Witchcraft, in historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers. Historically, it was widely believed that witchcraft involved the
use of these powers to inflict harm upon members of a community or their property, and that all witches were in league with
the devil - a common European belief, which was enshrined in Law in England and Wales in 1601. Since the mid 20th century,
the term witchcraft has sometimes been used to distinguish between bad witchcraft and good witchcraft, with the latter often
involving healing. The concept of witchcraft as harmful is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining
human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community. A witch (from Old English
wicca m. / wicce f.) is a practitioner of witchcraft.
Beliefs in witchcraft, and
resulting witch-hunts, are both found in many cultures worldwide, today mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. in the witch smellers in Bantu culture), and historically notably in Early Modern Europe of the 14th to 18th century, where witchcraft came to be seen as a vast
diabolical conspiracy against Christianity, and accusations of witchcraft led to large-scale witch-hunts, especially in Germanic Europe.
The "witch-cult hypothesis", a controversial theory that European witchcraft was a suppressed pagan religion, was popular in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Since the mid-20th century, Witchcraft has become the self-designation of a branch of neopaganism, especially in the Wicca tradition following Gerald Gardner, who claimed a religious tradition of Witchcraft with pre-Christian
In anthropological terminology a 'witch' differs from a sorcerer in that they do not use physical
tools or actions to curse; their maleficium is perceived as extending from some intangible inner quality, and the person
may be unaware that they are a 'witch', or may have been convinced of their own evil nature by the suggestion of others. This
definition was pioneered in a study of central African magical beliefs by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who cautioned that it might not correspond with normal English
European witchcraft have found the anthropological definition difficult to apply to European and British witchcraft, where
'witches' could equally use (or be accused of using) physical techniques, and some really had attempted to cause harm by thought
Practices to which the witchcraft
label has historically been applied are those which influence another person's mind, body, or property against his or her
will, or which are believed, by the person doing the labelling, to undermine the social or religious order. Some modern commentators
consider the malefic nature of witchcraft to be a Christian projection. The concept of a magic-worker influencing another
person's body or property against his or her will was clearly present in many cultures, as there are traditions in both folk
magic and religious magic that have the purpose of countering malicious magic or identifying malicious magic users. Many examples
can be found in ancient texts, such as those from Egypt and Babylonia, where malicious magic is believed to have the power to influence
the mind, body or possessions, malicious magic users can become a credible cause for disease, sickness in animals, bad luck,
sudden death, impotence and other such misfortunes. Witchcraft of a more benign and socially acceptable sort may then be employed
to turn the malevolence aside, or identify the supposed evil-doer so that punishment may be carried out. The folk magic used
to identify or protect against malicious magic users is often indistinguishable from that used by the witches themselves.
There has also existed in
popular belief the concept of white witches and white witchcraft, which is strictly benevolent. Many neopagan witches
strongly identify with this concept, and profess ethical codes that prevent them from performing magic on a person without
in malicious magic practices exists, such practitioners are typically forbidden by law as well as hated and feared by the
general populace, while beneficial magic is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the people – even if the orthodox
establishment opposes it.
During the 20th century interest
in witchcraft in English-speaking and European countries began to increase, inspired particularly by Margaret Murray's theory of a pan-European witch-cult originally published in 1921, since
discredited by further careful historical research. Interest was intensified, however, by Gerald Gardner's claim in 1954 in Witchcraft Today that a form of witchcraft still existed
in England. The truth of Gardner's claim is now disputed too, with different
historians offering evidence for or against the religion's existence prior to Gardner.
The Wicca that Gardner initially
taught was a witchcraft religion having a lot in common with Margaret Murray's hypothetically posited cult of the 1920s. Indeed
Murray wrote an introduction to Gardner's Witchcraft Today, in effect putting her stamp of approval on it. Wicca is now practised
as a religion of an initiatory secret society nature with positive ethical principles, organised into autonomous covens and led by a High Priesthood. There is also a large "Eclectic Wiccan" movement
of individuals and groups who share key Wiccan beliefs but have no initiatory connection or affiliation with traditional Wicca.
Wiccan writings and ritual show borrowings from a number of sources including 19th and 20th-century ceremonial magic, the medieval grimoire known as the Key of Solomon, Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis and pre-Christian religions. Both men and women are equally termed "witches."
They practice a form of duotheistic universalism.
death in 1964 the Wicca that he claimed he was initiated into has attracted many initiates, becoming the largest of the various
witchcraft traditions in the Western world, and has influenced other Neopagan and occult movements.
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