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A Brief History of Witchcraft (Part One)

Witchcraft has probably been around as long as humanity has in some form or other. It can take many forms, from a shamanic and animistic practice to one that uses very formal and complex rites, rituals and correspondences. At the heart of witchcraft, is the ability to create change in the world, to take control of aspects of life and the natural world in order to bring about the desired outcome.

It is difficult to separate witchcraft from religious or spiritual traditions found in the history of ancient humanity. As we simply do not know what they believed, we can only make assumptions based on what we find through archaeology and anthropology. There are tantalising examples of cave art from our Stone Age ancestors, where we see human beings with animal qualities performing rituals of a sort. We believe that they saw the feminine principle in the divine, based on findings such as the Venus of Willenorf (from around 30,000 BCE) to examples of goddesses from the Nile region in Egypt such as Nathor figure (from around 4,000 BCE). We assume that the cave paintings and statuary/figurines represent god/goddess images, or their priests/priestesses, however, that is still an assumption. The rites and rituals that may have accompanied these items would have elements of what we know today as witchcraft perhaps evolved with them. At the very least, we can deduce from the artwork that they had religious or spiritual traditions, but what exactly these were in anyone's guess.

It's yet another assumption, but one many are happy to make, that throughout history there have been those who have been seen as different, as set apart from the normal lives and routines of others, whether it be in a tribe or community. These people may have had highly developed sensitivities, and were able to predict the weather perhaps (I personally always know when the pressure is changing from a high to a low front; I can feel it in my head and my ears pop!). They may have had a near-death experience that grants them an ability to deal with death and the dying. They may know where the herbs grow that heal certain wounds. Notice that I say "may" in each of these sentences, because we just don't really know for sure, and it would be irresponsible for me to say otherwise.

We can work more easily when it comes to actual recorded history. One famous anthropologist and Suffragette, Margaret Alice Murray, has been highly controversial in this regard. She is known to have advanced the idea that witchcraft is the Old Religion, and that it stemmed from a matriarchal culture. This idea had already been advanced by Charles Godfrey Leland, who wrote about and practiced witchcraft. In 1888 he claimed to be initiated into La Vecchia Religione (The Old Religion) in Italy, and subsequently wrote a book called Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. Whether Leland's claims are true or false we will probably never know, but Murray expounded on this idea to create the concept that those persecuted in the Middle Ages of witchcraft were really part of an ancient goddess/fertility religion still being practised. Again, there is no evidence sadly to prove this theory, and quite a bit to prove to the contrary.

In the Middle Ages, when people (men, women and sometimes even children) were persecuted for witchcraft it seems very unlikely that the majority were actual practitioners of the art. When we look at the reasons stated, we find see the seedy underbelly of humanity's unkindness and greed. Neighbours that hated their neighbour could raise an allegation without evidence. Corrupt churchmen could do the same in order to gain the lands and profit from those that were hanged or burnt at the stake (witches here hanged in England and New England, and burned in Scotland and Europe). Many were condemned as heretics, not witches. But what was recorded from these witch trials passed into the folk memory, and certain ideas came about concerning witchcraft. Some may have truth, some may be completely the deranged and perverted dreams of the men who seemed to enjoy torturing their captives and extorting a confession. At any rate, the inflammatory persecution and hysteria had begun.

King James I was a staunch believer in witchcraft, as was his mother Queen Elizabeth I (though she retained an astrologer, Sir John Dee as part of her retinue and as her advisor). James I was so fearful of witchcraft that he changed the wording in the Bible to read “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” where before it stated “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live”.  In the 17th century, witchcraft was real and threatening (at least to the establishment), and if you did not believe, you could be labelled a heretic or a witch yourself.

In these times, it was alleged that witchcraft consisted of making deals with the Devil, consorting with the Devil in various ways.  The Devil could influence you to do or say things that you would not otherwise do.  Sabbaths, the witches' gatherings, were said to consist of singing, dancing and drinking.  In the very strict Puritan faith, all of these were taboos in varying degrees.  One could also be possessed by a witch, who could fly out of her body and take over the body of another person. 

The Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches, written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger in 1486 was the handbook used for witch hunters.  Section I argues that because the Devil exists and has the power to do astounding things, witches exist to help, if done through the aid of the Devil and with the permission of God (which is odd, to say the least). The Devil’s power is greatest where human sexuality is concerned, for it was believed that women were more sexual than men. Loose women had sex with the Devil, thus paving their way to become witches. The Malleus states that all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. In Section II of the Malleus Maleficarum, the authors turn to matters of practice by discussing actual cases. This section first discusses the powers of witches, and then goes into recruitment strategies. It is mostly witches as opposed to the Devil who do the recruiting, by making something go wrong in the life of a respectable matron that makes her consult the knowledge of a witch, or by introducing young maidens to tempting young devils. This section also details how witches cast spells and remedies that can be taken to prevent witchcraft or help those that have been affected by it (usually bought from those who are persecuting witchcraft). Section III is the legal part of the Malleus that describes how to prosecute a witch. The arguments are clearly laid for the lay magistrates prosecuting witches. It offers a step-by-step guide to the conduct of a witch trial, from the method of initiating the process and assembling accusations, to the interrogation of witnesses, the formal charging of the accused. Women who did not cry during their trial were automatically believed to be witches.  Three hundred years on, books of a similar vein were still being written to find and prosecute witches. It is my personal opinion that the material contained in these books says a lot more about the authors than they do about witchcraft and those who were persecuted.

