In my quest to explore different religions, I decided that I wanted to eventually write a post on here about witchcraft, which would include some tidbits about its history and some facts about modern witches. My misguided enthusiasm led me to get five or more books on the subject from the local library, but I only ended up reading a handful. I think that my focus was a little bit wrongheaded- was I really interested in the subject, or was I just reading about it because the Christian church- of which I was formerly a member- considered it to be taboo?
Nevertheless, I did learn a few things. Notably, that the witches of the “Burning Times” (a period of heavy witch hunting around 1450-1750 A.D.) differ somewhat from the witches of today, in that those witches did claim to worship Satan. Satan was said to appear in one form or another and preside over the various ceremonies. He was also said to appear to new initiates to complete their initiation. There were various ways the initiation was performed- one young woman who was caught claimed that all that was necessary was for someone to form the sign of the cross with their left hand. Other ways of being initiated was to go through a ceremony where one renounced their faith and baptism, and were “rechristened” with a new witchy name.
The superstitions about witches were pretty farfetched- they were said to fly around on brooms, and also thought to possess the ability to transform into an animal like a toad or a black cat. The devil was also said to be able to transform- he was either depicted as an extremely ugly fellow or as a man with a goat head or some other kinds of animal features.
Actually, the superstition about witches being able to transform into cats caused widespread killing of cats in England. Ironically, this led to an explosion in the rat population, and these rats aided in the spreading of the bubonic plague (which as we know killed thousands throughout Europe). So the very thing that people thought they were doing to protect themselves actually happened to be to their great detriment.
Also, the people that were hunted and killed during the Burning Times were more than likely not even witches. Some of the tests utilized by the Inquisition to test whether someone was a witch were completely absurd. People were assumed to be guilty, rather than assumed first to be innocent. Torture was often used to procure a confession- and many people would confess rather than continue to suffer the excruciating pain of the torture. In addition, there was a method of tying a woman’s thumb to her big toe, and throwing her into the water. If she sank, she was thought to be innocent, but if she floated, she was a witch. Often even people thought to be innocent- the sinkers- died of drowning before they were fished out. Anyone who swam to stay alive was then sentenced to death by burning or hanging.
It is estimated that over 100,000 accused witches were killed during the Burning Times. The victims were disproportionately female; some villages were left with only one or two women left in them after the Inquisition swept through.
I’m not going to claim to be an expert on modern witchcraft. Most of what I read focused around Wicca. I read a little bit of a Wiccan book entitled “Everyday Witch A to Z: An Amusing, Inspiring, and Informative Guide to the Wonderful World of Witchcraft” by Deborah Blake. It might not have been the best source of information (or maybe it was) but I learned a little about what some witches believe and a little bit about spells and practices.
For one thing, most modern witches do not worship Satan, but instead focus their devotion on ancient gods and goddesses (such as gods/goddesses from the Greek pantheon or Egyptian deities). A witch may invoke these gods and goddesses during spell-casting or call upon them for aid. I learned about the athame– a special knife that is used in various rituals. The book also went into details about some herbs and plants that were important in Wicca, but I mainly glossed over these. I learned that if you put a few drops of rose oil on an amethyst stone and place the stone under your pillow, it is said to thwart bad dreams.
It’s important to note at this point that witchcraft preceded the Burning Times, and in some cases it is that ancient witchcraft that modern witches are trying to return back to. Thousands of years ago, goddesses were more central to religion than male deities. The female body was revered because it was capable of carrying new life. People appealed to the Goddess to protect their crops and shield them from disease. Ancient witches, who knew a lot about which plants could relieve pain or bring relief for various sicknesses, were revered. These people- usually women- were thought to have a special connection with the divine.
At this point I’ve only scratched the surface of the subject of witchcraft. There are many types of modern witches besides Wiccans, including some forms of witchcraft like neo-Shamanism which seeks to combine modern witchcraft with ancient shamanism.
As far as my personal religion journey goes, I do not relate particularly well with witchcraft. I tend to shy away from religious traditions that focus on objects and rituals to bring about particular results. I don’t give special significance to a kind of stone, or to a specific spell/mantra. I do have an altar at home with objects that are important to me, but it is kind of a mishmash of various religions. The altar isn’t “to” a particular object or deity, and I mainly light my candle so I can focus, rather than in honor of a specific god.
In writing this piece, I wanted to be able to do the subject justice. Just because I don’t personally relate to witchcraft, doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid or important to many people. I think it is vital for each person to carve out their own path with regards to their particular faith and practice. If you feel the presence of god(s) with you during your rituals- and/or they give you peace- then that is the most important thing.
Thankfully, the Burning Times are far behind us, but we still live in a world where people are persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Christians are being beheaded and crucified by ISIS in Iraq. Muslims that are different from the ruling sect are being attacked. Anti-semitism is still alive and well in the U.S. and Europe. Maybe one day, we’ll all come to a place where it isn’t necessary to attack one another just because some of us have different beliefs and practices. Until then, the only thing that those of us who are aware can do is to continue to be open-minded and fight against hatred.