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Witchcraft, in various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers in order to inflict harm or damage upon members of a community or their property. The concept of witchcraft 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.[1] However, it has been a legally recognized religious belief in the United States and many other countries, thus giving its followers protection from discrimination and harassment. A witch (from Old English wicce f. / wicca m.) is a practitioner of witchcraft. Commonly, men and women are referred to as witches.

"White" witches[]

Main article: white witch
Further information: Folk magic,  Magical thinking, and Shamanism

In England, the term 'witch' was[clarify]

not used exclusively to describe malevolent magicians, but could also indicate cunning folk. "There were a number of interchangable terms for these practitioners, ‘white’, ‘good’, or ‘unbinding’ witches, blessers, wizards, sorcerors, however ‘cunning-man’ and ‘wise-man’ were the most frequent."[2] The contemporary Reginald Scott noted “At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, ‘she is a witch’ or ‘she is a wise woman’”.[3] While cunning-folk could command a lot of respect, public perceptions of them were often ambivalent and a little fearful, for many were deemed just as capable of harming as of healing.[4] Throughout Europe many such healers and wise men and women were convicted of witchcraft (Éva Pócs' 'sorcerer witches'): many English 'witches' convicted of consorting with demons seem to have been cunning folk whose fairy familiars had been demonised;[5] many French devins-guerisseurs were accused of witchcraft;[6] and over half the accused witches in Hungary seem to have been healers.[7]

Some of the healers and diviners historically accused of witchcraft have considered themselves mediators between the mundane and spiritual worlds, roughly equivalent to shamans.[8] Such people described their contacts with fairies, spirits or the dead, often involving out-of-body experiences and travelling through the realms of an 'other-world'.[9] Beliefs of this nature are implied in the folklore of much of Europe, and were explicitly described by accused witches in central and southern Europe. Repeated themes include participation in processions of the dead or large feasts, often presided over by a female divinity who teaches magic and gives prophecies; and participation in battles against evil spirits, 'vampires' or 'witches' to win fertility and prosperity for the community.[10]

Alleged practices[]

File:John William Waterhouse - Magic Circle.JPG

"Magic Circle", 1886. John William Waterhouse

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.

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 their request.

Where belief 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 objects to it.


Main article: Magic (paranormal)

Probably the most obvious characteristic of a witch was the ability to cast a spell, a "spell" being the word used to signify the means employed to accomplish a magical action. A spell could consist of a set of words, a formula or verse, or a ritual action, or any combination of these. [11] The most important part of a spell is of course the energy the practitioner puts into it; this being done in a variety of ways by many different people.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Spells traditionally were cast by many methods, such as by the inscription of runes or sigils on an object to give it magical powers, by the immolation or binding of a wax or clay image (poppet) of a person to affect him or her magically, by the recitation of incantations, by the performance of physical rituals, by the employment of magical herbs as amulets or potions, by gazing at mirrors, swords or other specula (scrying) for purposes of divination, and by many other means.[12]

Conjuring the dead[]

Strictly speaking, "necromancy" is the practice of conjuring the spirits of the dead for divination or prophecy - although the term has also been applied to raising the dead for other purposes. The Biblical Witch of Endor is supposed to have performed it (1 Sam. 28), and it is among the witchcraft practices condemned by Ælfric of Eynsham:[13][14][15]

"Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arise from death."[16]

Ethnology of witchcraft[]

See also[]

This article is part of the Witchcraft series
African witchcraft - Asian witchcraft - European witchcraft - Middle Eastern witchcraft - North American witchcraft - South American witchcraft


  1. Pócs 1999, pp. 9-12.
  2. Macfarlane 1970 p. 130; also Appendix 2.
  3. Scot 1989 V. ix.
  4. Wilby, Emma (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. pp. 51-4.
  5. Emma Wilby 2005 p. 123; See also Alan Macfarlane 1970 p. 127 who notes how 'white witches' could later be accused as 'black witches'.
  6. Monter () Witchcraft in France and Switzerland. Ch. 7: "White versus Black Witchcraft"
  7. Pócs 1999, p. 12
  8. As defined by Mircea Eliade in Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy, Bollingen Series LXXVI, Pantheon Books, NY NY 1964, pp.3-7.
  9. Ginzburg (1990) Part 2, Ch. 1.
  10. Ginzburg (1990) Part 2, Ch. 1.
  11. Oxford English Dictionary, the Compact Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 2955, 1971
  12. for instance, see Luck, Georg, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds; a Collection of Ancient Texts, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1985, 2006; also Kittredge, G. L., Witchcraft in Old and New England, New York: Russell & Russell, 1929, 1957, 1958; and Davies, Owen, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951, Manchester University Press, 1999
  13. Semple, Sarah (2003), "Illustrations of damnation in late Anglo-Saxon manuscripts", Anglo-Saxon England 32: 231–245 
  14. Semple, Sarah (1998), "A Fear of the Past: The Place of the Prehistoric Burial Mound in the Ideology of Middle and Later Anglo-Saxon England", World Archaeology 30: 117, 
  15. Pope, J.C. (1968), Homilies of Aelfric: a supplementary collection (Early English Text Society 260), II, Oxford University Press, p. 796 , lines 118-125, from the second manuscript in an appendix to De Auguriis, lesson XVII from Ælfric's "Lives of the Saints"
  16. Meaney, Audrey L. (1984), "Aelfric and Idolatry", Journal of Religious History 13: 119–35, , source of English translation from Anglo-Saxon

External links[]