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“”In the poison'd entrails throw.— Toad, that under cold stone, Days and nights has thirty-one; Swelter'd venom sleeping got, Boil thou first i' the charmed pot!
Anthropologists and those who study religions formally define witchcraft as the use of rituals and magic (and sometimes curses) to accomplish some kind of ends on this earth. In modern lay idiom, the popular imagination largely associates witchcraft with religions like Wicca and various neopagans such as Lucy Cavendish. In the American folk/entertainment world, it is the evil wrought by gorgeous women on poor suffering men who cannot resist such temptations (though this is more properly within the domain of a succubus, given that witches are rarely portrayed as attractive creatures in contemporary entertainment and folklore).
Though the pop world often assumes that witches are female, both Wiccans and anthropologists use the term for male and female witches. And don't worry, the European witch-trials went after men too. As did the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts.
Which witch is which?
By definition, witches directly work upon the world though spells to do their own will.[note 1] This differs from priests, who are intercessors between a god or gods and the people. Priests pray or do rituals to ask the god to change the world. Witches also differ from herbalists in that they are invoking magic, while the herbalist is just using the plant's own powers (though traditional people without knowledge of modern science may believe the power of the plant is a type of magic). There is no reason any particular witch cannot also be a priest or herbalist.
Virtually all religions have a role that anthropologists would call a "witch", including deities associated with witchcraft and/or magic as Hecate among the Greeks or Isis among Egyptians, which do not have to be evil and/or may have poisonous plants considered sacred, and it almost always is a person dealing in darker or so-called "evil" or unsanctioned elements of the religion.[note 2] Historically, many religions used the concept of witch to explain diseases, untimely death, droughts, and other unexplained negative circumstances that affect an individual or society. Socially deviant people are more frequently accused of witchcraft, and this works as a social control.
The modern neopagan religion, Wicca, is openly based on witchcraft, and the practitioners call themselves witches. There are many schools of thought about witchcraft within the larger rubric of "Wicca". For example, many Wiccans claim there is "white" (good) and "black" (evil) magic, though other Wiccans claim this distinction of magic does not exist. Some (fundamentalist) Christians claim the whole of Wicca is devil worship and bad. Many Wiccans follow formal practices and have a set theology, while others find their own path similar to Cafeteria Christians.
Christianity and witchcraft
Christianity has often used Witchcraft to explain so-called "evil" in the world. Witchcraft was generally considered devil worship. Thomas Aquinas associated witchcraft with the corporeal enjoyments, including sex. Protestants and Roman Catholics both tortured and executed people, mostly women, accused of witchcraft.
Unfortunately for those who prefer to view history as the indomitable march towards progress, the prevalent belief in the existence of witches and their persecution did not really take off in the Christian world until the beginning of the Renaissance.[note 3] During the early Middle Ages, the belief in witchcraft was seen as a form of superstition based on pagan beliefs. Accusing somebody of witchcraft was more likely to get you executed than the person you accused:
The invention of the printing press only helped accelerate the belief in witches and undermined early skepticism.[note 4]
Modern western views of witches generally comes from the Christian view, where a society's undesirable women were tainted as "witches" and blamed for a community or individual's misfortunes. Simple herbalists, midwives, and the mentally ill were frequent targets of being accused of being "witches". The Black Death was largely blamed on witchcraft in the 14th century. In the late 17th century, the Salem Witch Trials became an expedient way to eliminate political problems and blame women.
The Christian view that witchcraft is (as the song goes) "alive and kicking" is encountered far less often in the 21st century, but it still exists. In Africa, large portions of the population, including homosexuals and albinos, are presumed to be witches, associates of witches, or cursed by witches. Witchcraft, and the Christian fight against it, is, in fact, practiced openly in many African nations today.
The Bible specifically states that witches must be put to death:
- "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." —Exodus 22:18
- "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them." —Leviticus 20:27 (KJV)
Consequently, these witch hunts often end quite badly.
Ironically, it was the Spanish Inquisition after its first and only mass witchcraft trial in 1610 that came up with what became the go-to book for all future handling of witchcraft claims, which, when followed, required things like verifiable witnesses and actual physical evidence.
Witch trials seem to have been a comparatively short-term fad in most of the world; they ended in Spain in the 17th century. The last execution in France was in 1745, while the last trial was probably in 1768, which ended in a fine. The last trial for witchcraft in the US is often considered the 1878 trial in Salem, Mass, where one Christian Scientist, Lucretia L. S. Brown, sued another, Daniel H. Spofford, for using mesmerism to harm her; the case was dismissed, and in any case was not a criminal trial.
Laws against witchcraft remained on the statute books into the 20th century (or later) in many countries. In England, the Witchcraft Act 1735 was later used to pursue spirit mediums, with wartime seeming to provide both a desire for magic and a desire to clamp down on anything abnormal: there were two trials in 1944, most famously of Helen Duncan, sentenced to nine months in jail after running a profitable line in seances, and then in December of Jane Rebecca Yorke from Forest Gate in East London, who was fined 5 pounds. The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 replaced the Witchcraft Act, and was itself repealed and replaced by consumer protection law in 2008.
