The History of Witchcraft
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The history of witchcraft according to Montague summers is a subject “as old as the world and as wide as the world as this subject deals with every kind of “malign occult art” (p. vii). Summers noted that sources of information of witchcraft were scarce and the only “sound sources of information are the contemporary records; the meticulously detailed legal reports of the actual trials; the vast mass of pamphlets which gives eye witness account of the individual witches and reproduced verbatim as told in court and the technical works of the inquisitors” (Summers p. 1).
According to adherents of witchcraft practices, accurate witchcraft history is vanished in the mists of time and those surviving accounts were written by people who were either bias or dislike them and the witchcraft teachings were recycled to become the teachings of the Christian saints (Wecca, Sylvan). Wicca noted however that the practice of witchcraft goes over fifty thousand years ago as according to the article, there is evidence of Paleolithic man’s ritual of burying the dead and the evidence of goddess worship abounds during this period. Denise Zimmerman and Katherine Gleason stated that witches practice magic and Wicca—an earth-based religion that honors a deity that is divided into male and female goddess. Although those practices may not be known as witchcraft during that period, but in the context of witchcraft during the middle ages, those rituals and goddess worship during the prehistoric period was a witchcraft practice.
However, the history of witchcraft seemed to be complex and is clouded with uncertainty as to the beginning of the witchcraft practices as in most cases; this practice has been linked to occultism astrology and pseudo spiritualist and that the history of witchcraft in Europe has been thought to have begun in the fourteenth only as witchcraft practices were believed to be only invented by the inquisition and not by the witches.
Rosemary Ellen Guiley stated that witchcraft has been in existence since the ancient human civilizations, in the form of sorcery. She cited that magical rites depicted in the pre- historic arts were used to ensure successful hunting. Guiley noted that during the Roman times, there was distinction between the good and the bad magic. Those considered harmful magic was liable to be punished under the law. However, the distinction between the good and the harmful magic was gone during the spread of Christianity and witchcraft practices came to be associated with worship of the devil (Guiley).
In A.D. 700 witchcraft was more and more associated with heresy. Thus, the succeeding generations of Christianity had done a wide campaign in order to trample out heretic doctrines including heretic religious leaders sentencing them to death by burning (Guiley). This witch persecution was called The Inquisition which had started in 1230 as effort to rid the society of heretics. It was during this period that witchcraft rise to its height, this was also the dark period of the witches as both the secular and Christian courts were involved in the hounding of witches (Guiley). Guiley stated that during this time, many people were accused of witchcraft and had faced trial on charged of human sacrifice and devil worship in horrible rituals.
The hunt for witches hit the highest point during the later part of the 1500 until the early 1600s. Most of the victims were women accused of witchcraft. They were tortured, imprisoned, banished, or were executed. The most famous of these witch persecution is the American witch hunts that began in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. The story of witchcraft in Salem started out with a slave girl named Tituba who has a duty to tend two girls in the household of her master. Dorothy A. Mays narrated that the two girls recounted that Tituba showed them how to float an egg white in a glass as means of reading the future. As other neighborhood girls were intrigued, soon a small group formed who eagerly listened to Tituba’s stories and observed her tricks and spells. During this period Tituba enchanted the girls with her fortune telling and displayed estranged behavior. When this was discovered she was made to confess of witchcraft connections and she admitted to have connection with mysterious man clothed in black, with talking cat, and red rats. This incident led to the deaths of twenty people even before the trial was halted (Mays p. 402). John Butler hinted that the 1600s have witnessed an era of witch abounding in the same era dominated by Puritanism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism, however, this era like the past four centuries was a dark period for witches and witchcraft practices.
Contemporary Revival of Interest in Witchcraft
It was this persecution of witches that vanished most the witchcraft practices as people were afraid to accused of being a witch. Guiley noted that the witchcraft scare that encompassed human society lasted about a year (Guiley). Today however, the witch craft religion that has been focus of the religious persecution that frightened and scared people of being accused in the past, are now resurging as part of the wider Neo-pagan movement. The difference is that today, this movement is gaining acceptance and prominence in the society. The rise of Wicca as contemporary religion has ignited the quest for a renewed interest in witchcraft as evident in the publishing and media emphasis and the tremendous patronage of Harry Potter movies and other films featuring witch craft.
One of the prominent vehicle of the revive interest in which is the Neo-paganism movement which is directly credited to Gerald B. Gardener (1884-1964) through his two influential books entitled The Witchcraft Today and The meaning of Witchcraft. However there were still others, who had made significant contribution on the revival of witchcraft in neo-paganism such as the Alexandrian Branch founded by Alex Sanders, the traditional Wiccan neo-paganism or those who are claiming continuity with the old European paganism, and dianic which according to William Scott Green and Jacob Neusner was a “general label commonly used to identify feminist and womanist forms of neo-paganism that stress a goddess religion (p. 73). Green and Neusner stated that most of neo-paganism
“Stress elements of ancient traditions, such as the religion of the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the European paganism such as the religions of Norse and Teutonic cultures, and especially, those of the British Isles. The traditional practice of voodoo, Santeria, Candomble, and the religions of indigenous cultures, is entirely separate from the current revival of the craft, these religions has stimulated interest and experimentation among Wiccans and neo-pagans” (Green & Neusner p. 73).
The present social situation in Europe and America is evidently conducive to revival of witchcraft as the formerly dominant evangelical faith is losing ground not only to neo paganism but all sorts of personal desires and happiness. The zealousness that once was a strong wall that prevents the witches to practice witchcraft is gone and the society is now prepared to embrace the resurging witchcraft in the form of neo-paganism. If this trend will continue, neo-paganism will soon become the standard of modern society and that it might trigger the reversal of roles then and now. However, it this is generally accepted, then it will soon become a reality that every democratic society will become a domain of the contemporary witches.
Green, William Scott & Neusner, Jacob The Religion Factor USA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Guiley, Rosemary “Witchcraft History”
Mays, Dorothy Women in Early America USA: ABC-CLIO, 2004
Summers, Montague The history of Witchcraft and Demonology Great Britain: Routlege & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1973.
Wicca, Sylvan “The History of Witchcraft”