The early Christians of Europe viewed ancient witchcraft and witch as made of wickedness, and eventually, these beliefs inspired the Halloween witch we know today.
Throughout history, depictions of ancient witchcraft have ranged from nasty, wart-nosed ladies huddled over a cauldron of boiling liquid to hag-faced, laughing entities riding through the sky on brooms while wearing pointy hats.
Ancient witchcraft was eventually coopted by mass culture. Witches were portrayed in popular culture in various ways, such as a good-natured, nose-twitching suburban mom, a painfully shy adolescent trying to manage her talents, and a trio of enchanted siblings fighting evil. However, the actual history of witches and ancient witchcraft is dreary and, sometimes for the witches themselves, fatal.
Xinar has an extensive collection of ritual and talisman charms and Celtic and Wiccan charms. Expand your knowledge’s horizon and delve into the history of one of the most enigmatic figures in culture and mysticism while enjoying DIY crafting with high-quality sterling silver charms. All the jewelry-making supplies you’ll ever need in semi-precious metals.
Where Ancient Witchcraft Came From
In the past, persons who believed in and performed witchcraft were known as “witches.” They would cast spells and invoke the spirits of the dead to help them or bring about change.
The common belief was that witches were pagan Satanists. However, many were natural healers or so-called “wise women” whose occupation was misconstrued.
It is not known when witchcraft first appeared in history, but the biblical book of 1 Samuel, , contains one of the oldest records of a witch. It describes how King Saul went to the Witch of Endor in search of the prophet Samuel’s spirit so that he could use him to destroy the Philistine army.
Upon being awakened by the witch, Samuel foretold Saul and his sons’ deaths. However, the Bible says that the next day after his sons were killed in battle, Saul himself took his own life.
Exodus 22:18, which states, “thou shalt not let a witch live,” isn’t the only Old Testament text that condemns witchcraft. There are further verses in the Bible that warn against utilizing witchcraft, chants, or divination to make communication with the dead
The Curse of Those Accused of Ancient Witchcraft
Many accused witches confessed, frequently under torture, to a wide range of evil deeds in the middle of the 1400s, when the frenzy over witchcraft was at its height in Europe. Within a century, burning at the stake or hanging were popular methods of execution for anyone convicted of witchcraft. Women living alone, widows, and those on the fringes of society were particular targets.
As many as 80,000 people in Europe were burned at stake for being witches between the years 1500 and 1660. About 80% were women; all assumed to be lustful, Devil-worshipping members of the underworld. Regarding the death penalty for witchcraft, Germany was the harshest, and Ireland was the most lenient.
The appearance of “Malleus Maleficarum”—made by two well-respected German Dominicans in 1486—likely prompted the witch craze to grow global. The book, commonly known by its English title “The Hammer of Witches,” provided detailed instructions on recognizing, tracking down, and questioning witches.
With its condemnation of witchcraft as heresy, “Malleus Maleficarum” swiftly became the go-to resource for Protestants and Catholics alike seeking to root out witches in their midst. It was the best-selling book in Europe for over a century, beating out even the Bible.
The Case of the Salem Witches
While it was declining in Europe, witch panic was rising in the New World due to the war between the French and the British, an outbreak of smallpox, and the constant threat of attack from indigenous peoples. Scapegoating was easy to do in this heated environment. The Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of 1692 are among the most well-known in history.
Elizabeth Parris, 9, and Abigail Williams, 11, both began having convulsions, bodily twitches, and uncontrollable shrieking, which sparked the events that led to the Salem witch trials.
Mass hysteria broke out when additional young ladies showed symptoms, and three women were accused of witchcraft. Tituba said she was a witch and blamed everybody around her for practicing witchcraft.
On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged at the Salem gallows as the first suspected witch to be executed by hanging during the Salem Witch Trials. Approximately 150 individuals were accused, and 18 were executed. Six men, in addition to women, were found guilty and hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.
The fear of witchcraft did not begin in Massachusetts but spread throughout the 13 colonies. Also, Young, convicted of witchcraft in 1647, was the first American to be put to death. Forty-six people were accused of witchcraft in Connecticut, and 11 were executed for their crimes before the final trial took place in 1697.
The fear of witches was less extreme in Virginia. False accusations of witchcraft were made illegal in Lower Norfolk County as early as 1655. The threat of witchcraft remained a concern, however. Between 1626 and 1730, Virginia held over two dozen witch trials, most of which were women. The defendants were spared all lethal injections.
Grace Sherwood, whose neighbors claimed she killed their pigs and hexed their cotton, is remembered as one of the most infamous witches in Virginia’s past. In 1706, Sherwood was put on trial for further claims.
The court opted for a highly contentious water test to prove her guilt or innocence. Sherwood had her hands and feet shackled before being tossed into the lake. It was speculated that if she drowned, she was innocent, and if she floated, she was guilty. Despite not drowning, Sherwood was found guilty of practicing witchcraft. Instead of being murdered, she spent eight years in jail.
What is Animism?
Before the published grimoires of witchcraft and all the hubbub about witches that supposedly should float in any water, there was (and still is) animism.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so-called “social Darwinists” applied Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution to the social sciences. Common anthropological wisdom once held that human civilizations developed progressively through Darwinian phases, with magical thought constituting the first, most primitive step. While some cultures developed, others became stuck in their early stages and never progressed further.
The witches’ magical worldview was equated with backward, unenlightened, antithetical to modern, civilized thinking.
