For my Mexican Monstresses series, I’ve been reading a fascinating (but quite academic) book called Bloodsucking Witchcraft (Nutini and Roberts, 1993), about a type of Mexican “vampire” in central Mexico. I put vampire in quotes, because even though this creature sucks blood, both Nutini and Roberts, as well as sources on early Mexican folk belief all the way back to the sixteenth century, refer to it (“her” mostly) as a witch (brujo/a).
A bloodsucking shapeshifter is not what I think of as a witch.
And the European conception of a vampire (which is by definition a revenant — that is, the dead revived) isn’t a witch. But the definition that Nutini and Roberts use, and how they distinguish witch (brujo/a) from sorcerer (hechicero/a) calls out some differences I’d never thought about. Before, I’d always considered the terms somewhat interchangeable, and I think in common usage most people do. But the distinction is interesting, and useful.
Note that in the following discussion, I’m referring to witchcraft and sorcery in the folk belief sense of anthropomorphic supernatural beings, not in reference to Wicca or other modern Neopagan religions.
Nutini and Roberts have four criteria to distinguish witches from sorcerers. There are gray areas and exceptions, of course, but this is the basic framework.
1. Innate versus Learned Powers
Witches are born with their supernatural powers. You either have the witchcraft, or you don’t. Sometimes, your powers may come to you late: when you hit puberty, for instance. Sorcerers acquire their powers through training or study, often as an apprentice to another sorcerer. Sometimes a sorcerer-to-be manifests an innate talent or predisposition to magical ability, but to fully take advantage of it requires training (and in some cases, supernatural sponsorship by a local deity or spirit).
To take examples from my own blog, the mananambal, a kind of folk healer in the Visayan region of the Philippines, is a sorcerer. But a buyag, who curses his or her victims through flattery, is a witch — although anyone can buyag someone else by accident, if the wrong spirit hears what you say.
Witch vs. sorcerer also seems to imply a potential difference in a practitioner’s ethical leanings. A sorcerer can choose to practice either good (white) magic, or evil (black) magic, although from what I’ve read, it’s generally believed that both magics emanate from the same source; it’s what you do with it that makes a difference. Witches are generally believed to be evil, and use their power for harm.
Perhaps this explains the supposedly-powerful-but-amazingly-ineffective-til-she-turned-to-the-dark-side Katrina in Sleepy Hollow. Yeah, I’m gonna go with that.
2. Private versus Public Powers
Witches pretend to be ordinary human beings, and practice their powers in secret (since they’re evil, and all). Sorcerers practice their powers in public, and often in an official capacity. So a “witch doctor” is not a witch, but a sorcerer, if you assume his healing and other abilities come from magic. La Huesuda, who shed her skin in secret to do her crimes, was a witch.
3. Immament versus Manipulative Powers
Witches’ powers are immament, or internal (another way of saying innate?). With some types of witches the exercise of those powers is a compulsion, like a werewolf under a full moon, or semi-voluntary, as with a buyag. With other types of witches the power is exercised at will. Samantha from Bewitched really was a witch (but a good one!!), because all she had to do was twitch her nose — and her powers were private.
A sorcerer’s powers are manipulative. They require props or other external aids: magic incantations or spells, charms, potions. Note that sometimes witches will use manipulative powers (“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble…”), but for a sorcerer, they are required. Julian Karswell, from M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” is a sorcerer, as is Mr. Abney from “Lost Hearts”.
4. Dependence or Independence from Ordinary Humans
This is basically a restating of points 1 and 2. Witches practice their powers secretly and in private, independently of other ordinary people, though sometimes they may have conclaves of their own kind. Sorcerers are public practitioners, and generally for hire, as in the case of mananambal, who can be hired either to curse your enemy or to cure you of (usually magical) illness. Therefore, since sorcerers practice magic as a profession, they are dependent on ordinary people and their community for their existence and livelihood.
There you have it! A handy checklist to help you tell a witch from a sorcerer. Where do the magical practitioners you encounter in film, fiction, or folklore fit?