A belief in witchcraft, whereby certain people are believed to possess magical powers which allow them to influence human affairs and the environment, is found in nearly every society throughout history. The belief in witchcraft is part of a magical worldview common to many cultures, in which it is thought that the unseen powers inherent in the universe may be directed by skilled practitioners. It is referred to in ancient Egyptian, Indian and Babylonian texts, and is frequently mentioned in the Bible, which strongly condemns its practice. However, the precise definition given to the term ‘witchcraft’ varies from society to society. In cultures such as African and Native American tribal societies, which accept magic when practised for beneficial ends, witchcraft is the specific use of magic for selfish or malicious purposes. In such societies, it is the role of the witch doctor, shaman, medicine man or other legitimate practitioner of magic to detect and expose the actions of witches, and to counteract this black magic (see magic, black) with their own powers.
Witchcraft is the subject of folklore in many countries, and ideas about witchcraft are deeply embedded in European culture. With the advent of Christianity in Europe around the 4th century, the early Church adopted a pragmatic approach to the worship of the old pagan deities, acknowledging that it was easier to superimpose Christian festivals on the existing festivals of the pagan calendar (see autumnal equinox; beltane; hallowe’en; imbolc; lughnasadh; samhain; summer solstice; vernal equinox; winter equinox) than to try to stamp out paganism altogether. Pope Gregory I (pope 590–604) had churches built on the sites of pagan temples, while holy wells, once sacred to pagan goddesses, were rededicated to Christian saints. For centuries, the two belief systems co-existed, and most of Christian Europe maintained a reasonably tolerant view of magic, which remained a part of everyday life; ordinary people still relied on the services of the ‘cunning men’ and ‘wise women’ (see wisdom) found in every village, who were skilled not only in healing and herbalism, but in detecting and counteracting the practices of witches – those who used magic for evil purposes.
However, by the 15th century, the figure of the witch in Europe had begun to take on a particularly Christian interpretation. The powers of the witch were generally thought to be innate, or to be bestowed by a supernatural agent, rather than being acquired through learned magical techniques and invocations, as in high magic or ritual magic (see magic, high and magic, ritual). The Church began to foster a belief that it was the devil who conferred these powers, and to promote an image of the witch as a follower of satan. The distinction between healers and witches became blurred, and the practitioners of folk magic found themselves being accused of witchcraft, although high-ranking and educated practitioners of high magic generally escaped censure.
The medieval concept of witchcraft focused on Devil worship, with perversions of Christian rites in the form of the black mass, the celebration of witches’ sabbats in which the Devil was greeted with the obscene kiss under the tail known as the osculum infame, the sacrifice of human babies and orgies. It was believed that one became a witch by selling one’s soul to the Devil in a devil’s pact, and received in return Satanic powers; witches had the power of flight using broomsticks or flying ointment, and could change their forms or become invisible, invoke spirits, harm their victims or influence them using spells, hexes, curses, potions or effigies, damage property and livestock, perform divination and conjure the dead. They were thought to be aided by a familiar or spirit helper in the form of an animal, and any old woman who lived alone and kept a pet, especially a black cat, was likely to be accused of witchcraft – particularly if she was also skilled in herbalism. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the three witches in Macbeth, written at the beginning of the 17th century, reflects the stereotypical view of witches held by most Europeans of the time; isolated from society, working at dead of night and mixing gruesome ingredients in a huge cauldron to bring about evil magic.
The great witch hysteria of the late Middle Ages began around 1450, as legal sanctions were introduced in Europe which made it a crime against the Church to be a witch. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII appointed two clerics, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, as inquisitors against witchcraft and heresy, and in 1486 they published the malleus maleficarum, a hugely influential work which was regarded for several centuries as the authoritative manual for inquisitors and witchfinders. For the next 300 years, and particularly during the time of the Reformation (1520–1650), Protestant and Catholic churches alike pursued witch trials ferociously throughout Europe and Scandinavia, with the hysteria spreading to the American colonies in the 17th century. Superstition, rivalries and tensions within communities, and the fear of being accused oneself if one did not join in the witch hunt, all helped to fan the flames.
