Witchcraft: Concepts of Witchcraft

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The term witchcraft embraces a wide variety of phenomena. Its meaning varies according to historical and cultural context. The word witch derives from the Old English noun wicca (sorcerer) and the verb wiccian (to cast a spell). The original concept of witchcraft corresponds to what anthropologists call sorcery : the attempt to influence the course of events by ritual means. Sorcery is widespread and found in almost every culture and historical period. Two other, quite different, phenomena have also been called witchcraft. The first is the alleged diabolical witchcraft of early modern Europe and its colonies; the second is Neopagan witchcraft, a twentieth-century revival. This article will distinguish sharply among these three phenomena, because the connections between them are few and tenuous.

Anthropological Concepts of Sorcery and Witchcraft

Anthropologists distinguish between sorcery and witchcraft. Sorcery is a system of beliefs and practices whose goal is to manipulate nature in order to bring about specific changes that benefit the sorcerer or her or his clients. Witchcraft is the belief that certain members of society are inherently able to harm others. Sorcery involves a set of skills that can be learned; witchcraft is usually thought to be inborn and inherited. In practice, however, sorcery and witchcraft beliefs often exist side by side, and it is sometimes difficult to separate the two.

The simplest forms of sorcery involve the performance of one action in order to bring about another, such as performing sexual intercourse in a sown field to assure a good harvest, or putting pins in an image to cause injury. However, sorcery often goes beyond the performance of magical acts and invokes the help of spirits. In order to cure illness, a Guatemalan sorcerer may perform rituals invoking the aid of San Simon, a Catholic saint who has absorbed the characteristics of an indigenous Mayan deity. If a member of the Lugbara tribe of Zaire and Uganda were injured, he might appeal to the shrines of his dead ancestors for help. This type of magic has much in common with prayer: both magic and prayer attempt to assure a spirit's assistance. However, while prayer usually implores a deity's cooperation, magic sometimes attempts to compel the gods to collaborate.

Sorcery implies an underlying belief system in a coherent universe in which all parts are interrelated, and influencing one part can affect another. In such a universe, relationships exist linking human beings with stars, plants, minerals, animals, and other natural phenomena, as well as supernaturals, such as gods, nature spirits, and angels. This belief system is known as the "magical worldview." Its thought processes are intuitive rather than analytical, but they have their own internal logic, and are thus not inherently irrational. They can arise out of an emotionally charged experience: for example, if in a rage you curse someone who has offended you, and shortly afterwards this person dies, you may feel both guilty and powerful, and henceforth assume that certain powers are available to you. Empirical science ignores such events because they cannot be verified through experimentation, but societies whose worldviews are not exclusively empirical regard them as direct and convincing evidence of a coherent, magical universe.

Almost all societies have some form of sorcery; in many, it plays an important function. In cultures without access to medical technology, sorcerers may function as healers. Even when medical cures are available, people may still resort to sorcerers to heal certain kinds of illnesses that do not respond readily to pharmaceutics or surgery. Healers, medicine men, and so-called witch doctors are sorcerers who by definition have a positive function in society, for their work is to cure victims of the effects of witchcraft or malevolent magic. Individuals may consult healers to obtain relief from disease or other misfortunes attributed to witchcraft or sorcery; tribal and village authorities may summon them to combat drought or other public calamities. Dances and other rituals serve to detect and repel witches and evil spirits. Such protective sorcery assumes special social importance in times of famine, war, or severe stress in the community.

In some cultures, sorcery and religion come together: a priest or priestess may perform ritual acts to make rain, ripen the crops, procure peace, or ensure victory in war. When such acts are performed publicly, for the public good, they are generally viewed as benevolent and have a positive social function. But when they are performed privately and for the benefit of a few individuals, they are often regarded with suspicion. The distinction between public and private magic often becomes the distinction between "good" and "bad" magic. Both Vodou and Santeria, Afro-Caribbean religions in which elements of magic exist within a religious framework, make formal distinctions between public religious ceremony and private sorcery done against certain individuals; the latter is condemned. Private sorcery provides the poor, the weak, and the powerless with a tool of resistance and revenge. During periods of great social tension, such as plague or warfare, recourse to sorcery tends to increase and intensify, as more individuals feel powerless at the mercy of larger forces.

Periods of social strain are also characterized by a rise in witchcraft accusations. Unlike sorcerers, witches do not actually have to perform any actions to harm their victims. The Azande of southern Sudan believed that witchcraft was a psychic act; it required no magic spells or actions, and could even be done involuntarily. Witchcraft was inherited from the parent of the same sex. Witches were believed to possess mangu, a substance thought to be lodged in the intestines and to confer the spiritual power to harm. Witches were also believed to be able to send their spirits out at night to eat the souls of their victims, causing them to sicken and die. The Azande often blamed any kind of misfortune, from cracked pots to serious illness and death, on witchcraft. Their suspicions fell first upon neighbors with whom they had a disagreement. In order to identify whether witchcraft was responsible for their problems, they would consult oracles. If the oracle's response indicated that witchcraft was to blame, the Azande would confront the alleged witch and ask him to blow water over an offering in order to "cool" his emotions towards the victim. This act alone was usually enough to undo the witchcraft and mend social relations. Only in severe cases would disagreements result in the trial and execution of the witch.

