by Robert S. Ellwood, B.A., M.Div., Ph.D. (See references below.)
Witchcraft, practice of magic or sorcery by those outside the religious mainstream of a society; the term is used in different ways in various historical and social contexts. Many people participating in the contemporary revival of witchcraft, known as the neopagan revival, identify themselves as benign witches. Therefore, the practice of witchcraft should not be associated with evil or the infliction of harm, nor with diabolism (the invocation of Devils). In addition, many accusations of malicious witchcraft-especially in some primal societies and in early modern Europe and North America-have been unfounded and have sprung from irrational fears and social anxieties. This article discusses witchcraft under three main headings: sorcery, with reference primarily to witchcraft in primal and ancient societies; diabolical witchcraft, with a focus on the persecution of alleged witches in Europe and the United States and on the social pathologies that accompanied this persecution; and modern witchcraft, dealing with contemporary witchcraft in the neopagan revival. These are different phenomena, and perceptions of witchcraft drawn from one arena cannot be applied indiscriminately to another.
Simple sorcery, or the use of magic accessible to ordinary people, such as setting out offerings to helpful spirits or using charms, can be found in almost all traditional societies. Although the distinctions are often blurred, practices such as these differ both from religion, in which gods are worshipped in awe or implored through prayer to help, and from the sophisticated arts of alchemists and ceremonial magicians. Sorcery is intended to force results rather than achieve them through entreaty, and it is worked by simple and ordinary means. From a sociological point of view, the widespread practice of sorcery within a tribe or peasant community serves to reinforce and consolidate beliefs about the supernatural world and the relation of humans to that world. Psychologically, sorcery provides a means of establishing a sense of control over nature and thus mitigates the anxieties caused by disease, uncertain seasons, and natural disasters. When such eventualities occur despite preventive measures, they can be interpreted as the result of malicious witchcraft, and the alleged perpetrators may then be sought out and driven from the community. The function of the so-called witch doctor or medicine man in many societies is to counter the power of evil witchcraft through good magic. Shamans may also heal through comparable means by performing rites that expel pestilential spirits or by retrieving lost and stolen souls. Characteristically, they do this with the aid of helping spirits or gods invoked through incantations and rites.
Practices such as these were known to the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. In the Old Testament, the apocryphal book of Tobit contains an account in which, at the instruction of an angel, an evil spirit is expelled from a bridal chamber by the odor of a smoldering fish heart and liver (Tobit 6:14-18). Nevertheless, the Bible also contains injunctions against witchcraft, such as “You shall not permit a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18), a command that was used to justify the persecution of witches in medieval Europe.
The Greco-Roman world was permeated by belief in witchcraft. Roman poet Horace refers to hags who clawed the earth to invoke spirits of the underworld, and philosopher and novelist Apuleius mentions the practice of nailing owls over doors with wings outspread to deflect storms. After the Christianization of the Mediterranean world in the 4th century, countless customs like these – as well as comparable practices in northern Europe – were perpetuated as folk magic or were superficially Christianized in such practices as inscribing the Lord’s Prayer on a piece of paper and keeping it in one’s shoe as an amulet against bewitchment. Certain local sages or “wise women” were experts in popular witchcraft or sorcery, which often represented remnants of pre-Christian religion.
III. Diabolical Witchcraft
In the early Christian centuries, the church was relatively tolerant of magical practices. Those who were proved to have engaged in witchcraft were required only to do penance. But in the late Middle Ages (13th century to 14th century) opposition to alleged witchcraft hardened as a result of the growing belief that all magic and miracles that did not come unambiguously from God came from the Devil and were therefore manifestations of evil. Those who practiced simple sorcery, such as village wise women, were increasingly regarded as practitioners of diabolical witchcraft. They came to be viewed as individuals in league with Satan. Nearly all those who fell under suspicion of witchcraft were women, evidently regarded by witch-hunters as especially susceptible to the Devil’s blandishments. A lurid picture of the activities of witches emerged in the popular mind, including covens, or gatherings over which Satan presided; pacts with the Devil; flying broomsticks; and animal accomplices, or familiars. Although a few of these elements may represent vestiges of pre-Christian religion, the old religion probably did not persist in any organized form beyond the 14th century.
The popular image of witchcraft, perhaps inspired by features of occultism or ceremonial magic as well as by theology concerning the Devil and his works of darkness, was given shape by the inflamed imagination of inquisitors and was confirmed by statements obtained under torture. The late medieval and early modern picture of diabolical witchcraft can be attributed to several causes.
