The term witchcraft (and witch) is a controversial one with a complicated history. Used in entirely different contexts, and within entirely different cultural references, it can take on distinct and often contradictory meanings. Each culture has its own particular body of concepts dealing with magick, 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 magic, and has a connotation similar to sorcery. Depending on the values of the community, witchcraft in this sense may be regarded with varying degrees of suspicion and hostility, or with ambivalence, being neither intrinsically good nor evil.
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. Such witch trials are common among African, Native American, and Asian populations.
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 West, witchcraft accusations have often accompanied the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria. Such accusations are a counterpart to blood libels of various kinds, which may be found throughout history across the globe.
Recently, witchcraft has taken 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.
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Distinguishing Witchcraft from other forms of magic
While witchcraft involves the use of magic, there are many other types of "paranormal" magic (not including stage magic / sleight of hand / illusions). Witchcraft can be distinguished from folk magic, religious magic, and ceremonial magic. Modern self-identified witches (especially practitioners of Wicca) are likely to use the term witchcraft to refer to folk magic. It is becoming increasingly less common to use the term to refer to the practice of religious magic in any religion other than one's own. The term is also commonly misapplied to refer to all forms of magic other than stage magic. In addition to this, many people deny the existence of witchcraft and consider everything described below to be either stage magic or religious magic.
Folk magic and witchcraft are not identical, but they are very similar. Both are concerned with the producing of effects beyond the natural powers of man by methods which (though arcane) are held to be reliable in themselves. In this way they differ from both prayer and religious magic, which depend upon the assistance of a deity or deities for success. Ceremonial magic almost always refers to hermetic magick being practiced in an ornate and precise manner.
Practices to which the 'witchcraft' label are applied are those which influence another person's body or property against his or her will, or which are believed to undermine the social or religious order (by the person doing the labeling). Some modern commentators, especially neopagan ones, consider the malefic nature of witchcraft to be a Christian projection. However, the concept of a magic-worker influencing another person's body or property against his or her will was present in many cultures before introduction of monotheism, as there are traditions in both folk magic and religious magic that have the purpose of countering witchcraft or identifying witches from those times. Many examples can be found in ancient texts, such as those from Egypt and Babylonia. Where witchcraft is believed to have the power to influence the body or possessions, witches become a credible cause for disease, sickness in animals, bad luck, sudden death, impotence and other such misfortunes. Folk magic of a more benign and socially acceptable sort may then be employed to turn the witchcraft aside, or identify the supposed witch so that punishment may be carried out.
Practices typically considered to be witchcraft
There are several magical practices that are associated with witchcraft, to such a degree that those who use them were given the label 'witch' by Westerners, irrespective of the culture in which they appear. The most immediately recognizable is the making of poppets or effigies. Witches were believed to create figures in clay, wax, or from rags, to represent people, and the actions performed upon these figures were believed to be transferred to the subject.
- "To some others at these times he [the Devil] teacheth how to make pictures of wax or clay. That by the roasting thereof, the persons that they beare the name of, may be continually melted or die away by continually sickness."
- Source: James I, Demonologie
The making of wax figures was also a means of countering witchcraft and turning the magic back on the caster.
Necromancy, the conjuring of the spirits of the dead, is also 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
A host of other powers were said to be received through demonic compacts, such as those of riding through the air on a broomstick, assuming different shapes at will, and tormenting a witch's chosen victims. It was believed that an imp or "familiar spirit" was placed at the disposal of practitioners, able and willing to perform any service that might be needed to further their nefarious purposes. Supernatural aid is also invoked to compass the death of a particularly undesirable individual, to awaken the passion of love in those who are the objects of desire, to call up the dead, or to bring calamity or impotence upon enemies, rivals, and fancied oppressors. For this reason, "witchcraft" practices are typically forbidden by law where belief in them exists (as well as being hated and feared by the general populace) while "folk magic" is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the people, even if the orthodox establishment objects to it.
