Before I start, please know that I realize the words witch and witchcraft mean lots of different things to lots of people. Much of what I’m talking about today has to do with the history of witchcraft in parts of Europe and the United States.
When I was growing up, I learned about witches from “The Wizard of Oz”, with a good witch, all pretty and sparkly, and a wicked witch, all scowl-faced and green. Also I learned of witchcraft from “Bewitched”, with the beautiful Samantha. We all wanted to twitch our nose and all the housework would be completed. Jenni, my podcast partner, probably got much of her witching knowledge from Harry Potter and Sabrina. She’s a millennial. I’m a baby boomer.
Today at Halloween, my annual practice includes watching “Hocus Pocus” and “Practical Magic”. Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman shredded the idea that witches were hags with green skin and warts. And that’s a good thing.
I can’t tell you the exact origin of witches but I can tell you they were people who practiced magic or what was deemed magic. These early witches used spells and were rumored to invoke the dead. They were thought to be pagans, possibly in cahoots with the devil, but more likely they were natural healers, ahead of their time in realizing the helpful benefits in plants.
Witches have been around since prehistoric times. Art found from this time depicts magic rituals being used to ensure successful hunting trips. Early shamans or witch doctors collected knowledge about magic and magical tools. They set out offerings for spirits and they used charms.
The earliest references to witchcraft in the Bible are in the Old Testament. In Samuel, the Witch of Endor, is mentioned and there are other biblical passages eluding to witchcraft.
Some believe that Western beliefs of witchcraft grew out of the mythologies and folklore of older societies like the Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans.
Others belief the real roots of witchcraft came from the Celts, a diverse group of Iron Age tribal societies who flourished between 700BCE and 100CE in Northern Europe. They were deeply spiritual people who worshipped both a god and a goddess. They were pantheistic or worshipped many aspects of the One Creative Life Force and saw a Divine Creator in all of nature. Celts believed in reincarnation. By 350BCE, they established a priestly class known as the ‘Druids’. Druids included teachers, judges, astrologers, healers, and midwives. They loved the land. Practices included concocting potions, casting spells, and performing works of magic.
In the Medieval Period or early Christian period, witchcraft was mostly common sorcery or folk magic, meaning that witchcraft was not tied to demons and devils. Sometimes, Christian elements were brought into the practice. The Lord’s Prayer might be recited.
But in the 5th century, St Augustine of Hippo, claimed pagan magic and pagan religious practices were invented by the devil to lure humanity from Christian Truth. The witches of this period were considered to be powerless because only God had divine power, so the church had no major concerns with witches.
In the 7th to 9th century, the church began to influence civil law and to create anti-witchcraft laws. Now, magic was seen as a crime against society and a crime against God.
By the 13th century, some branded witchcraft as demon-worship. Secular courts and Christian churches were involved in the persecution of witches. Witch hysteria started in Europe. Witch hunts were common and often ended with hangings and burnings at the stake. Women were targeted because they were thought to be susceptible to the devil’s wiles. Between 1500 and 1600, 80,000 suspected witches were put to death in Europe. Eighty percent of these victims were women. Germany had the highest execution rate and Ireland had the lowest.
In 1486, two well respected German Dominicans published a book called, “Malleus Maleficarum” which translates to “The Hammer of Witches” . It was a guide to identifying and hunting witches. The book stated that Christians had an obligation to hunt down and kill witches. How scary is that? For one hundred years, this book sold more copies than any other book in Europe except for the Bible.
In 1682, Temperance Lloyd was the last person executed in England for witchcraft. By 1680, the Age of Enlightenment contributed to the end of the witch hunts.
So, in the 1600s, as witch hysteria began to decrease in Europe, guess what happened in the New World? Witch hysteria took off. If you attended school in the United State of America, you most likely studied the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials. This is a sad part of our history. For any who don’t know the story, I tell you briefly about what went on.
In 1692, nine year old Elizabeth Parris and eleven year old Abigail Williams began having unexplained spasms and delirium. A note here- this was probably because of fungus poisoning. Instead of looking for realistic causes, witch driven mass hysteria ensued. Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, an enslaved woman owned by Elizabeth Parris’ dad, were accused of witchcraft. Only Tituba confessed and she probably did this out of fear. All three women were jailed.
The lunacy continued. On June 10th, Bridget Bishop was hanged at the Salem gallows. She was the first of 12 women and 6 men to be executed in Salem for witchcraft. 150 people were accused of witchcraft.
In Connecticut, 46 were accused and 11 put to death.
In Virginia, the people were a little more levelheaded. Two dozen were accused but none were executed. When we did our podcast highlighting haunted Virginia (Episode 66), we talked about Grace Sherwood, the Witch of Pungo. She wasn’t executed, but this mother did spend eight years in jail.
The hysteria did eventually die down in America. Supposedly, Benjamin Franklin published an article that brought to light the ridiculousness of many of the accusations. Laws were passed to protect people from being falsely accused and convicted of witchcraft.
In the second half of the 20th century, a revival of pre-Christian paganism sprang up in the UK and the United States. Gerald Gardner became the figurehead credited with the resurgence of the practice of Wicca. Covens started to appear. Paul Huson’s book was published in the 1970s. “Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens” was a do-it-yourself guide for non-Wiccan would-be witches and warlocks.
In 1986, Wicca was recognized as an official religion by the United States Internal Revenue Service. In 1997, Wiccan religious symbols were allowed at national cemeteries and on government issued headstones for fallen soldiers.
Hopefully, witchcraft now is viewed in a reasonable fashion. Today, for many people, practicing witchcraft is an acceptable part of everyday life.
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Next week, TCKP takes a look at witchcraft in other countries. Click the link at the right to subscribe.
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(All sources for this story are included in the show notes for the podcast)