The Navajo Indians of the American Southwest believed in witches called skinwalkers who would transform into wolves or coyotes at night in order to stalk their victims. Skinwalkers were said to assemble secretly in order to concoct a poison made from corpses that they used to kill their enemies. They were thought to fly through the air at night to blow the corpse poison into the smoke holes of their victims' hogans (a hogan is a Navajo dwelling). Both the Azande and the Navajo had healers who specialized in curing cases of witchcraft; however, among the Navajo, these specialized healers sometimes became suspected of witchcraft themselves. This occurs in many societies where sorcerers are enlisted to undo witchcraft, because it is assumed that those who have the power to heal can also use that power to harm.

Cultures with a belief in witchcraft often imagine witches as the very opposite of everything considered right in society. A witch is someone who disregards social rules, flouting even the most basic rules regarded as standards of decency in a particular society. Witches are often said to commit murder and incest, to engage in cannibalism and indiscriminate orgies, to have the ability to transform into animals, and to eat or otherwise abuse corpses. In other words, witches are people who violate the most basic rules in human society. Because the basic rules that maintain social order are similar cross-culturally, witches tend to be imagined in similar ways. It follows that individuals who flout other kinds of social rules, or who appear anomalous in other ways, stand a chance of being accused of witchcraft. For example, among the Azande, those who did not behave as good neighbors, who had many quarrels within the village, or who had a history of violent behavior were more frequently accused of witchcraft. Among the Navajo, those who appeared greedy, selfish and refused to share with their families, or who were marginal to the community and lived in peripheral areas were vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Belief in witchcraft thus serves as a form of social control, reinforcing sanctioned behaviors and creating a threat against those who violate social norms.

Witchcraft beliefs also function as an attempt to explain the reasons behind otherwise unexplained negative events: illness, calamities, natural disasters, and death. Some anthropologists have argued that witch beliefs disappear once more scientific explanations for illness and natural phenomena are available. But even when humans understand the physical causes of a misfortune, the question remains: why does it strike some people, but not others? When a granary collapsed, killing a man inside it, the Azande were perfectly capable of understanding that it had given way because it was in a state of disrepair and weakened by termites. Still, the question for them remained: why had it collapsed at that very moment, and why when that particular man was inside? It is this question, the question why things happen as they do, that witchcraft beliefs attempt to tease out.

Witchcraft beliefs may also serve to explain the unexplainable. In all human cultures there are some experiences that are difficult to explain. These include experiences as diverse as sleep paralysis, near-death experiences, and dissociative states that produce very strong physical sensations that can lead believers to interpret them as signs of a spiritual reality that is contiguous to our material reality. Such experiences figure prominently in folklore about witches and witchcraft. In Newfoundland, for example, people often attribute the experience of sleep paralysis to being "hagged" or "hag ridden," believing that a malevolent witch sends her spirit out at night to torment them in their sleep. Because sleep paralysis often produces a physical sensation of a weight on the chest or a presence pressing down on the sleeper, the belief that witches cause this phenomenon may have arisen as an attempt to explain it.

Unlike sorcery, witchcraft beliefs are not true universals; that is, they do not occur in all cultures. They are most often found in small-scale agricultural societies with a stable settlement pattern, where neighbors have intimate knowledge of one another and social relationships are intense and multilayered. They also tend to be more frequent in cultures with little access to Western scientific knowledge and technology. Witchcraft beliefs are rare in large-scale societies with a great deal of social mobility. But similar phenomena, or so-called witch-hunts, do occur in developed societies with excellent access to information and scientific knowledge, for some of the same reasons they occur in small-scale societies: the desire to effect social control and to blame others for factors causing social tensions.

Witchcraft as a Historical Phenomenon

Patterns of sorcery have existed in virtually all societies in the past, including Western society. The classical Greco-Roman and Hebrew societies from which Western civilization sprang entertained a great variety of beliefs and practices about sorcery, from public rituals that melded with religion to legends about hideous striae and lamiae reported by the poet Horace. He portrayed these witches as clothed in rotting shrouds, with disheveled hair, clawing the soil with taloned fingers as they invoked the gods of the underworld. The Greeks distinguished between three varieties of magic. The highest was theourgia, a kind of public liturgy "working things pertaining to the gods" (theoi ), in which magic and religion blended. Mageia was the next variety; its practitioners worked technical magic privately to help themselves or their clients. Goeteia was the lowest form; "howlers" of incantations and mixers of potions, its practitioners were widely feared.