There was little consideration given to collaborating with modern magical thinkers while digging sites or analyzing magical pictures because they were similarly seen as primitive, retrograde, and silly, even though Western and well-educated. (This is beginning to change, though, as archaeologists at atal Hüyük are now having conversations with contemporary followers of the goddess). In its place attempted to define magical thinking from the standpoint of an outsider, one who took pride in his separation from the perspective he was attempting to define.
The English anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor, often regarded as the “founder of anthropology,” is credited with coining the term “animism.” Tylor derived the term from the Greek word for “soul,” “anima,” to describe what he believed to be the earliest magical and religious thought stage.
Animism is the belief that everything, including people, animals, and inanimate objects, is alive and has a spirit, as Tylor claims ancient peoples believed. It is clear from the words “savages” and “rude races” that Sir Tylor did not identify with or have any empathy for the human participants of his studies.
Animism was considered the most barbaric, unsophisticated, and unenlightened of all worldviews. Tylor, however, came close to identifying what could be interpreted as magical perception: the view of the universe that makes shamanism, witchcraft, and other magical practices conceivable and desirable.
It’s a sight to behold, and it makes one very happy. Everything in this vision is conscious, constantly interacting with one another, and capable of communicating with one another if it chooses to if it can be compelled to, and most importantly, if you understand. Nothing is genuinely static or lifeless. Just because you can’t see, feel, or hear their communication doesn’t imply they aren’t happening.
The shaman has excellent hearing and comprehension; perhaps most importantly, she can carry her own in a conversation.
Whoever seeks this information and demonstrates a personal skill for this type of communication is the shaman, sorcerer, or witch (and whether at this level there is any difference is mainly subject to linguistics).
This skill is priceless and may have been a significant factor in our species’ long-term success and ability to reproduce. Most accounts of creation finish with the magical creation itself. Then what happened? Like in that Zuni story, witches frequently arrive with potentially life-saving information and abilities.
Envision the first humans, our distant ancestors, discovering unheard-of vegetation, weird animals, and chemicals. Yet, there is no background knowledge or scientific foundation for them.
The scientific method predicts lots of trial and error. According to common shamanic belief, the animated plants, animals, and substances would reveal their true selves to the shaman. He would then act as a channel between the animate entities and the rest of society, conveying information about the animate entities’ gifts and dangers.
We owe much to the animal kingdom, our elder siblings, who educated us in medicine, hunting, and survival. This branch of shamanism is still practiced, albeit it faces the same threats to survival as the rainforests that have been its cultural epicenter.
The Realm of Shamanic Visions
Many conventional views hold that the world is not a unified whole, which is an example of tunnel vision. In contrast, the everyday reality we inhabit, the universe we perceive only via our five senses, is just one of many possible dimensions. Conventional shamanic wisdom globally points to the following dimensions, while others may exist.
- Terra firma: the physical home of sentient beings with finite lifespans
- Deities and other supernatural beings such as fairies, djinn, angels, and gods all call the Spirit World home.
- The dream world is a real place, yet it exists on a different plane of reality.
- The land of the dead
These dimensions are not sequential but rather coexisting and independent of one another. That’s because they’re all linked together. You can interact with and travel across several dimensions. While spirits move freely between worlds, ghosts occasionally become lost and require the assistance of a shaman to guide them back home, if not a gentle push.
There are limits between these spheres, albeit their permeability can change depending on many things, including the season. (Halloween, Samhain, and El Dia de Los Muertos are recognized as times when those borders are most permeable in every direction.) Nevertheless, there are portals of access between realms if you can locate them, the will to persevere through them, and the knowledge to successfully navigate your way back. This is the path of the accomplished shaman’s soul.
Stories of Odysseus and Aeneas’ descent into Hades can be found in Greek and Roman mythology. To bring his beloved Eurydice back from the Underworld, Orpheus makes the perilous voyage to Hades. In Norse mythology, Balder, a much-loved deceased hero, is the subject of a mission to Hel. Unfortunately, these “journeys” are too often interpreted as “mythic” simply in the sense of being fictional because they are too often taken literally as if one travels to the Realm of the Dead in the same way one travels to Disneyland.
Shamanic visions are also associated with traditions like those of Native Americans. Native American symbols are crucial for understanding how shamanic works in such cultures.
Examples of shamanic practices are:
- Interacting with other dimensions, such as those inhabited by ghosts and the dead
- Healing through soul retrieval and other means
- Where to look for buried treasure or other lost or stolen goods
Becoming a shaman may have been the earliest career, contrary to popular belief and jokes. Alternatively, many sacred individuals also played the role of shaman, acting not as static figures but as active participants in ritual possessions in which they channeled their goddess.
While specific communities may have several shamans to represent ancient witchcraft, the shaman is nonetheless a specialist in their own right.
Especially in societies that subsist on hunting and gathering or farming, shamans are often supported by the community.
To your ears, this must be a sweet deal. So, yes and no. It takes courage to practice shamanism because the central initiation experience is sometimes described as a spiritual “death” and because it can be terrifying, unpleasant, and deadly.
Some component of the spiritual anatomy, though not the physical body, dies; it is ripped apart or butchered by spirits, often boiled up in a cauldron and consumed by the spirits, and then, if one is lucky and passes all tests, it is pieced back together (re-membered) and one is resurrected.
The shaman has “died” and “come back,” which allows her to travel to the afterlife. She occupies a threshold state, moving between worlds without fully committing to either one.
The fully trained shaman practicing ancient witchcraft is typically an older person, and very frequently a woman, for many reasons, including the inherent dangers of the job and the potential for a lengthy apprenticeship (contrary to modern advertising, one cannot become a shaman for a weekend, although skills can be taught), and the fact that skill comes from experience. (Shamanism was traditionally practiced only by women in several parts of the world, such as China and Northern Europe.)