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.
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
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.
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.
different phenomena, and perceptions of witchcraft drawn from
one arena cannot be applied indiscriminately to another.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
sages or "wise women" were experts in popular witchcraft or sorcery,
which often represented remnants of pre-Christian religion.
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.
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.
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.
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
medieval and early modern picture of diabolical witchcraft can
be attributed to several causes.
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.
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.
Reformation, the rise of science, and the emerging modern world-all
challenges to traditional religion-created deep anxieties in the
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 antifeminine 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
In the second
half of the 20th century, a self-conscious revival of pre-Christian
paganism occurred in the United States and Europe.
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
By: Robert S. Ellwood, B.A., M.Div., Ph.D. Professor of Religion,
University of Southern California. Author of Alternative Altars:
Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America and other books.
Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001 http://encarta.msn.com
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