Witchcraft is an important and difficult historical subject. Throughout human history, most cultures and societies have conceived of certain categories of malevolent people who are supposedly able to access or exhibit powers of great supernatural evil. In Europe during the Middle Ages and the early-modern period, such people were believed to be in league with the devil and bent on the destruction of Christian society on earth. For over 300 years, from the 15 th to the 18 th centuries, social fear and legal paranoia led to the prosecution, and ultimately the execution, of tens of thousands of people for the supposed crime of witchcraft. The period is often described as being the era of "the great witch-hunts," or, by more sensationalistic authors, simply as the "burning times." Accurate figures are difficult to establish, but it seems that the number of trials for witchcraft exceeded 100,000 during this period, and the number of people executed as witches exceeded 50,000. Such figures are low in comparison to some overly credulous accounts (one occasionally still encounters claims that the victims of the witch-hunts numbered in the hundreds of thousands or even millions), and they certainly pale when compared to the scale of deadly repression exercised by some governments in the modern world. Nevertheless, especially in regions of particular intensity, the witch-hunts were a major preoccupation of early-modern religious and state authorities. Moreover, the number of trials alone surely does not indicate all those whose lives were affected in some way, and certainly almost never for the good, by suspicions of witchcraft during this time.

The primary focus of this dictionary will fall on the historical phenomenon of witchcraft as defined and constructed in Europe during the era of the great witch-hunts. Other varieties of magic and conceptions of harmful sorcery in other periods of history and in other world cultures will, however, also be treated to some extent. Because the concept of witchcraft in medieval and early-modern Europe was informed by ideas, beliefs, and practices from the earlier Christian era, as well as from classical antiquity, some attention must also be given to those periods. Outside of the major Western civilizations, ideas of harmful magic and witchcraft have manifested in many ways. In particular, African varieties of witchcraft have been studied and often used as a basis for comparison with historical witchcraft in Europe. Such anthropologically informed scholarship has done much to increase understanding of how belief in witchcraft can function at a social level. Other magical beliefs and practices around the world have themselves been influenced by aspects of European witchcraft. For example, conceptions of harmful sorcery and those who practice it associated with the religion of Voodoo in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean seem heavily influenced by Christian notions of witches. In addition, some treatment will be given to the modern world because not all of the beliefs that characterized historical witchcraft in Europe vanished with the end of the witch-hunts, and some have persisted even to the present day. Moreover, there now exists a substantial movement (or movements) of modern witchcraft, commonly termed Wicca. Although there is no credible evidence of any direct connection between the modern and historical variants of witchcraft in the Western world, some individuals and groups within modern witchcraft maintain that such connections do exist, and certainly some groups outside of modern witchcraft persist in associating modern witches with historical stereotypes.

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