Witchcraft: Definitions and Purposes
What is witchcraft? The word "witchcraft" describes a diverse set of spiritual expressions, which often include various forms of spell-casting, so-called black magic, and other practices, some of which may have been derived from other religious traditions such as shamanism and paganism.
What is a witch? A witch is a woman who practices witchcraft. The word "witch" comes from the Old English term "bewitch," which is commonly understood as the act of casting a spell on another person to gain control over them (this could be for a variety of reasons). The present-day use of "witch" may, or may not, carry that connotation.
Is witchcraft a religion? Witchcraft may be practiced as an isolated spiritual activity independent of a traditional religion, yet it may also be one aspect within a traditional religion as well. Examples of the latter may be voodoo, Wicca, and Rastafarian, but it depends on the practitioner.
What is the purpose of witchcraft? The answer depends on the individual practitioner. Reasons often cited for practicing witchcraft include connecting with another entity (e.g. nature; spirits or the spiritual realm; people, living or dead) or as a form of petition (i.e. a request) for something needed in life, like heath or healing. Culture, history, and individuality frequently determine an individual's chosen path.
Witchcraft in-depth: the devil, witch hunts, and other religions
Why do some people believe that witchcraft is of the devil? The orthodox teaching traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have forbidden the practice of witchcraft, generally considering it improper and dangerous engagement with the spiritual realm. While the vast majority of those who practice witchcraft aren't motivated by devil-worship or Satanism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold that practitioners of witchcraft are interacting with sinister spirits. Some historians of witchcraft respond by saying that those world religions have incorporated certain expressions of witchcraft in their belief system, but adherents of those faiths deny that claim.
What were the Salem Witchcraft Trials about? In 1692, 20 people in Salem Village, Massachusetts, most of whom were women, were prosecuted and hanged on charges that they were witches. Support for the claims was driven by a Puritan preacher named Cotton Mather and based on "spectral evidence." For more on this American tragedy, please see the full article, The Salem Witchcraft Trials.
What is a "witch hunt"? In modern use, this term has become an expression referring to any person who is looking for evidence of wrongdoing by another, perhaps with malicious motives. Historically, the term refers to the sometimes large-scale efforts to search for, and pursue, suspected witches or evidence of witchcraft. In certain societies throughout Western history, witches have been blamed for calamities such as natural disasters and diseases, and it was believed by some that eradicating those hardships could be accomplished by killing the practitioners of witchcraft.
Does the persecution of witches still happen in the world today? Yes. The extreme forms of persecution, such as incarceration and punishment, including death, have been outlawed in the United States and Europe. However, suspected witches are still executed in other places around the world. For example, the World Health Organization reports that approximately 500 women a year are killed in Tanzania on accusations of witchcraft. Also, witchcraft is still punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
Belief systems where witchcraft is found in some form
What is Wicca? Wiccan spirituality is often categorized as an expression of neo-paganism. It is characterized by engagement with the natural world. Wiccan beliefs can be diverse, yet most adherents believe in a single ultimate reality that pervades the universe and is expressed in the Goddess and God. Most Wiccan traditions worship the two deities as equals, where none deserves more importance than the other.
What is shamanism? Shamanism is a spiritual worldview and practice where a person seeks to interact with the spirit world often through entering into a reality-altering trance. Shamanism can take on different forms, like ceremonial ritual, divination, or so-called black magic.
What is voodoo? Voodoo is a mixture of religious and spiritual practices, which are comprised of the beliefs and practices of indigenous and tribal religions from Africa and the Caribbean. It often takes on the unique characteristics of the culture where it is practiced; meaning, Western African voodoo, Haitian voodoo, and Louisiana voodoo don't necessarily believe or practice the religion in the same way.
1. "A Global Issue that Demands Action". the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS)
2. The Salem Witch Trials by Marilynne Roach. Taylor Trade. 2003.