The sorcery of most cultures involved incantations supposed to summon spirits to aid the sorcerer. In many societies the connection between sorcery and the spirits was not explicitly formulated. But in both Greco-Roman and Hebrew thought the connection was defined or elaborated. The Greeks believed that all sorcerers drew upon the aid of spirits called daimones or daimonia. A Greek daimon could be either malevolent or benevolent. It could be almost a god (theos ), or it could be a petty spirit. In the thought of Plotinus (205270 ce) and other Neoplatonists, the demons occupied an ontological rank between the gods and humanity. The Hebrews gradually developed the idea of the mal˒akh, originally a manifestation of God's power, later an independent spirit sent down as a messenger by God. In Greek translations of Hebrew, mal˒akh became angelos, "messenger." Christians eventually identified "angels" with the Greek daimones and defined them as beings ontologically between God and humanity.

But a different element gained influence through the apocalyptic writings of the Hellenistic period (200 bce150 ce): the belief in evil spirits led by Satan, lord of all evil. The idea had limited precedents in earlier Jewish thought but gained prominence in the Hellenistic period under the influence of Iranian Mazdaism, or Zoroastrianism. Under such influence, the Christians came to divide the Greek daimones into two groups, the good angels and the evil demons. The demons were supposed to be angels who, under Satan's leadership, had turned against God and thereby become evil spirits. Sorcerers sought to compel spirits to carry out their will, but angels under God's command could not be compelled; thus it was supposed that sorcerers might well be drawing upon the aid of evil demons. This was the central idea of the second main variety of witchcraft, the alleged diabolism of the late medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe.

European Witchcraft

Although simple sorcery had always existed, a new concept of witchcraft evolved in medieval and early modern Europe. The Christian concept of the devil transformed the idea of the sorcerer into that of the witch, consorter with demons and subject of Satan. Since 1880 this kind of diabolical witchcraft has been subject to four major schools of interpretation. The first, rooted in classical nineteenth-century liberalism, perceived witchcraft as an invention of superstitious and greedy ecclesiastics eager to prosecute witches in order to augment their own power and wealth. The second school, that of Margaret Murray, argued that witchcraft represented the survival of the old pagan religion of pre-Christian Europe. This religion (which never existed in the coherent form she believed) she supposed to be the religion of the majority of the people down into the seventeenth century, although subject to constant persecution by the Christian authorities. Murray's theory had great influence from the 1920s through the 1950s; unsupported by any credible evidence, it is now rejected by scholars. The third school emphasizes the social history of witchcraft, seeking to analyze the patterns of witch accusations in Europe much as anthropologists have done for other societies. The fourth school emphasizes the evolution of the idea of witchcraft from elements gradually assembled over the centuries. Most scholars currently belong to one or the other of the last two schools.

Historical development

The first element in diabolical witchcraft was sorcery, which existed in Europe as it did elsewhere. It persisted through the period of the witch craze and indeed has persisted to the present. Without this fundamental element, belief in diabolical witchcraft could not have existed. The second, related aspect was the survival of elements from pagan religions in the folklore of Christian Europe. In some parts of Europe, women believed that they participated in nighttime spiritual journeys led by the goddess Diana or by other supernatural female figures. These nighttime spiritual assemblies would dance, feast, and occasionally enter the homes of neighbors, rewarding the hospitable and punishing the slovenly. The wild ride with Diana was a form of folk belief in the "wild hunt," a troop of spirits led by a female or male deity that rode out at night, striking terror in those who encountered it.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian view of these beliefs changed. Early in the period they were seen as merely superstitious and mistaken, but towards the tenth and eleventh centuries they began to be considered heretical. The Canon Episcopi, a legal document of the Frankish kingdom issued about 900 ce, condemns "wicked womenwho believe that they ride out at night on beasts with Diana, the pagan goddess.Such fantasies are thrust into the minds of faithless people not by God but by the Devil." Gradually, the folk concept of the wild hunt, with its feasting, music, and dancing, was transformed into the diabolical sabbat, a nocturnal assembly of witches under the direction of the devil where horrible acts took place.

Another element in the development of diabolical witchcraft in Europe was Christian heresy. The classical formulation of diabolical witchcraft had been established by the fifteenth century. Its chief elements were: (1) a pact with the devil; (2) formal repudiation of Christ; (3) the secret nocturnal meeting; (4) the ride by night; (5) the desecration of the Eucharist and the crucifix; (6) orgy; (7) sacrificial infanticide; and (8) cannibalism. Each of these elements derived from one or another charge made against medieval heretics. Heresy became the medium through which sorcery was linked with the devil.