In Canada, the criminal code was amended in 2018 to remove the crime of "fraudulently pretend[ing] to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration", but before then there were several 21st century law cases against psychics, "healers", and others claiming mystic powers. Often there was an element of deception, as in the 2018 prosecution of Samantha Stevenson, a psychic who told a male client that the only way to be free of evil spirits was to sell his house and give her the money. There were claims that the law was being used to persecute women and those of minority ethnic groups, while Canada's consumer law would protect against many fraudulent practices associated with mediums and "witches".
There are plenty of Western Christians who still believe in witches, including some Roman Catholics and Protestants., including of course to consider that either practicing it (up to and including things as banal as Tarot readings) or consulting a witch opens the gate to demonic possession. And of course, any time a popular book or movie with witches or wizards comes out, there are always Christians protesting.
Fundamentalist Christians in Africa have been responsible for deaths of children and adults in contemporary efforts to eliminate "witches", which are sometimes believed to be children. Most of these anti-witch movements in Christianized Africa are exclusively confined to Pentecostal and Evangelical influence in the continent. Some governments have taken steps to reduce the number of witch hunters in their country, but others are reticent to do so, as they either hold similar beliefs as the fundamentalists and/or see it as politically beneficial. The conduct of these religious groups is a testament to the potentially vile nature of religious belief, but many of the tribal religions prior to extensive Christianized influence affirmed the belief in witches and other forms of maleficent spiritual phenomena. In other words, it's doubtful that Dawkins or atheistic philosophy in general would fare much better in social management[note 5] without a large-scale restructuring and improvement of economic conditions which facilitates ease of access to technology and education. Witchcraft accusations have also gotten worse after the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prominent Nigerian humanist and skeptic Dr. Leo Igwe, chair of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, has stated that crises such as the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged "superstition and irrationalism ..." and further encourages people "to take a leap of faith, to engage in witchcraft allegations and suspicions of demonic possession." He also has stated that other religious groups, such as Christian missionaries, have weaponized them to sell ideas of further witchcraft and exorcism, exacerbating the problem.
In the United Kingdom, children believed to be witches can be subject to beatings, traumatic exorcism, and/or other abuse. There have even been child murders associated with witchcraft beliefs. The problem exists in the United States as well as the UK, notably within African migrant communities. Authorities tend not to give it the attention it merits, much the same as with child deaths by (exclusive) faith healing.
Most Islamic belief in witchcraft centers around the idea of jinn. These are said to be supernatural creatures akin to demons and angels which have the power to interact with the physical world, but have free will, unlike angels or demons. The Qur'an mentions sorcery and jinn and both are regarded as generally malevolent by Islam as well as sources of power which may be utilized by kafir. The Qur'an mentions "tying of knots" as a form of witchcraft, so sailors are recommended to take wide berth.
- For Our Tomorrow and For Their Tomorrow Men and women in Africa are sometimes attacked and seriously injured or killed due to witchcraft suspicions.
- Horrible Histories - Witchfinder Direct on YouTube
- In ordinary English, "witch" especially means a woman, but in this article, the term refers to both sexes.
- Of course, issues with translation, and cross-cultural identification, can lead to problems. For example, in traditional Navajo culture, when using English, the "good" user of magic is a Singer, and the "bad" user of magic is translated into English as a witch. In Navajo, they are both types of ’ánt’įįhnii.
- No "resurgence of intellectual curiosity and a flourishing of the arts and sciences in the Greco-Roman tradition" seems to be complete without a resurgence of misogyny and a flourishing of superstition.
- But humanity managed to reign in that medium's propensity for the spread of conspiracy theories, so there might be hope for Twitter yet.
- Remember, atheism is only disbelief in god(s). An atheist might still believe in witches.
- Douglas Linder. A Brief History of Witchcraft Persecutions before Salem. University of Missouri-Kansas City. 2005.
- Magic and Religion
- What is black magic?
- Black magick and White magick
- What does the Bible say about white magic?
- Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Early British Isles. Blackwell. 1991.
- Phillips, Perrott (1978) Out of this world : the illustrated library of the bizarre and extraordinary Volume 23 Phoebus Publishing company pg 10-11
- Henningsen, Gustav (1980) The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (1609–1619), Nevada
- See the Wikipedia article on Witch trials in Spain.
- See the Wikipedia article on Witch trials in France.
- See the Wikipedia article on Salem witchcraft trial (1878).
- The Last Witch Trial in America, Knotmagick, Sophia Beaumont, July 22, 2019
- Britain’s last witch trial, Law Gazette, 29 Sept 2015
- Helen Duncan, Scotland’s Last Witch, Historic UK
- Canada's last witch trials: Women accused of fake witchcraft, BBC, 30 October 2018, 2018
- All Witchcraft Is Satanic!
- 'Witchcraft' abuse cases on the rise
- Stopping Olukoya and Witch hunting in UK Black Communities
- One Woman’s Fight to Stop Deadly Accusations of Witchcraft in India