History of Witches and Witchcraft

History of Witches It is generally hard to trace the history of witches, since it is so diverse. So many cultures practice some form of witchcraft. The name may be different, but it is still based on the principles of using magic to influence events. Ancient healers and shamans do much what witches, or wiccans do. They use various herbs and oils or other concoctions in conjunction with a ritual to positively influence a specific person or event.

To pinpoint a specific history of witches or witchcraft is easiest to visit the times when society began its persecution of the witch. It occurred at several different times and in several different places. The persecution is well-known as the great witch-hunts. As the name suggests, a witch-hunt was the search for witches, or ghastly_tales_for_adults.htm who practiced magic. Whether the intent of the magic was good or bad, if you practiced it or were associated with it, you were considered evil and to be either imprisoned or executed. It was mass hysteria and a form of lynching, but was considered official and legally sanctioned.

The classical period of witch-hunts began in Europe around 1450 and continued through mid-1700. It resulted in tens of thousands of executions. It was called The Burning Times.

The Burning Times

The Burning TimesThe Burning Times is a modern term for the historical time when thousands of witches were tortured and killed for suspected heresy. The Catholic Church wanted to purify the witch's soul and believed burning them alive would do the trick. Burning at the stake was just one of the methods to eradicate and save these witches. However, burning was not the only means for purification. In England & America, witches were hung and drowned. In France, Scotland & Germany, they were pressed to death or strangled.

Some have attributed the witch-hysteria to St. Augustine, who proclaimed that pagans, Jews, and heretics would forever burn in hell unless saved by the Catholic church. At the time, Christians were flourishing but they also noticed that their fellow man, many whom were still Pagans, were flourishing in their own rite. Since the fear of differences can elicit paranoid fear, Pagans or witches were targeted. Thus, the witch craze turned into widespread hysteria. If someone was even suspected of the benign act of owning a cat, they could and would be suspected of being a witch.

Propaganda also fueled the fire. In 1484, Pope Innocent the VIII instructed two Dominion monks to publish a manual for witch-hunters. This manual was called, Malleus malificarum - The Witches' Hammer. The Church used for the next 250 years to put a final end to Paganism, or the Old Religion.

For a more in-depth reading about the history of the European Witch Hunts:


Salem Witch TrialsThe Salem Witch Trials

Spanning from 1692 to 1693, the Salem Witch Trials, though not long in length, was a witch hunt that yielded numerous people accused and imprisoned. And of course, deaths. A total of twenty deaths were attributed to the witch-hunts: 19 by hanging and one by being pressed to death.

Set in the small towns of Salem Village and Salem Town, Massachusetts, the witch-hunts toward the tail end of The Burning Times. The Puritans of the New World were deeply religious and devout Christians and very patriarchal. Thus, the fear of Paganism scared and threatened their way of life. Like during The Burning Times, innocent acts or even physical attributions like an unfortunate wart on the nose could set off an alarm that you were a witch - you could be seriously tried, imprisoned or even killed for it.

It is thought that the Salem Witch Trials began by the unlikable Reverend Samuel Parris, minister of the Puritan town of Salem Village. Parris had hired a slave couple from Barbados -  John and Tituba -  to care for his daughter, Betty and his niece Abigail Williams. The couple brought their customary voodoo to Puritanical Salem Village. Soon many of the village girls became fascinated with voodoo magic.

Strange things then began to happen. The girls suffered fits of hysteria, they made strange noises, contorted their bodies and crawled into holes. The two girls, Betty and Abigail began to suffer severe epileptic fits. They screamed, threw things about, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted their bodies. When the Reverend would give his sermons, Betty and Abigail covered their ears.

A local doctor, William Griggs, attended to the "afflicted" girls, and was the first to suggest that witchcraft may be the cause of their afflictions.

Soon their behavior seemed to spread. In fits of hysteria, the afflicted would cry out the names of the witches who were supposedly tormenting them. Those who were "cried out against" were then accused of practicing witchcraft and consorting with the devil. Thus, the interrogations, trials and subsequent imprisonment and some executions followed.

 Most of the evidence used against the accused was "spectral evidence," or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. And this was going to be the eventual downfall of the trials.

Increase MatherThe Reverend Francis Dane saw something very wrong with these witch trials. He supported the accused. He petitioned the Governor and Court condemning the trials due to unfounded accusations. He was soon to be supported by Increase Mather who wrote in Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." So it was in May of 1693, after one final trial that all those in jail accused of witchcraft were set free in May of 1693.

Interestingly, it is thought that hallucinations from "ergot poisoning," found in the bacteria of contaminated flour used to bake bread caused the initial peculiar behavior of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams.

For further fascinating, in-depth reading about the Salem Witch Trials:


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Witches & Witchcraft by Rosemary Ellen Guiley


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