Witchcraft

witchcraft, a form of sorcery, or the magical manipulation of nature for self-aggrandizement, or for the benefit or harm of a client. This manipulation often involves the use of spirit-helpers, or familiars.

Public uses of magic are generally considered beneficial; sorcery, on the other hand, is commonly practiced in private and is usually considered malevolent. Nevertheless, accusations of sorcery are frequently public and explicit. Anthropologists have observed that in societies that lack formal political processes, sorcery accusations are often an indication of other social and economic tensions and conflicts. They have analyzed the killing of accused sorcerers as a form of control through which antisocial people are eliminated and social cohesion is reinforced. Anthropologists distinguish sorcerers, who acquire their powers through study and initiation, from witches, who inherit their powers. In some cultures, especially European, however, the two terms are used interchangeably.

European diabolical witchcraft was a form of sorcery that appealed to pre-Christian symbolism and was associated by Church leaders with heresy. The origins of witchcraft in Europe are found in the pre-Christian, pagan cults such as the Teutonic nature cults; Roman religion; and the speculations of the Gnostics (see Gnosticism), the Zoroastrians, and the Manicheans. These religions and philosophies believed in a power of evil and a power of good within the universe. Later, among certain sects, the worship of good was repudiated as false and misleading.

Religious persecution of supposed witches commenced early in the 14th cent. Trials, convictions, and executions became common throughout Europe and reached a peak during the 16th and 17th cent. Under the authority of the Spanish Inquisition, as many as 100 persons were burned as witches in a single day. The auto-da-fé, as this mass burning was called, took on the qualities of a carnival, where one could buy souvenirs, rosaries, holy images, and food. Suspicion also fell on many who were interested in scientific experimentation. The colonies of North America shared in this fanaticism, particularly in Salem, Mass., where in 1692, 20 persons were executed as witches. (The state exonerated all the accused men and women in 1711.)

Early students of European diabolical witchcraft viewed it alternately as an invention of elites who used accusations of sorcery as an excuse to persecute people for material gain, or as a survival of pre-Christian folk religion. Scholars today seek to interpret it not as a single phenomenon but rather as a complex pattern of beliefs and practices that have been used in different ways at different times. Thus, during the Hundred Year Wars, Catholics and Protestants accused each other of witchcraft.

In the 20th cent. in the West there has been a revival of witchcraft known as Wicca, or neopaganism. This form of witchcraft has nothing to do with sorcery, and is instead based on a reverence for nature, the worship of a fertility goddess, a restrained hedonism, and group magic aimed at healing. It rejects a belief in Satan as a product of Christian doctrine that is incompatible with paganism.

See also shaman.

Bibliography

See J. B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (1972); P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed (1974); J. P. Demos, Entertaining Satan (1982); C. Larner, Witchcraft and Religion (1984); S. C. Lehmann and J. E. Myers, Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion (1985); R. E. Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft (1989); R. Briggs, Witches and Neighbors (1996); L. W. Carlson, A Fever in Salem (1999); M. B. Norton, In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002); L. Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination (2012).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Witchcraft
Charles Alva Hoyt.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1989 (2nd edition)
Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthropology
Susan Greenwood.
Berg, 2000
Witchcraft Continued: Popular Magic in Modern Europe
Willem De Blécourt; Owen Davies.
Manchester University Press, 2004
Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
Stuart Clark.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe
Owen Davies; William De Blécourt.
Manchester University Press, 2004
Witchcraft and Its Transformations, C.1650-C.1750
Ian Bostridge.
Clarendon Press, 1997
Witchcraft: European and African
Geoffrey Parrinder.
Faber and Faber, 1963
Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts
Richard Weisman.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1984
Living Witchcraft: A Contemporary American Coven
Allen Scarboro; Nancy Campbell; Shirley Stave.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England
Carol F. Karlsen.
W. W. Norton, 1998
Cult and Countercult: A Study of a Spiritual Growth Group and a Witchcraft Order
Gini Graham Scott.
Greenwood Press, 1980
The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft
Hans Peter Broedel.
Manchester University Press, 2003
Practising the Witch's Craft: Real Magic under a Southern Sky
Douglas Ezzy.
Allen & Unwin, 2003
Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande
Marc Simmons.
University of Nebraska Press, 1980
Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study
Alan Macfarlane.
Routledge, 1999 (2nd edition)
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