Witchcraft, in various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers. A witch is a practitioner of witchcraft. While mythological witches are often supernatural creatures, historically many people have been accused of witchcraft, or have claimed to be witches. Witchcraft still exists in a number of belief systems, and indeed there are many today who identify with the term "witch". The majority of Europeans historically accused of witchcraft were women, and in legends and popular culture the stereotype is female; however males were also often referred to as witches.
Practices and beliefs that have been termed "witchcraft" do not constitute a single identifiable religion, since they are found in a wide variety of cultures, both present and historical; however these beliefs do generally involve religious elements dealing with spirits or deities, the afterlife, magic and ritual. Witchcraft is generally characterized by its use of magic.
Sometimes witchcraft is used to refer, broadly, to the practice of using magic , and has a connotation similar to shamanism. Depending on the values of the community, witchcraft in this sense may be regarded with varying degrees of respect or suspicion, or with ambivalence, being neither intrinsically good nor evil. Members of some religions have applied the term witchcraft in a pejorative sense to refer to all magical or ritual practices other than those sanctioned by their own doctrines � although this has become less common, at least in the Western world. According to some religious doctrines, all forms of magic are labeled witchcraft, and are either proscribed or treated as superstitious. Such religions consider their own ritual practices to be not at all magical, but rather simply variations of prayer.
"Witchcraft" is also used to refer, narrowly, to the practice of magic in an exclusively inimical sense. If the community accepts magical practice in general, then there is typically a clear separation between witches (in this sense) and the terms used to describe legitimate practitioners. This use of the term is most often found in accusations against individuals who are suspected of causing harm in the community by way of supernatural means. Belief in witches of this sort has been common among most of the indigenous populations of the world, including Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. On occasion such accusations have led to witch hunts.
Under the monotheistic religions of the Levant (primarily Christianity, and Islam), witchcraft came to be associated with heresy, rising to a fever pitch among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of the European Late Medieval/Early Modern period and sometimes leading to witch hunts. Throughout this time, the concept of witchcraft came increasingly to be interpreted as a form of Devil worship. Accusations of witchcraft were frequently combined with other charges of heresy against such groups as the Cathars and Waldensians.
The Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, outlines how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely to be a witch, how to put a witch to trial and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female.
In the modern Western world, witchcraft accusations have often accompanied the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria. Such accusations are a counterpart to blood libel of various kinds, which may be found throughout history across the globe.
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 labeling, 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.
Note: White Witches base their beliefs in Karma, were as Traditional Witches believe in FATE and JUSTICE rather than Karma. GOOD and EVIL, RIGHT and WRONG are subjective concepts they are not objective.
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. 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.
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 �lfric of Eynsham:"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."
The familiar witch of folklore and popular superstition is a combination of numerous influences. The characterization of the witch as an evil magic user developed over time.
Early converts to Christianity looked to Christian clergy to work magic more effectively than the old methods under Roman paganism, and Christianity provided a methodology involving saints and relics, similar to the gods and amulets of the Pagan world. As Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe its concern with magic lessened.
The Protestant Christian explanation for witchcraft, such as those typified in the confessions of the Pendle Witches, commonly involve a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil. The witches or wizards addicted to such practices were alleged to reject Jesus and the sacraments, observe "the witches' sabbath" (performing infernal rites which often parodied the Mass or other sacraments of the Church), pay Divine honor to the Prince of Darkness, and, in return, receive from him preternatural powers. Witches were most often characterized as women. Witches disrupted the societal institutions, and more specifically, marriage. It was believed that a witch often joined a pact with the devil to gain powers to deal with infertility, immense fear for her children's well-being, or revenge against a lover.
The Church and European society was not always obsessed with hunting witches and blaming them for bad occurrences. Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that belief in the existence of witches was un-Christian. The emperor Charlemagne decreed that the burning of supposed witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by the death penalty. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others repudiated the belief that witches could make bad weather, fly in the night, and change their shape. This denial was accepted into Canon law until it was reversed in later centuries as the witch-hunt gained force. Other rulers such as King Coloman of Hungary declared that witch-hunts should cease because witches (more specifically, strigas) do not exist.
The Church did not invent the idea of witchcraft as a potentially harmful force whose practitioners should be put to death. This idea is commonplace in pre-Christian religions and is a logical consequence of belief in magic. According to the scholar Max Dashu, the concept of medieval witchcraft contained many of its elements even before the emergence of Christianity. These can be found in Bacchanalias, especially in the time when they were led by priestess Paculla Annia (188-186).
However, even at a later date, not all witches were assumed to be harmful practicer's of the craft. In England, the provision of this curative magic was the job of a witch doctor, also known as a cunning man, white witch, or wise man. The term "witch doctor" was in use in England before it came to be associated with Africa. Toad doctors were also credited with the ability to undo evil witchcraft. (Other folk magicians had their own purviews. Girdle-measurer's specialized in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while magical cures for more mundane ailments, such as burns or toothache, could be had from charmers.)
Some "cunning-folk" did not refer to themselves as witches and objected to the accusation that they were such. Records from the Middle Ages, however, make it appear that it was, quite often, not entirely clear to the populace whether a given practitioner of magic was a witch or one of the cunning-folk. In addition, it appears that much of the populace was willing to approach either of these groups for healing magic and divination. When a person was known to be a witch, the populace would still seek to employ their healing skills; however, as was not the case with cunning-folk, members of the general population would also hire witches to curse their enemies. The important distinction is that there are records of the populace reporting alleged witches to the authorities as such, whereas cunning-folk were not so incriminated; they were more commonly prosecuted for accusing the innocent or defrauding people of money.
The long-term result of this amalgamation of distinct types of magic-worker into one is the considerable present-day confusion as to what witches actually did, whether they harmed or healed, what role (if any) they had in the community, whether they can be identified with the "witches" of other cultures and even whether they existed as anything other than a projection. Present-day beliefs about the witches of history attribute to them elements of the folklore witch, the charmer, the cunning man or wise woman, the diviner and the astrologer.
Powers typically attributed to European witches include turning food poisonous or inedible, flying on broomsticks or pitchforks, casting spells, cursing people, making livestock ill and crops fail, and creating fear and local chaos.
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