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It's fun to pretend
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Fails from the crypt
As performed by
Tim the Enchanter

By the powers of woo
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!
William Shakespeare[1]

Witchcraft is formally defined by anthropologists and those who study religions as the use of rituals and magic to accomplish some kind of ends on this earth, sometimes curses. In modern lay idiom, it is largely associated with religions like Wicca and various neopagans such as Lucy Cavendish. In the American folk/entertainment world it is the evil wrought by women onto poor suffering men who cannot resist such temptations (though this is more properly within the domain of a succubusWikipedia's W.svg given that witches are rarely portrayed as attractive creatures in contemporary entertainment and folklore).

Though the pop world often assumes a witch is a 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.

They could be your next door neighbor.

Which witch is which?[edit]

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", 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.[2]


See the main article on this topic: Wicca

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,[3] though other Wiccans claim this distinction of magic does not exist.[4] Some (fundamentalist) Christians claim the whole of Wicca is devil worship and bad.[5] Many Wiccans follow formal practices and have a set theology while others find their own path similar to Cafeteria Christians.

Christianity and witchcraft[edit]

Dominionist literary critic and proud child abuser skipping the argument that Harry Potter is bad because it's kitsch pop literature and going straight to the real reason Harry Potter is bad: "Warlocks are enemies of God."

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.[1]

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 "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[6].

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.[7][8]

Contemporary Era[edit]

There are plenty of Western Christians who still believe in witches, including some Roman Catholics[9] and Protestants.[10] 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.[11][12] The conduct of these religious groups is a testament to the potentially vile nature of religious belief, but it is also to be noted that 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 without a large-scale restructuring and improvement of economic conditions which facilitates ease of access to technology and education.

In the United Kingdom too 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.[13] 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,[14] much the same as with child deaths by (exclusive) faith healing.

Islamic Witchcraft[edit]

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.[15] The Qur'an mentions "tying of knots" as a form of witchcraft so sailors are recommended to take wide berth.[16]

In Saudi Arabia, the penalty for witchcraft is death by beheading - so they don't seem particularly fond of it.[17]


In India women are sometimes accused of witchcraft and after that their lives can be in danger.[18]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. In ordinary English "witch" especially means a woman but in this article the term refers to both sexes.
  2. 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.