First, the church’s experience with such dissident religious movements as the Albigenses and Cathari, who believed in a radical dualism of good and evil, led to the belief that certain people had allied themselves with Satan. As a result of confrontations with such heresy, the Inquisition was established by a series of papal decrees between 1227 and 1235. Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of torture in 1252, and Pope Alexander IV gave the Inquisition authority over all cases of sorcery involving heresy, although most actual prosecution of witches was carried out by local courts. At the same time, other developments created a climate in which alleged witches were stigmatized as representatives of evil. Since the middle of the 11th century, the theological and philosophical work of scholasticism had been refining the Christian concepts of Satan and evil. Theologians, influenced by Aristotelian rationalism, increasingly denied that “natural” miracles could take place and therefore alleged that anything supernatural and not of God must be due to commerce with Satan or his minions. Later, the Reformation, the rise of science, and the emerging modern world-all challenges to traditional religion-created deep anxieties in the orthodox population.
At the dawn of the Renaissance (15th century to 16th century) some of these developments began to coalesce into the “witch craze” that possessed Europe from about 1450 to 1700. During this period, thousands of people, mostly innocent women, were executed on the basis of “proofs” or “confessions” of diabolical witchcraft-that is, of sorcery practiced through allegiance to Satan-obtained by means of cruel tortures. A major impetus for the hysteria was the papal bull Summis Desiderantes issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. It was included as a preface in the book Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by two Dominican inquisitors in 1486. This work, characterized by a distinct anti-feminine tenor, vividly describes the satanic and sexual abominations of witches. The book was translated into many languages and went through many editions in both Catholic and Protestant countries, outselling all other books except the Bible. In the years of the witch-hunting mania, people were encouraged to inform against one another. Professional witch finders identified and tested suspects for evidence of witchcraft and were paid a fee for each conviction. The most common test was pricking: All witches were supposed to have somewhere on their bodies a mark, made by the Devil, that was insensitive to pain; if such a spot was found, it was regarded as proof of witchcraft. Other proofs included additional breasts (supposedly used to suckle familiars), the inability to weep, and failure in the water test. In the latter, a woman was thrown into a body of water; if she sank, she was considered innocent, but if she stayed afloat, she was found guilty.
The persecution of witches declined about 1700, banished by the Age of Enlightenment, which subjected such beliefs to a skeptical eye. One of the last outbreaks of witch-hunting took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692, when belief in diabolical witchcraft was already declining in Europe. Twenty people were executed in the wake of the Salem witch trials, which took place after a group of young girls became hysterical while playing at magic and it was proposed that they were bewitched. The subsequent witch hunt took place in the context of deep divisions between the church and a controversial minister. Personal differences were exacerbated in a small, isolated community in which religious beliefs – including belief in the reality of diabolical witchcraft – were deeply held. By the time the hysteria had run its course, little enthusiasm for the persecution of witches remained in Massachusetts or elsewhere.
Belief in traditional witchcraft, in the sense of sorcery, remains alive in India, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. A belief in the possibility of something akin to diabolical witchcraft can still be found among some conservative Christians.
IV. Modern Witchcraft
In the second half of the 20th century, a self-conscious revival of pre-Christian paganism occurred in the United States and Europe.
The foundation of this revival was witchcraft, or wicca (said to be an early Anglo-Saxon word for witchcraft). Wicca is interpreted simply as the nature and fertility religion of pre-Christian Europe, which has been explored in books such as Charles Leland’s Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches (1899), Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948). Although they are now considered unreliable by scholars, such books gave inspiration to some people seeking spiritual alternatives. The writings of Englishman Gerald Gardner, who in his book Witchcraft Today (1954) claimed that he was a witch initiated by a surviving coven, imparted much of the alleged lore and rituals of English witches. Although his claims have been questioned, covens of modern witches sprang up under Gardner’s inspiration and spread to the United States in the 1960s. This form of witchcraft-with its feeling for nature, its colorful rituals, and its challenge of conventional religion and society-harmonized well with the countercultural mood of the 1960s and grew rapidly during that decade. Modern witchcraft continued to prosper during the subsequent decades.
Many followers of the ecological and feminist movements found in Wicca a religion with congenial themes. Wiccans emphasized the sacred meaning of nature and its cycles and the coequal role of gods and goddesses and of priests and priestesses. Some Wiccan groups, called Dianic (after the goddess Diana), include only women and worship the goddess exclusively. Closely related “neopagan” religions have also appeared in revivals of ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Greek, and Nordic religions. Wicca perceives itself as a religion based on the broad themes of ancient pre-Christian paganism, although it is not drawn directly from paganism – for example, Wicca shuns some features of the old paganism, such as animal sacrifice. Increasingly, Wicca draws from many pagan traditions, with the result that the distinctions between witchcraft, occultism, neopaganism, and various strands thereof have become blurred.
Modern witchcraft is entirely different from Satanism or the diabolical witchcraft imagined by the persecutors of past centuries. Major Wiccan themes include love of nature, equality of male and female, appreciation of the ceremonial, a sense of wonder and belief in magic, and appreciation of the symbolism and psychological realities behind the gods and goddesses of antiquity.