At the first formal trial of heretics in the Middle Ages, at Orléans in 1022, the accused were said to hold orgies underground at night, to call up evil spirits, to kill and cremate children conceived at previous orgies and use their ashes in blasphemous parody of the Eucharist, to renounce Christ and desecrate the crucifix, and to pay homage to the devil. The history of such charges goes at least as far back as the court of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria (176165 bce), who made similar accusations against the Jews; the pagan Romans used them against the Christians, and the early Christians used them against the Gnostics. An early eleventh-century pedant must have resurrected the charges from patristic accounts of Gnostic heresy and applied them to the Orléans group, applying the archetypal thinking common in the Middle Ages: a heretic is a heretic, and whatever one heretic does another must also do. Thus the idea of heresy, more than any actual heresy itself, became the basis for the connection of heresy with witchcraft. Some later heretical groups, such as the sect of the Free Spirit, also were accused of similar diabolical crimes. Not all heretics were so charged, however. On the whole, the accusations were limited to those who had some connection with dualism, the doctrine that not one but two eternal principles existed. The two principles, one evil and one good, struggled for control of the cosmos. Dualist influence on most medieval heresies was indirect, but upon Catharism it was both direct and pronounced.

Catharism was a dualist heresy imported into western Europe from the Balkans in the 1140s. Strong in southern France and northern Italy for well over a century, it dominated the culture of Languedoc and the Midi in the years around 1200; it was suppressed by the Albigensian Crusade and eradicated by the Inquisition. The Cathari believed that matter, and the human body in particular, were creations of the evil god, whose intent was to hold the spirit imprisoned in the "filthy tomb of the flesh." The evil god is Satan, lord of this world, ruler of all material things and manipulator of human desires for them. Money, sex, and worldly success were the domain of the devil. These doctrines brought the devil closer to the center of attention than he had been since the time of the "Desert Fathers" a thousand years earlier. If only to refute Catharist theories, Scholastic theologians had to give the devil his due. The Catharist designation of Satan as the lord of the things of this world may also have led some who desired those things in the direction of Satan worship.

Scholastic theology was the next major element in the formation of the witch concept. Tradition going back to the early church fathers had suggested that the Christian community, which formed the mystical body of Christ, was opposed by an opposite group forming the mystical body of Satan and consisting of pagans, heretics, Jews, and other unbelievers. It was not only the right but the duty of the Christian to struggle against this evil host. Saints' lives and legends of the intense struggles of the Desert Fathers against demonic forces kept this tradition alive, and it was reinforced by Catharist dualism. In the twelfth through fourteenth centuries the Scholastics developed the tradition of the body of Satan, refined its details, and supplied it with a rational substructure. They extended the devil's kingdom explicitly to include sorcerers, whom they considered a variety of heretic. Simple sorcerers became, in the dominant Scholastic thought of the later Middle Ages, servants of Satan.

The link between sorcerers, heretics, and Satan was the idea of pact. The notion of pact had been popularized in the eighth century by translations of the sixth-century legend of Theophilus. In this story, Theophilus was a clergyman who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for ecclesiastical preferment. He met the devil through a Jewish magician and signed a formal pact with "the evil one" in order to fulfill his desires. The Scholastics derived a number of sinister ideas from the legend of Theophilus. Their theory transformed the person making the pact from a relatively equal contracting party to an abject slave of Satan who abjured Christ, did feudal homage to "the dark lord," and kissed his master's genitals or backside in token of his submission. The Scholastics also broadened the idea of pact to include implicit as well as explicit consent. One did not actually have to sign a contract to be a member of Satan's army; anyoneheretic, sorcerer, Jew, Muslimwho knowingly opposed the Christian communitythat is, the body of Christwas deemed to have made an implicit pact with the devil and to number among his servants.

The shift from Platonic to Aristotelian philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries encouraged the process of demonizing witches. Platonic thought allowed for the existence of a natural, morally neutral magic between divine miracle and demonic delusion; but Aristotelianism dismissed natural magic and denied the existence of occult natural forces. If no natural magic existed, it followed that wonders were worked either through divine miracle or demonic imposture. Magicians compel or exploit supernatural powers, and since God and the angels cannot be compelled or exploited, the powers with which sorcerers deal must be demonic, whether they know this explicitly or not. Thus, Scholastic logic dismissed simple sorcery as demonic witchcraft.

Theology, then, made a logical connection between witchcraft and heresy. Heresy is any persistently held belief counter to orthodox doctrine. One who used demons serves the devil rather than God, and if one serves the devil, one acknowledges that correct theology involves serving the devil rather than God: this was the worst imaginable heresy.

The final element in the transformation of sorcery into diabolical witchcraft was the Inquisition. The connection of sorcery with heresy meant that sorcery could be prosecuted with much greater severity than before. Late Roman laws against sorcery were extremely severe, but during the early Middle Ages simple sorcery, or natural magic, was treated with relative leniency. Often it was ignored; when detected, it might bring no more than a fairly stiff penance. Elements of simple sorcery were incorporated into Christian practice, as seen in the combination of Christian prayer and pagan spells commonly said by parish priests in England during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Penalties for heresy, on the other hand, were severe. Suppression of heresy in the earlier Middle Ages was inconsistent, but in 1198 Innocent III ordered the execution of those who persisted in heresy after having been convicted and excommunicated. Between 1227 and 1235 a series of decrees established the papal Inquisition. In 1233 Gregory IX accused the Waldensian heretics, who were in fact evangelical moralists, of Satan worship. In 1252 Innocent IV authorized the use of torture by the Inquisition, and Alexander IV (12541261) gave it jurisdiction over all cases of sorcery involving heresy. Gradually almost all sorcery came to be included under the rubric of heresy.

