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This article is part of the Witchcraft series.
  • African witchcraft
  • Asian witchcraft
  • European witchcraft
  • Middle-eastern witchcraft
  • North American witchcraft
  • South American witchcraft

European Christians in the medieval era, some conservative Christians today, Neopagans and many African religions (past and present) believe that witchcraft is a form of genuine magic which can produce effects that are beyond the natural powers of man. However, the ways they characterize it differ widely.

This article will examine witchcraft in its historical and anthropological contexts. For witchcraft in the modern Western world as practised by neopagans see articles on The Craft and Wicca.

In colloquial use, the word witch is now applied almost exclusively to women, though in earlier English it applied to men as well. Most people would now call male witches sorcerers, wizards, or warlocks. However witches and wiccans continue to use the term witch for all who practice witchcraft. Warlock is considered an insult among Wiccans and Neopagans.

The etymological roots could be several: among the candidates are German weihen ("consecrate") as well as the English word "victim" in its original meaning for someone killed in a religious ritual. Thus, a "witch" would signify nothing else but an ancient type of priestess. The Old English words wicca (m.) and its feminine counterpart wicce both mean wizard and gave rise to the adjective "wicked". Wizard, again is thought to be related to the modern term "wise". A cautious interpretation gives us a witch being a person of (presumably occult) knowledge.

The belief in witches has always existed in nearly every region of the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. In Western culture, the concept of a witch has existed since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, as witches figure prominently in many Greek tragedies.


European witchcraft

The shamans of the Germanic peoples were female, and were called Wicces in Anglo-Saxon England and Völvas in Scandinavia. This knowledge comes from Norse sagas and some excavations in Birka suggests their existence. Naturally, the tradition of female shamans did not disappear immediately with the arrival of Christianity. The traditions were maintained, but the church condemned the women who practiced the ancient shamanism (and consequently elements of the old religion) as witches, and demonized them. Ultimately the Church tried to exterminate any women who could be suspected of maintaining the tradition (see witch hunt).

The Church's successful transformation of these socially important women into the modern concept "witch" can be seen in the following law:

"We teach that every priest shall extinguish heathendom, and forbid wilweorthunga (fountain worship), and licwiglunga (incantations of the dead), and hwata (omens), and galdra (magic), and man worship, and the abominations that men exercise in various sorts of witchcraft, and in frithspottum (peace-enclosures) with elms and other trees, and with stones, and with many phantoms." (source: 16th Canon Law enacted under King Edgar in the 10th century)

The Shamans of the Germanic peoples, the so-called Wicces (Witches) or Völvas practiced the seid. They served as healers, diviners and spiritual advisors before the arrival of Christianity. As competitors to the Roman Catholic Church they were demonized and persecuted in witch hunts. Thus, little is really known about the survival of the practice of 'witchcraft' in Europe before modern times. In written records, people deemed 'witches' (not necessarily practitioners) were primarily women who practiced forms of herbal medicine, but became unpopular in their community for one reason or another and were singled out for the attentions of the Inquisition and persecuted. Charges of heresy or witchcraft were sometimes brought against people for political reasons. The accusation of 'practicing witchcraft' was usually allied with others, especially 'having sexual intercourse with the devil'.

While it is common to classify witches into one of three categories (white witch, black witch and hedgewitch), this is not a very accurate grouping as the concepts of good and evil are foreign to witches. A witch is neither good, nor evil, neither black nor white because all acts in themselves are relative and cannot therefore be classified one way or the other.


