Witches… from blockbuster Hollywood movies to the plethora of books and media that either praise or condemn them. They are predominantly known to practice witchcraft which is the belief and use of magical skills and abilities. You may think you know quite a bit about modern witches but do you actually know the real history of witchcraft?
Let’s tug at the veil of mystery that surrounds witchcraft to show you its origin and various facts surrounding it.
The earliest records of witchcraft
The concept of witchcraft and those who practice it (witches) has persisted throughout recorded history and continues to have an important role in many cultures today. The practice of simple sorcery, a form of witchcraftwhich involves giving offerings to spirits or using charms, can be found in most traditional societies. Evidence of this can be found in cave paintings and prehistoric artwhich depict magical rites and religious rituals.
In fact, one of the oldest forms of religion, Shamanism (contacting spirits through dreams, meditation, and trances) is considered a form of witchcraft. Carole Fontaine, a recognised American biblical scholar, argues in her Ancient Mysteries documentaryon witches, that the idea of witchcraft has been around for as long as humans have tried to deal with diseases and avert disaster.
Alleged practices of early witches
In the earliest accounts of human and witchcraft history, witches were seen as servants of deities and goddesses and therefore were revered in their communities. The witchcraft label was applied to those who people believed could influence the mind, body, or property of others. Their practices usually include:
- performing magic
- concocting potions and ointments
- necromancy (conjuring the dead)
- demonology (control of spirits and demons).
Back then, the word “witch” was not exclusively negative and was used to describe a healer or a wise person. However, this all changed in the fifteenth century with the widespread popularity of Christianity and Islam. Witchcraft was then associated with heresy and apostasy and viewed as evil.
Condemnation of witchcraft
Scholars believe that the condemnation of witchcraft began long before the birth of Christ. Even as far back as 1300 years before the common era, when the Hebrews settled in Canaan. The Hebrews believed in the laws of the Bible. And considered witchcraft to be dangerous and prohibited it as a pagan practice. This was further heightened when the Indo-Europeans expanded westward. With them came a warrior culture and male gods that valued aggression, which overshadowed the once-revered female deities.
In the 1300s, when the bubonic plague decimated half of Europe, it also caused a lot of hysteria. Many attributed the plague to the Devil and his supposed worshippers. At this point, the Catholic Church’s Inquisition was already in full swing. And intensified its efforts to seek out and punish the causes of the mass deaths which included the Devil-worshipping witches.
During this period, hundreds of thousands of people were accused and executed for being witches. Others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and suspects had their possessions and lands confiscated.
Hammer of the witches
This dramatic rise in terror of witchcraft led to an actual witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks. The Malleus Maleficarum, which is Latin for Hammer of the Witches, outlined how one could identify who was a witch and how to punish one. As well as how to put a witch on trial and why a woman is more likely to be a witch than a man.
The book grew in popularity and eventually became the handbook for trying witches in secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe. However, it was not used by the official Inquisition and was later condemned by the Catholic Church in 1490.
Modern witchcraft practices have grown since the early twentieth century. Now they can involve anything from magic, shamanism and folk medicine, to spiritual healing and calling upon spirits. Plus they veneration of ancient gods and deities. Several neo-pagan witchcraft groups have appeared claiming to be offshoots of traditional witchcraft.
It’s fair to say that witches have had bad press. And whilst there are always unethical and dangerous ones in any subset of people, witches are nothing to fear. Unless, of course, you fuck them over but they are here to help humanity.