The Inquisition was never well organized or particularly effective; in fact, most cases of witchcraft were tried before the secular courts. Nonetheless, the Inquisition provided one essential ingredient of the witch craze: the inquisitors' manuals. These manuals told inquisitors what signs of Satanism to look for, what questions to ask, and what answers to expect. Having obtained the answers they expected by using torture or the threat of torture, the inquisitors duly entered the answers in formal reports, which then added to the body of "evidence" that witches flew through the air, worshiped the devil, or sacrificed babies. It is unlikely that no one in the period ever practiced Satanism, but it is even more unlikely that any widespread Satanism existed. The great majority of the accused were innocent, at least of diabolism.

The witch craze

The number of executions for witchcraft was measured in the hundreds until the end of the mid-fifteenth century, but from 1450 to 1700the period of the Renaissance and the origins of modern scienceas many as a hundred thousand may have perished in what has been called the great witch craze. The witch craze can be explained by the dissemination, during a period of intense social unrest, of the intellectual elements summarized above by the Inquisition, the secular courts, and above all the medium of the sermon. The popularity of the sermon during the later Middle Ages and the Reformation explains how beliefs about witches spread in a period when the leading intellectual movements, such as nominalism and humanism, downplayed or even ignored witchcraft. The invention of the printing press also did its part in spreading the evil. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull confirming papal support for inquisitorial proceedings against witches, and this bull was included as a preface to the Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a book by two Dominican inquisitors. Published in 1486, the Malleus went into many editions in many languages, selling more copies in Protestant and Catholic regions combined than any other book except the Bible. The Malleus colorfully detailed the diabolical, orgiastic activities of witches and helped persuade public opinion that a cosmic plot directed by Satan threatened all Christian society.

Fears of cosmic plots increase in periods of high social tension. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries witnessed a growth of existential anxiety, a widespread belief that the antichrist, the return of the savior, and the transformation of the world were at hand. As the religious split between Catholicism and Protestantism widened during the sixteenth century and flared up into religious warfare, eschatological fears deepened. Catholics saw the Protestants as soldiers of Satan sent to destroy the Christian community; Protestants viewed the pope as the antichrist. Terror of witchcraft and prosecution of witches grew in both Catholic and Protestant regions, reaching heights between 1560 and 1660, when religious wars were at their worst. No significant differences distinguished Catholic from Protestant views of witchcraft. The Protestants, who rejected so many of the accretions of doctrine in the Middle Ages, accepted beliefs about witches almost without modification. Martin Luther (14831546) declared that all witches should be burned as heretics in league with Satan; persecutions in the regions ruled by the Calvinists were comparable to those in Catholic and Lutheran areas. Tens of thousands were persecuted and hundreds of thousands terrified and intimidated during one of the longest and strangest delusions in history.

The discourse of diabolical witchcraft was often invoked by ordinary people to prosecute neighbors for petty jealousies and resentments characteristic of small-scale societies. The craze was restricted almost exclusively to western Europe and its colonies. Since diabolism is virtually meaningless outside a Christian conceptual framework, it could not spread to non-Christian areas. Although the Eastern Christian church shared the same beliefs in the powers of Satan as the Western church, it experienced no witch craze. The absence of the witch craze in the Eastern church illustrates the hypothesis that for a craze to break out, three elements are required: (1) the appropriate intellectual structure; (2) the mediation of that structure from the elite to the people at large; and (3) marked social tension and fear.

Skeptics such as Johann Weyer (fl. 1563) and Reginald Scot (fl. 1584), who wrote against belief in witchcraft, were rare and were often rewarded for their efforts by persecution; Weyer, for example, was accused of witchcraft himself. More typical of the period were the works of the learned King James I of England and VI of Scotland (d. 1625). Personally terrified of witches, James encouraged their prosecution, wrote a book against them, encouraged the statute of 1604 against pact and devil worship, and commissioned a translation of scripture (the Authorized Version or King James Bible) that deliberately rendered certain Hebrew words (such as kashshaf) as "witch" in order to produce texts such as "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Ex. 22:18), which supported the king's design of suppressing witchcraft legally. In 1681 Joseph Glanvill was still able to publish a popular second edition of a work supporting belief in diabolical witchcraft. But by that time the craze was beginning to fade. Cartesian and scientific thought had no room for witchcraft; ecclesiastical and civil authorities agreed that witch prosecutions had got out of hand; and European society was settling down to two centuries (17001900) of relative peace and prosperity. The greatest outburst in those centuries was the French Revolution; it occurred in an intellectual context (the Enlightenment) in which revival of witch beliefs was impossible. European society found other rationales by which to demonize aristocrats, Jews, communists, capitalists, imperialists, or whomever was selected as an object of hatred. The date of the last execution for witchcraft in England was 1684, in America 1692, in Scotland 1727, in France 1745, and in Germany 1775.

