The History of Witchcraft
Infused with mystery, fear, unbelievable and grim facts and records, Witchcraft History can be traced back to centuries.
The word ‘Witchcraft’ has been derived from the word ‘Wicca’ which means ‘the wise one’. Witchcraft has been seen as a magical phenomenon, a pagan worship or religion, sorcery, and others, at different periods in Witchcraft History.
Early witches were people who practiced witchcraft—they used magic spells and called upon spirits for help or to bring about change. Most witches were thought to be pagans doing the Devil’s work. Many, however, were simply natural healers or so-called “wise women” whose choice of profession was misunderstood.
It’s unclear exactly when witches came on the historical scene, but one of the earliest records of a witch is in the Bible in the book of 1 Samuel, thought be written between 931 B.C. and 721 B.C. It tells the story of when King Saul sought the Witch of Endor to summon the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit to help him defeat the Philistine army.
The witch roused Samuel, who then prophesied the death of Saul and his sons. The next day, according to the Bible, Saul’s sons died in battle, and Saul committed suicide.
Other Old Testament verses condemn witches, such as the oft-cited Exodus 22:18, which says, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Additional Biblical passages caution against divination, chanting or using witches to contact the dead.
The fear of the unknown and its imagined role in making our day to day life easy or difficult, created witches and their craft. Even though witchcraft as such was practised mainly by experienced and old women, men also practised it. Witches were the mediators between the human beings and the mysterious super powers such as spirits and angels. When a witch succeeded in resolving the apparently mysterious problem of someone, the performance was termed as magic, a process that could not be easily explained away through any logical analysis. The witches prayed to the higher powers or the spirits for help and guidance in resolving the problem by performing certain rituals and the whole process was called witchcraft.
Witchcraft, an earth based religion, was practised in almost all the societies and cultures across the world according to local beliefs and traditions.
According to scholars of witchcraft, it was a belief system whose origin predates the majority of well known religions on this earth. It dates 40,000 years back to Paleolithic period. It has been evolving since then and its present form is quite different from what it was a thousand or five thousand years back. It did not probably have this name as well. Even different covens perform the witchcraft differently.
In the ancient times, Witchcraft was known as ‘craft of the wise’ as the wise persons were those who followed the path of nature and were in tune with its forces, had the knowledge of herbs and medicines, gave wise counsel and were held in high esteem as Shamanic healers and leaders in the village and community. They understood that nature was superior to human beings and that human beings were simply one of the many parts of nature, both seen and unseen that combine to form one whole. As Chief Seattle said, “We do not own the earth; we are a part of it.” They understood that what we take from nature or use, we must return in kind to maintain the balance and equilibrium. The modern man has, however, forgotten this and has paid the price in form of many ecological and environmental disasters.
From the 7th century onwards, attitudes towards the practise began to change. During the medieval period, fears over so-called ‘black magic’ began to emerge. This referred to the power of witchcraft to bring harm to others. An association was also drawn between witchcraft and the devil.
However, it was not until 1000 AD that the practice of Witchcraft and witches invoked the wrath of priests, Christianity, and members of the society. Witchcraft, seen as a religion of the ancient and traditional pagan religion which worships the feminine, earthly, and masculine aspects of God, was considered as anti-Christian and a heresy.
Held to be against the declarations and beliefs of the Church, witches were considered as evil, making pacts and connections with the Devil. It was even believed that witches engaged in practices such as flying, invisibility, killing, taming black wolves and cats to spy on people, and others.
The belief in the existence of witches was strengthened particularly after Pope Innocent VIII issued a declaration in the 1498 confirming their existence in society, and inquisition increased, although in 1200, killing of witches had already become authorised by Pope Gregory IX.
The Inquisition thus began after 1200 on orders of the Church to discover the witches or heretics who were believed to be evil and against the Church. Full-fledged killing of witches was, however, recorded in the 1500s and 1600s.
The first crusade against witches was held in 1022 AD when a witch was burned to death. Witchcraft History echoes the terrible campaign against Witchcraft in Salem in 1692 in which 150 people were tried as suspects of practising witchcraft.
In 1486, the German clergyman and witch finder Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called Maleus Mallificarum in which he derided witchcraft. The tome, which was commonly referred to as Hammer of the Witches in English, soon outsold every publication in Europe apart from the Bible. In the book, Kramer wrote: “Magicians, who are commonly called witches are thus termed on account of the magnitude of their evil deeds. These are they who by the permission of God disturb the elements, who drive to distraction the minds of men, such as have lost their trust in God, and by the terrible power of their evil spells, without any actual draught or poison, kill human beings.”
