On Witches and Warlocks


Modern English uses warlock as the masculine form of witch, which is surprising when you consider that the words are etymologically unrelated.

Warlock comes from the Old English wærloga, or oath-breaker, deciever, liar. Witch comes from wicca and wicce, and used to apply to both men and women. At some point the word shifted over to refer to primarily women, so another word had to be brought in for “male witch.”

Some of this, no doubt, is due to the effects of works like the Malleus Maleficarium, a fifteenth century work which argued that most practicioners of witchcraft were women. But even works like this (aided by the new printing press) aren’t to blame for the polarization of the terms witch and warlock – the entire early Reformation was a time of strange cults, of religious fervor and occasional hysteria, and of people trying to adapt to a suddenly fluid religious and political landscape.

It’s interesting to look at the rise of cults like the Benandanti in Italy to see how the meaning of “witch” changed over time. In the eyes of the Catholic church, the Benandanti were witches, even though they explicitly said they fought against witches and warlocks to protect their towns. In their eyes, they practiced magic akin to shamanism; channeling the good spirits in a battle against evil. (The book to read is Carlo Ginzberg’s The Night Battles.)

Consider the position of the Catholic Church on witchcraft; in early medieval times, before the witch-hunting craze hit Europe, it was considered a sin to believe that witchcraft existed. Thinking that people could wield magic innately was a pagan superstition.

In the fifteenth century, however, the church completely reversed itself; it became a sin to not accept that witchcraft was real, that people who wielded it were tools of the Devil. It’s a remarkable about face. But even during the height of the witch huntes, the concept of “good” witches lingered, and never completely died out.

The rise of neopaganism in the late 19th and 20th centuries did much to restore the good name of witches. By adopting the old name (wicca/wicce) and harkening back to a more shamanistic vision of a witch, the neopagan movement reclaimed the name. In the 20th century, the commercialization of Halloween made witches seem even more benevolent; in TV, books, advertisements, witches were helpful, if somewhat misunderstood.

Warlocks were left behind in this reclamation project. They remained true to their original form – dealers with the devil and demons, unrepentant evil, traitors to their race.

It’s interesting to see how Warcraft picked one word over the other, and what the implications for the class might have been had they named it differently.

You hang a lot on the name of a magic-user. Even that term – Magic User – carries with it connotoations and expectations. Sorceror, wizard, mage, enchanter, necromancer, conjourer, witch – all of these carry baggage and flavor. They’re interesting and distinct in their own right.

I have been flying around on Cynwise, getting enough treats for her to get a kitty on a broom. I’m still really uncomfortable on ‘wise, still working through issues in my own head with my relationship to my ex-main.

As I looked at her, I wondered how this would have all played out in a more traditional RPG, where you can change the flavor of the character to suit the desires of the player.

And I can’t help but wonder, would warlocks be more popular if they were witches?

Would I be happier if she a witch instead of a warlock?


Names are important, but their meaning to people change as the language develops.

I could get used to ‘wise being a witch. It would make a great change of pace.


Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

3 responses to “On Witches and Warlocks

  1. Redbeard

    Hard to say on whether the witch name would make you feel better, Cyn. Not only did Wiccans help out with the reviving of the name ‘witch’, but SFF (and yes, Harry Potter) helped a bit too. Remember that L. Frank Baum’s stories gave us good witches before Gregory Maguire had his say.If anything, witches’ image recovered in spite of both the expected religious backlash –anyone who was alive in the 70’s and 80’s during the big Heavy Metal and D&D witch hunts (no pun intended) got to experience that sucker– and the Fantasy subgenre Sword and Sorcery, where magic by definition was pretty much evil.I’m sure that WoW’s version of Warlocks came directly from the RPG market where ‘Warlock’ has been a class for quite a while, and as such they don’t have quite the same amount of baggage as they used to. Of course, having your demon out and walking around is visually quite different than playing a pencil-and-paper RPG…Oh, and thanks for not invoking the “burning times”; that always made me wince because of the connotation of witches being hunted during medieval times; most of the witch hunts and whatnot happened during the so-called Enlightenment Period and the Renaissance, which also coincided with the Reformation and its associated wars.

  2. Cynwise of Stormwind

    I think Witches would be mechanically different from Warlocks; Shadow and Nature would be their schools, and they might have a healing role as well as a DPS one. It’s here where my RPG roots start to show; start with the concept, then determine mechanics, not the other way around. It bugs me that my demons don’t despawn in city limits – I know why, but …The 20th century was an interesting time for witches. I remember reading Fritz Lieber and seeing how magic of any kind was bad, as compared to say Tolkien, where it’s dangerous but not inherently bad. It’s a far cry from Lankhmar to Charmed. The history of witchcraft is really interesting, and intricately tied into the craziness of the Reformation. The world really turned itself upside down in the 15th and 16th centuries – it’s a fascinating time. Not to say the middle ages didn’t have their own sets of crazies! But it was more externally directed than the witch crazes. 

  3. bilingue

    Very interesting topic. It is funny to see that the spanish version of WoW used “brujo/bruja” for the warlock class. As far as I know, brujo/a means witch.