Torture was officially condemned as a means of extracting confessions of witchcraft, but in practice it was widely used, as were trials by ordeal such as ‘swimming the witch’, in which the accused was tied up and thrown into water; if they drowned, this was taken as proof of innocence, but if they floated, they were found guilty. In Scotland, the commonest ordeal was pricking for the devil’s mark or witch’s mark. The worst period for executions was between the mid-15th and late 17th centuries, an era sometimes known as ‘the Burning Times’, which reached its peak in the early 17th century. About three-quarters of those killed as witches in England and Scotland were female, mostly lower-class, older women, but anyone who was in any way different – eccentric, deformed or living alone – might be accused, with the Church and State not only legalizing but, at times, encouraging persecution. It is sometimes claimed that, in the 17th century, matthew hopkins, the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ brought about the executions of over 100 accused witches in England.
The vigorous and widespread persecution of witches was in part a by-product of the campaign against heretics by the Church, which regarded witchcraft as an organized heretical sect opposed to Christianity. But witch-hunting was also motivated by greed. England’s Witchcraft Act, passed by Elizabeth I in 1563 and added to in 1604 by her successor, james i, decreed witchcraft to be a felony punishable by death, with the convicted witch’s property being forfeited to the Crown. Accusations of witchcraft became a convenient way of evicting those such as elderly peasant widows or spinsters who refused to give up their land rights, and the desire to appropriate land appears to have been the motive for at least some of the mass accusations of witchcraft which were made in the trials of the salem witches in Massachusetts, in 1693, and which resulted in the hanging of 19 people. Not everyone joined in the hysteria, however; in his 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot sought to demonstrate that the fear of witchcraft was largely unfounded, and that the apparent magic of village witches could be accomplished by trickery.
By the 18th century, with the Enlightenment and the development of rationalism, a belief in magic had come to be regarded as superstition based on ignorance, although some witch trials continued to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1712. In 1736, George II introduced a new Witchcraft Act which marked a complete reversal in attitude to witchcraft, since it decreed that a person who claimed to have occult powers was to be punished, not as a witch, but as a vagrant and fraud, with fines and imprisonment. In 1951, this Witchcraft Act was finally repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act (see helen duncan).
During the centuries of persecution, the practice of folk magic survived in secret, especially in the countryside, with traditions being passed down mainly by word of mouth. In 1954, Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today, in which he described the existence of the craft in the 20th century. Gardner researched and rewrote many rituals and chants in an attempt to reclaim the lost knowledge of the ‘old ways’, and developed a neopagan form of nature-based spirituality (see neopaganism). He is regarded by many as the founder of modern-day witchcraft, or wicca, which has been growing in popularity since the 1950s. Wicca venerates the forces inherent in nature, as personified in the goddess and the horned god, celebrates the cycle of the seasons and the moon in sabbats and esbats, offers a spirituality which is in tune with the natural world, and, unlike many orthodox faiths, views women and sexuality as sacred. It therefore appeals to many who are disenchanted with mainstream religions. Recognized by the American Supreme Court in 1986 as a legal religion, it has been claimed that Wicca is the fastest-growing religion in the USA today and, as well as Gardnerian witchcraft, a number of other traditions have developed, such as Alexandrian Wicca, founded by alex sanders; Celtic Wicca; Norse Wicca; Faery Wicca; and the feminist Dianic Wicca. Solitary witchcraft, a less formal method which may or may not use elements from various traditions, is also becoming increasingly popular among those who do not wish to work in the traditional witches’ covens.
Contemporary witchcraft in all its forms is a modern construct, a revival rather than a survival of pre-Christian pagan practices. However, it is inspired by and draws on the past, and many modern witches thus regard themselves as carrying on an ancient tradition.
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