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Witchcraft is commonly defined as the use of supposed magical powers to influence people and events. In this sense, it is known as sorcery and has been part of the folklore of many societies for centuries. Since the mid-1900's, Witchcraft has also come to refer to a set of beliefs and practices that some people consider a religion. Its followers sometimes call it Wicca, the Craft, the Wisecraft, or the Old Religion. However, many people, particularly conservative Christians, do not consider Witchcraft a religion as they understand the term.

Belief in witchcraft as sorcery 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. However, 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 as sorcery, claiming to use magic for good or harm.

Unlike those who practice witchcraft as sorcery, the followers of Wicca believe in practicing magic only for beneficial purposes, not to harm. They worship a deity with male and female aspects, but they 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 is believed to 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.

Witchcraft as sorcery

In folklore around the world, witches are believed to be masters of the supernatural world. They supposedly conjure and command spirits. They may have special helping spirits called familiars, who take the form of animals, particularly cats, snakes, owls, and dogs. In some tribal societies, a type of spell called sending involves the witch's familiar. In this type of spell, the witch instructs the familiar to carry out such commands as delivering a hex to a victim.

Some cultures believe witches have the power to shape-shift into animals. This power to change their shape enables them to travel about secretly. 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.

Witches supposedly can control the weather. They are sometimes blamed for storms that damage dwellings or crops.

According to folklore, witches have great knowledge of how to make magical potions and charms. A potion is a drink that causes a desired effect in a person's behavior. A charm is a magical incantation (word or phrase) that helps to bring about a spell.

Witches also are believed to be able to see into the future. Some people believe that witches possess the evil eye--that is, the ability to kill by looking.

In many places around the world, witchcraft beliefs and practices have existed for centuries with little change. In many societies, it is believed that witches inherit their magical powers. Others believe that witches may be trained by local witches.

Witchcraft as a religion

The practice of Wicca--Witchcraft as a religion--developed in Britain in the mid-1900's. It flourishes primarily in English-speaking countries. The person most credited with the emergence of Wicca is Gerald B. Gardner, a British civil servant. Gardner had a lifelong interest in the occult (beliefs and practices involving magic or forces outside the natural world).

Organization and practices. Wicca has no central authority. Its followers, known as 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 evil powers. Others fear that Wicca might be tied to modern cults based on illegal drug use. Followers of Wicca deny any such connections.

Wicca is a re-creation of pagan, folk, and magical rites. Its primary sources are Babylonian, Celtic, Egyptian, ancient Greek, Roman, and Sumerian mythologies and rites. Wicca also borrows from other religions and mythologies, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and the rites of American Indians.

Essentially, Wicca is a fertility religion that celebrates the natural world and the seasonal cycles that are central to farming societies. 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.

Role of magic. 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.

Religious Witches say they perform magic for good and not for harm. 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.


Ancient times. Witchcraft as sorcery has existed since humans first banded together in groups. Prehistoric art depicts magical rites to ensure successful hunting. Western beliefs about witchcraft as sorcery 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.

Middle Ages to the 1700's. In Europe, beginning in about the A.D. 700's, 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, religious leaders sentenced heretics to death by burning.

The Inquisition, which began about 1230, was an effort by the church to seek out and punish heretics and force them to change their beliefs. Eventually, the secular (nonreligious) 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.

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.

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.

Today, most historians agree that all the victims were falsely accused. The girls probably pretended to be possessed. Their reasons are unclear, though they may have been seeking attention.

Witchcraft in modern times. In 1939, Gerald B. Gardner became initiated into a coven of people who called themselves hereditary witches. They said they were practicing the Old Religion as it had been passed down to them through their families for many generations. They believed Witchcraft had been a religion since ancient times.

Gardner's coven was probably influenced by the writings of British anthropologist Margaret A. Murray. Writing in the 1920's, Murray had put forth the theory that witchcraft was an organized pagan religion that had originated as a pre-Christian fertility cult.

In the 1950's, Gardner published books about the ancient religious rituals of Witchcraft. He feared that Witchcraft was in danger of dying out, and he wanted to publicize it. He gathered information from his coven, but he also added material from such sources as European folklore, Eastern magic, and the writings of his friend Aleister Crowley. Crowley, a British writer, was known for his interest in spiritualism and the occult and for his writings on ceremonial magic. Gardner later collaborated with Doreen Valiente, whom he had initiated as a witch in 1953, in writing and revising the rituals. Valiente added an emphasis on the Goddess that was missing in Gardner's work.

Gardner's books Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) became the basis for the modern religion of Witchcraft. The religion grew in popularity during the 1960's, in part because of its antiestablishment and feminist characteristics. It spread from Britain to the rest of Europe and to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Asia.

As the religion was developing, however, Margaret Murray's theory came under criticism. Historians found no evidence of an ancient religion of witches. It became clear that Gardner had borrowed from other sources and had made exaggerated claims about a historical religion. Nevertheless, Witchcraft continued to grow as a religion. Its followers placed a greater emphasis on developing a Goddess-worshiping religion out of the beliefs of pre-Christian and non-Christian religions.

Contributor: Rosemary Ellen Guiley, B.A., Author, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft.

Additional resources

Guiley, Rosemary E. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. Facts on File, 1989.

Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. 1980. Reprint. Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Stein, Wendy. Witches. Greenhaven, 1995.

FEBRUARY, 27, 2003



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