There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the origins of Witchcraft, so I am dedicating all of my #MythicalCreatureMonday posts in April, May and June 2020 to various myths and legends surrounding the Witch. I decided on twelve creature posts, which seems to be a good number for the topic, and we will be meeting Goddesses from all over the world including Greek, Roman and Norse Mythology. I may also include some non-series posts on Saturdays since I am learning so much about this topic that I want to pass along!
For this first post, I thought we should touch on the some of the stories relating to the Witch in recorded history and the turning points that caused so many people to be persecuted. Summarizing this expansive topic won’t be easy so I will be sure and include some of the resources I used for my research in each of my posts. For purposes of this blog post, I will be focusing on: Paganism, Wicca and other Religions, Persecution of Witches in Europe and America, and Some Misconceptions of Witches and Witchcraft.
Paganisim, Wicca and other Religions
What we have come to label as Witchcraft has been around since the dawn of time. When people started to follow herds for a consistent food source, they turned to the older and wiser tribe members to help guide their way. There are remnants of cave paintings during the upper Paleolithic (50,000 – 10,000 years ago) which show figures dancing in animal costume as if they are taking on the spirit of that animal. Shamanism involves a practitioner who reaches altered states of consciousness and channels energies from Mother Earth and the spirit world into our own. The Shamans were often called upon to enter their trance states to give direction to the best hunting grounds, to heal people from sickness and to protect their tribe overall from evil spirits. It is the oldest known spiritual practice and is deeply rooted in nature. Similar practices are embraced by many indigenous cultures to this day.
New civilizations emerged when the nomadic indigenous tribes settled, the earliest known being Sumeria (3500 BCE). Translations of their cuneiform tablets show a belief in a wide array of celestial beings, or Gods. In approximately 700 BC, tablets called the Maqlú were created to detail a ceremony to drive away evil, protect the intended victim from toxic magic, and weaken the person responsible for casting the spell. In this earliest form of exorcism, the tablets give the exorcist specific instructions to burn a figurine representing the witch in order to release their evil hold on the patient.
One of the earliest recorded references to a witch was in the Book of 1 Samuel, written between 931 and 721 BC outlining the story of King Saul. It seems he sought out a witch to summon a dead prophet’s spirit. He wanted advice on how to beat the Philistine Army. The prophecy he received wasn’t what he was looking for though since, after the witch roused the prophet, he foretold of the death of King Saul and his sons. According to the Bible, King Saul’s son’s died in battle the next day, and the King himself committed suicide. Other references are made in the First Testament such as Exodus 22:18 which states, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Around 350 BC, the Celts formed a priest class of nature worshipers known as Druids. These priests acted as teachers, judges, astrologers and healers and paid homage to the many aspects of a single deity, fully embracing a pantheist understanding. Their rituals were based around reincarnation, crafting spells and creating potions, which formed the basic blueprint of witchcraft as we know it today.
Persecution of Witches in Europe and America
In the early middle ages, the Christian faith tolerated the pagan religions until the devastation of the ‘Black Death.’ (Bubonic plague).’ Between 1,347 and 1,349 an estimated 25,000 Million deaths occurred in Europe, although that number varies depending on the source. Christians believed that the heathens (those who don’t belong to a widely held religion) and heretics (those who have beliefs or opinions at odds with Orthodox religion) were the direct cause of their woes. What followed was 300 years of persecuting anyone who practiced magic and mysticism among other things.
The witch trials started in Europe in 1401 and it was understood that anyone who practiced witchcraft was to be killed. In 1486 the publication of the “Malleus Maleficarum” (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”) was written by two members of the Dominican Order and Inquisitors for the Catholic Church, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. There is some question if Jacob Sprenger actually contributed anything to the work beside his name, but regardless the book was widely used as an instruction manual on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches. Between the years 1487 and 1520 it was published 13 times and between 1574 and 1669 another 16 times. It was in this book where many of the witch “tells” we know of today were described and was the first to associate a woman with the term. As a matter of fact, it may very well be the first place where cats are tied as familiars to the witch in postmedival times.
