A Short History of Witchcraft  

March 30th, 2015


In order to discuss the history of witchcraft one must understand what witchcraft is. Paganism and Wicca have often been used interchangeably with the word witchcraft but this is an incorrect use of the word. The online dictionary at Dictionary.com[1] states the definition of Witchcraft as listed below:

Witch-craft – noun

  1. the art or practices of a witch; sorcery; magic
  2. magical influence; witchery

The American Heritage Dictionary[2]y defines like this:

Witch-craft – noun

  1. magic; sorcery
  2. Wicca
  3. A magical or irresistible influence, attraction, or charm

The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary Online[3] states:


Date: before 12th century

  1. a: the use of sorcery or magic,

b: communication with the devil or with a familiar

  1. an irresistible influence or fascination
  2. WICCA

I would like to first point out some discrepancies between what Wiccans practice and these definitions.

  • Sorcery is viewed as a negative and evil use of magic and thus for Wiccans would be in direct conflict with our belief that we should harm none.
  • Communication with the devil is rather a moot point since the devil is a creation of the Christian church and is not a belief that is held by Wiccans.  Though there may be some people who practice witchcraft who communicate with the devil this is not an aspect of it that is generally participated in by Wiccans.
  • Probably most notably in the Webster’s dictionary definition it lists the date of this words origin and used. Wicca did not exist before the 12th century
  • Not all Wiccans use magic or witchcraft in their religions

This being said witchcraft is something that many but not all Wiccans practice. It is not Wicca. Witchcraft covers a broad range of thoughts, ideas, and activities to be narrowly defined to what these three definitions have stated that it means. Wiccans do work magic, through the use of rituals, charms, and spells to name a few of the methods that they use but they are not generally used in the malevolent terms that as is inferred by these definitions.

Perhaps a more practical use of the term witchcraft would be to view witchcraft as some of the online “Wiccan” dictionaries define it.  They define it loosely as a religion that is influenced by pre-Christian beliefs and practices which acknowledge and use the existence of magic as well as the deities and the natural cycles of life. Witchcraft uses this knowledge and these skills to bring about change.

Often referred to as the oldest religion, witchcraft predates Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Called the Old Religion, witchcrafts looked to the sun, moon, stars and all of nature in order to gain wisdom and direction. This included the plants and animals and the cycles of life found in the seasons             and the cycle of life and death.  The people of that practiced this early form of witchcraft used what we now call “sympathetic magick.” Sympathetic magic is using symbolism to represent what it is that is needed or wanted. This symbolism was believed to show the deities what was needed or wanted and thus bringing it into existence. One good example would be a tribal dance that told the story of a great and successful hunt. These symbolic actions became the precursor to the rituals that we use in modern day witchcraft. These forms of magick were considered positive and helpful to the tribes and cultures and were a nature extension of their religions.

The controversy over the nature of witchcraft really only started with the advent of the Christian Church. The ancient Greeks and Romans had clearly defined what was “good” and “bad” magick and only when magick was harmful to others was a person punished for it under the law. At first this also seemed to be the case with the Christians, but this did not last for long. Originally the Christian priests actually worked with the priest of the Old Religion and performed the seasonal rights that they both shared as holy days.  However once the Christian religion began to spread the Christians began to bring difficulty to the pagans. It was during this time that witchcraft became synonymous with the worship of Satan and fear and hatred began to spread across Europe and eventually into the Americas.

The Christian Church began teaching that Witchcraft was heresy shortly after the death of Christ. With this teaching the Church started its crusade to rid the world of all heresy. Early in the 1000 CE the punishment for heresy became death. This was usually accomplished by burning or hanging. As time marched on more and more people were found to be guilty of heresy.

In 1230 the Inquisition began. It was a Roman Catholic tribunal that was determined to uncover and heavily punish heresy. The people that they question were often tortured and had no rights what so ever.  People were to convert to the Christian beliefs or be punished by death for their beliefs.  Eventually all of the Christian Churches and the secular courts were on the hunt for witches.   This however simply sent the pagan religions underground and forced the pagan people to live as if they believed the Christian ways.

In 1324 an Irish coven lead by Dame Alice Kytler was tried by the Bishop Ossuary for their worship of a non-Christian God. The entire coven with the exception of Dame Alice was burned for heresy. It was because of Dame Alice Kytler’s socio-economic status she was not punished along with her coven. Once the 1400’s rolled around anyone who rejected God and makes a pact with the devil would be found guilty of witchcraft. These were usually women who were found to be practicing the craft and thus were seen to be tools of the devil who were “hell bent” on destroying the Christian Church and the good followers of Jesus Christ. Even with this continual attempt to rid the land of witchcraft and heresy was not very successful it simply submerged it.

In 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic because it was believed that she, as a woman could not have led France’s armies to victory without the help of witchcraft. Her visions and “voices” were considered to be communications with the “evil one” and thus acts of witchcraft. The irony is that she was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church – the very church that charged her with heresy and killed her. Their belief was changed over the course of history and it became a common belief that her visions and voices were in actuality messages from God and not the work of a witch or sorceress or messages from Satan himself. Other people viewed as witches included the legendary Robin Hood, Merlin, Gilles de Rais and Baba Yaga.