One of the central themes of the book was that women were weaker in their Christian faith and were therefore more likely to be seduced by the devil.
The book, known as the Hammer of Witches, was essentially a guide on how to identify, hunt and interrogate witches. .
Older women were particularly vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft because of the roles they served. For example, they would often look after infants and cook for families. If people sickened and died, these helpers tended to be the first to be accused.
However, it’s important to note that men were also the victims of witch hunts. Around a fifth to a quarter of all those executed as witches were male.
As witchcraft gradually became disassociated from the benign and constructive, the caricatures of witches grew increasingly extreme. These people were often portrayed as older, dishevelled individuals and any blemishes such as moles or warts were said to be teats used to suckle the devil’s imps. Meanwhile, witches were believed to convene with the devil through small real or imagined animals. These creatures were referred to as a witch’s familiar.
It is thought that during the bloodiest period of witch trials, around 500 executions took place in England and approximately 1,000 occurred in Scotland. However, witch hunting was never a unified national policy. Instead, it was a patchy phenomenon, with witch crazes breaking out in particular communities at certain times.
Scholars link a change in climate to the rising unpopularity of witches. From the early 14th century until the mid-19th century, temperatures in Europe dropped and as a result, crop failures became more common. This caused living standards to fall and it increased competition for resources among neighbours.
Seeking answers to these problems and looking to take control over their circumstances, some communities turned on witches.
While there are very few records of the benevolent witchcraft that had been going on in communities for many hundreds of years on an informal basis, we do have lots of evidence of the supposed black magic perpetrated by witches during this period of persecution.
Virtually all of the material used in witch trials was anecdotal or based on confessions extracted from the accused while they were subjected to torture. This has given a skewed perspective on the history of witchcraft in the UK.
There were no laws banning witchcraft in Britain until Henry VIII took to the throne. Then, in 1542, the Witchcraft Act was passed and, under the terms of this legislation, witchcraft was defined as a crime punishable by death. Although this was repealed five years later, it was restored by a new act in 1562.
Meanwhile, under James I of England, a further law was passed in 1604 which transferred the trial of witches from the Church to the ordinary courts.
Modern-day witches of the Western World still struggle to shake their historical stereotype. Most practice Wicca, an official religion in the United States and Canada.
Wiccans avoid evil and the appearance of evil at all costs. They’re motto is to “harm none,” and they strive to live a peaceful, tolerant and balanced life in tune with nature and humanity.
Of late people have started understanding and practicing witchcraft as the true religion of God and Nature. There is renewed interest in witchcraft and witches profess to believe and practice the witchcraft with a sense of pride and confidence. The believers in New Age movement have understood witchcraft in its true perspective.
Modern witchcraft attracts believers from all walks of life and positions in society all over the world. They come together to understand the life, nature, evolution and mysteries of the universe through witchcraft. Witchcraft is the most democratic religion in the world. There is no rigid dogma and no hard-line regime except for a simple premise that we should not sow the seeds of evil if we want to reap the evil fruit multifold and secondly that we should not misuse the munificence of nature by disturbing its balance. Who would disagree?
Many modern-day witches still perform witchcraft, but there’s seldom anything sinister about it. Their spells and incantations are often derived from their Book of Shadows, a 20th-century collection of wisdom and witchcraft, and can be compared to the act of prayer in other religions. A modern-day witchcraft potion is more likely to be an herbal remedy for the flu instead of a hex to harm someone.
Today’s witchcraft spells are usually used to stop someone from doing evil or harming themselves. Ironically, while it’s probable some historical witches used witchcraft for evil purposes, many may have embraced it for healing or protection against the immorality they were accused of.
But witches—whether actual or accused—still face persecution and death. Several men and women suspected of using witchcraft have been beaten and killed in Papua New Guinea since 2010, including a young mother who was burned alive. Similar episodes of violence against people accused of being witches have occurred in Africa, South America, the Middle East and in immigrant communities in Europe and the United States.
Originally, witchcraft and the work of the ‘cunning folk’, with their herbal remedies and blessings, was an integral part of community life.
There is some evidence that a realigning of witchcraft and popular culture may be taking place now. After all, witchcraft and Paganism more generally places a huge emphasis on the importance of nature and the environment, which is something that many individuals and organisations now strongly relate to.