The difference between witchcraft and sorcery has been confusing me lately as I write my book. Hence this article: witchcraft vs. sorcery. When can you call something witchcraft? And when is it sorcery?
My search, however, potentially led to even more confusion.
I think the short answer to the question, “What’s the difference between a witch and a sorcerer?” is that it depends on your fantasy world.
But that’s a rather dissatisfying answer, don’t you think?
So, below, I’ll try to explain the main differences, the overlaps, and why it’s confusing (basically, there’s not really a consensus).
Difference 1: How they get their power
I’ve found that the main difference between a witch and a sorcerer is how they acquire their power.
A witch’s power is innate, meaning that they were born with magic. You either have it or you don’t. These powers can hit later in life, such as puberty, but they are always present within the witch or wizard.
If we take Harry Potter as an example, it’s clear that Harry was born with this power: you’re either born a witch or a muggle.
Sorcerers, on the other hand, gain their powers through study. They’re often an apprentice to another sorcerer for this reason. While someone may have an innate talent for magic, they still need training to refine their power. See it more as people having a talent for playing an instrument, for instance.
If we look at the sorcerers in the world of the Witcher, it can be seen that they do need to train to control their magic. While the sorcerers all go through the academy and are generally picked because of their innate talent, it’s stated in the books that anyone can practice magic. They can all learn how to tap into Chaos.
But sometimes it’s more muddled
However, we can also see that there’s a disagreement between fantastical universes when it comes to witchcraft vs. sorcery.
For instance, Belgarath from Eddings’ books is called a sorcerer. In this universe, a sorcerer borrows energy from everything around them and uses willpower through a word to perform the action. Training and education are needed for this feat. So far, so good: no innate powers, training is needed. And some have more talent for this than others.
However, he also describes witchcraft as something that’s inherent in all humans and works by summoning supernatural beings such as sprites. So, there’s the difference: here, a witch’s power is not innate but also borrowed from an external source.
If we look at the world of Dungeon & Dragons, it’s sorcerers that are considered to be born with their powers, whereas witchcraft is something learned. So here it’s the complete reverse of the above examples.
Difference 2: How they practice their powers
This is where things really start to get muddled. Yes, even more.
Witches or wizards have power coming from within. It’s more like a compulsion (although it can also be exercised at will). The source of their power comes from within—they don’t need magical tools like rituals, spells, or items to use magic.
We can see this in Harry Potter, where Harry intuitively lets the glass disappear to free the snake or when he inflates his aunt.
Sorcerers do rely on an outside source for their powers. They are manipulative powers, meaning that they need a prop or other external aid to perform their magic. These can be incantations, charms, potions, objects, and more. This also includes calling upon a deity, spirit, or other external sources of power. They “lend” their power from something or someone else, so to say.
For instance, sorcerers in the Witcher universe often use spells, hand gestures, potions, and other things to perform their magic. In a sense, you could see Chaos as an external source of power that they “lend.” In the MCU, Doctor Strange has his slingring to help him perform his powers, and later on, also the timestone.
But here’s also a huge amount of overlap. So the discussion on witchcraft vs. sorcery continues.
There are spellbooks for witches and wizards, for instance—they do use spells. Harry Potter uses a wand and a spell to perform his magic. While these are magical tools, he doesn’t necessarily need them to perform magic. That’s the basic difference. These tools are more of a way to guide magic. The magic used is still what’s within them.
But, witches can also call upon deities, elementals, sprites, and so on. Here’s the overlap again. It can be a way for witches and wizards to enhance their magic. For instance, they want something, but they don’t have enough power themselves. They might call upon a higher source of power or use a magical object to enhance their innate magic.
And sometimes, it does appear to be that sorcerers have innate magic. Their talent is so great that it seems to flow effortlessly. This is also dependent on where the magic in the world comes from. In the Witcher, it comes from Chaos. This is still an external source of power, but with the quickness in which sorcerers can perform their magic, it can seem to be an innate power.
So many blurred lines…
Difference 3: What they practice
This is also something that’s hugely dependent on your story, but it’s a general stereotypical thing that witches practice more in secret, whereas sorcerers practice their powers more publicly. Witches are often more reclusive or to themselves, sometimes hiding their powers altogether. This can be for all varying reasons.
We see this clearly in Harry Potter, where the wizard community hides their existence from regular people.
On the other hand, Sorcerers tend to use their power in more official capacities, like in politics or for healing. They are more public people, and the regulars usually know about their existence.
This is also prevalent in the Witcher novels, where sorcerers usually have places in politics as advisors to Kings unless they choose to follow a different pursuit, usually academically.
Below you can find an image of witchcraft vs. sorcery and their main three differences described. Save the image to remind yourself of the differences or pin it!
What about other terms?
Usually, to determine how you’re going to call your power-wielding characters, you should simply determine what magic is in your world and how people tap into it. Both witchcraft and sorcery are merely ways to attempt to control the supernatural—magic.
You can see magic as the relationship between a certain act and the desired outcome. It’s generally believed that magic practiced by either still comes from the same source. Which can be confusing to think about if you consider witches to have innate magic. Where does this magic then come from? How is it decided who has this magic? Even in the Harry Potter universe, this is still relatively vague, where we only know that it’s passed down genetically.
Warlocks, Mages, Druids, and Shamans
Just a quick word on these wonderful terms. Warlocks can be people who “lend” their magic by summoning demons. They generally wield darker magic.
From as far as I can tell, mages are similar to sorcerers. They are skilled and educated in using magic if they have the talent for it.
I think Druids are probably the easiest to distinguish here. These are people who channel magic through their relationship with nature. They believe very strongly in the energies coming from modern nature, and they use this energy to perform their magic.
Related to this are the Shamans, who also acquire their magic through their relationship with nature, but they use more ceremonial prayer to perform this feat.
The takeaway for Witchcraft vs. Sorcery
As you’ve read, there’s no real strict consensus as to witchcraft vs. sorcery. There’s a general overlap, but each fantasy world tends to have its own way of dealing with it.
Ultimately, it depends on where your magic comes from and how your character acquires this magic (and how they use it). Do they call upon some internal power? Then it’s likely witchcraft. Do they have a talent to channel the external magic somehow? Then it’s likely sorcery.
Don’t sweat about it too much. Just make sure that it’s all consistent within your fantasy world, and readers will go along with your definitions.