Hereditary Witchcraft

Does witchcraft run in your family?

Three Generations of Women
Hereditary witchcraft isn't a matter of genetics, but practice. LWA / Stone / Getty Images

As you meet more and more people in the pagan community, you'll occasionally encounter someone who claims to be a "hereditary witch." They may even tell you they've been "Wiccan since birth," but what does that really mean?

Well, it could mean a variety of things, but for a lot of us, it generally sends up a red flag when someone uses the phrase “born witch" or "Wiccan from birth." Let's look at why that may be the case.

Is There Witch DNA?

You’re not born Christian or Muslim or Hindu. There’s no “Wiccan DNA” that makes any one person more genetically witchy than people who begin practicing in their 50s. You simply cannot be a Wiccan since birth because Wicca is an orthopraxic religious system that generally involves you doing and believing certain things that make you Wiccan. You can be raised by Wiccans—and many children are—but that doesn't make you Wiccan from the moment you pop out of the womb; it simply means you were born to Wiccan parents.

That said, certainly, some people may be more adept at witchy things at some point in their life, but there’s no chromosomal or biological difference in these folks as compared to the general population. You’ll obviously meet people who are psychically gifted, and whose parent or grandparent or child also displays these same traits. But if you operate on the assumption that everyone has some latent psychic ability anyway, it may be that these individuals were encouraged to use their talents while growing up, rather than repressing them like the majority of other people.

You may also encounter people in the pagan community who claim “born witch” status because of some ancestral link to an individual who was accused of witchcraft. You'll bump into plenty of people who think Salem ancestry makes them special. It doesn’t, for a variety of reasons.

Familial Traditions of Magic

Also, there are certainly hereditary traditions of witchcraft, but by “hereditary” we don’t mean that the practices are biologically inherited. These are typically small, familial traditions (Fam Trads), in which beliefs and practices are handed down from one generation to the next, and outsiders are rarely included. PolyAna identifies as a hereditary witch, and her family hails from Appalachia. She says,

“In our family, what we do is more of a folk magic tradition. My son and I and my granddaughter, who is adopted, practice the same folk magic as my mother and grandmother did. We’ve done it as far back as anyone can remember. We follow the Celtic gods, and my granny was nominally Catholic but brought a belief in the old gods with her from Ireland. She found a way to make it work, and we’ve carried on those traditions.”

PolyAna’s family practices aren’t typical, but there are certainly other hereditary traditions like hers out there. However, it's hard to even estimate how many there are, because the information is generally kept within the family and not shared with the general public. Again, this is a family tradition based on practices and beliefs, rather than any documentable genetic link. For families with an Italian background, Stregheria is sometimes practiced in the United States and other countries.

"The passing on of traditions through the family is a global concept, and is not restricted to culture or continent. There are many family traditions existing in the United States...[that] all bear a striking resemblance to the fairy doctors and cunning folk of Northern Europe, many of whom were hereditary themselves. The traditions...were strict and binding; they could only teach one student from the next generation of the family of the opposite sex. In many older witchcraft families in the UK, the traditions of transferring knowledge are thought to follow similar rules."

For many modern pagans, including those in hereditary family traditions, witchcraft is either a skill set that is developed and honed over years of practice, or it’s a belief system that is seen as a religion toward which one spends a lifetime working. For some people, it’s a combination of the two.

So, after all that, could someone be part of a hereditary familial tradition? Absolutely, he or she certainly could. But if what they're claiming is some sort of biological superiority that makes them witchier than everyone else, consider that claim suspect at best.