In the Salem Witch trials held at the end of the 17th century, spectral evidence was used in Court, which consisted of the testimony of an afflicted person who could see the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them.  Yes, really. The Court contended that permission was necessary by the witch for the Devil to assume his or her shape, in order to influence others to their ways.  Increase Mather, the father of the infamous Cotton Mather, was one of many who opposed such evidence to be held at Court, stating that spectral evidence was not merely enough on its own to convict one of witchcraft.  He published a book entitled Cases of Conscience, which spoke out against the shaky testimony and absence of hard evidence. 

Cotton Mather however was influential in upholding spectral evidence to begin an investigation into witchcraft, and to bring someone to trial.  In his book The Wonders of the Invisible World, he states:

 “That the Devil has made a dreadful Knot of Witches in the Country, and by the help of Witches has dreadfully increased that Knot: That these Witches have driven a Trade of Commissioning their Confederate Spirits, to do all sorts of Mischiefs to the Neighbours, whereupon there have ensued such Mischievous consequences upon the Bodies and Estates of the Neighbourhood, as could not otherwise be accounted for: yea, That at prodigious Witch-meetings, the Wretches have proceeded so far, as to Concert and Consult the Methods of Rooting out the Christian Religion from this Country, and setting up instead of it, perhaps a more gross Diabolism, than ever the World saw before. And yet it will be a thing little short of Miracle, if in so spread a Business as this, the Devil should not get in some of his Juggles, to confound the Discovery of all the rest.”[1]

 Punishment for witchcraft varied according to the country in which one was persecuted. As previously stated, in Europe and Scotland, witches were burned. In England and America, witches were hanged.  Various methods of torture were used, such as the rack, and pressing, which involved laying stones on the chest of the accused, gradually increasing the weight until they either confessed or named other witches.  In New England for the Salem Witch Trials, the Court mistakenly believed that pressing was still legal, when in fact it had been abolished in England twenty years earlier.

The Salem Witch trials (1692 - 1693) were held just after a tumultuous time in New England.  Salem, Massachusetts, is in the eastern seaboard region of the United States. It was full of natural resources, and under attack from both the French and the French native allies time and again. New England had been without a governor during the upheaval in the Old World, however, after the Glorious Revolution William and Mary appointed William Phips as Governor for the province of Massachusetts.  One of his first duties was to create a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, to handle the large numbers of people in the Salem Town jails at the time.

Salem village was also torn apart by land disputes, as well as those who were against the appointment of Samuel Parris as their first ordained minister, who was to receive the deed to his parsonage as part of his compensation. This did not sit well with those of strong Puritan faith. 

Children of varying age, from 4 years of age to 12, were the accusers in the trials.  One of the first to be accused was Tituba, a slave girl/woman, her background often supposed as Caribbean.  Sarah Good was another of the initially accused, a poor woman who was known to beg for food and shelter from her neighbours.  Sarah Osborne, who had married her indentured servant, was another among the early accused.  They fit the description of the usual suspects, as they did not conform or fit into Puritan society.  Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, and the Court convicted twenty-nine, nineteen of whom were executed.

When the trials were later found to be false, full of folly and superstition, families of those executed later received compensation.  Sadly, those who had been excommunicated had been buried together in a shallow, unmarked grave. However, oral history claims that the families retrieved the bodies, to bury them in unmarked graves upon their personal properties.  Those that had been named but had fled returned to find their homes plundered and had to fight for compensation. 

Rev John Hale, who was present at many of the Salem proceedings, wrote a book entitled “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft” in 1697.  In it he expressed the remorse and regret at what had taken place, stating “such was the darkness of the day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds and could not see our way”.[2] 

In 1735 King George I passed the Witchcraft Act which stated that witchcraft wasn't real, so people should stop being persecuted as witches. However, those who pretended to have supernatural powers could be. This is interesting, as it is mirrored in the most recent repeal of the Witchcraft Act in Britain, where we have the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 taking its place. Interestingly, when the book you are holding in your hands was written, in Canada the criminal code is in the process of being updated, where before it was illegal to “pretend” to practice witchcraft. The code was put in place to deal with fraudsters taking people’s money for their “work”, but in essence, also condemns witchcraft, either as illegal in itself, or fake, because witchcraft doesn’t exist, and all who do it are “pretending”. It also means that genuine practitioners of the arts would not be able to charge for services, say in a valid tarot reading, without possibly breaking the law. As a Canadian, I feel that perhaps Canada should have paid more attention sooner to the British legal code in the 1950’s, where the difference was clearly made between fraud and practicing your religion.



[1] Mather, C. Wonders of the Invisible World (Devoted Publishing, 2017) 11

[2] Wilson, L. The Salem Witch Trials (Lerner Publications, 1997) 51

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 Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 30 years. She has written many books, including The Path of the Hedge Witch: Simple, Natural Magic and the Art of Hedge Riding, as well as The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker. Find her channels on social media at YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

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