The origins of the term witch are highly disputed. Low German contains wicker (soothsayer), and Old English contains wicca/wicce (magician). Other possible connections include the Old English wigle (divination), the Pre-Germanic wikkjaz (necromancer), the Gothic weihs (holy), and the English words victim (in its original meaning for someone killed in a religious ritual) and wicked. Many neo-pagan sources assert that the because the root wik- is associated with words meaning "to bend", the original meaning of the word was "one who bends the natural order" (uses magic).  (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=wicce)
Colloquially, the term witch is applied almost exclusively to women, although in earlier English the term was applied to men too. Most people would call male witches sorcerers, wizards, or warlocks; however, modern self-identified witches and Wiccans continue to use the term witch for all who practice witchcraft.
The characterization of the witch in Europe is not derived from a single source. Popular neopagan beliefs suggest that witches were female shamans] who were made into malicious figures by Christian propaganda. This is an erroneous oversimplification and presumes that a recognizable folklore figure must derive from a single historical precedent (a female, maligned magic-worker). The familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences.
The characterization of the witch, rather than being a caricature of a Pagan priestess, developed over time.  (http://www.geocities.com/eildontree/reading/christianwitch.html) 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 of a form superior to 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 magick methodology, the Church placed a Christian methodology involving saints and divine relics — a short step from the old Pagan techniques of amulets and talismans.
Traditional European witchcraft beliefs, 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 (http://www.pendlewitches.co.uk/). The witches or wizards addicted to such practices were alleged to adjure Jesus and the sacraments, observe "the witches' sabbath" - performing infernal rites which often took the shape of a parody of the Mass or the offices of the Church - pay Divine honour to the Prince of Darkness, and in return receive from him preternatural powers.
The Church did not, however, 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 wise woman. 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 witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurers specialized 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
Such "cunning-folk" often 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, casting spells, and creating fear and local chaos.
Middle Eastern witchcraft
Ancient Middle Eastern and Near Eastern beliefs
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 laid a charge of witchcraft and has not justified it, he upon whom the witchcraft is laid shall go to the holy river; he shall plunge into the holy river and if the holy river overcome him, he who accused him shall take to himself his house.
Witchcraft in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible, Old Testament)
In the 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".) 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; and 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.
Witchcraft in the New Testament
The prohibitions of sorcery in the New Testament leave the same impression (Galatians 5:20, compared with Revelations 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 Revelations, 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 views of witchcraft
Almost all modern day Jews view the practice of witchcraft as idolatry, a serious theological offense in Judaism. Jews believe that the practices associated with witchcraft and magic are in vain, as such magic and supernatural forces don't actually exist. The only supernatural belief Jews still maintain is the belief in God. It should be noted that a small number of Orthodox Jews who study Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric mysticism) do believe in magic; their practices use terminology that varies greatly from witchcraft, but the basic ideas (using supernatural forces to effect results in the physical world) are identical. Most Jews find such ideas ludicrous; since the Enlightenment, most Jewish people have abandoned a belief in the Kabbalah.
Some Neopagans study and practice forms of magery based on a syncretism between classical Jewish mysticism and modern witchcraft. A reference on this subject is Ellen Cannon Reed's book "The Witches Qabala: The Pagan Path and the Tree of Life".
Unsurprisingly, Africans have a wide range of views of traditional religions. African Christians typically accept Christian dogma as 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". 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, and Santería. In Southern African traditions, there are three classifications of somebody who uses magic. The thakathi is usually 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 witchcraft). 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.
Witches in modern culture
Today, few people believe in witches that can curse enemies, change shapes, or fly. However, since the emergence of the witchcraft-inspired religion of Wicca in the 1940s a growing number of people have called themselves witches. While most of western culture continues to assign negative connotations to the word, Wiccans do not consider it a derogatory term, nor do they associate it with Satanism. In fact, many Wiccans wish to claim the term "witch" and assign positive meanings to it.
In 1968, a group of radical politically active women formed a protest organization in the City of New York called W.I.T.C.H., standing for "Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell". This was a short-lived group that did not have any noticeable impact on the modern development of witchcraft, except possibly Dianic craft, but is often cited because of its colorful acronym.
Witches are iconically associated with Halloween, although Wiccans generally prefer to celebrate Samhain. Samhain takes place on November 1st, while Halloween is on the 31st of October. Both holidays are often seen as being metaphorically similar in meaning. This is not coincidence. Christianity had a basic contempt for the supernatural overtones of the festival. The association between "witches" and Halloween possibly came from vilification of practitioners of the Celtic celebration of the last harvest.
