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Witches in the Air by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1798)

Witchcraft, in various historical, religious and mythical contexts, is the use of certain kinds of alleged supernatural or magical powers. A witch is a person who engages in witchcraft. In historical, mythological and demonological contexts a male "witch" is more frequently termed a wizard, sorcerer, or simply magician.

Witchcraft may have evolved from European neolithic Shamanic practices. The word and meaning of Witchcraft since has become controversial and contested by both those who self-identify as witches and many others, but the general connotation is that of the wielding of immoral or malevolent supernatural intent.


The word witch is well attested for the duration of the Modern English, Middle English and Old English periods in various forms and its derivation from Old English wicce/wicca is consequently well established. This aside, its origins predating the Anglo-Saxon era constitute the major substance of debate regarding its history. Most probable of Old English cognate relationships is a derivation of the Old English noun forms m. wicca and f. wicce from the OE verb wiccian and from a Proto-Germanic predecessor thereof. Earlier, the Proto-Germanic *wikkjaz offers a probable cognate, and later, Low German provides wicker (soothsayer).[1].

Colloquially, the term witch is applied almost exclusively to women, although in earlier English the term was applied to men as well, while in Old English, the masculine and feminine noun forms, wicca and wicce respectively, were phonetically and orthographically distinct. Contemporary Neo-Pagan Wiccans have reclaimed "witch" attempting to remove its gynophobic and misogynist Christian and Patriarchal connotations. Male witches have most often been titled sorcerers, wizards, or warlocks despite Wiccan and Neo-Pagan dislike for the latter, appropriating it to the Old English wærloga* meaning "faith breaker"; however, this may reveal a desire for categorical unity or a possible tendency to misandry among self-identified witches rather than referring to any word's actual etymological roots.


Hans Baldung Grien: Witches. Woodcut 1508

Each culture has its own particular body of concepts dealing with magic, religion, benevolent and harmful spirits, and ritual; and these ideas do not find obvious equivalents in other cultures.

Sometimes witchcraft is used to refer, broadly, to the practice of indigenous magic, and has a connotation similar to shamanism. Depending on the values of the community, witchcraft in this sense may be regarded with varying degrees of respect or suspicion, or with ambivalence, being neither intrinsically good nor evil. Members of some religions have applied the term witchcraft in a pejorative sense to refer to all magical or ritual practices other than those sanctioned by their own doctrines, though this has become less common, at least in the Western world. According to some religious doctrines, all forms of magic are labeled witchcraft, and are either proscribed or treated as superstitious. Such religions consider their own ritual practices to be not at all magical, but rather simply variations of prayer.

Witchcraft is also used to refer, narrowly, to the practice of magic in an exclusively inimical sense. If the community accepts magical practice in general, then there is typically a clear separation between witches (in this sense) and the terms used to describe legitimate practitioners. This use of the term is most often found in accusations against individuals who are suspected of causing harm in the community by way of supernatural means. Belief in witches of this sort has been common among most of the indigenous populations of the world, including Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. On occasion such accusations have led to witch hunts.

Under the monotheistic religions of the Levant](primarily Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), witchcraft came to be associated with heresy, rising to a fever pitch among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of the European Late Medieval/Early Modern period. Throughout this time, the concept of witchcraft came increasingly to be interpreted as a form of Devil worship. Accusations of witchcraft were frequently combined with other charges of heresy against such groups as the Cathars and Waldensians.

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.

Recently, witchcraft has begun to take on a distinctly positive connotation among Wiccans and other Neopagans as the ritual element of their religious beliefs.

A great deal of confusion and conflict has arisen from attempts by one group or another to canonize their particular definition of the term.

Practices considered to be witchcraft

Practices to which the witchcraft label have been historically applied are those which influence another person's body or property against his or her will, or which are believed, by the person doing the labeling, to undermine the social or religious order.

Some modern commentators, especially neopagan ones, consider the malefic nature of witchcraft to be a Christian projection.

Influencing another person's body or property

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 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.

There has also existed in popular belief the concept of white witches and white witchcraft, which is strictly benevolent. Many neopagan witches identify with this concept, and profess strong ethical codes that prevent them from attempting magic on someone without that person having requested it or at least given permission.

Malicious magic practices are typically forbidden by law where belief in them exists (as well as being hated and feared by the general populace) while beneficial witchcraft is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the people, even if the orthodox establishment objects to it.

Conjuring the dead

Necromancy is often used to describe the conjuring of the spirits of the dead, although it can refer to any form of summoning spirits, including evocation. It is regarded as a typical witchcraft practice; the Biblical 'Witch' of Endor is supposed to have performed it, and it is among the witchcraft practices condemned by Aelfric.