Witches have often been imagined to have the power to fly on broomsticks or distaffs. This mural of a naked pagan sexuality/fertility goddess on a distaff suggests that the connection may have originally been a sexual one (sticks and staffs have long been common Censored page devices, Censored page is achieved by rubbing them between the legs against the Censored page). From A history of pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick
Witches have often been imagined to have the power to fly on broomsticks or distaffs. This mural of a naked pagan sexuality/fertility goddess on a distaff suggests that the connection may have originally been a sexual one (sticks and staffs have long been common Censored page devices, Censored page is achieved by rubbing them between the legs against the Censored page). From A history of pagan Europe by Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick

Witches are usually reputed to fly on broomsticks or distaffs. There is a legend in Scandinavia about the sorceress Maran who causes pain by riding at night on people or horses; she flies to her victim by broomstick. Some believe that supposed visitations of Maran were actually a heart disease, causing the victim to awake in a panic.

Before the advent of Christianity, wicces served as spiritual advisors and healers (see Völva or shaman). This changed with the arrival of Christianity and the priests who regarded them as competitors. From the Middle ages and onwards to about the mid-19th century, witches were universally associated with evil, under the belief that the witch's magical powers were granted by Satan in exchange for the witch's soul. A few folk tales, however, refer to kindly witches. Many outrageous claims were made about the powers of witches, which include the ability to fly, to transform oneself or others into animals or other shapes, and to curse one's enemies. On the other hand, all these powers typically belong to those of the shaman, so these powers were associated with witches long before the arrival of Christianity.

It was extremely dangerous to be accused of being a "witch", since a common punishment was to be burnt at the stake. Both in North America and in Europe, thousands of people (mostly women), were put to death as witches at various points in history. Some of the worst witchhunts were in Germany, though there are documented cases of torture and murder in the name of stopping witchcraft in nearly every European country.

Before the Enlightenment era, it was held by some that the realm of Satan was in Northernmost Europe and that the entrance to Hell itself lay somewhere in Finnmark (Laponia) and that because of the close connection to Satan, it was a place where witches thrived. The indigenous people of the north, the Sami, had a reputation all over Europe of being masters of witchcraft and sorcery. Shamans, i.e. peoples with central roles in ceremonies such as noajddes, gonagas and guopas , were believed to have a major connection to witchcraft. They could control dreadful cold weather and wind in Europe through so-called "Sami magic." The work Acta Lapponica (1673) tried to counter this supernatural picture, but the book was instead adapted and abridged with more stories on witchcraft and sorcery, and it was held by some (such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)) as late as the late 19th century that the North was the centre of horror.

Most people who were killed as witches were probably hapless midwives, herbalists, widows, spinsters, social outcasts, or victims of revenge seekers. For example, some researchers wholly attribute the Salem witch trials in 1692 to rivalries between opposing political forces in Salem, Massachusetts. See the extensive discussion under witchhunts.

Witches in modern culture

Today, few people believe in witches that curse enemies, change shapes, or can fly. However, since the emergence of the witchcraft-inspired religion of Wicca in the 1940s a growing number of people have called themselves witches and while most of western culture continues to assign negative connotations to the word, to a Wiccan, it is not a derogatory term, nor do they associate it with Satanism. In fact, many Wiccans wish to reclaim the term "witch" and assign positive meanings to it. The term "white witch" was sometimes used to refer to an exclusively positive meaning of the word. This term is rarely used now, however, not because it might be thought to have racial overtones, but because it implies that there are also "black witches", i.e., people who practice malevolent witchcraft.

In 1968, a group of radical politically active women formed a protest organization in the City of New York called W.I.T.C.H., standing for "Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell". This was a short lived group that did not have any noticeable impact on the modern development of witchcraft, but is often cited because of its colourful acronym.

Witches are iconically associated with Halloween, although Wiccans generally prefer to celebrate Samhain. Both dates are the same, and are at least metaphorically similar in meaning. This is not coincidence. Christianity had a basic contempt for the supernatural overtones of the festival. The association between "witches" and Halloween most certainly came from vilification of practitioners of the Celtic celebration of the last harvest.

Witches also appear as villains in many 19th- and 20th-century fairy tales, folk tales and children's stories, such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Hansel and Gretel", "Sleeping Beauty", and many other stories recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Such folktales typically portray witches as either remarkably ugly hags or remarkably beautiful young women. In the classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum the villain is a bad witch but two good witches play important roles as well.

