Witchcraft – Concept, history, stories, persecution and present

We explain what witchcraft is, the first stories that mention it, the witch hunt and its representation in current folklore.

Witches are beings supposedly endowed with supernatural powers.

What is witchcraft?

Witchcraft is called set of beliefs and ritual practices attributed to witches (and less frequently, to witches), that is, to individuals supposedly endowed with supernatural powers as a result of arcane or occult knowledge, or of pacts with demonic entities.

Witchcraft is a broad and heterogeneous category, condemned by traditional religions and linked to paganism. It has existed since antiquity, although not necessarily under the same name, nor understood in the same way as it is today.

It is difficult to know when the word “witch” and its derivative “witchcraft” began to be used, since its origin is unknown and there are reasons to think that it is a word with pre-Roman etymology, perhaps Celtic or Germanic. In any case, the first documented record of the word, written as “bruxa”, Dates from the 13th century Europe.

Even so, the figure of the fortune tellers, sorceresses or enchanters dates back to the Ancient Age and it appears in numerous literary texts. For example, in the Odyssey The sorceress Circe appears, an inhabitant of the island of Eea, who through potions turned her enemies into animals or made them forget their home; and in other works the sorceress Medea, Jason’s wife, who had knowledge of magic.

There are similar accounts in the Biblical Old Testament, in which King Saul consults the “witch of Endor.” Also records of the practice of the “evil eye” by sorcerers and witches in Ancient Egypt and in other Mediterranean and African civilizations, in which talismans were common to prevent it.

In these stories, characteristic traits were already attributed to witches, such as knowledge of potions and herbs, the gift of metamorphosis into animals, necromancy, the ability to fly (on brooms or turned into vultures), ingestion of food. strangers, usually parts of lizards, bats or insects, or even cannibalism (especially the consumption of young children) or ritual sacrifice.

During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance Witchcraft occupied a prominent place in the Western imagination, as the religious institutions of Christianity actively engaged in the search for and persecution of witches, especially through the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

Accused of heresy, demonic pacts and practice of the dark arts (divination, necromancy, etc.), many women throughout Europe and America were subjected to torture and executions public, like burning them alive at the stake.

Of such witch hunts, which began around the 13th century and their most hectic moments in the 16th and 17th centuries, important records remain. For instance:

  • Directorium inquisitorium from 1376, it is the manual of inquisitors of Nicolás Aymerich (1320-1399). In it three forms of witchcraft are distinguished, based on their supposed demonic practices.
  • Malleus maleficarum dated 1487, it is an exhaustive Renaissance treatise on witchcraft.
  • Demonomanie des sorciers, from 1580, by the Frenchman Jean Bodin.

The Protestant Reformation, far from putting an end to such practices, fervently assumed them. It is estimated that in southern Germany alone some 3,230 “witches” died between 1560 and 1670, and in Scotland only about 4400 between 1590 and 1680.

Newly With the Scientific Revolution and the advent of the Enlightenment, the Christian obsession with witchcraft lost intensity, and rather passed into the field of folklore and popular traditions, even for children.

This is how witchcraft comes to the present. Today witches are part of the imaginary of fairy tales and folklore farmer. However, there are still religious groups that still accuse practitioners of other cults of witchcraft, especially non-Western religions (such as the Yoruba or other African ones), or those who practice neopaganism, through cults such as Wicca or the neodruidism.