"Yet fares witches to where roads meet, and to heathen burials with their phantom craft and call to them the devil, and he comes to them in the dead man's likeness, as if he from death arises, but she cannot cause that to happen, the dead to arise through her wizardry."
Source: Aelfric's Homilies

Spell casting

Probably the most obvious characteristic of a witch is their ability to cast spells. Spells can be cast by many methods, including meditation, burning of candles, chanting or reciting incantations, performing physical rituals and making herbal preparations. Sometimes quite simple and mundane actions can constitute the physical casting of a spell, and it is a common belief amongst modern witches that the intention behind the actions is at least as important as the actions themselves. Methods are many and differ from witch to witch.

Other practices

  • Meditation
  • The manipulation of energy
  • Seeing auras
  • Conducting séances; using ouija boards
  • Chanting mantras
  • Healing
  • Divination - by tarot, runes, etc.
  • Astrology, reading of horoscopes
  • Use of poppets
  • Invoking Spirits
  • Necromancy


During the Christianization of Norway, King Olaf Trygvasson had male völvas (shamans) tied up and left on a skerry at ebb.

The characterization of the witch in Europe is not derived from a single source. Popular neopagan beliefs suggest that witches were female or male shamans who were made into malicious figures by Christian propaganda. But the familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences.

The characterization of the witch as an evil magic user, developed over time. [2] The advent of Christianity suggests that potential Christians, comfortable with the use of magic as part of their daily lives, expected Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old Pagan way. While Christianity competed with Pagan religion, this concern was paramount, only lessening in importance once Christianity was the dominant religion in most of Europe. In place of the old Pagan magic methodology, the Church placed a Christian methodology involving saints and divine relics — a short step from the old Pagan techniques of numerous deities, amulets and talismans.

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 [3]. 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.

The Catholic Church and European society was not always obsessed with hunting witches and blaming them for bad occurrences. Saint Boniface declared in the eighth century that belief in the existence of witches is unchristian. 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 Church law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-craze gained force. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches 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 and is a logical consequence of belief in magic. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witch 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).

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.)

"In the north of England, the superstition lingers to an almost inconceivable extent. Lancashire abounds with witch-doctors, a set of quacks, who pretend to cure diseases inflicted by the devil. The witch-doctor alluded to is better known by the name of the cunning man, and has a large practice in the counties of Lincoln and Nottingham."
Source: Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos: ¡Linda maestra! ("The Spoils: Beautiful Teacher!") - witches heading to a Sabbath

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.

Middle East and Near East

Ancient times

The belief in witchcraft and its practice seem to have been widespread in the past. Both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part, as existing records plainly show. It will be sufficient to quote a short section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 B.C.). It is there prescribed,

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.


In the Vedic Age, witches were recognized and called yoginīs (masc.: yogin), and wrongful magic was called abhichāra. One of the four holy Vedas of the Hindus, the Atharva Veda, itself contains semi-magical incantations, chiefly against such sorcerors meaning harm to the Aryan peoples. In modern Hindi, a witch is called chudail or Daayan, and is greatly feared even today as a potential harm by many of the illiterate villagers.

Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible references to witchcraft are frequent, and the strong condemnations of such practices which we read there do not seem to be based so much upon the supposition of fraud as upon the "abomination" of the magic in itself. (See Deuteronomy 18:11-12; Exodus 22:18], "wizards thou shalt not suffer to live" - A.V. "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".) Many bible scholars have noted that in the original Hebrew the word "M'khasephah"(translated in the King James as "witch") means "someone who malevolently uses spoken curses to hurt people", which the modern Wiccan Rede specifically forbids its practitioners to do. The whole narrative of Saul's visit to the witch of En Dor (I Samuel 28) implies belief in the reality of the witch's evocation of the shade of Samuel. However, the witch responds with shocked surprise at the manifestation, denoting that the witch had actually expected something different -- presumably either nothing real at all or a lying ("familiar") spirit. From Leviticus 20:27: "A man or woman in whom there is a pythonical or divining spirit, dying let them die: they shall stone them: Their blood be upon them", we should naturally infer that the divining spirit was not believed to be a mere imposture.

New Testament

The prohibitions of sorcery in the New Testament leave the same impression (Galatians 5:20, compared with Revelation 21:8; 22:15; and Acts 8:9; 13:6). Supposing that the belief in witchcraft were held to be an idle superstition, it would be strange that the suggestion should nowhere be made that the evil of these practices only lay in the pretending to the possession of powers which did not really exist.

There is some debate, however, as to whether the word used in Galatians and Revelation, Pharmakeia, is properly translated as "sorcery", as the word was commonly used to describe malicious use of drugs as in poisons, contraceptives, and abortifacients.


Jewish law views the practice of witchcraft as being laden with idolatry and/or necromancy; both being serious theological and practical offenses in Judaism. According to Traditional Judaism, it is acknowledged that while magic exists, it is forbidden to practice it on the basis that it usually involves the worship of other gods. Rabbis of the Talmud also condemned magic when it produced something other than illusion, giving the example of two men who use magic to pick cucumbers (Sanhedrin 67a). The one who creates the illusion of picking cucumbers should not be condemned, only the one who actually picks the cucumbers through magic. However, some of the Rabbis practiced magic themselves. For instance, Rabbi Rabbah created a person and sent him to Rabbi Zera, and Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshaia studied every Sabbath evening together and created a small calf to eat (Sanhedrin 65b).

