October brings the explosion of Halloween candy, costumes, and decorations in the shops. Witches and sorcerers are always been popular costumes, more recently due to the Harry Potter phenomena. Check out any major Halloween store and you’ll fund a nice selection of witch outfits ranging from the classic Wicked Witch of the West to a New Age version but what is a witch?
With our terminology lesson over, let’s move on. Every society has a version of sorcery or witchcraft as far back as mankind goes. Sometimes people used witchcraft as an excuse to explain the world around them. Nature-based religions started out this way. Gods, or spirits, caused the rain to fall, babies to be born, and folks to get sick and die. Faith in those gods among the people gave the leaders power. Even today, faith in religious leaders, regardless of the avenue pursued, can make some people perform horrendous acts or amazing ones. A little theatrics didn't hurt (hence the 'witch-doctor' image) when doing the healing. It helped to focus attention.
The Christian-based views of witchcraft are directly related to the Church. Before the Catholic became the power house it was in the medieval times, folks timed their lives to the wheel of the year. Planting, sowing, and harvesting the crops, along with excess livestock took up most of the villages’ time. True physicians were few. Medical knowledge, which included the use of herbs, tonics, and the appeal to the local gods tended to be a woman’s realm. Folks were superstitious and believed in charms, signs, and curses.
Even after the conversion to Christianity, loyal people continued to practice customs honoring the ancient deities; for example: May Day festival celebrated fertility. Residents left a tiny saucer of cream for the ‘wee ones’ to stave off bad luck. Some of the celebrations were incorporated by the Mother Church into ‘modern’ feasts as a method of making the transition from pagan to Christian easier.
The Romans were tougher on sorcerers and witches compared to the early Middle Ages.
Around 900 A.D. a paper was published called the Canon Episcopi. This paper described the Devil perverting woman. It was the start of the prosecution against witches. Up to this time, festivals were still held in the honor of the Huntress, Diana, and the Wild Hunt. The paper was targeting this practice. Maleficus was defined as a person who made a pact with the Devil and more often that not, those people tended to be women. The Church sent out men to investigate reports of heresy and witchcraft. The men were armed with a book called the Malleus Maleficarum.
One man who spoke out against the hysteria was Johann Wier. He published a paper called On Magic in which he argued that those people claiming to be witches really were suffering from mental conditions. The establishment didn’t like his views and he was accused of witchcraft.
As modern people we know that a person under duress, aka torture, will admit to almost anything. The Inquisition period was a time in which neighbor, family members, or rivals wanting land or wealth, accused another person. The village healers were now looked upon with suspicion. Was that tonic to cure the cough really a potion to turn the patient into a frog? Witches were trussed and thrown into water. Thankful family members broke down and cried when the accused drowned, innocent of the charge. Those unfortunate enough to survive by floating or swimming were thought to have been rejected by the water, only to face execution via burning (the ‘only true’ way to kill a witch). The comedic troop, Monty Python mocked this in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. How many people died after facing the witch-hunters? Estimates of up to 200,000 or more with entire villages eliminated. Let us not forget, one of the many charges against the Templar Knights was witchcraft.
The mother of Queen Elizabeth I faced an accusation of witchcraft, among others, by King Henry. Was Anne Boleyn a witch? No, she was a wife in the way of another woman Henry wanted. King James I of England & Scotland wrote a book of the craft and pushed the witch craze, and those ideas followed immigrants to the New World. The most infamous witch trials in America occurred in Salem Village (MA) in the late 17th century, where a couple of young girls, with the ‘help’ of a West Indian slave, started accusing villagers of casting spells after they ‘had fits’. Paranoia and hysteria had other members of the village joining in. By the end the trails, 19 people had been hung as witches and one hundred jailed: all due to a couple of spoiled, spiteful children under the influence of a vengeance-seeking slave. In a sermon given by Increase Mather, Cotton Mather’s father (Cotton was instrumental in pushing the trials), the preacher criticized the questionable evidence used in trials that were suspect as best.
The stereotype of a witch is an older woman dressed in black clothing, with a hooked nose and facial warts. She carries a broom and spends time mixing ingredients in a metal cauldron. The only part of the image that is correct is the older woman. Why? Because as we learned, village elders, primarily women, had the knowledge of healing and herbs. One had to simmer many of the plants used for tonics. After all, would you really want to chomp down on a piece of willow bark for that toothache or would you want to swallow a tea made from willow bark? Who made the poultices for sore muscles or croupy coughs?
Today, witchcraft is practiced by many people in many countries although it is not always looked upon as acceptable. Witches are still persecuted in Third World countries. In the USA, witchcraft has gone main stream. There is a difference between a witch and a Wiccan. Wiccans belong to one of a multitude of a nature-based religion whereas a witch works with the forces of nature to perform a task. One can be one or the other, or both.
For more reading see:
Behind the Crystal Ball – Magic, Science, and the Occult from Antiquity Through the New Age by Anthony Aveni
2002 University Press of Colorado
A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans
by Jeffrey Russell
1980 Thames and Hudson
Stay safe out there!