What constitutes “witchcraft” and how its practitioners have been viewed throughout the centuries in the western world has changed dramatically. From folk practices, to church hysteria and persecution, to female empowerment, the term “witch” evokes a long and sordid history.
Modern witchcraft exists in much the same form it did centuries earlier in parts of Europe; a tradition passed down the matrilineal line that blends folk medicine, curses, fortune telling, and rituals. Vice’s Broadly takes a look at contemporary witches in Romania in this short documentary:
Separate from the folk traditions passed down in their homelands, witchcraft found a new audience in the 20th century with the advent of Wicca. Drawing from the same witchcraft derided in centuries past by the Christian church, Wicca blends neo-paganism with new age religious movements that focus on nature, the yearly cycles, and ritual empowerment.
Most witchcraft is divided, both by its critics and practitioners, between black (evil) and white (good) magic. The distinction is generally thought of along the lines of destructive or constructive, good or bad. Curses, hexes, and negative effects fall under the former while healing, charms, and prayers fall into the latter. Some witches choose to be exclusively black or white while others mix magics freely depending on their desired results. Historically, black magic was associated with making a pact with the devil who granted such powers. More often than not, such charges of satanic witchcraft were fabricated. Wiccans don’t worship Satan, though their “Horned God” is often mistaken for a devil figure, but certain satanists may also describe themselves as witches and/or practice “witchcraft”.
Witchcraft is often associated with women though men have and do practice the craft. Many, many more women were falsely charged with practicing witchcraft than men though men were certainly not immune from such accusations. “Warlock” is sometimes used to distinguish a male witch from his female counterparts.
Magic practices in Africa (and other parts of the world) are sometimes labeled as witchcraft but more appropriately fall under the label of folk traditions, native beliefs, and religions than the western idea of witchcraft. Witch doctors may better be understood as local medicine or wise men/women. Like their european counterparts, the label “witch” was applied to deride and demonize their status in the community or in contrast to the “civilized” Christian faith.
As you can see, labels can be difficult when they apply to such a broad range of practices and cultures. Exactly how a “witch” was or is viewed ranges from respect and appreciation to fear and demonization. Context is everything.
Malleus malefucarum (1486) – Known as “The Hammer of Witches” by Heinrich Kramer, this widely circulated treatise was penned by the frustrated inquisitor and proceeded by the papal bull that cemented his authority to hunt down, identify, and punish supposed witches.
The Witches’ Sabbath
Demonic Possession and the pact with the Devil
Wicca – A Modern Neo-Pagan Religion
The wiccan gods – horned god, gaia, artemis, hecate
Calendar of Seasons and their respective celebrations
For those interested in practicing witchcraft, if you’re attracted to nature, a connection with mother earth, and empowering yourself with rituals revolving around these, you’ll likely be at home with Wicca. If your wardrobe is all black, you enjoy satanic imagery, and are attracted exclusively to black magic, a form of satanism is most likely what you’re looking for. If you can’t decide between the two, feel free to mix and match to your heart’s content. One of the advantages of occult systems is they cater to individual expression and exploration as opposed to strict dogma. I of course don’t advocate violence in any way towards human or animal so please don’t be inspired to practice any of the bloodier aspects of these traditions. Regardless of where your craft takes you, be safe and be respectful to all life.
For a general overview of witches and witchcraft throughout history with an emphasis on their portrayal in fiction and media, the Youtube channel In Praise of Shadows has produced an excellent three part video essay:
Galdrasyning – The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft (home of the infamous “necropants” among other interesting artifacts):
Press release and images:
Bibliography and Recommended Reading:
The Witchcraft Sourcebook – Edited by Brian P. Levack