Meanings and Use of the Word "Warlock"

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What does warlock really mean?. Marc Dufresne / Getty Images

In many parts of the Pagan community, mention the word "warlock" and you'll be met with disapproving sneers and head shaking. Mention it to your non-Pagan friends, and they'll automatically think of movie baddies like Julian Sands, or the evil warlocks from Charmed. So what's the deal with the word warlock anyway? Why is it considered such a negative thing in modern Paganism?

Did You Know?

  • Some Pagans are trying to reclaim the word warlock, based on a theory that it's rooted in Norse mythology.
  • In some oathbound magical traditions, a warlock is used to mean a binding or tying. 
  • Doreen Valiente claimed the word is of Scottish origins; other writers have said that the term was originally used in Scotland to mean a cunning man, or a male witch. 

Various Translations

Let's look at the different perceptions of warlock. There's one variation in which it's alleged to be a translation of a Saxon word, wǣrloga that means "oath-breaker." Naturally, no one wants to be called an oath-breaker, so folks tend to get up in arms about the use of warlock. Consequently, a lot of Wiccans and Pagans tend to distance themselves from the word.

In the book An ABC of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente, the author states that the word is of Scottish origins, but goes no further in her explanation. Other writers have said that the term was originally used in Scotland to mean a cunning man, or a male witch, but that in recent centuries it has shifted to hold negative connotations. In recent years, dictionaries have expanded on its meaning, including the definition "liar" in the explanation.

Some of this may have to do with misinterpretations of meanings by monks who were trying to convert the Scots from their early Pagan religions to Christianity. After all, if a clan's cunning man was referred to as a warlock, and his activities clearly went against the teachings of the Christian churches, then obviously the word warlock must have connotations of evil.

Some Pagans are trying to reclaim the word warlock, much like the GLBT community has taken back queer and dyke. Partially because of this, a theory that has gained popularity is that warlock may have its roots in Norse mythology. In one of the poetic eddas, in The Saga of Eirik the Red, a sacred song called the Vardlokkur is sung, to ward off evil spirits during a religious ceremony. The idea is that the Vardlokkur, as applied to a person, is a "spell singer," rather than a liar or oath-breaker. Included as part of the practice of seidhr, the Vardlokkur was chanted not only to keep evil spirits at bay, but also to take the singer into a trance-like state for the purpose of prophesying. 

In a 2004 essay at WitchVox, author RuneWolf said he had recently begun to refer to himself as a warlock, and his reasons were simple. He says,

"We are told by many modern Witches, particularly those involved with the various flavors of Feminist Wicca and Witchcraft, that we are "reclaiming the power and positive meaning of the word 'Witch' after centuries of patriarchal oppression and denigration." Cool - I am completely down with that. So why not do the same for "Warlock?"

Jackson Warlock, who runs the Reclaiming Warlock blog, says,

"Not all Pagan men—or other men who practice Witchcraft—reclaim Warlock. I in no way am promoting the use of the term to refer to men who prefer to be called "Witches." In my own case, though, I reclaim "Warlock" and tend to dislike being called "Witch" because of their connotations and individual vibrations. "Warlock" feels more "right" because it generates a more masculine power, something that appeals to me because my personal practice is so rooted in the sacred masculine."

Finally, the word warlock is used in some oathbound traditions of Wicca to mean a binding or tying. The person who binds an initiate during a ceremony is sometimes referred to as a warlock, or the ties themselves are the warlocks.

So, what does that mean for today's Pagans and Wiccans? Can a male witch or mage refer to himself as a warlock without a bunch of negative fallout from the others in his community? The answer is a simple one. If you want to use it, and you can justify your use of the word to apply to yourself, then do so. Be prepared to defend your choice, but ultimately, it's your call.

For more information, there's an excellent analysis of the word's use in Scottish literature by Burns and others, over at the BBC H2G2 site.

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Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Meanings and Use of the Word "Warlock"." Learn Religions, Sep. 10, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, September 10). Meanings and Use of the Word "Warlock". Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Meanings and Use of the Word "Warlock"." Learn Religions. (accessed March 28, 2023).