Witches have come into the mainstream in the last decade as well as common pop-culture figures. Teenage and young adult witches have been the focus or appeared in the movies "The Craft," "Practical Magic," and "Blair Witch Project 2 " (the sequel to The Blair Witch Project), as well as the television programs "Bewitched," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Charmed," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and some episodes of "The X-Files." Such neo-Gothic portrayals bear little relationship to Wicca, or even a Christian view of witches. In almost all cases witches portrayed in movies and TV shows today are attractive women who have supernatural powers. In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books a witch is a female wizard.

Recent research does not, however, support the media's portrayal of witchcraft and Wicca. In Witchcraft out of the Shadows (2004), Leo Ruickbie presents findings that demonstrate that Wicca and other forms of modern Witchcraft religion are not exclusively female nor teenage.

Middle-eastern witchcraft

Ancient middle-eastern and near-eastern beliefs

The belief in witchcraft and its practice seem to have been widespread in the past. Both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part, as existing records plainly show. It will be sufficient to quote a short section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 B.C.). It is there prescribed,

If a man has laid a charge of witchcraft and has not justified it, he upon whom the witchcraft is laid shall go to the holy river; he shall plunge into the holy river and if the holy river overcome him, he who accused him shall take to himself his house.

Witchcraft in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament)

In the Bible references to witchcraft are frequent, and the strong condemnations of such practices which we read there do not seem to be based so much upon the supposition of fraud as upon the "abomination" of the magic in itself. (See Deuteronomy 18:11-12; Exodus 22:18, "wizards thou shalt not suffer to live" - A.V. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".) The whole narrative of Saul's visit to the witch of En Dor (I Kings 28) implies the reality of the witch's evocation of the shade of Samuel; and from Leviticus 20:27: "A man or woman in whom there is a pythonical or divining spirit, dying let them die: they shall stone them: Their blood be upon them", we should naturally infer that the divining spirit was not a mere imposture.

Witchcraft in the New Testament

The prohibitions of sorcery in the New Testament leave the same impression (Galatians 5:20, compared with Revelations 21:8; 22:15; and Acts 8:9; 13:6). Supposing that the belief in witchcraft were an idle superstition, it would be strange that the suggestion should nowhere be made that the evil of these practices only lay in the pretending to the possession of powers which did not really exist.

There are some debate, however, as to whether the word used in Galatians and Revelations, Pharmakeia, is properly translated as "sorcery," as the word was commonly used to describe malicious use of drugs as in poisons, contraceptives, and abortifacients.

Jewish views of witchcraft

Almost all modern day Jews view the practice of witchcraft as idolatry, a serious theological offense in Judaism. Jews believe that the practices associated with witchcraft and magic are in vain, as such magic and supernatural forces don't actually exist. The only supernatural belief Jews still maintain is the belief in God. It should be noted that a small number of Orthodox Jews who study Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric mysticism) do believe in magic; their practices use terminology that varies greatly from witchcraft, but the basic ideas (using supernatural forces to effect results in the physical world) are identical. Most Jews find such ideas ludicrous; since The Enlightenment most Jewish people have abandoned a belief in the Kabbalah.

Some Neopagans study and practice forms of magery based in sincrecy between classical Jewish mysticism and the modern witchcraft uses. A reference on this subject is Ellen Cannon Reed's book "The Witches Qabala: The Pagan Path and the Tree of Life".

See also: Christian views on witchcraft

African witchcraft

Africans have a wider range of views, some believing the same things that Christians do, while others believing that witchcraft may be value-neutral, or perhaps even used for good. The African practice led to the term witch doctor. The African practice led to several related religious in the Americas. See Voudun, Obeah, Candomble, Santería.

Last updated: 05-02-2005 19:45:06