Origin, Definition and History of The Witches and Witchcraft

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A witch, in the most simple form, is a woman believed to have magic or supernatural abilities and that these powers are used for evil or nefarious purposes. Many people accused of being a witch were thought to be associated with or worshipping Satan himself. In addition to worshipping Satan as a holy figure, which was extremely against Christian belief, they were also thought to take part in rituals to the devil that included many unforgivable acts such as human sacrifice and cannibalism. However, this was just the tip of the iceberg, as many of the innocent that were accused of witchcraft, a word derived from the old English wiccecraft, were seen to be committing heresy regardless of their ties to the devil. Simple things such as, mental illness or simply not looking pleasant, could all be proof of witchcraft, and by default, heresy. This would not lead to good things as the Church and the people of the 1400s – 1600s did not look kindly upon heresy, and in essence, the defacing and vandalizing of their God in which they worshipped.

It is quite unclear when exactly people with “supernatural” abilities were first given the name ‘witch’ but the first ever recorded history of a witch is found in the bible. It can be found in Samuel 1 and was thought to be written between 931 B. C. and 721 B. C. The story tells of King Saul and his search for the Witch of Endor. When he find her, he demands she summon the late prophet Samuel to share with him his future. Samuel then reveals to Saul the he and his sons will die. The next day Saul’s sons die in battle which leads Saul to kill himself. On top of this, there are other later accounts and excerpts in the bible that mention witches and the public thought on them. Take, for example, the passage from Exodus that reads “thou shall not suffer a witch to live”. This roughly translates to: “you shall not allow a witch to live”. As one could see, witches were not especially accepted by the Christian public. Mostly on account of the Satanic connotations but they were also seen as challenging God as their power was believed to rival God.

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However, the witch hysteria didn’t quite spark up until the mid-1400s, where those accused would admit to their sins, under great torture, and were put in jail or to death. A book written by two respected German Dominicans in 1486, Malleus Maleficarum, was a guide on how to catch a witch in the act of sorcery. The book describes in great detail how to identify, catch and interrogate witches. The book outsold all others at the time, excluding the bible, spreading across Europe like the plague. Thus, the witch hunts were born and remained common place from 1500-1600. During this time 80 000 people were suspected to be witches and 80% of them were women suspected to be worshipping and filled with lust over the devil. Witch Hunts and Trials.

The most infamous of all witch hunts is the Salem Witch Trials because of the absurdity of the origins and hectic, wild and messy trials. It all started in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 with two girls, who were ill, started suffering spasms and deranged behaviours such as screaming aloud at random. They claimed to be cursed by their neighbour Tituba, and many others, and accused them of being witches. Now science can point the figure at the culprit the girl’s illness and symptoms, which was a common fungus in the foods they were consuming. Nevertheless, Tituba and many other woman were interrogated. All claimed innocence but began to point fingers at other members in the community. This snowballed and sent the whole town into hysteria. In the end, 150 men and women were accused of witchcraft, 18 were put to death.

The Connecticut Witch Trials were less dramatic by leaps and bounds. Though the trials were still fast in pace they were less panicked and frenzied. They took place the year 1947 in Windsor, Connecticut. The trials held host to the very first execution of a witch, Alse Young, in America. It resulted in 46 people being accused while only 11 were put to death. In contrast to both Salem and Connecticut, Virginia was somewhat tolerant of witches. They were still captured, interrogated, tortured, and if found guilty, put to death but things were a little different. There was a law put in place to protect people that were wrongly accused with witchcraft. It was illegal to give a false accusation of a witch. Therefore, if after trial, the witch was found not guilty, the person who had accused the witch would be sent to jail or executed.

Mother Shipton, or Ursula Southeil, was an English prophetess. She was believed to be a witch in the 1490s because of countless reasons. Her mother was Agatha Southeil, who was believed to be a witch. Shipton was extremely ugly and disfigured as she grew up, most often called her ‘Hag Face’ which did not help the witch stigma around her. On top of all this she was very clairvoyant, like her mother. She predicted the Great Fire of London, the Spanish Armada and even the execution of Mary, Queen of the Scots. Even with all of this evidence to back up the communities claim of her being a witch, she was never tried for her lifestyle and was left to die a normal death of old age. A woman by the name of Grace Sherwood was accused of witchcraft in 1706. Her neighbours claimed that she was killing their pigs and placing hexes on their cotton. She was brought to trial and put through the water test. The test starts with the binding of the suspects arms and legs so they can no longer move them. They are then thrown into a body of water. This test can have one of two results. The suspect could continue to sink to the deep depths of the water, proving them to not be a witch but also successfully drowning them. If the suspect were to float back the top of the body of water, as buoyant bodies usually do, they were truly a witch. Grace underwent this test and was discovered to be a witch as she resurfaced in the water after they had tossed her in. She was put to death.

