Read on and find out!
The Bible has numerous references to witches, probably the most famous one comes from Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." That message seems pretty cut & dry. Even worse, a quote from Leviticus 20:27, "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them." Again, ouch! So much for live and let live.
The Church lightened up on it's philosophy. In the 5th century, St. Augustine of Hippo, an outspoken kind of guy, debated that only the Creator could perform magic by suspending the laws of the universe. According to St. Augustine, no one else, including Satan had that sort of power. It went without saying, if one believed the Saint, witches therefore had no magical abilities. Without magic, their spells wouldn't work. This put the witches at nothing more than pissed off folks simply trying to 'psych' out their neighbors. Wow, the power of the mind is a terrible thing.
Apparently is words were taken seriously. The Italian Edictum Rothari forbid the killing of female slaves or maids for the crime of witchcraft since it wasn't possible. St. Boniface also denied the existence of witches. In the 8th century, the Council of Paderborn actually went after those who started gangs of unofficial witch hunts. Seems the witch hunters became the hunted and received the death penalty. Agobard of Lyon swore the ability to fly was nonsense, along with shape shifting or any other magical abilities. In a correspondence to Archbishop Gerhard or Lorch, Pope Leo VII instructed the clergyman to tell the people not to execute accused witches.
The list goes on. There were a few exceptions. Pope Innocent III had a large dislike for the Cathars. Innocent spread propaganda as a method of getting the people on his side, spreading stories about the Cathars. He said they worshipped an evil deity. Pope Innocent convinced enough men to launch his war. another clergyman who had a problem getting along with others was Thomas Aquinas. Poor, deluded Thomas believed Cathars, those magic-using party-poopers had fled to Germany. Thomas also swore demons ran amok among the people. He decided the two had met. The only way to learn the truth was via torture. Aquinas had the blessing of Pope Innocent IV to go after witches once Innocent issued a Papal bull in 1252.
Torture a person and they will admit to anything to lessen the pain. Aquinas must have been jumping for joy to hear the detainees admitting to casting spells, consorting with demons, having sex with just about anything alive, and of course, causing mayhem. The end result of this travesty was the Malleus maleficarum, or the Hammer of the Witches. This book went through multiple reprints, and was held up as The Source of witchcraft definitions and crime facts.
Methods of extracting a confession from an accused witch varied: sleep deprivation was popular, checking for a diabolical mark (usually a mole or unusually shaped birthmark); water-testing (witches floated, while innocent people sank); requiring the person to cite the Lord's prayer in it's entirety; and, the possession of a familiar - usually a cat. The more extreme methods didn't become popular until the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisitors used devices to crush, burn, impale, and stretch the accused witch - all as part of the interrogation process. The Spanish actually targeted women over men.
Convicted witches were hung or burned. There are no true counts of numbers, but it is certain that most of the victims were women, and of those, most were villagers. The nobility and very wealthy managed to escape the worst of the hysteria, or bribe the Inquisitors when necessary. In some cases, the charge of witchcraft was brought against a person for material gains. It certainly was worth 'following the money' after the mock trial was over. In 1516, the mass arrests and burning was so bad near Milan, the people rebelled. The Italian leaders had to halt the Inquisitors, but they shortly resumed their work,still under mounting protests.
What did whose accused of witchcraft do? Most of the people were guilty of nothing more than irking a neighbor, looking different, or living by themselves. In many villages, the older women, simply by virtue of their age (and that passed on by relatives), knew the use of herb craft. Growing up and handling livestock and being around their mothers, aunts, and older sisters, they learned midwifery. Many neighbors would come to these women for simple healing. When a patient (human or animal) didn't get better, it was easy enough to pass blame on the caregiver.
Were those who claimed to be witches? Yes. Witchcraft has been around forever, believe it or not. The ability to alter the natural forces to to your desires (no, not that force). The desire, or spell, can be of a good will, or positive, or of evil intent. When a witch casts a spell intended to do harm, she or he is said to be working 'black' magic. A witch who does the opposite works 'white' magic. Hey - don't shoot the messinger, I didn't make up the terms. The other way is positive and negative. Either way, witches have aspects of both within themselves, much like the Asian Yin and Yang symbol. Magic itself is not 'good' or 'bad', it just is. The practitioner decides how the energy is used.
