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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.