Witchcraft and Society

The most important social function of the belief in diabolical witchcraft was scapegoating. Sometimes this process was conscious and cynical, as when Henry VIII added witchcraft to the list of charges trumped up against Anne Boleyn. Much more often it was unconscious. If one is impotent, or one's crops fail, or one becomes ill, it helps to blame a witch, not only because it relieves one of guilt but also because the belief that a witch has caused one's problems gives one the illusion of being able to solve them. If God or fate has caused your illness, you may have no remedy; if a witch caused it, then you may recover once the witch has been found and punished. Some scholars have hypothesized that witchcraft accusations function as a form of psychological projection: according to this unconscious mechanism, reviled characteristics are projected onto another individual or social group. "I hate you" becomes "You hate me," leading to suspicions and accusations of witchcraft against the target. During the period of the witch craze, projection had the important function of promoting the cohesion of Christian communities by the postulation of a powerful external foe. Witches thus served a purpose similar to that of external enemies in modern warfare, for they united the people against a common threat.

Historians have noted correlations between witch accusations and social position. Persons between the ages of forty and sixty were most commonly accused; the accused had fewer children than normal; children were seldom accused of witchcraft but were often believed to be its victims; people accused of witchcraft had been previously accused of other crimes more frequently than normal, especially offensive language, lying, theft, and sex offenses. Chronic grumbling, abrasive personality, quarreling, and cursing also increased one's chances of being accused. The social status of accused witches was usually low or lower middle, though sometimes magistrates, merchants, and other wealthy persons were involved. Anyone connected with medicine, especially midwives, was prone to suspicion, because illness and death could so easily be blamed upon witchcraft.

The most striking social correlation is between witchcraft and women. Although in certain areas and for brief periods of time more men were accused than women, over the entire history of the witch craze 75 percent of the accused were women. In the sixteenth century many more women were living alone than men. Given the patriarchal structure of European society at the time, a woman living alone without the support of father or husband had little influence and little legal or social redress for wrongs. Such women were often reduced to begging and depending on the charity of their neighbors. They also naturally tended to grumble or curse more than persons having effective influence in society. A physically weak, socially isolated, financially destitute, and legally powerless old woman who provoked resentment in her neighbors became an easy target for projection.

But the explanation lies only partly in specific social conditions. The misogyny underlying the association of women with witchcraft sprang from deep and ancient psychological roots. C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, Wolfgang Lederer, and others have commented on the powerful ambivalence of the feminine in religions, mythologies, and literatures dominated by males. The male view of the archetypal feminine is tripartite: she is the sweet, pure virgin; she is the kindly mother; she is the vicious, carnal hag. From the twelfth century, Christian society developed a compelling symbol incarnating the first two types in the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. As the power of the symbol of the Virgin Mother grew, the shadow side, the hag symbol, had to find outlet for its corresponding power. In ancient polytheistic religions the dark side of the female archetype had been integrated with the light side in the images of morally ambivalent goddesses such as Artemis. Split off from the positive side of the archetype, the Christian image of the hag became totally evil. In the period of the witch craze, this one-sided image was projected upon human beings, and the witch, no longer simply a sorceress, became the incarnation of the hag. Other androcentric assumptions in male-dominated religions encouraged the connection. The biblical narrative of creation blamed Eve for having succumbed to the temptation of the serpent, resulting in the expulsion of humans from the Garden of Eden. God, the chief power of good, was imagined in masculine terms, and so the devil, the chief power of evil, was supposed to be masculine also. Since it was believed that the devil's followers submitted to him sexually, it was naturally supposed that they should be women, some of whom described their intercourse with the devil in lurid detail.

The outbreak of witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, during 1692 has been the subject of careful social analysis. Although the first hanging of a witch in New England occurred in 1647, it was at Salem in 1692, when the craze was already fading in Europe, that the colonies produced their most spectacular series of witch trials, in which nineteen persons were executed. After a group of young girls suffered an unusual combination of symptoms and visions, their elders suggested that they might be the victims of witchcraft, and the witch-hunt began. At the time, Salem village was in the throes of a long dispute concerning the church. An unpopular minister, John Burroughs, was succeeded by a controversial one, Samuel Parris, in 1689, just at the time when England was undergoing a revolution and the lines of authority were blurred. The villagers split into factions supporting and opposing Parris, and, since no structured means of expressing dissent existed, its release took the form of vituperation and slander. Continuing incursions of hostile Indians further exacerbated the situation, leading some settlers to conclude that a diabolical conspiracy was to blame.