Today, the numbers of witchcraft practitioners is unknown, but it is certain that witches exist in every country. Witches exist openly in the USA, thanks to the Constitution but must keep hidden in other countries where they are still prosecuted and executed if convicted. Countless numbers of people consider themselves members of a Goddess-based religion. In some cases, the Goddess is the only deity worshipped, while in others, the Goddess has a male Consort. Beopagans chose many paths, or traditions, all the way from Isis (Ancient Egyptian) to Diana (Italian Stega). Others mix up deities according to the ceremonies. Not all Wiccans are Pagans and not all Witches are Wiccans. Witches can be Wiccans and part of a coven, while others practice as solitaries.
The Neopagan movement started with Gerald Gardner (1884- 1964) in England. He came up with his version of Wicca and witchcraft. Along with Doreen Valiente and a handful of acquaintances, he wrote a couple of books which are still used by Wiccans today. Gerald claimed his system was baased on ancient rituals, but he had no real proof to back up his words. Other famous Neopagans include Starhawk, Silver Ravenwolf, Jamie & Stewart Farrar, Margot Adler, Scott Cunningham, and Sybil Leek.
The Wiccan Rede(Full Version)
Bide within the Law you must, in perfect Love and perfect Trust.
Live you must and let to live, fairly take and fairly give.
For tread the Circle thrice about to keep unwelcome spirits out.
To bind the spell well every time, let the spell be said in rhyme.
Light of eye and soft of touch, speak you little, listen much.
Honor the Old Ones in deed and name,
let love and light be our guides again.
Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the joyful tune.
Widdershins go when the moon doth wane,
and the werewolf howls by the dread wolfsbane.
When the Lady's moon is new, kiss the hand to Her times two.
When the moon rides at Her peak then your heart's desire seek.
Heed the North winds mighty gale, lock the door and trim the sail.
When the Wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.
When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss you on the mouth.
When the wind whispers from the West, all hearts will find peace and rest.
Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
Birch in the fire goes to represent what the Lady knows.
Oak in the forest towers with might, in the fire it brings the God's
insight. Rowan is a tree of power causing life and magick to flower.
Willows at the waterside stand ready to help us to the Summerland.
Hawthorn is burned to purify and to draw faerie to your eye.
Hazel-the tree of wisdom and learning adds its strength to the bright fire burning.
White are the flowers of Apple tree that brings us fruits of fertility.
Grapes grow upon the vine giving us both joy and wine.
Fir does mark the evergreen to represent immortality seen.
Elder is the Lady's tree burn it not or cursed you'll be.
Four times the Major Sabbats mark in the light and in the dark.
As the old year starts to wane the new begins, it's now Samhain.
When the time for Imbolc shows watch for flowers through the snows.
When the wheel begins to turn soon the Beltane fires will burn.
As the wheel turns to Lamas night power is brought to magick rite.
Four times the Minor Sabbats fall use the Sun to mark them all.
When the wheel has turned to Yule light the log the Horned One rules.
In the spring, when night equals day time for Ostara to come our way.
When the Sun has reached it's height time for Oak and Holly to fight.
Harvesting comes to one and all when the Autumn Equinox does fall.
Heed the flower, bush, and tree by the Lady blessed you'll be.
Where the rippling waters go cast a stone, the truth you'll know.
When you have and hold a need, harken not to others greed.
With a fool no season spend or be counted as his friend.
Merry Meet and Merry Part bright the cheeks and warm the heart.
Mind the Three-fold Laws you should three times bad and three times good.
When misfortune is enow wear the star upon your brow.
Be true in love this you must do unless your love is false to you.
These Eight words the Rede fulfill:
"An Ye Harm None, Do What Ye Will"
Below are a number of links to sites with information on witchcraft and the Pagan / Wiccan religious beliefs