Witchcraft is an ancient practice which involes using magic to enhance and/or change occurences in the natural world.
Witchcraft has been viewed as an evil practice for many centuries by non-practitioners. Because of this, witch hunts emerged in many countries, hanging and burning people who were accused of witchery, thinking the accused had access to magic that could harm or otherwise kill people and conversed with the devil and had demonic orgies which were known as sabbaths at the time (not to be confused with Wiccan sabbats which are completely different). Before such beliefs, witches were seen as women who served a goddess and used benign earth energies to heal the sick and make the women in the villages more fertile if they were having trouble with conception. These women were seen as great healers and respected greatly in their towns. For further information, see White witches below.
Witchcraft is involved with many Neopagan traditons, especially Wicca, wherein the users access benign magic to help others and themselves in positive ways.
The word "witchcraft" comes from the Old English word wiċċecræft--compound of "wiċċe" meaning "witch" and "cræft" meaning "craft".
In anthropoligical terminology, a "witch" differs from a sorcerer in that they do not use physical tools or actions to curse; their maleficium is perceived as extending from some intangible inner quality, and the person may be unaware that they are a "witch", or may have been convinced of their own evil nature by the suggestion of others. This definition was pioneered in a study of central African magical beliefs by E. E Evans-Pritchard who cautioned that it might not correspond with normal English usage.
Historians of European witchcraft have found the anthropological definition difficult to apply to European and British witchcraft, where "witches" could equally use (or be accused of using) physical techniques, as well as some who really had attempted to cause harm by thought alone.
As in anthropology, European witchcraft is seen by historians as an ideology for explaining misfortune; however, this ideology manifested in diverse ways. Reasons for accusations of witchcraft fall into four general categories:
- A person was caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery
- A well-meaning sorcerer or healer lost their clients' or the authorities' trust
- A person did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbours
- A person was reputed to be a witch and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs or Occultism
Eva Pocos in turn identifies three varieties of witch in popular belief:
- The "neighbourhood witch" or "social witch": a witch who curses a neighbour following some conflict.
- The "magical" or "sorcerer" witch: either a professional healer, sorcerer, seer or midwife, or a person who has through magic increased her fortune to the perceived detriment of a neighbouring household; due to neighbourly or community rivalries and the ambiguity between positive and negative magic, such individuals can become labelled as witches.
- The "supernatural" or "night" witch: portrayed in court narratives as a demon appearing in visions and dreams
"Neighbourhood witches" are the product of neighbourhood tensions, and are found only in self-sufficient serf village communities where the inhabitants largely rely on each other. Such accusations follow the breaking of some social norm, such as the failure to return a borrowed item, and any person part of the normal social exchange could potentially fall under suspicion. Claims of "sorcerer" witches and "supernatural" witches could arise out of social tensions, but not exclusively; the supernatural witch in particular often had nothing to do with communal conflict, but expressed tensions between the human and supernatural worlds; and in Eastern and Southeastern Europe such supernatural witches became an ideology explaining calamities that befell entire communities.
In Christianity and Islam, sorcery came to be associated with heresy and apostosy and to be viewed as evil. Among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of the European Late Medieval/Early Modern period, fears about witchcraft rose to fever pitch, and sometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. Throughout this time, it was increasingly believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil and his secret army of witches, who had entered into a diabolical pact. In total, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had lands and possessions confiscated. The majority of those accused were women, though in some regions the majority were men. Accusations of witchcraft were often combined with other charges of heresy against such groups as the Cathars and Waldensians.
The Malleus Malefacarum', an infamous witch-hunting manual used by both Catholics and Protestants, outlines how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely than a man to be a witch, how to put a witch on trial, and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. This book was not given the official Imprimatur of the Catholic Church, which would have made it approved by church authorities.
In the modern Western world, witchcraft accusations have often accompanied the satanic ritual abuse moral panic. Such accusations are a counterpart to blood libel of various kinds, which may be found throughout history across the globe.
Throughout the early modern period, the English term "witch" was not exclusively negative in meaning, and could also indicate cunning folk. "There were a number of interchangeable terms for these practitioners, 'white', 'good', or 'unbinding' witches, blessers, wizards, sorcerers, however 'cunning-man' and 'wise-man' were the most frequent." The contemporary Reginald Scott noted, "At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch' or 'she is a wise woman'". Folk magicians throughout Europe were often viewed ambivalently by communities, and were considered as capable of harming as of healing, which could lead to their being accused as "witches" in the negative sense. Many English "witches" convicted of consorting with demons seem to have been cunning folk whose fairy familiars had been demonised; many French devins-guerisseurs ("diviner-healers") were accused of witchcraft, and over one half the accused witches in Hungary seem to have been healers.
Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds, roughly equivalent to shamans. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an "other-world". Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were explicitly described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, often presided over by a horned male deity or a female divinity who teaches magic and gives prophecies; and participation in battles against evil spirits, "vampires", or "witches" to win fertility and prosperity for the community.
Historically the witchcraft label has been applied to practices people believe influence the mind, body, or property of others against their will—or practices that the person doing the labeling believes undermine social or religious order. Some modern commentators believe the malefic nature of witchcraft is a Christian projection. The concept of a magic-worker influencing another person's body or property against their will was clearly present in many cultures, as traditions in both folk magic and religious magic have the purpose of countering malicious magic or identifying malicious magic users. Many examples appear in ancient texts, such as those from Egypt and Babylonia. Malicious magic users can become a credible cause for disease, sickness in animals, bad luck, sudden death, impotence and other such misfortunes. Witchcraft of a more benign and socially acceptable sort may then be employed to turn the malevolence aside, or identify the supposed evil-doer so that punishment may be carried out. The folk magic used to identify or protect against malicious magic users is often indistinguishable from that used by the witches themselves.
There has also existed in popular belief the concept of white witches and white witchcraft, which is strictly benevolent. Many neopagan witches strongly identify with this concept, and profess ethical codes that prevent them from performing magic on a person without their request.
Where belief in malicious magic practices exists, such practitioners are typically forbidden by law as well as hated and feared by the general populace, while beneficial magic is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the people – even if the orthodox establishment opposes it.
Main article: Magic (paranormal)
Probably the most obvious characteristic of a witch was the ability to cast a spell, "spell" being the word used to signify the means employed to carry out a magical action. A spell could consist of a set of words, a formula or verse, or a ritual action, or any combination of these. Spells traditionally were cast by many methods, such as by the inscription of runes of signils on an object to give it magical powers; by the immolation or binding of a wax or clay image (poppet) of a person to affect him or her magically; by the recitation of incantations; by the performance of physical rituals; by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions; by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula (scrying) for purposes of divination; and by many other means.
Conjuring the dead
Strictly speaking, "necromancy" is the practice of conjuring the spirits of the dead for divination or prophecy – although the term has also been applied to raising the dead for other purposes. The Biblical Witch of Endor is supposed to have performed it (1 Sam. 28), and it is among the witchcraft practices condemned. Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arise from death.