The book was widely used during the Inquisition, a very dark time in our history with death tolls estimates ranging all over the map, and which may include the deaths caused by the plague in some counts. One thing is agreed upon, outcasts and other suspicious persons were widely accused, such as: Old Women, Midwives, Jews, Muslims, Witches, Scientists, Poets, and Gypsies. It is also agreed that the majority of the witches accused were women, most likely as a direct result of the Mallus Maleficarum’s text. It is estimated that between 1500 and 1660, approximately 60,000 suspected witches were put to death in Europe although those numbers widely vary. The preferred methods for dispatching of a witch and their “familiar” was burning, hanging and drowning. I was surprised by the data showing Germany with the highest number of witch trials, and read that at the end of it all some towns were completely devoid of women.
In the early 1600s, as the witch trials were winding down in Europe, they made their way to the New World. While there are records of trials in Virginia as early as 1626, none of the convicted were put to death. The first accused witch in America was Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut, who was hung in 1647. The best-known witch trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts, and on June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop became the first accused witch to be put to death there. Over the course of the year, approximately 150 people were accused, 19 women were hung and one man was pressed to death. It was the largest witch-hunt ever to take place in America and for those who want to learn more about this history, a trip to Salem really is a must.
Some Misconceptions of Witches and Witchcraft
There are many modern day witches who perform spells, evoke healing chants and pay homage to nature. Witchcraft is still practiced, but much like the ancient (or modern) Druids, there is seldom anything sinister about it. “Harm to none” is a motto they live by and adhere to, and they strive to live in tune with nature, creating balance in the energies that surround them. Their Book of Shadows holds the wisdom they have gathered throughout the years, passed down from generation to generation, much like the myths and legends of old. While there are some darker sides to the craft as a whole, there is no place for Satan in the Wiccan practice. It goes with that whole “harm to none” mindset.
Many of the tools that are used by the witch have qualities that have proven health benefits, so it makes sense that the earliest witches were thought of as healers. The use of smudge wands is thought to have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, very useful for cleaning out the air in sick rooms and removing negativity. The use of crystals, minerals and alloys are also something that is known to provide balance and reduce illness. I found it interesting that the inclusion of copper could have a wide array of positive affects. For those lucky enough to still have copper pipes keep them! It will help keep bacteria at bay!
Chanting or prayer in any form has positive psychological effects, and can be included in your life no matter your religious or spiritual preference. Many healers passed their positive energy to their patients, providing hope and reassurance when the patient’s stores were low. In Wicca, the spells that are cast are very similar to prayers in other religions. Energy is raised within a circle made by its members during a ceremony very much like what you see in most churches. As a matter of fact, many of the tools that are used today in modern Christianity were originally pulled into the faith from the pagan religions in order to give the new members a sense of familiarity. The use of incense, holy water, and the inclusion of prayer, are all things familiar to both religions. After spells are cast, the remainder of the energy that is raised is sent back into the earth, which is known as grounding. The spells that are cast are for the good of all, and special words can be said for those who need a little more magic in their lives. The true power lies in the belief that their efforts will work, much like the prayers that are sent to the divine.
I hope you stay tuned over the next few weeks as I dive into the backstories of some pretty well-known and not so well-known Goddesses that created the foundation of witchcraft that we know of today. You will find that there is nothing to be afraid of, and that many of the occupations we are comfortable with today, would have been questioned hundreds of years ago when the witches among us were feared and persecuted.
Be sure to check on on Saturdays as well where I continue to dive into this fascinating topic and share the resources I find along the way. Stay safe everyone and happy reading! XO
If you have some time, these were some great videos I found:
The Burning Times – The History of Witches – Part 1
Witches in Literature and Art – The History of Witches – Part 2
Witches in Horror Movies – The History of Witches – Part 3
Here are some articles to check out:
Why Europe Was OverRun By Witches by: Gwynn Guilford
Salem Witch Trials – Events, Facts, & Victims by: History.com Editors
Magical Grounding, Centering and Shielding Techniques by: Patti Wigington
Inside the Conversion Tactics of the Early Christian Church by: History.com Editors
Witchcraft and Cats in the Middle Ages by: Irina Metzler