Public uses of magic are generally considered beneficial; sorcery, on the other hand, is commonly practiced in private and is usually considered malevolent. Nevertheless, accusations of sorcery are frequently public and explicit. Anthropologists have observed that in societies that lack formal political processes, sorcery accusations are often an indication of other social and economic tensions and conflicts. They have analyzed the killing of accused sorcerers as a form of control through which antisocial people are eliminated and social cohesion is reinforced. Anthropologists distinguish sorcerers, who acquire their powers through study and initiation, from witches, who inherit their powers. In some cultures, especially European, however, the two terms are used interchangeably.
European diabolical witchcraft was a form of sorcery that appealed to pre-Christian symbolism and was associated by Church leaders with heresy. The origins of witchcraft in Europe are found in the pre-Christian, pagan cults such as the Teutonic nature cults; Roman religion; and the speculations of the Gnostics (see Gnosticism), the Zoroastrians, and the Manicheans. These religions and philosophies believed in a power of evil and a power of good within the universe. Later, among certain sects, the worship of good was repudiated as false and misleading.
Religious persecution of supposed witches commenced early in the 14th cent. Trials, convictions, and executions became common throughout Europe and reached a peak during the 16th and 17th cent. Under the authority of the Spanish Inquisition, as many as 100 persons were burned as witches in a single day. The auto-da-fé, as this mass burning was called, took on the qualities of a carnival, where one could buy souvenirs, rosaries, holy images, and food. Suspicion also fell on many who were interested in scientific experimentation. The colonies of North America shared in this fanaticism, particularly in Salem, Mass., where in 1692, 20 persons were executed as witches. (The state exonerated all the accused men and women in 1711.)
Early students of European diabolical witchcraft viewed it alternately as an invention of elites who used accusations of sorcery as an excuse to persecute people for material gain, or as a survival of pre-Christian folk religion. Scholars today seek to interpret it not as a single phenomenon but rather as a complex pattern of beliefs and practices that have been used in different ways at different times. Thus, during the Hundred Year Wars, Catholics and Protestants accused each other of witchcraft.
In the 20th cent. in the West there has been a revival of witchcraft known as Wicca, or neopaganism. This form of witchcraft has nothing to do with sorcery, and is instead based on a reverence for nature, the worship of a fertility goddess, a restrained hedonism, and group magic aimed at healing. It rejects a belief in Satan as a product of Christian doctrine that is incompatible with paganism.
See also shaman.
See J. B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (1972); P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed (1974); J. P. Demos, Entertaining Satan (1982); C. Larner, Witchcraft and Religion (1984); S. C. Lehmann and J. E. Myers, Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion (1985); R. E. Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft (1989); R. Briggs, Witches and Neighbors (1996); L. W. Carlson, A Fever in Salem (1999); M. B. Norton, In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002).
Use of alleged supernatural powers, usually to control people or events. Sorcery is sometimes distinguished from witchcraft in that sorcery may be practiced by anyone with the appropriate knowledge, using charms, spells, or potions, whereas witchcraft is considered to result from inherent mystical power and to be practiced by invisible means. Modern witches, however, claim that their craft is learned, and therefore another distinction between witchcraft and sorcery is that sorcery is always used with evil intent. Controversies over witchcraft and sorcery have been especially prevalent in close-knit communities experiencing decline or misfortune and embroiled in petty social conflict and scapegoating. In ancient Greece, witchcraft was mentioned as early as Homer (see Circe). The best-known sorceress in Classical times was the legendary Medea. The Roman Horace describes two witches in his Satires. The Bible contains several references to witches, notably the Witch of Endor consulted by Saul (1 Samuel 28). The early Church Fathers held that witchcraft was a delusion and denounced its practice. In the Middle Ages, witchcraft was believed to involve demonic possession. It was also associated with heresy and so came within the scope of the Inquisition. In the witch-hunts of the 16th–17th centuries, European courts frequently regarded witches and sorcerers alike as candidates for burning. Although estimates of the number killed vary widely, it is likely that between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed and many more were tortured and imprisoned during the witch-hunts. In the 20th century the modern witchcraft movement, Wicca, was established and promoted respect for nature and a pantheistic worldview. Belief in witchcraft is apparent in traditional societies throughout the world. The Navajo protect themselves against witches with sand or pollen paintings, and in African societies people seek aid from medical doctors and witch doctors, the former for treatment of the “external” causes of the illness and the latter for the “internal”. Seealso magic; Salem witch trials.
