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What is the Difference Between a Warlock and a Wizard?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The difference between a warlock and a wizard varies, depending on who you talk to, and in both cases, the terms refer to a practitioner of magic. Some people use the terms “wizard” and “warlock” interchangeably, along with terms like sorcerer and mage, while others use these terms in very specific ways. In the Wiccan community in particular, the word “warlock” has a very specific and offensive meaning.

“Warlock” is an older word than “wizard,” coming from the Old English waerloga, which means “oath breaker,” while wizard comes from the Middle English word for “wise.” The etymologies of the words illustrate the different ways in which people sometimes view them. Wizards are generally viewed as good people with strong moral codes who also offer wise advice and assistance, and many fantasy stories feature a kindly wizard who helps the characters achieve their goals. A warlock, on the other hand, is sometimes portrayed as a much darker individual.

In communities which do not distinguish between wizards and warlocks, these terms are typically used to refer generally to male practitioners of magic. It is also common to see subtle distinctions between the two which often blur the line between wizards and warlocks. In some cases, for example, a warlock may be viewed as a more advanced wizard who works on more complex magic, and some people also consider warlocks to be more corruptible, delving into darker magic which can potentially turn them evil.

In the medieval Christian community, a warlock was specifically a male witch, and the term carried all of the connotations which went along with witchcraft. Warlocks tended to be less rare than witches, but men were occasionally prosecuted and executed for witchcraft. In contrast, the concept of a wizard as a wise and friendly adviser was common in some communities. Practitioners of alchemy were considered wizards, for example, and the idea of a guiding wizard lives on in many software programs, which have “wizards” to assist users with problems.

In some parts of the Wiccan community, the term “warlock” can refer to either a man or a woman, and it is reserved for someone who has broken the codes of the community. Someone who is exiled from a coven, for example, may be referred to as a warlock. Because many Wiccans take their oaths and vows very seriously, this word is considered to be offensive, although many are forgiving of confusion from people outside their community.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon998771 — On Aug 22, 2017

Here's some idle and wild speculation on my part. If it's true, as anon949021 suggests, that "...A warlock is an ancient spiritual leader and protector (Ward) of the people's customs, their bonds..." then I wonder about the association of the term "oath breaker" (warlock) with that concept. Maybe it's as simple as the misapplication of a pejorative term, in the same way that in the minds of some people, "politician" is synonymous with "crook" or "liar." If enough individuals in positions of power betray the public trust, it doesn't take long for our language to play fast and loose with the reality of what we feel, whether it be true or not. I have no idea if this might play into it at all, but it's just something that occurred to me while reading the comments.

By anon998184 — On Apr 21, 2017

The word 'were' meant man as opposite of 'wife' which meant woman in Old English. When 'were' became associated with shape-changing(like werewolves) then English (Middle English) borrowed the word 'man' from Old Norse to mean a male. There are different sources for 'warlock' and not all are negative. By the way, 'witch' is used by Amerindians to mean an evil medicine man/woman.

By anon997158 — On Nov 22, 2016

The original poster summed everything up flawlessly. This is the best definition I have yet to see and matches what I know of Warlocks. They are witches (regardless of gender) that have been cast out of their coven; oath-breakers.

By anon949021 — On May 03, 2014

Here is the real distinction between a warlock and a wizard. A warlock is an ancient spiritual leader and protector (Ward) of the people's customs, their bonds (lock/religions =same things, meaning bonds) and this includes having a deep knowledge of things of the sacred, ancient lore passed on orally, etc. like many of the modern northern and Arctic based cultures that still exist today such and Noaidi of the Sami people, etc. A wizard was (Wis=Wise/Ard =Art/Craft) simply a term 15th century term for a Scholar/Sage/Philosopher, and hence a teacher and early scientist involved with things like alchemy, botany, astrology, etc. and therefore served also as a court adviser. They were compared to a witan, that had the same meaning of “wise one” and also a masculine word.

Warlocks and witches were part of the same team, as it were (“witch” from “wicce” that was pronounced “wich” and sometimes rendered wicche, wycht, wicht, etc.) which means twist and bend, in reference to ceremonial dancers and a feminine word while warlock is a masculine. An example of such ceremonial dances involving twisting and bending is expressed in the image of women in a maypole dance, as well as other ritual dances to entertain both the observers and the powers that be and even those that helped put one into a trance state to commune with the divinities.

