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Encyclopedia > Witches
This article is in multiple, independent sections. The duplicate sections should be merged. Please see the talk page.
This article is part of the Witchcraft series.
  • African witchcraft
  • Asian witchcraft
  • European witchcraft
  • Middle-eastern witchcraft
  • North American witchcraft
  • South American witchcraft

European Christians in the medieval era, some conservative Christians today, Neopagans and many African religions (past and present) believe that witchcraft is a form of genuine magic which can produce effects that are beyond the natural powers of man. However, the ways they characterize it differ widely.

This article will examine witchcraft in its historical and anthropological contexts. For witchcraft in the modern Western world as practised by neopagans see articles on The Craft and Wicca.

In colloquial use, the word witch is now applied almost exclusively to women, though in earlier English it applied to men as well. Most people would now call male witches sorcerers, wizards, or warlocks. However witches and wiccans continue to use the term witch for all who practice witchcraft. Warlock is considered an insult among Wiccans and Neopagans.

The etymological roots could be several: among the candidates are German weihen ("consecrate") as well as the English word "victim" in its original meaning for someone killed in a religious ritual. Thus, a "witch" would signify nothing else but an ancient type of priestess. The Old English words wicca (m.) and its feminine counterpart wicce both mean wizard and gave rise to the adjective "wicked". Wizard, again is thought to be related to the modern term "wise". A cautious interpretation gives us a witch being a person of (presumably occult) knowledge.

The belief in witches has always existed in nearly every region of the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. In Western culture, the concept of a witch has existed since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, as witches figure prominently in many Greek tragedies.


Witchcraft and the paranormal

It is not easy to draw a clear distinction between magic and witchcraft. Both are concerned with the producing of effects beyond the natural powers of man by agencies other than the Divine (occultism). But in witchcraft, as commonly understood, there is involved the idea of a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. In such cases this supernatural aid is usually invoked either to compass the death of some obnoxious person, or to awaken the passion of love in those who are the objects of desire, or to call up the dead, or to bring calamity or impotence upon enemies, rivals, and fancied oppressors. This is not an exhaustive enumeration, but these represent some of the principal purposes that witchcraft has been made to serve at nearly all periods of the world's history.

In the traditional European belief, not only of the dark ages, but of post-Reformation times, the witches or wizards addicted to such practices entered into a compact with Satan, adjured Jesus and the sacraments, observed "the witches' sabbath" - performing infernal rites which often took the shape of a parody of the Mass or the offices of the Church - paid Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness, and in return received from him preternatural powers, such as those of riding through the air on a broomstick, assuming different shapes at will, and tormenting their chosen victims, while an imp or "familiar spirit" was placed at their disposal, able and willing to perform any service that might be needed to further their nefarious purposes.

Another belief is that those who practice witchcraft are being vague and deceptive. This view holds that while those who practice witchcraft may have the intention of helping people, in the end they are working against the will of God. Both "good" and "bad" witchcraft are condemned. In addition, one who practices witchcraft need not necessarily contact any supernatural beings. They may simply be using moods, lighting, and manipulating the situation to give the appearance of contact with the dead. They may even use ventriloquism to make it seem as if a being has entered a room. An example cited is the biblical story of the witch of En Dor (I Samuel 28) who, when she was successful in bringing up Samuel from the dead, screamed out in surprise and fear. Some use this passage to imply that the witch did not really expect a being to appear and was shocked and afraid when a being did appear. The conclusion is that in the past she had simply faked the appearances.

Modern science has found no evidence to support the claims witchcraft makes about the world or its own efficacy. Witchcraft as practiced by some Neopagans is, however, very similar to and supported by the findings of psychology. This is, however, a minority practice and not what is usually meant by the term Witchcraft.

Additional Reading

Listed by date of publication:

  • Nathaniel J. Harris, Witcha: A Book of Cunning. Mandrake of Oxford, 2004.
  • Leo Ruickbie, Witchcraft Out of the Shadows: A Complete History. Robert Hale, 2004.
  • Ray Abrahams, Witchcraft in contemporary Tanzania. Cambridge, 1994.
  • Gerina Dunwich, Wicca Craft. Citadel Press, 1991.
  • Bengt Ankarloo/Gustav Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft. Centres and Peripheries. Oxford, 1990.
  • Wolfgang Behringer, Hexen und Hexenprozesse in Deutschland. Munich, 1988.
  • Rae Beth, Hedgewitch: A Guide to Solitary Witchcraft. Robert Hale, 1990.
  • Gustav Henningsen/John Tedeschi, The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe. Studies on Sources and Methods. Dekalb, 1986.
  • Alan C. Kors/Edward Peters, Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700. A Documentary History. Philadelphia, 1972.
  • Joseph Hansen, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im Mittelalter. Bonn, 1901.

See also

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Medieval Sourcebook: Witchcraft Documents [15th Century] (0 words)
Others hold, as to this point, that for a time the promise made to the witch sentenced to imprisonment is to be kept, but that after a time she should be burned.
A third view is, that the judge may safely promise witches to spare their lives, if only he will later excuse himself from pronouncing the sentence and will let another do this in his place....
But if, neither by threats nor by promises such as these, the witch can be induced to speak the truth, then thejailers must carry out the sentence, and torture the prisoner according to the accepted methods, with more or less of severity as the delinquent's crime may demand.
  More results at FactBites »



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