Learn more about witchcraft and sorcery with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Witchcraft, in various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers. A witch is a practitioner of witchcraft. While mythological witches are often supernatural creatures, historically many people have been accused of witchcraft, or have claimed to be witches. Witches have stereotypically, though not exclusively, been women.
Academically, the concept of witchcraft is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community. It is recognised, however, that many of the diabolical stereotypes surrounding witchcraft had evolved out of more benign pre-Christian beliefs regarding spirits and the other-world, and that some of those accused as witches were in fact healers or seers with practices rooted in these same beliefs. The term 'witchcraft' has also been applied to cultures outside Europe, to describe similar ideologies of supernatural misfortune and blame, as well as to describe a wide variety of magical and shamanistic practices, generally dealing with spirits or deities, the afterlife, magic and ritual.
From the mid 20th century on, a growing number of people have come to identify with the term "witch", many seeing witchcraft as a religion with possible pre-Christian roots (see below, under Neopaganism).
As in anthropology, witchcraft is seen by historians as an ideology for explaining misfortune, however this ideology manifested in diverse ways. There were a few varieties of witch in popular belief, and a few types of people accused of witchcraft for different reasons. Richard Kieckhefer places the accused into three categories: Those caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery; well-meaning sorcerers or healers who lost their clients' or the authorities' trust; and those did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbours. To these Christina Larner adds a fourth category: those reputed to be witches and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs. Éva Pócs in turn identifies three varieties of witch in popular belief:
'Neighbourhood witches' are the product of neighbourhood tensions, and are found only in self-sufficient serf village communities where the inhabitants largely rely on each other. Such accusations follow the breaking of some social norm, such as the failure to return a borrowed item, and any person part of the normal social exchange could potentially fall under suspicion. Claims of 'sorcerer' witches and 'supernatural' witches could arise out of social tensions, but not necessarily; the supernatural witch in particular often had nothing to do with communal conflict, but expressed tensions between the human and supernatural worlds, and in Eastern and Southeastern Europe such supernatural witches became an ideology explaining calamities that befell entire communities.
Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds, roughly equivalent to shamans. Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits or the dead, often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an 'other-world'. Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were explicitly described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, often presided over by a female divinity who teaches magic and gives prophecies; and participation in battles against evil spirits, 'vampires' or 'witches' to win fertility and prosperity for the community.
The Malleus Maleficarum, a famous witch-hunting manual used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, outlines how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely to be a witch, how to put a witch to trial and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female.
In the modern Western world, witchcraft accusations have often accompanied the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria. Such accusations are a counterpart to blood libel of various kinds, which may be found throughout history across the globe.
Practices to which the witchcraft label have historically been applied are those which influence another person's mind, body or property against his or her will, or which are believed, by the person doing the labelling, to undermine the social or religious order. Some modern commentators consider the malefic nature of witchcraft to be a Christian projection. The concept of a magic-worker influencing another person's body or property against his or her will was clearly present in many cultures, as there are traditions in both folk magic and religious magic that have the purpose of countering malicious magic or identifying malicious magic users. Many examples can be found in ancient texts, such as those from Egypt and Babylonia, where malicious magic is believed to have the power to influence the mind, body or possessions, malicious magic users can become a credible cause for disease, sickness in animals, bad luck, sudden death, impotence and other such misfortunes. Witchcraft of a more benign and socially acceptable sort may then be employed to turn the malevolence aside, or identify the supposed evil-doer so that punishment may be carried out. The folk magic used to identify or protect against malicious magic users is often indistinguishable from that used by the witches themselves.
