Witchcraft is the use of MAGIC or sorcery by persons or groups outside the mainstream of society. But the term “witchcraft,” like “witch,” has been used in different ways in different times and places. Witchcraft has often been regarded with suspicion by the social mainstream. But in modern times, it has also referred to a religious movement. Here the topic will be discussed in three parts: witchcraft in primal and ancient religion, alleged witchcraft and the witch persecutions in medieval and early modern Europe, and witchcraft today.
In early, ancient and peasant societies everywhere, there is much use of simple magic and sorcery, such as charms and humble offerings to produce rain or fertility, assure successful childbirth, or ward off enemies. Such practices are like the well-known burning of candles of different auspicious colors by some people today, or the use of “love potions.” Performed independently of the ofﬁ cial religion by ordinary people or by local specialists like a village “wise woman,” these practices are sometimes called witchcraft. In primal societies, disasters also are often blamed on the work of malevolent witches, known or unknown, and their EVIL spells can be countered by other specialists, sometimes called witch doctors.
In Europe, with the rise of CHRISTIANITY, such practices continued, but at a fairly low level. Often they were regarded tolerantly by the Christian church. But around the 15th century, in an atmosphere of anxiety engendered by the rise of modernity, and, in the 16th century, by the REFORMATION, a wave of hysteria about witchcraft swept over Europe, lasting till about 1700. In both Catholic and Protestant countries, persons—almost all women—were accused of witchcraft, unjustly tried, and killed, most commonly by burning. Children were encouraged to inform against parents, husbands against wives, relatives and neighbors against one another. Witnesses were paid to testify, and professional witchﬁ nders received fees for each suspect they brought in. Then the alleged witches’ confessions were obtained through horrible tortures. Witches were accused of making pacts with the devil, ﬂying through the air on broomsticks, gathering in diabolic covens, having animal “familiars,” and the like. Almost all of this, though it lives on in the popular imagination about witches, was undoubtedly a ﬁ gment of the witchﬁ nders’ imaginations. The whole dreadful witchhunting mania, which may have numbered a million or more victims, was certainly the result of serious social sickness and mass delirium. One of the last major outbreaks was the famous witchtrials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Nineteen persons were executed after a group of young girls became hysterical while playing at magic, and the suggestion was made that they had been bewitched.
Turning to modern witchcraft, we may note that belief in traditional witchcraft in the sense of ancient magic remains alive in many parts of the world, including India, Africa, and Latin America. Occasionally there are sill accusations of evil witchcraft, associated with Satanism or devil WORSHIP, even in the United States.
At the same time, a revival of Paganism has grown remarkably as a new religious movement in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere in the last half of the 20th century.
One important wing of this movement is called Witchcraft or, in a term many of its adherents prefer, “Wicca.” It is a benign movement having nothing to do with Satanism or anything evil. It is centered on belief in the spiritual importance of nature, the equality of men and women, and the power of magic (often interpreted as good thoughts). It has colorful RITUALS for the seasons and for getting in touch with nature’s gods and GODDESSES. being closely aligned with the ecological and feminist movements, Wicca has found a place in the spiritual world of the early 21st century, and many of its adherents identify with the persecuted witches of three or four centuries ago.