Think of a warlock as singing the songs calling forth these powers and the witches’ rites drawing them near. One grabs the attention while the other entertains. Both working together than are compelling interactions with the holy ones (haligar). This is also still practiced among ancient cultures we see today. It’s all pretty simple.

P.S. A witch doctor, which was a term created in the 1700's for a fake doctor, was also used as a term for a witch hunter and was never used in a positive light, and far more derogatory in meaning and application as a term. Peace.

By anon353948 — On Nov 04, 2013

A wizard is simply a male individual who practices magic, and the more advanced an individual is with magic, the more conscious he is of its effects on himself, others and the world as a whole. When a wizard acts according to his will, he does so in consideration of the balance due to his own experience with natural consequences. Most wizards tend not to use magic to harm or control others or to siphon energy unless under stress and/or in extreme circumstances, as the consequences of doing this are enormous.

In contrast, a warlock is a male individual who practices magic and who has spent much of his time and energy developing his abilities to control, cause harm/pain, and/or siphon energy from others. Some people refer to these abilities as "dark" or "black" arts. Regardless of what they are called, the reality is that the natural consequences for these types of magic can be devastating for both others and the self. This suggests that the warlock may have abandoned care for his own safety and well-being in his pursuit of power over others. This is not intended to be a negative judgment, as each practices according to his/her will.

By anon344051 — On Aug 05, 2013

The word "warlock" comes from the Old Norse term varð-lokkur, which means "spirit caller." As such, it isn't necessarily derogatory. That said, it is a word seldom used in Witchcraft. The etymology that would derive the word from the Old English wærloga: "oath breaker" or "traitor," is simply incorrect. However, since many have come to accept this incorrect derivation, the word warlock is considered to be derogatory by many. For this reason it's better to call any Wiccan initiate simply "Witch," be they male or female.

By anon344002 — On Aug 04, 2013

Warlock is a term applied to a male practitioner of magic by medieval Christianity (its etymology after all is Anglo-Saxon). The oath that was broken in this case was more than likely one with the church, not necessarily with a coven. Wicca did not exist at this time, so any negative connotation they tie to the label is modern and specific to their religion and not witchcraft in general.

What's offensive to me is not calling a male witch a warlock, but attempting to define the practice of witchcraft and its associated terminology in terms of RPGs and video games. My spiritual practice is not a fantasy game.

By anon320407 — On Feb 17, 2013

As a practicing Wicca, I approve of the article. It did a very good job explaining the subject, and gave me a non-religious source to cite for an argument with a friend.

@Anon294016: Actually, in most RPGs, mythology and general social norms, the opposite is true. As well, you might not want to use that definition around a male practitioner of The Craft. While we generally tend to be nice about the word's usage once, if you keep using it in error, it gets annoying. It's like having someone smile at you and, completely ignorant of what they're saying, call you a gross, block-headed, jerk whose mother was a donkey and father did cocaine through his butt.

By anon304008 — On Nov 17, 2012

The etymology of warlock suggests that warlocks are renouncers of a faith. Maybe the faith doesn't have to be a religion or any kind of code or vow.

What if warlocks renounce their inborn faith in the "real world", knowing that all experience is illusory?

Then the term could be a fine one for many pagans.

By anon294016 — On Sep 28, 2012

A wizard is born. A warlock is trained.

By dill1971 — On Nov 08, 2010

Wizard uses spells to do magic and warlocks are people who have been banished from a coven. The spells wizard cast often include, poems or magic words and some can make objects move.

Warlocks have practiced magic in a coven, but banished by breaking coven law. They have used magic for evil purposes or to control someone’s free will.

By aaaCookie — On Nov 03, 2010

Warlocks are also an important part of fantasy-themed videogames and computer games, not only fantasy literature. In these games, a warlock character's talents, leveling, et cetera, rely on this difference between wizards and warlocks; in some games it's merely a difference of skill level, in others it's a difference of good versus evil.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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