Seeing Beyond the Crafted Notions of Witchcraft

Witchcraft and magic has been a topic of great interest in various fields including Anthropology and the Natural Sciences. This has been a great concern among the Roman Catholic Church that led to the Inquisition. Contemporary researchers attempted to shed light to the issue of witchcraft being diabolical in nature as the Roman Catholic Church has painted by documenting witch trials that happened in the early centuries in America and England. Most documented cases are from the trial records of people accused of engaging in witchcraft places where witchcraft has been known to have occurred. Evidently, witchcraft has been placed in a negative light due to so many factors including the Roman Catholic Church.

The Witch in Folklore Spells, Charms and Amulets
There are various definitions of the word witch in these contemporary times. However, the witch in folklore (or the stereotypic definition of witch) has been defined as someone who uses magic to harm human beings, farm animals or property (Simpson and Westwood 104, Stein and Stein 236). Clearly, the witch in folklore is someone with a negative image. Moreover, they were viewed as those with the ability to cast spells and charms as well as create amulets to protect themselves against same attacks from other witches. This stereotypic notion would later be redressed by researchers who have studied what these witches really do and the reasons behind their persecutions. It has also helped that even witches from different cultures have also been studies for comparison.

Contemporary witchcraft practitioners have a different definition of a witch but are still anchored with the belief of them having the ability to cast spells, charms and create amulets for protection. Leek provided a definition of the contemporary witch when she said that a witch is a woman who possesses out of the ordinary powers of good and evil. These powers are directly linked to how the person understands the truths in her religion. How these powers are used is entirely dependent on how the person deems it to be (214).

Bonewitz (2001) has proposed several interesting classifications of European and American witches. He calls a person who makes use of magic and divination, uses herbs as medicines and poisons, practices midwifery and other methods of healing to both humans and animals as classic witch. A person who worships the Christian Devil to gain magical powers that are used to harm others is classified under gothic witch while someone who practices modern Satanism and emulates what the stereotypic notions of Christians against witches is classified under neo-gothic. The witches who have practiced paganism and the occult for generations within their families are classified by Bonewitz as family traditions or fam-trad. Peasants, classic witches, fam-trads, and Native American and African slaves who have moved to America from elsewhere and continued to keep their beliefs are classified as immigrant traditions or imm-trads. Duo theistic religion practitioners who worship a combination of Greco-Roman and Celtic goddesses of the Moon, the Earth and the Sea and who may also call themselves Wiccans are classified under neo-pagan witchcraft. Feminists who are spiritually-inclined and hold beliefs from ancient traditions are classified as feminist witchcraft, which is an outgrowth of neo-pagan witchcraft. Bonewitz also proposed that practitioners of non-English religious magical systems such as Voodoo be classified under ethnic witches and anyone else from other cultures or sub-cultures that practice magic be called anthropological witches.

The stereotype view of witchcraft can be traced in the 16th and 17th century of Tudor and Stuart England where the term was loosely used to refer to about anything that operates on ritual and magic (Thomas in Douglas 48). The classification that has been proposed by Bonewitz gives us an idea that witchcraft does not hold a universal sense. We can also deduce that causing harm is not what witches generally and solely do because some also heal and perform midwifery.

Belief in Witchcraft and Witch Persecutions
Witchcraft may be argued to have existed for a long time but records of such belief in England and America have been highly prominent during the sixteenth and seventeenth century that most researchers start at that period. The development of witchcraft and magic was seen by Keith as something that was necessitated by the environment. It was such that new beliefs develop each time the environment changes (i.e. pre-industrial to industrial times). However, he noted that the central concern of these beliefs is the explanation and relief of human misfortunes which was highly reflective of the hazard and insecurity of the environment during the sixteenth and seventeenth century (5).

The persecutions of witches in England can be marked by the enacting of the first English Statute in 1542 but, according to McFarlane, the general notion before that date is not really clear (14). He also mentioned that most authorities (or those who have intensely studied witchcraft) believe that witchcraft was considered a branch of heresy that the State later punished as an ecclesiastical offense under the writ de haeretico comburendo. The persecutions for the practice of witchcraft and other related incidents in Europe were, in whole, a number of scattered trials that focused on individuals who were suspected or accused of performing harmful magic and there were also occasional mass trials that were caused by anxiety of the possible existence of an underground society of devil worshippers (Bever 263).