Later that century the Malleus Malleficarnum or The Witches Hammer was published by Kramer and Sparnger of the Dominican. This was the first guide for the “Witch Hunters.” They worked for Pope Innocent and determined that all witchcraft stemmed from lust and in the case of women was an insatiable lust. This was an interesting definition that allowed anyone and everyone to be accused of witchcraft even the innocent children. Their laws allowed for torture and murder based on a definition of witchcraft that was solely created and by the church.  It targeted anyone that the Church fathers felt were a danger or threat to the Christian Church and beliefs. This did not have to be based on any reality but on the perceive threat by suspicious and self righteous clergy or even an embittered neighbour who felt you had wronged them in some way. There were no limits on this accusations or any real proof needed to prove them. Their methods of torture often got them the confessions that they “needed” to prove their claims.

The Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII was a piece of literature that strengthened and legitimized the persecution of the pagans. It claimed to be fighting against the evil wiles of the Devil and saving men from his evil designs but it simply brought about a time of torment all across Europe which lasted right into the 18th century. During this time the church did not change and there continued to be no rights for the accused. The so called witches were charged with horrendous crimes like human sacrifice and devil worship. Whether or not this was actually true in some cases or not is debatable but the rumours and stories were enough to cause terror to those who were members of the church. The Witch Hunts continued through the early 1600’s and many were tortured into false confessions and then sent to prison, banished or killed.  An entire paper could be written on the stories of unfairly treated suspects and coerced confessions.

The persecution of the “witch” eventually drove most if not all of the members of the Craft into hiding and thus the church, having no one to contradict them continued to distribute false and inflammatory information about witchcraft. However with the coming of James VI, of Scotland (who became James I of England and Scotland) brought about the beginning of change for those that practiced the Craft. While they still remained in hiding His views on “Demonology” helped Him to get parliament to pass a new act changing the focus of the “Witches Hammer” from “Malleficamum” to “a pact with the Devil.” Then in 1736 George II stated that there was no such thing as witchcraft and that anyone pretended to have occult powers was committing fraud. This lead to the calming of the Witchcraft hunts in Europe and the last of the executions was believed to have happened in 1685.  This however paved the way for the witch hysteria that came to New England in the late 1600’s.

The most well known of the American Witch trials took place in Salem Massachusetts. In 1692 the General Council ratified the 1604 Bill, which gave the rules and guidelines of the witchcraft laws which continued to be in effect until 1695. The society in New England was primed for the hysteria that surrounded witchcraft. The economic climate, the ongoing frontier war, a strict religious structure, dissentions in the church and disagreements between neighbours set the seen for the suspicion and accusations that followed. As well their religious beliefs led to the belief that the “devil” was responsible for much of the misery in the world and was an easy patsy for those who refused to acknowledge their own actions.

In 1692 Salem a small group of girls became fascinated with the occult. One of these girls was the daughter of Rev. Samuel Parris. The girls began meeting with Tituba, who was a West Indian slave.  It was during these meetings that the girls received divination messages and other psychic phenomena. Most likely due to their feelings of guilt about their occult activities and the nature of hysteria the girls started taking fits. They began to have behaviours and symptoms that seemed to mimic what we know as epilepsy, asthma, and various forms of psychosis including hallucinations. At the time there was no medical evidence to prove any physical problems and there is also the question of ergot poisoning. Ergot was mould that grows on grains that causes a wide range of physical complaints including hallucinations. This all could have been blamed on the group mentality and hysteria as well. In addition to this well known story, Dr .Margaret Jones was murdered because her patients became sick and died. It is believed that they did not take the medicines that she prescribed to them. She was accused of using witchcraft to cause the illness and even the demise of some of her patients.

The punishment for confessing to these crimes of witchcraft was imprisonment.  However if you failed to confess to the crimes then you were executed. Of the approximately 1711 people that we accused of the crimes of witchcraft only 55 were actually convicted and they were eventually released from prison. The Common Wealth of Massachusetts eventually realized their errors and in 1957 they reversed the remaining convictions. Fortunately the punishments for witchcraft in the New World were not as ruthless and severe as those of England’s burning times.

As we can see from the historical stories of the witch hunts in England and in Massachusetts Witchcraft as a religion was forced underground and appeared to have been routed. However the faith and practices of witchcraft has simply been driven underground to avoid the possibility of persecution and punishment. It wasn’t until Margaret Murray published “Witch Cult in Western Europe” in 1921 that people began to see that the “religion” of witchcraft was still thriving in various forms though hidden underground. There were many who argued against her opinions but it was a catalyst in bringing witchcraft out of hiding and back into the mainstream. Her book and the following one “God of the Witches” were a means of getting people talking and starting a dialog about witchcraft, and the implications of what had happened.  In addition, when England finally abolished the last of the witchcraft laws in 1951 it opened the door for a wave of authors to have the freedom to write on witchcraft, and other pagan religions which for too long had been hidden and denied.

Other authors followed with their works and the library of witchcraft related books has blossomed especially since Gerald Gardner’s creation of  “Wicca” and the books and traditions that have come about because of his writing, teachings and the different views that have come from those who stated their own traditions and practices. As the years pass and people continue to practice witchcraft – whether that be under the umbrella of Wicca, or paganism or just plain old witchcraft it is now out of the proverbial “broom closet.” The understanding, practice and use of witchcraft will continue to grow and be used for the good of the earth and her people.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/witchcraft

[2] http://www.bartleby.com/61/1/W0190100.html

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Witchcraft

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