There has also existed in popular belief the concept of white witches and white witchcraft, which is strictly benevolent. Many neopagan witches strongly identify with this concept, and profess ethical codes that prevent them from performing magic on a person without their request.
Where belief in malicious magic practices exists, such practitioners are typically forbidden by law as well as hated and feared by the general populace, while beneficial magic is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the people – even if the orthodox establishment objects to it.
Probably the most obvious characteristic of a witch was the ability to cast a spell, a "spell" being the word used to signify the means employed to accomplish a magical action. A spell could consist of a set of words, a formula or verse, or a ritual action, or any combination of these. Spells traditionally were cast by many methods, such as by the inscription of runes or sigils on an object to give it magical powers, by the immolation or binding of a wax or clay image (poppet) of a person to affect him or her magically, by the recitation of incantations, by the performance of physical rituals, by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions, by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula (scrying) for purposes of divination, and by many other means.
"Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arise from death.
Early converts to Christianity looked to Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old methods under Roman paganism, and Christianity provided a methodology involving saints and relics, similar to the gods and amulets of the Pagan world. As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe its concern with magic lessened.
The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle Witches, commonly involve a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards addicted to such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments, observe "the witches' sabbath" (performing infernal rites which often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church), pay Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness, and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. It was a folkloric belief that a Devil's Mark, like the brand on cattle, was placed upon a witches skin by the devil to signify that this pact had been made. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers to deal with infertility, immense fear for her children's well-being, or revenge against a lover.
The Church and European society was not always so zealous in hunting witches and blaming them for bad occurrences. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape. This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches (more specifically, strigas) do not exist.
The Church did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188-186).
However, even at a later date, not all witches were assumed to be harmful practicers of the craft. In England, the provision of this curative magic was the job of a witch doctor, also known as a cunning man, white witch, or wiseman. The term "witch doctor" was in use in England before it came to be associated with Africa. Toad doctors were also credited with the ability to undo evil witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurers specialised in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while magical cures for more mundane ailments, such as burns or toothache, could be had from charmers.)
Such "cunning-folk" did not refer to themselves as witches and objected to the accusation that they were such. Records from the Middle Ages, however, make it appear that it was, quite often, not entirely clear to the populace whether a given practitioner of magic was a witch or one of the cunning-folk. In addition, it appears that much of the populace was willing to approach either of these groups for healing magic and divination. When a person was known to be a witch, the populace would still seek to employ their healing skills; however, as was not the case with cunning-folk, members of the general population would also hire witches to curse their enemies. The important distinction is that there are records of the populace reporting alleged witches to the authorities as such, whereas cunning-folk were not so incriminated; they were more commonly prosecuted for accusing the innocent or defrauding people of money.
The long-term result of this amalgamation of distinct types of magic-worker into one is the considerable present-day confusion as to what witches actually did, whether they harmed or healed, what role (if any) they had in the community, whether they can be identified with the "witches" of other cultures and even whether they existed as anything other than a projection. Present-day beliefs about the witches of history attribute to them elements of the folklore witch, the charmer, the cunning man or wise woman, the diviner and the astrologer.
Powers typically attributed to European witches include turning food poisonous or inedible, flying on broomsticks or pitchforks, casting spells, cursing people, making livestock ill and crops fail, and creating fear and local chaos.
The most famous witchcraft incident In the British North America were the witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties of colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted twenty-nine people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were hanged. One man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so. At least five more of the accused died in prison. Despite being generally known as the "Salem" witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns across the province: Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover, as well as Salem Town, Massachusetts. The best-known trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. All twenty-six who went to trial before this court were convicted. The four sessions of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693, held in Salem Town, but also in Ipswich, Boston, and Charlestown, produced only three convictions in the thirty-one witchcraft trials it conducted. Likewise, alleged witchcraft was not isolated to New England. In 1706 Grace Sherwood the "Witch of Pungo" was imprisoned for the crime in Princess Anne County, Virginia.
Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:11-12 and Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" provided scriptural justification for Christian witch hunters in the early Modern Age (see Christian views on witchcraft). The word "witch" is a translation of the Hebrew kashaph, "sorcerer". As such a closer translation would be "one who uses magic to harm others". The Bible provides some evidence that these commandments were enforced under the Hebrew kings:
"And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die? (The Hebrew verb "Hichrit" (הכרית) translated in the King James as "cut off", can also be translated as "kill wholesale" or "exterminate")
Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practise secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practises envy. (Quran 113:1-5, translation by YusufAli)
Many Muslims believe that the devils taught sorcery to mankind:
And they follow that which the devils falsely related against the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon disbelieved not; but the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind sorcery and that which was revealed to the two angels in Babel, Harut and Marut.... And surely they do know that he who trafficketh therein will have no (happy) portion in the Hereafter; and surely evil is the price for which they sell their souls, if they but knew. (al-Qur'an 2:102)
However, whereas performing miracles in Islamic thought and belief is reserved for only Messengers and Prophets; supernatural acts are also believed to be performed by Awliyaa - the spiritually accomplished. Disbelief in the miracles of the Prophets is considered an act of disbelief; belief in the miracles of any given pious individual is not. Neither are regarded as magic, but as signs of Allah at the hands of those close to Him that occur by His will and His alone.
Muslim practitioners commonly seek the help of the Jinn (singular--jinni) in magic. It is a common belief that jinn can possess a human, thus requiring Exorcism. (The belief in jinn is part of the Muslim faith. Imam Muslim narrated the Prophet said: "Allah created the angels from light, created the jinn from the pure flame of fire, and Adam from that which was described to you (i.e., the clay.)") To cast off the jinn from the body of the possessed, the "ruqya," which is from the Prophet's sunnah is used. The ruqya contains verses of the Qur'an as well as prayers which are specifically targeted against demons. The knowledge of which verses of the Qur'an to use in what way is what is considered "magic knowledge".
Students of the history of religion have linked several magical practises in Islam with pre-islamic Turkish and East African customs. Most notable of these customs is the Zar Ceremony.
In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, a citizen of Saudi Arabia, was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft.
In Southern African traditions, there are three classifications of somebody who uses magic. The thakathi is usually improperly translated into English as "witch", and is a spiteful person who operates in secret to harm others. The sangoma is a diviner, somewhere on a par with a fortune teller, and is employed in detecting illness, predicting a person's future (or advising them on which path to take), or identifying the guilty party in a crime. She also practices some degree of medicine. The inyanga is often translated as "witch doctor" (though many Southern Africans resent this implication, as it perpetuates the mistaken belief that a "witch doctor" is in some sense a practitioner of malicious magic). The inyanga's job is to heal illness and injury and provide customers with magical items for everyday use. Of these three categories the thakatha is almost exclusively female, the sangoma is usually female, and the inyanga is almost exclusively male.
In some Central African areas, malicious magic users are believed by locals to be the source of terminal illness such as AIDS and cancer. In such cases, various methods are used to rid the person from the bewitching spirit, occasionally Physical abuse and Psychological abuse. Children may be accused of being witches, for example a young niece may be blamed for the illness of a relative. Most of these cases of abuse go unreported since the members of the society that witness such abuse are too afraid of being accused of being accomplices. It is also believed that witchcraft can be transmitted to children by feeding. Parents discourage their children from interacting with people believed to be witches.