Witches have come into the mainstream in the last decade as well as common pop-culture figures. Teenage and young adult witches have been the focus or appeared in the movies "The Craft," "Practical Magic," and "Blair Witch Project 2" (the sequel to The Blair Witch Project), as well as the television programs "Bewitched," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Charmed," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and some episodes of "The X-Files." Such neo-Gothic portrayals bear little relationship to Wicca, or even a Christian view of witches. In almost all cases witches portrayed in movies and TV shows today are attractive women who have supernatural powers. In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, a witch is a female with magical powers.
Recent research does not, however, support the media's portrayal of witchcraft and Wicca. In Witchcraft out of the Shadows (2004), Leo Ruickbie presents findings that demonstrate that Wicca and other forms of modern Witchcraft religion are not exclusively female nor teenage.
Distinction of The Craft from Wicca
Though sometimes used interchangeably, "Wicca" and "The Craft" are not the same thing. The confusion comes, understandably, because both practitioners of Wicca and practitioners of The Craft call themselves witches. In addition, many, but not all, Wiccans practice witchcraft and likewise not all witches are Wiccans.
From a neopagan perspective, Wicca refers to the religion; the worship of the God (also known as the Consort) and the Goddess (or just Goddess), and the Sabbat and Esbat rituals. Witchcraft, on the other hand, is considered the craft of magic. Practicing The Craft thus requires no belief in specific gods or goddesses and is a learned skill, not a spiritual path. There are other Pagan witches, "Christian witches," "Buddhist witches," etc. who also practice witchcraft.
The distinctions between neopaganism and witchcraft can not be clearly distinguished. There is crossover between the pagan/neopagan religions and witchcraft. For example, the mention of goddesses in spells and the performance of spells during Sabbat rituals are found in both. However, the differences mentioned above are the general distinctions made between the two terms.
It should be noted that The Craft as a descriptor for witchcraft is a wholly modern concept, introduced precisely in order to distinguish the religion of Wicca from other practices that involve magic. This is a result of the increasing diversity in modern neopaganism, which was previously dominated by Wicca.
Theories of Neopagan witchcraft
Some neopagans believe that witchcraft exists as a way of doing good, and eschew any evil usages (See the Wiccan Rede and the Rule of Three (Wiccan)). 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. More often, however, modern neopagans believe that the power of witchcraft comes about primarily in the way it acts upon the person, not due to any divine intervention. Many neopagans, though, also believe that witchcraft is a way of working directly with divine forces.
Many neopagans believe that people are comprised of three selves. The three selves are the Talking Self (the conscious mind), the Younger Self (the unconscious mind) and the Higher Self (the Soul, also called the Divine Self). It is believed that the unconscious (Younger Self) is not capable of speaking or of understanding speech, but understands and responds to symbolism.
This is similar to the Eastern Christian trichotomy of soma, psyche, and 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 the neopagan 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.
Therefore, to many neopagans the power of a ritual is in the way its symbolism speaks to the Younger Self. Psychology has shown that beliefs have an effect on one's perception of reality, such as the placebo effect. Some neopagans believe that witchcraft is a way of tapping into those forces.
People who call themselves Neopagans are more likely to take this view. People who go by the term Wiccan are more likely to believe in divine action. Also, not all people who practice witchcraft consider themselves Wiccan or Neopagan, and vice versa.
- Articles on Witchcraft (http://www.spiritual.com.au/witchcraft.html)
- Pagan Federation official web site (http://www.paganfed.org/)
- The home web site of the Traditional Craft Association (http://www.book-of-shadows.org/)
- Withcraft in the Catholic Encyclopedia on (New Advent) (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15674a.htm)
- Bibliography for the Study of Magic Witchcraft and Religion, James Dow, Professor of Anthropology at Oakland University (http://personalwebs.oakland.edu/~dow/courses/an271/bswmr.html)
- Adapted from: Wikipedia. (2005). Witchcraft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witchcraft). Retrieved on June 11, 2005.