Hereditary Witchcraft

Hereditary witchcraft isn't a matter of genetics, but practice. Image by LWA/Stone/Getty Images

A reader says, “I met a woman who tells me she’s a hereditary born witch who has been Wiccan from birth. What in the world does that actually mean?”

Well, it could mean a variety of things, but for me personally, it generally sends up a red flag when someone uses the phrase “born witch" or "Wiccan from birth." I realize I’ll get some hatey emails over this, but let me explain why I say that.

You’re not born Christian or Muslim or Hindu.

There’s no “Wiccan DNA” that makes any one person more genetically witchy than someone who begins practicing in their fifties. 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, there seem to some people who 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 that 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 in the past who was accused of witchcraft. We get regular emails here from people who want to know if Salem ancestry makes them special. It doesn’t (for a variety of reasons).

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 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 - and 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.

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 that one spends a lifetime working towards. For some people, it’s a combination of the two.

So, after all that – could this person be part of a hereditary familial tradition? Absolutely, she certainly could. But if what she’s claiming is some sort of biological superiority that makes her witchier than everyone else, I’d consider it suspect at best.