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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The History of the Witch and Witchcraft

Witchcraft as sorcery has existed since humans first banded together in groups. Prehistoric art depicts magical rites to ensure successful hunting. Western beliefs about witchcraft as sorcery grew out of the mythologies and folklore of ancient peoples, especially the Greeks and Romans, since Roman law made distinctions between good magic and harmful magic. The law also punished users of harmful magic. When Christianity began to spread, the distinctions vanished.

Witchcraft came to be linked with worship of the Devil. In Europe, beginning in about the A.D. 700's, witchcraft was increasingly associated with heresy (rejection of church teachings). The Christian church began a long campaign to stamp out heresy. Beginning in the 1000's, religious leaders sentenced heretics to death by burning.

The word 'witch' is derived from the old English words wicce meaning wise one and wicca, meaning healer. The witch was considered a wise-woman who lived in harmony with nature and the seasons. Witches were skilled in the use of herbs and were often called upon to cure the ill.
The witch had many special items, including the broomstick. The broomstick was symbolic of magical powers and its real purpose was to cleanse the area where magical rituals were performed. So how did the belief arise that witches rode broomsticks through the air? On All Hallow's Eve, witches would often anoint themselves with a "magical" ointment. The ointment made the skin tingle and gave the illusion of being very light, perpetuating the belief that they could fly. A witch walking through the woods on her way to the festival would often use the broom as a means to help jump over a brook or stream. Hence, they were believed to be flying.

The Athame, believed to have magical properties, was the witch's personal steel knife used in many rituals. The knife itself was double-edged and often had a black handle. Nowadays, witches are depicted standing over bubbling cauldrons and drinking from large chalices. The cauldron was a pot used for creating magical potions and for scrying (looking into the future on the water's surface). The chalice was believed to be a receptacle of spiritual forces. The wands that many witches carried were made of hazel wood, crystal, carved ivory or ebony, silver or gold. It was believed that these wands were extensions of the life force of the witch herself.

The most famous American witch hunt began in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. There, a group of village girls became fascinated with the occult, but their games got out of hand. They began to act strangely, uttering weird sounds and screaming. Suspicions that witches were responsible for the girls' behavior led to the arrest of three women. More arrests followed, and mass trials were held. About 150 people were imprisoned on witchcraft charges. Nineteen men and women were convicted and hanged as witches. A man by the name of  Giles Corey who refused to plead either innocent or guilty to the witchcraft charge was pressed to death with large stones.

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