The outbreak was the violent expression of deeply felt moral divisions; the moral divisions were generated by the quarrel over the governance of the church, and the quarrel over governance was exacerbated by the Indian wars and deep-seated conflicts between prominent families. Salem was a small, premodern village in which everyone knew everyone else, a situation that encouraged people to correlate unfortunate events with unpopular individuals and to blame them for their misfortunes. Intensely religious to a degree seldom paralleled in Europe at the time, the New England Puritans could not view the strife in their village in purely personal or political terms. They interpreted it in religious terms, as a manifestation of the cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan, good and evil. The tradition of belief in the existence of witchcraft was a vehicle perfectly adapted to the expression of such assumptions. Many towns and villages had political controversies without becoming centers of the witch craze; clearly such controversies do not automatically produce witch accusations and cannot be considered their cause. Most sophisticated scholars give full weight to the history of religious concepts and avoid simplistic correlations between external phenomena and witch beliefs. Disasters and controversies can produce witch accusations only in the presence of certain value systems. But such social tensions, once those value systems are there, can provoke the outbreak of a witch persecution.

Modern Witchcraft

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, with their secularism, scientism, and progressivism, were not conducive to witch beliefs of any kind. Yet Romanticism, an intellectual movement that arose in Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, laid the groundwork for a new permutation, which became the third main variety of witchcraft: Neopaganism.

Romanticism located authenticity in the folklore of European peasants, which was presumed to contain elements of ancient pagan religions. This led to a renewed interest in both folklore and paganism, reflected in the art and literature of the time, and to a revisionist interpretation of the witch. Franz-Josef Mone, Jules Michelet, and other writers of the mid-nineteenth century suggested that European witchcraft was really a widespread fertility cult surviving from pre-Christian paganism. Such arguments influenced anthropologists and folklorists at the turn of the century, such as James Frazer, Jessie Weston, and Margaret Murray. In 1899, amateur folklorist Charles Leland published Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches, a text claiming to present evidence that witchcraft was the survival of a pagan cult of Diana. Aradia influenced Murray and other twentieth-century anthropologists. Meanwhile, interest in the occult gained fashion among intellectuals and poets such as Algernon Blackwood and Charles Baudelaire. By the early part of the twentieth century, occultism enjoyed a certain popularity, especially among bohemians; magicians such as Aleister Crowley, who styled himself "the Great Beast," attracted a following. Their doctrines were a mixture of ritual magic, sorcery, dubious historical and philosophical arguments, and a longing for enchantment in an increasingly mechanized world.

Out of the crucible of early twentieth-century British occultism emerged modern Neopagan revival Witchcraft, or Wicca. Around the time that the poet Robert Graves was writing his imaginative White Goddess (1948) about an alleged worldwide cult of the moon goddess, the Englishman Gerald Gardner was recording the first documents that led to the formation of this new religious movement. According to his followers, Gardner, who was born in 1884, was initiated into the ancient religion in 1939 by a witch of the New Forest named Dorothy Clutterbuck. In fact, Gardner probably cobbled together elements of revival Witchcraft from his experiences with various occult and theatrical groups, including the Co-Masons, the Rosicrucian Theatre, and the Crotona Fellowship. Gardner's claim to be the mediator of an ancient religion was spurious, but he launched a growing religious movement that has gained many adherents throughout the world. Whatever its origins, it has become a legitimate religious movement in its own right.

The overall world numbers of revival Witches are difficult to calculate, but scholars estimate that in North America alone there are about 500,000. There are numerous denominations of Neopagan Witchcraft, including Gardnerian Craft, which traces its lineage to Gardner's 1950s coven; Reclaiming Witchcraft, an American variant with an eco-feminist perspective; and Dianic Witchcraft, an all-female tradition. The tenets of Witchcraft as it has evolved include a reverence for nature expressed in the worship of a goddess and (sometimes) a god; the practice of group magic aimed at healing or other positive ends; colorful rituals whose goal is to produce ecstatic experience; and an acceptance of the sensual, bodily aspects of human existence. It rejects diabolism and even belief in the devil on the grounds that the existence of the devil is a Christian, not a pagan, doctrine. It offers a sense of the feminine principle in the divine, a principle almost entirely forgotten in the masculine symbolism of the great monotheistic religions. And its eclectic paganism promotes a sense of the variety and diversity of the sacred.

Modern Neopaganism has no connections with diabolism. Diabolism, in fact, has almost ceased to exist in the late twentieth century. Though a few groups claiming to practice Satanism, such as the American Church of Satan and the Temple of Set, do exist, their practices are more like ironic rejection of bourgeois conventions than true devil worship. Sorcery, on the other hand, continues to flourish worldwide. Curanderos in Mexico and the American Southwest still practice healing with herbs and charms. Fear of sorcerers persists as widely as sorcery itself. In many parts of Africa, sorcery and counter-sorcery continue to be a part of everyday life, especially away from urban centers.

