The following essay aims to define witchcraft and explain why it has become so widespread in today’s world. There are many spheres to consider when discussing witchcraft, thus it is important to break down the concept to comprehend it fully. Firstly this essay will outline all areas which are relevant to witchcraft, including the history surrounding witchcraft – ranging between the 14th and 18th century; witchcraft as a religion – also known as ‘Wicca’ – and it’s presence in today’s society; the role of magic and it’s relevance regarding witchcraft; the perception of magic and witchcraft within different cultures; witchcraft and modernity; and the misconstrued concepts. All of these elements add to the definition of witchcraft and when analysed will lead to conclude why belief in such a controversial topic is so widespread.
The English oxford dictionary describes witchcraft as, “the exercise of allegedly magical powers, an act or instance of employing sorcery, especially with malevolent intent, a magical rite or technique; the exercise of supernatural powers, alleged intercourse with the devil or with a familiar; an irresistible influence or fascination, charm, enchantment” (REFERENCE). This definition is how witchcraft is perceived largely within western society, and is defined differently in disparate historical and cultural contexts.
Most westerners still imagine witchcraft to be the work of people who operate secretly in the night and delve in cannibalism and other sinful acts whilst making pacts with the devil, this stereotype has been the cause of many problems that will be discussed within this essay. Witchcraft does not constitute as one single identifiable religion as it is found within a huge variety of cultures – present and historical, mostly which revolve around religious elements and ritual magic. It has been said that witchcraft is “a phenomenon full of prejudices, scaremongering and sensationalism” (Mesaki, 2007).
THE HISTORY OF WITCHCRAFT
The term witchcraft is derived from Old English ‘Wiccecraeft’, the concept of witchcraft has been explored in many fashions, many of which in the western world was propaganda written as a method to install fear and discourage people from believing in witchcraft. There has been witchcraft found in all ages and countries, and it is used differently within different cultures. Practices to which witchcraft has been labelled are “influencing another person’s mind or body against their will” and “being in communication with the world of spirits, the dead and sometimes with the lesser god’s” (Gardner, 1968). Witches and wizards were feared for their ability and claim to do things that were “above nature” and the effects that this could have.
Practices to which the witchcraft label have 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.