Witchcraft is a term used to describe three distinct but related phenomena: 1) a contemporary religion, also known as Wicca, that is practiced in many parts of the world; 2) the belief that developed in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period that some individuals are in league with the
DEVIL, (q.v.) to destroy the Christian world; 3) a set of practices and beliefs that are common cross-culturally and historically in nations or among groups that are pre-industrial. In all three forms of witchcraft, practitioners are believed to have special powers that permit them to alter the natural course of events for good or ill, such as the ability to cause drought or rainfall, heal or cause illness, and affect fertility of livestock, people, or plants. Contemporary Western Witchcraft.
Adherents of contemporary witchcraft claim that they are practicing the “old religion”—that is, a pre-Christian, pan-European religion in which the goddess of fertility and the god of the hunt are revered. Scholars contend, and most witches acknowledge, that Wicca’s origins date to the 1930s and ’40s in England. However, witches assert that their rituals and practices are a re-creation or revival of pre-Christian paganism. Witches practice either alone or in groups that are called covens. Although thirteen is considered the ideal number of members of a coven, few groups have this exact number. Covens typically have between five and fifteen members.
Witches are not Satan worshippers. They celebrate nature and the female and male elements of the divine. Some groups are women-only covens and venerate the goddess or goddesses to the exclusion of the male god force. Witches participate in eight major holidays a year, known as sabbats. These occur at the beginning and height of each season and celebrate the seasonal changes and their implications for the participants. Beltane (May Day) and Samhain (Halloween), the two most important sabbats, respectively celebrate fertility and death. The May Pole, symbolizing the joining of male and female energy in the act of creation, is usually danced at Beltane festivals. Fertility in nature and in all aspects of people’s lives is celebrated at this time of year. Samhain, which occurs at the height of autumn, is a commemoration of death. Witches view death as an important part of the life cycle, which permits new life to be created and, symbolically within individuals’ lives, new ideas and new opportunities to grow. Witches also participate in essabats, which celebrate the moon cycles and their relationship to the three aspects of the goddess. The maid, the mother, and the crone are respectively venerated at the quarter, full, and new moons.
As part of their rituals witches raise “energy” through chanting, dancing, or meditating, which they believe can be used for magical workings, such as healing people, pets, or the earth, or helping an individual find a romantic partner or a new home. Although witches claim that magic can be used to do either good or harm, they believe that those who use it for ill ultimately will themselves be injured. The religion is practiced especially in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. The largest number of participants is in North America. Historic Witchcraft.
The belief that some individuals can perform magic with the help of spirits was almost universal in antiquity. Egyptian records tell of conjurers and soothsayers who derived their powers from alien gods. In the Egyptian account of the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh, Moses appears as a practitioner of black magic and his followers as servants of an alien and abhorrent god. In the Biblical account of the same episode, the Egyptian experts who competed with Moses appear as evil sorcerers. Witches and magicians figured significantly in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome.
There are very few references to witchcraft in early Christian documents. It was initially considered a sin to accuse a neighbor of being a witch. Growing unrest during the later Middle Ages and early modern period found expression in deviations from church teachings, which were seen as the work of the devil. The church’s stance on witchcraft then began to change. The most influential papal bull against witchcraft was the Summis Desiderantes
promulgated by Pope Innocent VIII (1432–92) in 1484. To implement this bull, he appointed regional inquisitors, of whom Heinrich Kraemer (1430?–1505?) and Johann Sprenger (1436–95), two German Dominican monks, became the most famous after they published their witch-hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum
(The Hammer of Witches
). In this text, Kraemer and Sprenger described witches as predominantly women who were in the employ of the devil. See
The height of the witch trials in Europe was between the 15th and 17th centuries. Most of those accused and executed as witches were women. Inhuman tortures were inflicted to force confessions. The inquisitors did not hesitate to betray promises of pardon to those acknowledging guilt. A class of professional witch finders arose who collected charges and then tested the accused for evidence of witchcraft. They were paid a fee for each conviction. Although the trials were begun by the Catholic church, both Martin Luther and the French theologian John Calvin supported the witchcraft prosecutions. There was only one large-scale witch scare in America, which occurred in 1692 in Salem, Mass. As a colony of Great Britain, Massachusetts followed English law, which made witchcraft a civil, not an ecclesiastical, crime. Witches in America, as in England, were hanged, unlike those in continental Europe who were burned at the stake.
The trials took their premise from Christian cosmology in which there is a belief in the fallen angel Lucifer—the devil—who was thought to be an active participant in the daily affairs of people. In return for serving the devil, witches allegedly receive certain powers, notably the ability to cause or cure illness; to raise storms and to make rain or, sometimes, to cause drought; to produce impotence in men and sterility in women; and to cause crops to fail, animals to be barren, and milk to go sour. Witches were believed able to arouse love through the use of philters and potions and to destroy love by charms and spells, and to do harm or even bring about death. They supposedly could become invisible and fly, sometimes with the aid of a broom or special ointments. Although the inquisitional courts believed witches who helped their neighbors by relieving illness or helping stop storms were as evil as those who caused harm, since all witches derived their power from the devil, folk beliefs consider the two forms of witchcraft different. The common man and woman viewed individuals who used their magical powers to help their neighbors as good members of their communities. Cross-cultural Witchcraft.
In most pre-industrial societies there is a belief that certain individuals known as shamans (see
SHAMAN,), medicine women or men, and wise women or men, have the ability to do almost all of the things witches were accused of in the trials. The main difference is that, with shamans, there is no belief in the devil. Witches, shamans, and wise men or women have an established and unchallenged role in their communities. They are assumed to derive their power from spirits, which are revered and at times feared by members of the community. Those who are believed to have access to the spirit world are also regarded with reverence and at times fear. Shamans are thought to be able to cure the sick, make rain, assure a successful hunt, and protect individuals from the curses of other shamans. Rev. by
H.A.Be., HELEN A. BERGER, Ph.D.