A Short History of Witchcraft

Witchcraft has been part of the folklore of many societies for centuries. Witchcraft has also come to refer to a set of beliefs and practices of a religion. Its followers call it Wicca, the Craft, the Wisecraft, or the Old Religion. Many people, particularly conservative Christians, do not consider Witchcraft a religion as they understand the term.

Belief in witchcraft exists around the world and varies from culture to culture. Historically, people have associated witchcraft with evil and usually have regarded a witch as someone who uses magic to harm others, by causing accidents, illnesses, bad luck, and even death. Some societies believe that witches also use magic for good, performing such actions as casting spells for love, health, and wealth. People around the world continue to practice witchcraft for good or harm.
Unlike those who practice witchcraft for harm, the followers of Wicca believe in practicing magic only for beneficial purposes. They worship a deity with male and female aspects, but some traditions emphasize the female, or Goddess, side of the deity.

The term witch comes from the Old English word wicca, which is derived from the Germanic root wic, meaning to bend or to turn. By using magic, a witch can change or bend events. Today, the word witch can be applied to a man or a woman. In the past, male witches were also called warlocks and wizards.

Witches also are said to be able to fly. They may fly under their own power, ride tools such as brooms or rakes, or ride magical animals. This is not true, while there are spells and rituals involving brooms, we do not fly on them.

Some witches have great knowledge of how to make herbal potions and charms. A potion is a drink that causes a desired effect in a person's health or behavior. A charm is a magical incantation (word or phrase), or amulet that helps to bring about the desired effect.
The practice of Wicca--Witchcraft as a religion flourishes primarily in English-speaking countries. Wicca has no central authority. Its followers, some call themselves Witches, are loosely organized in groups called covens. Some covens are made up of only women or only men, and other covens are mixed. Many Witches do not join a coven but practice alone as solitaries.

The practice of Wicca is controversial, primarily because many Christians find the idea of a religion based on witchcraft objectionable. Some Christians associate any form of witchcraft with the worship of Satan. This, however, would be difficult, as Wicca does not acknowledge the existence of a "Satan". Satan and the Devil are Judeo-Christian inventions. Others fear that Wicca might be tied to modern cults. This is not true. Wicca is a religion, legally recognized as such.
The U.S. Army, with the publication of the Army pamphlet 165-13, A Handbook for Chaplin's, recognizes Witchcraft as a religion.

Wicca includes pagan, folk, and magical rites. Its primary sources are Babylonian, Celtic, Egyptian, ancient Greek, Roman, and Sumerian mythologies and rites, but also borrows from other religions and mythologies, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and the rites of American Indians. Essentially, Wicca is a religion that celebrates the natural world and the seasonal cycles. It acknowledges the Goddess as the feminine side of a deity called God. Witches worship both Goddess and God in various personifications, including ancient gods and goddesses.

Rites are tied to the cycles of the moon, which is the symbol of the power of the Goddess, and to the seasons of the year. Religious holidays are called sabbats. There are four major sabbats: Imbolc (February 1), Beltane (April 30), Lugnasadh or Lammas (July 31), and Samhain (October 31).

Most Witches practice in secrecy. Some do so because they believe that is the tradition. Others do so because they wish to avoid persecution. Because of secrecy, it is difficult to estimate how many people practice Witchcraft as a religion.

Modern Witches practice magic, both for spell casting and as a path of spiritual growth. Magic for spiritual growth is called high magic and is aimed at connecting a person to God or Goddess on a soul level. They follow the Wiccan Rede, which is similar to the Golden Rule, "An' it harm none, do what ye will." Witches also believe in the Threefold Law of Karma, which holds that magic returns to the sender magnified three times. Thus, Witches say, evil magic only hurts the sender.

Witchcraft has existed since humans first banded together in groups. Prehistoric art depicts magical rites to ensure successful hunting. Western beliefs about witchcraft grew out of the mythologies and folklore of ancient peoples, especially the Greeks and Romans. Roman law made distinctions between good magic and harmful magic, and harmful magic was punishable by law.
When Christianity began to spread, the distinctions vanished. Witchcraft came to be linked with worship of the Devil.

In Europe, beginning in about the 700's CE, witchcraft was increasingly associated with heresy (rejection of church teachings). The Christian church began a long campaign to stamp out heresy. Beginning in the 1000's CE, religious leaders sentenced heretics to death by burning.
The Inquisition, which began about 1230 CE, was an effort by the church to seek out and punish heretics and force them to change their beliefs. Eventually, the secular (non religious) courts as well as all Christian churches were involved in the persecution of witches. Especially after the 1500's, most people accused of witchcraft came to trial in secular courts. They were charged with human sacrifice and with worshiping the Devil in horrible rites. Most historians doubt that worship of the Devil was ever widespread, if indeed it even took place. But stories about it created a mood of fear and anxiety.

The witch hunt reached its peak in Europe during the late 1500's and early 1600's. Many victims, who were mostly women, were falsely accused of witchcraft. Many accused witches were tortured until they confessed. Then they faced imprisonment, banishment, or execution.
In the American Colonies, a small number of accused witches were persecuted in New England from the mid-1600's to the early 1700's. Some were banished and others were executed.

The most famous American witch hunt began in 1692 in Salem, Mass. There, a group of village girls became fascinated with the occult, but their games got out of hand. They began to act strangely, uttering weird sounds and screaming. Suspicions that witches were responsible for the girls' behavior led to the arrest of three women. More arrests followed, and mass trials were held.
About 150 people were imprisoned on witchcraft charges. Nineteen men and women were convicted and hanged as witches. A man who refused to plead either innocent or guilty to the witchcraft charge was pressed to death with large stones. Today, historians agree that all the victims were falsely accused. The girls pretended to be possessed. Their reasons are unclear, though they may have been seeking attention.

There are also several factors that could have contributed to the general mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Hunts.  One interesting factor could have been ergot in rye. 
The Puritans made bread with rye, and ergot may have been the culprit in causing lots of the strange behavior exhibited by the witnesses and the accusers. Ergot is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system. Its victims can appear bewitched when they're actually stoned.

Another factor that may have contributed to the witch hunts was general distrust and suspicion.  In the time leading up to the witch hunts, Salem was splitting into two distinct areas.  Salem Village, which was composed of the farmers and original setters, and Salem Town, made up of newcomers, merchants, and people who were more prosperous.  These two groups did not like each other in general.  The merchants were capitalistic, and this was no approved of by the other Puritans who wanted to create a society of purity and Christian rule. 
The witchcraft scare lasted about a year. In 1693, the people still in jail on witchcraft charges were freed. (In 1711, the Massachusetts colonial legislature made payments to the families of the witch hunt victims.)

By the late 17th century, the witchcraft was well underground, as it was illegal to be a Witch, as well as against the Cannons of the church. It wasn't until 1951 that the last of these laws was repealed, and modern witchcraft surfaced with Gerald Gardener, that all of Witchcraft was able to resurface, in it's many forms.

Now there are many Covens out in the open and many many more still in hiding and who practice solitary, fearing a resurgence of the persecutions. In the 1960's Raymond Buckland, Sybil Leek, Gavin, Yvonne Frost followed in Gardner's footsteps, then more and more Covens came out into the open.

Witchcraft has come a long way, yet, sadly, even though there are laws today which protect an individual's right to practice a personal religion such as witchcraft, there are those who still feel threatened by imaginary untruths about it.

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