulle gitseras wigleras and wiccan and unlybwyrhtan ßeofas and reaferas and a reàan drà-men" ("murderers and evil-doers and heedless misers, seers and witches and poison makers, thieves and robbers and fierce magicians") J. C. Pope, ed., Homilies of Ælfric (EETS 259, 260, 1, 436:375-77)

This begins the association of the "witch" with other unsavory, illegal or immoral acts.Previously, it seems, the terms "wicce", "wicca", "wiccan" and the verbal form "wiccian" had something to do with the occult (as in the discovery of hidden lore, suggested by its gloss as diviner), but not necessarily with infernal pacts or things antithetical to the faith.

Where does the word come from? We've got at least three possibilities as I see it. I shall try to present them below. I shall also try to defend my own thoughts on the subject.

Choice #1 [not preferred]:from the Proto Indo-European *weik, having to do with consecratory activities.This also leads to the Modern German form "weihen," "to consecrate," and to Old Norse "vígja," "to consecrate," and perhaps with Old English "wiglere" usually glossed as "seer, or prophet." The justification for the movement of a hypothetical PIE "k" to a "gh" and then back to a "k" leaves this etymology a bit unsatisfying to me. Also, the progression to "g"s and "h"s in one Germanic dialect, and to either "cc" or "kk" in another is anomalous. If we posit that the original PIE "k" produced "g" after a short front vocalism ("i") and produced a "gh" or "h" after a long front vocalism ("ei"), as tends to occur in continental and scandinavian germanic, then we've got a unified theory for the appearance of "wig-" in Old English, and not "wik-".

Choice #2 [also not preferred]: from the Proto Indo-European *weik, this having to do with bending. The closest I can come to another Germanic cognate is the Swedish "vika" which means "to fold." Contrary to popular opinion, the Modern English word "wicker" may in fact refer specifically to the Willow tree ("vikker"), from a dialect of Old Scandinavian (although the modern term in Swedish and Norwegian is "sälje", after the Irish "Saille"). In this case, the Germanic root is for the word "weak" or pliant. If related to the verb "to fold", then we've got a long front vocalism (indicated by the accent over the "i"), and this long vowel would not produce a geminate (doubled) consonant such as "cc" or "kk" as we find in "wicca."

Choice #3 [my preferred]:from the Proto Indo-European *weid, to see or to know. This form produces everything from Latin "video, videre" "to see", to the English "wit" "knowledge" and German "wissen," "to know." Seeing and knowing have been semantically tied throughout the Indo-European languages, and for the English "witch" would yield the translation "wise one" even as the Latin "saga" is at once the word for a "female witch" as well as the basis for our Modern English words "sage," or "sagacious."

At the risk of becoming extremely long-winded, here's the reasoning:

Old English forms are:wicca [masc., sing., "witch"], wicce [fem., sing., "witch"], wiccan [pl. "witches"], wiccian [verbal infinitive, "to bewitch"]. Each of these terms has a geminate velar (reflected in Old English as "cc").

A term "vekka", "sorcerer", is attested in Old Danish (Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum) and reflects an older form "vitka", a contraction of "vitugr" meaning "wise one." According to Sophus Bugge, a well known Danish philologist, the medial "t" in a "tg" or "tk" combination would be lost, causing the "g" or "k" to geminate (double), which is how the term "vitka" is transformed to "vekka". So:vitki > vekke; or vitka > vekka. I posit that this is the same principle by which we derive the term "wicca" -- that at one time there was a medial "t" which was reflective of the "t" in "wit". So: witca > wicca; and witce > wicce.By the same token, the Old High German "wicken" "to work magic" is possibly reflective of a reconstructed form *witken, to exercise one's knowledge.

The phonological shifts of choice #3, as well as the semantic tie with other Germanic dialects, makes this last the most probable in my eyes. In fact, the reintroduction of the medial "t" in the Modern English was probably more reflective of the words etymology than the dictionary gives credit for!

So perhaps Gardner wasn't so wrong after all!

Tom Johnson


Bibliography



Martin E. Huld, "ENGLISH WITCH"; Michigan Germanic Studies 5,1(1979):36-39.
This work is primarily about the semantic field, rather than the phonetic shifts which affect our understanding of the word.
J. C. Pope, ed., Homilies of Ælfric (EETS 259, 260, 1, 436:375-77)
Quoted in Huld (1979).
Saxo Grammaticus, in his Latin History Gesta Danorum
Records the word Wecha, and uses it as an appelative of Óðinn as a magical worker.
Sophus Bugge, Studien über die Entstehung der nordischen Götter- und Heldensagen, p. 143, note 5. The bit about "tk" combinations.
Reprinted with permission.
[TOP]