Article printed from World Book INFORMATION FINDER.
WITCHCRAFT is the use of supposed magic powers,
generally to harm people or to damage their
property. A witch is a person believed to have
received such powers from evil spirits. From
earliest times, people in all parts of the world
have believed in witches. According to some
scholars, more than half the people in the world
today think witches can influence their lives.
Through the centuries, witchcraft as practiced in
countries with a European culture has differed from
witchcraft elsewhere. European witchcraft is
anti-Christian and involves an association with the
Devil. For example, a person wanting to be a witch
might sell his or her soul to the devil in exchange
for magic powers.
On the other hand, witchcraft in Africa and the
West Indies and among the Indians of North America
does not involve the Devil. Most of the time, such
non-European witchcraft seeks to harm people. But
it may also be used to help people. For example, a
person in love may ask a witch for a love potion
(drink) to give the loved one. Drinking the potion
will supposedly make the loved one return the
The word witch comes from the Anglo-Saxon word
wicca, meaning wise one or magician. Originally, a
witch was either a man or a woman who supposedly
had supernatural powers. Through the years,
however, only women came to be considered witches.
Men with similar powers were called sorcerers,
warlocks, or wizards.
The Powers of Witches
People who believe in witchcraft think a witch can
harm people in various ways. By giving someone a
magic potion, for example, a witch can make that
person fall in love against his or her will. In
another form of witchcraft, the witch makes a small
wax or wooden image of the victim. The witch may
put something from the victim’s body into the
image, such as fingernail clippings or hair. The
witch then destroys the image by cutting it,
burning it, or sticking pins into it. The victim
supposedly suffers severe pain or even death.
Sometimes a witch casts a spell by reciting a magic
formula. The spell makes the victim suffer. The
witch usually mutters the victim’s name while
casting the spell. In some societies, people use
false names so that witches can have no power over
People once blamed witches for any unexplained
misfortune, such as illness, a sudden death, or a
crop failure. Many persons accused witches of
marrying demons and bearing monster children.
Witches might make cows go dry by stealing their
milk or cast a spell on a churn to prevent butter
from forming. People also thought witches could
raise storms and turn people into beasts. In
addition, witches could ride through the air on a
broom, and make themselves invisible. In ancient
times, many people believed that witches and
warlocks assembled on October 31 to worship their
master, the devil. Today, children dress up as
witches and goblins on this date to celebrate
Halloween (see HALLOWEEN).
Witchcraft has led to many widely believed
superstitions. For example, many people in
southern Europe and the Near East fear a power
called the evil eye. This power enables witches to
cause harm or bring bad luck to others by merely
looking at them. According to another
superstition, a black cat brings bad luck if it
crosses a person’s path. This superstition came
from the belief that every witch had a personal
demon called a familiar. Many familiars, which
lived with and served their witches, existed in the
form of a black cat or some other animal.
Ancient Times. A number of witches appear in
ancient Greek and Latin literature. In the epic
poem, the Odyssey, the witch Circe had the power to
turn people into animals. Medea, another famous
witch, used magic spells to help the Greek hero
Jason obtain the Golden Fleece. See CIRCE; MEDEA.
The Old Testament includes several references to
witches and witchcraft. For example, the
commandment “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”
appears in Exodus (22: 18). Hundreds of years
later, witch-hunters accepted such Biblical
statements as proof that witches existed. They
also used the statements to justify the persecution
of persons accused of witchcraft.
From the 1400’s Through the 1700’s. Some scholars
regard witchcraft as an extremely old system of
organized religious worship. They trace it back to
pre-Christian times in many parts of Europe. From
the 1400’s through the 1700’s, church authorities
tried to stamp out witchcraft. But people in many
parts of the world continued to practice witchcraft
as a religion.
Church persecution of witches occurred in England,
France, Germany, Italy, Scotland, and Spain. In
1431, Joan of Arc, the French national heroine, was
condemned to death as a witch by the English and
was burned at the stake. From 1484 to 1782,
according to some historians, the Christian church
put to death about 300,000 women for practicing
witchcraft. Many of these women suffered such
terrible torture that they confessed to being
witches simply to avoid further torment.
People used many kinds of tests to determine
whether a woman was a witch. For example, they
looked for moles, scars, or other marks on the
woman’s body where a pin could be stuck without
causing pain. Such devil’s marks were said to be
places where the devil had touched the accused
woman. Devil’s marks also included birthmarks. In
another test, people tied the suspected woman’s
arms and legs and threw her into deep water. If
she floated, she was considered guilty of being a
witch. If she sank, she was innocent.
During the 1600’s and 1700’s, an almost hysterical
fear of witchcraft swept most of Europe. Thousands
of persons were tried and executed as witches. The
courts allowed gossip and rumor to be used as
evidence. Many children testified against their
The American colonists brought the belief in
witchcraft from England. Suspected witches
suffered persecution in Connecticut, Massachusetts,
and Virginia. The most famous witch hunt in
American history occurred in Salem, Mass. Many
historians believe that Cotton Mather, a colonial
preacher, did much to stir up public feeling
against the supposed evil deeds of witches. In
1692, the Massachusetts colonists executed 19
people as witches and one person was pressed to
death for refusing to plead to the witchcraft
charge. In addition, about 150 others were
imprisoned. See MATHER; SALEM (Mass.).
Witchcraft Today. Belief in witchcraft exists in
many societies today. Such societies include those
of the Hopi and Navajo Indians of the southwestern
United States, the Maori of New Zealand, and many
peoples of southern Africa. In the West Indies and
elsewhere, the beliefs and practices of voodoo
closely resemble those of witchcraft (see VOODOO).
Some groups believe a person may inherit witch
powers from a parent. Such people do not have to
deal with evil spirits to become witches.
Witchcraft may serve as a means of social control
among the members of a community. For example, a
person who becomes too rich or powerful may be
accused by neighbors of using witchcraft. The fear
of being called a witch could keep such a person
from acquiring too much wealth or power.
During the mid-1900’s, a new interest in witchcraft
occurred in Europe and the United States. As a
result, witchcraft as an organized religion has
attracted large numbers of believers. These people
meet regularly in local covens (groups of 13 or
fewer members). Witchcraft festivals called
Witches’ Sabbaths take place four times a year, one
in each season. The most important festival occurs
Books, motion pictures, and television shows have
done much to lessen the fear of witches and
witchcraft. Today, many witches are portrayed as
attractive, slightly unusual persons whose
supernatural activities do harm to no one.
Contributor: Alan Dundes
See also EVIL EYE; HECATE; MAGIC; SEWALL, SAMUEL.
Ashley, Leonard R. The Wonderful World of Magic and
Witchcraft. Dembner, 1986.
Hoyt, Charles A. Witchcraft. Southern Illinois
Univ. Press, 1981. The background and history of
McHargue, Georgess. Meet the Witches. Lippincott,
1984. For younger readers.
Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft:
Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans. Peter Smith,
1983. First published in 1980.
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