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If you ask people what a warlock is you're going to get a variety of answers. Some people will tell you it's a man in league with the devil, who exchanged his immortal soul for fell powers. Some might say it's an old term for a liar, or a promise-breaker. Gamers will say it's a sweet spell-casting class in systems like Dungeons and Dragons, and Wiccans may explain that it's a term applied to people who practice a destructive form of new age, neo-pagen faith.

With so many different meanings and usages, what is a real warlock?

The Etymology of The Word

The word warlock first came into common parlance around the year 1000 A.D. or so. It was commonly used in Scotland as well as in parts of Northern Europe, and the original definition of the word was indeed oath-breaker. Given that someone's reputation was often all you had to go on when it came to trusting them in ancient times to be known as someone who'd broken his word was a serious offense. The word may also have referred to people who were outcast for their crimes, labeling them as persons who were not to be trusted. In addition to its more common use around this time though warlock was also used to talk about the devil (not demons though; this article explains the difference between demons and devils). It also referred to giants and cannibals though; creatures which may have been very real dangers around the year 1000 in Scotland. No word on whether there was a specific term for giant cannibals.

By the year 1300 or so the word's meaning had expanded to include anyone who was in league with the devil (which was a lot of people if you listened to the church inquisitors who were wearing their witch-hunting hats right around this period in British history). The additional meaning of male witch was added in the late 1500s or so, and the -ck was officially tacked onto the word right around 1680 just for record keeping purposes. Despite all of the uses of the term in fiction and pop culture this is the definition that most people work off of.

But Where Did The Term Come From?

Norsemen Landing In Iceland
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This is where things start getting interesting. Warlock comes from the Old English word waerloga which means traitor, liar, enemy, devil (Old English packs a lot into one word). Waer is the word for truth, fidelity, loyalty and similar concepts, which means that loga is likely a negative version of waer.

Where did the Old English language get the term though? Well it comes from the proto-German word wera, which itself was influenced by High German, and old Norse. Speaking of the Vikings there's even some disagreement on the origin of the word, suggesting that warlock is actually derived from the term varo-lokkur. This word meant something akin to spirit caller or spirit binder, which would have made the individuals the term referred to extremely powerful both socially as well as religiously.

Warlocks In The Modern Day

Let's pop back to the 1300s or so. We've now ascertained that warlocks are both untrustworthy, and that they have some agreement with the devil himself. But the late 1600s these men are the equivalent of traditional witches, invoking fell powers through a contract with the devil.

That accepted definition led to a lot of the word's modern-day usage.

After the witch craze died, and the few isolated incidents in Salem, Mass. were forgotten about the word warlock wasn't used very often. With the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, and the neo-pagan revolution in the 1960s though the term came into common use once again. With the rise of Wicca and Earth-centric neo-pagan religions that focused on light and positive energies the term was appropriated and used to label those who practiced darker forms of faith. People who cast harmful or selfish spells, manipulated others, and of course broke their promises.

As far as pop culture warlocks go it's hard to shake the bad boy rep. Warlocks tend to use dark magic, and even if they themselves are not evil their powers tend to come from mysterious, often-infernal sources. There have been occasions in fiction though where the term is just used to differentiate gender rather than to actually refer to someone's magic as evil or harmful. That is nowhere near the norm, though.

If you enjoyed this piece, why not keep reading and check out the history of the succubus right here?