Agnes Sampson was a scottish midwife and healer in 1590. Around this time King james of Scotland and Anne of Denmark-Norway marry. Together the pair is very cautious and anxious when it comes to witches. Naturally it makes complete sense that while they are partaking on a voyage and a deadly storm hits they point their fingers at the witches as the culprits. Over 70 were accused of being the witches behind the attempted murder, Agnes Sampson being one of them. Agnes, like many others, were tortured and interrogated. In between fits of torture, the would be left in a Witch Bridel that was chained to the wall behind them. The bridel pushed four prongs into the mouth, holding it open and making any movement completely unbearable. Many were quick to give up and confess to a crime they did not commit, seeing the fate before them but contrary to the others accused, Agnes did not give up easy. She was one of the last to confess and after doing so she was strangled to death and burned at a stake.

Jane Horne, the last legal witch put to death in 1727. She was accused of many things, but on of the most infamous was turning her daughter into a horse. Many believed she was deranged because of her ties to the devil, but now we know that was really just a symptom of senile dementia. Jane and her daughter were brought to trial after the accusations and they were both proved guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. While the daughter managed to escape, her senile mother was left bewildered and confused. They stripped her and soaked her in tar. Witnesses claim that when at the stake, as the fire advanced on her she smiled and warmed herself to it.

As horror films became big in hollywood, so did the idea of the witch start to resurface. There are over 50 recreations of the witch stereotype from the 1950s to present day. As the ‘witch’ made its way onto the big screen, it entered as more of a ‘folk tale’ witch. An ugly hag that lived and the woods and never came out. It centered around the ugly and mysterious aspect instead of tying into the more religious side of witches. This was first seen in Comin’ Round the Mountain (1957) and would be later seen in the Gene Autry Show (1957). The 1960s sees a shift in how witches are portrayed in the film making scene. Instead of being a mysterious old hag, witches were now more satanic as those stereotypes from its history return. They were appeared to be working for the devil now instead of just for mischievous purposes. Take, for example, the movies Twilight Zones “Jesse Belle” and the Undead (1953), a femme-fatale themed storyline starring to witches. Along with the more satanic themes films about witches take on, the more feminine and sexualized the movies got as film moved into the 2000s. They gave witches an alluring factor to tie in with the lust that the devil bestows upon them. This is especially prominent in the movies Coven (2013) and Penny Dreadful (2015).

Contrary to popular belief, the Wicca are not followers of Satan and mean no harm on society with their spell and magick. They are an incredibly earth-centered, neo-pagan religion. It derives its modern teachings from the first Wiccan, Gerald Gardner (1884- 1964). The religion is unlike many others as the members of the religion do not worship or revere a single God or many Gods but live their lives worship all of creation and all the Earth gives them. It has become more popular to the teens of modern day because their beliefs allow for acceptance of homosexuality, gender fluidity and much more. They see all that is created as special. They are seen as modern day witches as they practice spells to manipulate the earth as a part of their religion.

Looking back on the research displayed in this report, I do believe that in some sense witches are real. I do not believe that only back in the 1400s did they exist, but that in our modern age they still exist. I believe that back then and now, people practiced some form of witchcraft but that it is much more watered down and less evil then what we all believed it to be. Much like the modern Wiccan religion, I believe that pagans that casted “spells” and manipulated the earth did exist but that it wasn’t for mischievous or nefarious purposes. No, i believe that they were to send well wishes and good luck upon loved ones and friends and that they used the Earth to making healing remedies to illnesses they had not yet cured. Witches do exist, they are just misunderstood.

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Origin, Definition and History of The Witches and Witchcraft. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/origin-definition-and-history-of-the-witches-and-witchcraft/
“Origin, Definition and History of The Witches and Witchcraft.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/origin-definition-and-history-of-the-witches-and-witchcraft/
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