A Brief History of Witchcraft

history of witchcraft

Witchcraft is more than a flash in the cauldron.

Witchcraft traces its origins back to before recorded history. Its traditions have developed over thousands of years and experienced a revival in the modern day. Even so, witches remain a misunderstood component of society.

So let’s take a look at how it all began. Here’s a brief history of witchcraft.

Wands Upon a Time

Knowledge has always struggled against ignorance. That fact alone encompasses the early history of witches.

In more primitive times, humanity had no choice but to live in fear of its unknowns. Illness, the weather, crop failures, and natural disasters were all the domain of evil spirits.

While men would hunt and gather for the tribe, the women remained at home. Over time, they began to develop a close affinity for their world, discovering the secrets of herbs and basic forms of medicine.

But this knowledge struggled to break through ignorance. Women who used these powers for good were often seen as treating with evil spirits. Even in societies where practitioners were accepted, there was still a degree of distrust.

Men Are Pigs

Stories from the Bronze Age are replete with depictions of evil witches. More generally, their vilification of powerful women is difficult to ignore.

One of the most famous witches of the ancient world played a part in the story of Troy. The witch Circe was one of the many obstacles encountered by Odysseus on his journey back to Greece.

According to tradition, a menagerie of transformed animals attended to Circe. When Odysseus’ men landed on the island, they found out why: she drugged them and turned them into pigs.

Sadly, this would be far from the last time stories of witchcraft demonized its users.

Middle Age Crisis

By the middle ages, the role of the “cunning woman” was common across Europe. These were women with a deep understanding of magic, divination, and healing. While sometimes persecuted, they often played a key role in society.

Witchcraft is often associated with the Druidism of the Dark Ages British Isles, and with similar pagan traditions across Europe. As the Dark Ages gave way to increasing Christianisation, many of these witchcraft traditions died out.

Christianity brought with it a single epicenter of evil in the form of the Devil. Slander against witches now painted them as direct associates of Satan.

Yet the prevailing Christian message at the time was that witchcraft didn’t exist. Charlemagne (among others) actually prohibited the identification and burning of witches on these grounds. It would be a few hundred years before widespread persecution of witches began.

Boiling Point

“When shall we three meet again

In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”

-William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Shakespeare’s depiction of witches appeared at the beginning of the Early Modern period. It’s fair to say it set the tone.

In the Early Modern period, opinion on witchcraft shifted. Belief in witchcraft returned, and persecution came with it.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the “threat” of witchcraft became a moral panic. The resulting executions killed more than 30,000 people.

The reality behind these witch trials is complex. They were more often methods of ruling through fear, removing political opponents, and reinforcing Christian hegemony than any actual attempt to route out witchcraft.

The Salem witch trials are perhaps the most famous example. These occurred in the New World, and still inform much of our pop cultural view of witches today.

The Industrial Hurly Burly

The march of modernity prevented more pointless deaths by witchcraft.

Increasing urbanization and the spread of scientific knowledge made superstitions a less dominant force in society. Belief in witchcraft didn’t disappear, however. Even today, over 65% of Americans say they believe in the supernatural.

But this shifting system of belief did make the world safer for witches. Countries began to introduce laws to ban the persecution of witches. The rise of feminism empowered women to stand up for their rights as free individuals.

Our language preserves the ridiculous nature of witch trials. The phrase “witch hunt” now refers to an ideological attempt to round up a persecuted group.

A Spell of Revival

Despite persecution and the march of industrialization, witchcraft found its way to the modern world.

Since the turn of the 20th century, a revivalist movement has rebuilt the prominence of witchcraft. Along the way, it has reappropriated the negativity surrounding witches into a source of identity–not unlike many other persecuted minorities.

The modern witch marries the ancient traditions of pagan society to modern sensibilities of morality and conduct.

Wicca is a popular modern movement that pulls together a wide variety of old traditions thanks to our expanded global knowledge. The term “witch” applies to both men and women of Wicca.

Despite that, witchcraft still has close links with feminine power. Many social commentators have noted the link between feminism and the rebirth of witchcraft. In that context, witchcraft is a reclaiming of female energy.

Pop culture plays an inevitable role in the public face of witchcraft. While it can paint witchcraft in a bold coat of Stereotype, it also brings awareness and promotes interest in modern witchcraft.

The Modern Witch Hunt

In some areas of the world, the persecution of witches is still accepted.

Modern witch hunts are still rife in areas of Africa. It’s believed that the deaths caused by modern witchhunts outweigh the more famous Early Modern panic.

In India, witchcraft is often cited as a reason for “justified” murder. This is often a smokescreen to justify the robbing and killing of widows and divorcees.

Similar stories occur in Nepal, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia. Superstition about witches and their motives haven’t gone away in the wider world.

Even witches in modern Western societies face ridicule and ostracism. This is why modern witches often take pains to separate themselves from pop cultural depictions of satanic witches as depicted in movies and television shows. 

The Tangled History of Witchcraft

We’ve seen that the history of witchcraft is a tangled skein. Its image in the modern day continues to evolve, but the best way to see where something’s going is to know where it came from. With a deeper knowledge of history, you can be better informed about the present.

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