Some Orthodox Jews study Kabbalah, in other words Jewish esoteric mysticism, which contains magical elements. Their practices use terminology very different from witchcraft. Since the Enlightenment, many Jewish people have abandoned belief in the Kabbalah, though it is currently popularized by some Jewish groups, such as Chabad-Lubavitch and Jewish Renewal.

Some Neopagans study and practice forms of magery based on a syncretism between classical Jewish mysticism and modern witchcraft. (See "The Witches Qabalah", in the list of references below.) These practitioners tend to identify with Judeo-Paganism (also known as Jewish Paganism), and/or practice Jewitchery, or Jewish Witchcraft. These individuals and groups either borrow from existing Jewish magical traditions or reconstruct rituals based on Judaism and NeoPaganism. Several references on these subjects include Ellen Cannon Reed's book "The Witches Qabala: The Pagan Path and the Tree of Life", "The Hebrew Goddess", by Raphael Patai, and the forthcoming book "Magickal Judaism: Blending Pagan and Jewish Practice", by Jennifer Hunter.

African witchcraft

Africans have a wide range of views of traditional religions. African Christians typically accept Christian dogma as do their counterparts in Latin America and Asia. The term witch doctor, often attributed to African inyanga, has been misconstrued to mean "a healer who uses witchcraft" rather than its original meaning of "one who diagnoses and cures maladies caused by witches" (using practices indistinguishable from Witchcraft). Combining Roman Catholic beliefs and practices and traditional West African religious beliefs and practices are several syncretic religions in the Americas, including Voudun, Obeah, Candomblé, Quimbanda and Santería.

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 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, often [Physical abuse and Psychological abuse. Children are often accused of being witches. 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.

Neopagan witchcraft

During the 20th century interest in witchcraft in English-speaking and European countries began to increase, inspired particularly by Margaret Murray's theory of a pan-European witch-cult, published in 1921, and then the revelation of Gerald Gardner in 1954 that witchcraft still existed in England] Since then the "Wicca" that Gardner was initiated into has attracted many more initiates and become the largest witchcraft tradition in the western world, and several other hereditary traditions have also come out of hiding and attracted new members. There has also been a strong movement to recreate witchcraft traditions where the old forms have been lost, hence the term "neopagan". Wicca and some of the other "hereditary" traditions are sometimes described as neopagan, either because their antiquity is disputed, or because it is recognised that these old traditions existed only in fragmentary form and have been significantly reconstructed.

Some neopagans believe that witchcraft should be used for good, and eschew any evil usages. Their belief is sometimes very similar to the belief of Christians in prayer, that the Divine will acknowledge and grant answers to a ritual given in a Deity's name. Many Wiccans believe that if you use your powers for evil, you will have your powers taken away.

Some subscribe to the idea that all of reality is at some level interconnected, forming a single universal 'self' or 'oneness', and that by becoming conscious of this connection people can directly influence things around them. This view also implies ethical considerations, for harming another is, at a certain level, harming oneself. Of course there is nothing "neo" about this belief either. Faiths around the world have alluded as much for thousands of years, including Buddhism and Christianity. Others believe instead that the power of witchcraft comes about primarily through psychological and psychosomatic effects, rather than any divine or paranormal means.

Many neopagan witches subscribe to a model of three parts of the self, or three aspects of consciousness. Wiccan author Starhawk, in her book Spiral Dance, describes these as the Talking Self (the conscious mind), the Younger Self (the unconscious mind) and the Higher Self (the soul, also called the Divine Self); the unconscious (Younger Self) is non-verbal and does not understand speech, but understands and responds to symbolism. Many similar models exist in the fields of psychology and magic, such as the ego, id and superego of Freud, or the Qabalistic concept of three parts of the self, being the Ruach (intellect and ego), the Nephesch (body, lower instinct and subconscious) and the Neschamah (the highest divine self).

This is also similar to the Eastern Christian trichotomy of the Greek words σώμα (soma), ψυχή (psyche), and νους (nous), wherein the soma is the living body, psyche is the "mind" as we normally use the term, and nous is the faculty capable of apprehending the Divine. It differs from Starhawk's model in that it assigns a place for the physical body in and of itself as part of a "whole" human being's spiritual existence.

A common theme amongst philosophies that describe three aspects of self is the idea that the unconscious acts as an intermediary between the consciousness and the superconsciousness. Thus, to affect change on a higher, spiritual level, a practitioner may employ rituals and symbolism that speak to the 'lower' mind.

For neopagans who take a purely psychological approach to witchcraft, the power of a ritual is in the way its symbolism speaks to the unconscious mind. Psychology and medical research have shown that beliefs have an effect on one's perception of reality, and that beliefs and perception appear to effect behaviorial and other quantifiable physical changes; one well known example is the placebo effect.

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