In America, the most famous and most researched persecution of witches is the Salem trials in Salem (now known as Danvers), Massachusetts. According to Reed, the Salem trials took place in 1692 when a number of young women under Minister Samuel Parris household suddenly fell into fits and had visions. These girls began accusing some townspeople of tormenting them while the affliction spread beyond Salem. Finally, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony set up the court of Oyer and Terminer in June to try the accused witches which were growing in number. A total of nineteen people were hanged for being charged of the crime of witchcraft of which 13 were women and 6 were men. Two of all the accused died in jail while a certain Giles Corey was pushed to death for remaining silent while being questioned by the judges.

Analysis on the Persecutions
Mayer has proposed that the increase in witchcraft accusation is actually a sign that the society is experiencing disorder and a disturbance in the moral standards of the community. He also points out that this notion has been confirmed by anthropological studies that have shown several cases where the increase of witch phenomena happens in a community that is experiencing a social breakdown (15).

Researchers have various analyses on the persecutions of witches that occurred during the middle ages. In explaining the occurrences of these persecutions (particularly, the Salem witch trials), a number of researchers provide an analysis that border on socio-economic, gender-based, and medical and psychological explanation but these analyses are still somewhat speculative (Doty and Hiltonen 458).
Thomas, for instance, explains that the belief in witchcraft is based on at least three functions first, it explains the occurrence of misfortune and it possesses a way of redressing the misfortune second, it reinforces norms and lastly, it serves as a way of justifying the exclusion of charity cases. In simpler terms, witchcraft serves three purposes to provide an explanation for the unexplainable, to give a set of cultural behaviors for coping with misfortune and to give a definition for morality (Evans-Pritchard in Stein and Stein 244).  Thomas concludes, then, that the persecutions were actually a reflection of social tensions that exist between community-held traditions and individualistic behavior that can also be seen in how the privileged acts ambivalently towards the poor.

Anderson and Gordon, meanwhile, analyze that the witch persecution showed how the (English) society treated women. They found that there were generally more female than male who were persecuted for witchcraft and believed this to be because women were treated as inferior and inherently evil (181).  This was apparently drawn from vast written accounts both theological and otherwise. It can be noted that even in the bible, it was the female Eve who encouraged Adam to take a bite from the forbidden fruit. Also, in Greek mythology, it was Helen who is supposed to have been the root cause of the Trojan War.
The Role of Contemporary Social Science Researchers

Witchcraft is seen by many for its value in maintaining homeostasis or social order. It is also been noted that the rise of activities related to witchcraft is an indicator that the social order is disturbed due to violation of moral standards. Others see witchcraft as a means for justifying negative attitude towards the less-privileged in the society. It has served several purposes yet it has also cost the lives of innocent people.

Anthropological and psychological analysis of witchcraft has provided new perspectives for explaining the occurrences of witchcraft in some societies and why it is present only in some societies. Nevertheless, we have no detailed account for any society that provides sufficient data on all three levelssociological, ideological, and psychologicalto enable us to begin to chart the possible interdependences and autonomies of such factors (Beidelman in Douglas 355). This observation was made in 1970 yet it remains to be a concern of Social Scientists who study witchcraft to date.

In ethnology, the anthropologists work is to provide an analysis for the various and voluminous ethnographic accounts made by previous researchers. The same principle can be applied in the study of witchcraft. Instead of doing more studies and collecting more data, researchers can now focus on analyzing recorded accounts and comparing the accounts.

In these contemporary times, extensive researches have been made to bring to light the different truths about witchcraft across different cultures. The Roman Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II has even apologized for the Spanish Inquisition that has caused the deaths of so many innocents. So many critics have expressed their disgust over the fact that women have been accused of witchcraft more than men because of the negative and derogatory notions that are attached to their gender.

However, we still see traces of witches being put under the negative light and being sublimely persecuted. For instance, Disney movies and fairytales are still illustrating witches as wicked individuals who inflict harm on people. Also, crimes that have been recorded as witchcraft-related have been highlighted by the media. Because of this, there is still the stereotypic notion that contemporary witchcraft practitioners offer virgins or children to Satana notion that is not held by Wiccans (contemporary witches).

The practice of witchcraft started as a craft of healing and helping bring children to the world. It has been unfairly accused of being negative through different factorsmainly, the Puritans in America and the Roman Catholic Church in England. No longer should witchcraft be treated unfairly as before and no longer should lives be sacrificed in the name of witchcraft, whether it is for punishing the practitioner or as a misinterpretation of the belief (i.e. human sacrifice).


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