As of 2006, between 25,000 and 50,000 children in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their homes. On April, 2008, Kinshasa, the police arrested 14 suspected victims (of penis snatching) and sorcerers accused of using black magic or witchcraft to steal (make disappear) or shrink men's penises to extort cash for cure, amid a wave of panic. Arrests were made in an effort to avoid bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 alleged penis snatchers were beaten to death by mobs. It was reported on May 21, 2008 that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft. In Tanzania in 2008, President Kikwete publicly condemned witchdoctors for killing albinos for their body parts which are thought to bring good luck. 25 albinos have been murdered since March 2007.
Casual encounters are ones of surprise and unexpectedness and puts the character at the mercy of the supernatural being. The ritual encounter however, is a more planned event, where the individual is the subject and he or she knows beforehand the kind of experience they will take part in. The Russian word for witch, ведьма (ved'ma), shows exactly that (the literal translation means "The one who knows"). Russia, as well as many other cultures, produces tales with both encounters. These parts of folklore including omens, guardian spirits, and fate – all have little to do with the eastern orthodox religion yet seem to appear in much of the folklore of the 19th century. Visual omens, often in dreams, are well-known, including a gloved man indicating death, fish predicting marital luck, and children’s games foretelling marital life, fertility and even wars. Passed down are tales of how other indicators, include the crying of a baby that is not within sight, the hammering of nails off in the distance, and also ringing of the ears, can foretell different things.
The Wicca that Gardner initially taught was a witchcraft religion having a lot in common with Margaret Murray's hypothetically posited cult of the 1920s. Indeed Murray wrote an introduction to Gardner's Witchcraft Today, in effect putting her stamp of approval on it. Wicca is now practised as a religion of an initiatory secret society nature with positive ethical principles, organised into autonomous covens and led by a High Priesthood. There is also a large "Eclectic Wiccan" movement of individuals and groups who share key Wiccan beliefs but have no initiatory connection or affiliation with traditional Wicca. Wiccan writings and ritual show borrowings from a number of sources including 19th and 20th century ceremonial magic, the medieval grimoire known as the Key of Solomon, Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis and pre-Christian religions. Both men and women are equally termed "witches." They practice a form of duotheistic universalism.
Since Gardner's death in 1964 the Wicca that he claimed he was initiated into has attracted many initiates, becoming the largest of the various witchcraft traditions in the Western world, and has influenced various occult movements and groups. In particular it has inspired a large movement of "sole practitioners", who are not initiated into the original lineage but live according to practices and beliefs that are in keeping with the original tenets of the religion, most notably the "Three Laws".
Stregheria is an Italian witchcraft religion popularised in the 1980s by Raven Grimassi, who claims that it evolved within the ancient Etruscan religion of Italian peasants who worked under the Catholic upper classes. Other scholars argue that it is a newly invented religion largely based upon Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, which was also used as a basis for Wicca.
Leland's account depicts the followers of Italian witchcraft as worshipping the Goddess Diana, along with her brother Dianus/Lucifer, and their daughter Aradia. Leland's witches do not see Lucifer as the evil Satan of Christian myth, but a benevolent god of the sun and moon.
The ritual format of contemporary Stregheria is roughly similar to that of other Neo-Pagan witchcraft religions such as Wicca. The pentagram is the most common symbol of religious identity. Most followers celebrate a series of eight festivals equivalent to the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, though others follow the ancient Roman festivals. An emphasis is placed on ancestor worship.
The Feri Tradition is a modern witchcraft practice founded by Victor Anderson and his wife Cora. It is an ecstatic tradition with strong emphasis is placed on sensual experience and awareness, including sexual mysticism, which is not limited to heterosexual expression.
Most practitioners worship three main deities; the Star Goddess, and two divine twins, one of whom is the blue God. They believe that there are three parts to the human soul, a belief taken from Huna.
Witches may also be depicted as essentially good, as in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, or the television show Charmed. Following the movie The Craft, popular fictional depictions of witchcraft have increasingly drawn from Wiccan practices, portraying witchcraft as having a religious basis and witches as humans of normal appearance.