Centuries ago, the inquisitors and witch-hunters who executed witches as servants of the Devil believed they were doing a service to God and humanity. They envisioned a society free of witchcraft, which they viewed as heresy, a scourge, an evil and a blight. They would be astonished today to find that Witchcraft—with a capital W—has become one of the fastest-growing religions in Western culture.
How did this 180-degree turn take place?
The road from sorcery to spirituality is a colorful one, full of secrets, twists, rituals and compelling personalities. In its short half century as a religion, Witchcraft has a history rivaling that of any of the world's great faiths in drama, intrigue, pathos and triumph. Witchcraft has taken its place in the ecumenical religious theater.
Traditionally, witchcraft—with a small w—is a form of sorcery, concerned with spells and divination. The magical witch, the sorcerer witch, was not practicing a religion of witchcraft, but was practicing a magical art, passed down through families or taught by adepts.
Witches have never enjoyed a good reputation. Almost universally since ancient times, witchcraft has been associated with malevolence and evil. Witches are thought to be up to no good, interested in wreaking havoc and bringing misery to others. Individuals who used the magical arts to divine and to heal often took great pains to call themselves something other than "witch."
In Christianity, witchcraft became interpreted as serving the Devil in his plan to subvert and destroy souls. A witch hysteria mounted in Europe, Britain and even the American colonies and was seized upon by the church as a way of eliminating rival religious sects, political enemies and social outcasts. From the 14th to 18th centuries, thousands of people—perhaps hundreds of thousands— were tortured, jailed, maimed and executed on charges of witchcraft. Many of them were innocent, framed by personal enemies or tortured into confessions.
They told lurid stories of signing pacts with the Devil in blood, of being given demons in the form of animal familiars that would do their malevolent bidding and of attending horrid feasts called sabbats, where they would kiss the anus of the Devil and roast babies for a meal. None of these tales was ever substantiated by fact, but they served as sufficient evidence to condemn those who confessed to them.
The accused also admitted to doing evil to their families, friends, neighbors, rivals and enemies. How much of that was true is uncertain. Folk magic practices were part of everyday life, and casting a spell against someone, especially to redress a wrong, was commonplace. Since most confessions were extracted under fear and torture, it is likely that a great deal of untruth and exaggeration spilled out.
In the American colonies, the Puritans were obsessed with evil and believed the Devil had followed them across the ocean from England to destroy them. No wonder this paranoia erupted into witch hunts, including those in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, when the tales of hysterical girls were enough to send people to their deaths.
The stigma upon witchcraft left by the Inquisition and witch hunts lingers to this day, perpetuated by lurid films xii
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