During the 1980s and 1990s, fears of Satanic activities briefly reemerged in North America. In these so-called Satanic panics, rumors spread about far-reaching diabolical conspiracies whose activities allegedly included the sexual abuse and murder of children, the practice of cannibalism, and the induction of new victims into the cult through role-playing games and rock music. The panics were most intense in small towns whose industrial base had been eroded by economic transformation, resulting in financial collapse. They were exacerbated by social changes, such as the rising divorce rate, the increasing number of women in the work force and of children in day care, and new definitions of gender roles, which led to social tensions. Some fundamentalist Protestant ministers fomented the panics by acting as conduits for the rumors. The panics culminated in a series of lengthy trials against the operators of several preschools and day-care centers, who were charged with sexually abusing children in the context of Satanic rituals. Though the charges were later proved to be completely false, a number of people were sentenced to prison. As in most cases of witchcraft accusations, Satanic panics projected fears and anxieties that arose out of social transformation onto completely innocent people. No evidence of diabolical conspiracies or Satanic ritual abuse rings has ever been found.


One of the most surprising aspects of the study of witchcraft is that African, Asian, European, and Native American cultures all postulate similar behaviors on the part of witches. Witches are often elderly and socially isolated; they meet at night in small groups to plot evil deeds; they are able to leave their bodies or change their shapes; they can suck the blood, drain the energy, or devour the internal organs of their victims; and they murder family members, commit cannibalism, fly through the air, hold indiscriminate orgies, and seduce sleeping people. These similarities go beyond the possibility of coincidence. While some anthropologists believe they are the result of diffusion from a single early Paleolithic human culture, others argue that they are the product of projection, a psychological defense mechanism that helps human beings maintain an image of themselves as good by projecting negative, undesirable impulses away from the self and onto an other. All societies designate certain behavior as bad, undesirable, or negative; however, the impulses behind the behavior are part of human nature, and cannot be completely banished from human consciousness. In projection, the forbidden thoughts or impulses are attributed to an "other," whether a group or an individual. Projection may work on both an individual level and a societal one. For example, a person may have long-standing disagreements with a neighbor. One day, the neighbor curses at some chickens that have wandered into the yard; the next day, some of the chickens sicken and die. The individual may assume the neighbor caused the loss. On a societal level, a village may blame a bad harvest or a plague on the presence of witches in the community. In both cases, the witch is imagined as an antisocial force embodying the essence of evil. When the witch is construed as the opposite of right society, projection is at work.

All cultures grapple with the problem of evil. We observe people performing monstrous acts of destruction and cruelty against their own self-interest as well as that of the community. We watch illness and natural disaster strike randomly without any sense of justice or fairness; around us, good people suffer and die while the wicked prosper. Many feel that evil exists in the world to a degree far beyond what one might expect in nature. This pervasive power, whose purpose seems to be to corrupt and destroy the cosmos, can be perceived as coming from an external being. The witch as an embodiment of this evil is a powerful metaphor whose power may be diminished from time to time, but is unlikely to disappear.

See Also

Cathari; Healing and Medicine; Magic; Neopaganism; Theurgy; Vodou; Wicca.


Anthropological Perspectives on Witchcraft and Sorcery

Douglas, Mary, ed. Witchcraft: Confessions and Accusations. London, 1970.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford, 1937.

Kilpatrick, Alan. The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee. Syracuse, N.Y., 1997.

Kluckholn, Clyde. Navaho Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass., 1944.

Mair, Lucy Philip. Witchcraft. New York and Toronto, 1969.

Middleton, John, ed. Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. Austin, Tex., 1967.

Rush, John A. Witchcraft and Sorcery: An Anthropological Perspective of the Occult. Springfield, Ill., 1974.

European and North American Witchcraft

Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass., 1974.

Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. London, 1996.

Caro Baroja, Julio. The World of the Witches. Translated by O. N. V. Glendinning. Chicago, 1964.

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. London and New York, 1975.

Davies, Owen. Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 17361951. Manchester, U.K., 1999.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966). Translated by John and Ann Tedeschi. Baltimore, 1983.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath (1989). Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York, 1991.

Hennigsen, Gustav, and Bengt Ankarloo, eds. Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries. Oxford, 1990.

Macfarlane, Alan. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study. London, 1970.

Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York, 2002.

Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans. London, 1980.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. New York, 1971.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh R. The European Witch Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, and Other Essays. London and New York, 1969.

Modern Witch-Hunts

Ellis, Bill. Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. Louisville, Ky., 2000.

Victor, Jeffrey. Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend. Chicago, 1993.

Neopagan Witchcraft

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Rev. ed. Boston, 1986.

Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford, 1999.

Luhrmann, T. M. Persuasions of the Witches' Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Magliocco, Sabina. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. Philadelphia, 2004.

Orion, Loretta. Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revived. Prospect Heights, Ill., 1995.

Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London and New York, 2001.

Jeffrey Burton Russell (1987)

Sabina Magliocco (2005)