The Complete History of Witches and Witchcraft

Witchcraft is trending across all social media platforms. The movement is not only empowering and inclusive but is also a booming industry and growing.

But how did this happen, how did we get from early paganism through the 400 years of barbaric witch trials and persecution to cute witchy shops and crystals available next day by ordering online?

Join us as we look back through the history of witches. From its earliest roots to now and explore how it grew into the thriving and peace loving online community it is today.

History of witches: How and where did it begin?

The earliest known evidence we can find of witchcraft as we would recognize it today dates back to between the 5th and 8th century and is generally recognized as Anglo-Saxon paganism (pre-Christian paganism) within medieval England and Europe.

Across the world it is also known as historical polytheism which is the worship of several deities and their relationship to the land. Take, for example, the Gods and a Goddesses of the Greek pantheon: Ποσειδώνας (Poseidon) the god of the sea, ᾍδης (Hades) of the underworld and Ζεύς (Zeus) master of lightning and ruler of the gods. We can see similar deity structures in Celtic and Norse religions.

Magic has been practiced long before this though, but it differs from the modern witchcraft we see today. The ancient druids were akin to nomadic priests and dated from between 400 BC to 820 AD and Egyptian priests and priestesses practiced magic for healing, preparing their dead for the afterlife and for honoring the gods of their diverse pantheon.

However, it is incredibly difficult to date these times accurately because during the rise of Christianity many scrolls and historic texts were deemed heretic and were burned.

Who practiced witchcraft and why?

The modern witchcraft we see today can be seen in Anglo-Saxon England and Europe. Pagans worked with the land and in harmony with the seasons. They believed certain gods and goddesses watched over them and could grant them a bountiful harvest if they were given offerings, usually of incense and prayer.

Like wassailing, which is an act of pouring cider at the roots of an apple tree and dancing around it to hail in a fresh and healthy crop. 

During the rise of Christianity in the 8th century, missionaries (Christian evangelizers) would be sent from Rome which was the Christian capital of the time to convert pagans in to Christians. The missionaries would adapt Christianity to include all the pagan deities but instead making them saints.

It is easier to convert people if they can mostly go about their practices the same way but under a different name and subtlety change these practices over time. Ēostre, the Germanic Goddess of Spring and fertility would become inspiration for the holiday of Easter.

Her correspondences are the rabbit, eggs and spring colors like pink, green and yellow. Pagans would venerate the rabbit for its fertility and decorate eggs as a symbol of new beginnings, birth and Spring. This was adapted to the Easter traditions we see today.

We see this with other pagan celebrations like Yule and Samhain becoming Christmas and Halloween (first named All Saint’s Day and moved to October 31st and later renamed All Hallow’s Eve.)

Another figure who was converted was The Horned God, Cernunnos (Celtic) or more commonly known as Pan (originally Παν from the Greek pantheon.) Though his was not a happy conversion. To pagans, pan is the god of the wild, the hunt and animals. He is sometimes depicted playing a flute and is mischievous and playful.

Though due to his nature to play and make merry whilst the sun is out Pan had the misfortune of becoming the devil within Christian teachings, that believe such acts to be sinful.

Skull and candles

By accepting some deities and condemning others Christian missionaries were able to slowly convince pagans they had been worshipping evil and use the fear of hell to convert them to Christianity.

In 1484 Paganism was deemed as heresy and denounced by pope Innocent VIII. A pagan was a Heathen -a word synonymous with evil but actually translates to mean ‘non-believer’ and paganism gradually fell out of favor for a new fashionable religion.

Those that still practiced it were seen as cavorting with the devil and treated as evil and not trusted. In the late 1563 it became an offense to practice witchcraft and a dark period in history began.

The witch trails

Witch mania swept the globe starting in Europe in the mid 1400s and continued to the 1800s ending in North America. Soon after witchcraft had become illegal, a book titled Malleus Maleficarum (translated to The Hammer Of The Witches) written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger was published.

For 100 years, this book was the second most printed and sold book, the bible being the first. The contents of this book were sexist, racist and classist and would walk readers through the ‘art’ of identifying and making a person confess (under torture) to being a witch and the ‘appropriate’ means of punishment which usually meant death by hanging or burning at the stake.

The book contained what would amount to utter rubbish by today’s scientific standards. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, you might be a witch if:

  • You are Non-Christian.
  • Elderly and not married.
  • Female.
  • Any other race than Caucasian.
  • LGBTQ.
  • Have a pet (a familiar, apparently this is the witch’s spirit and sometimes the devil).
  • Have any kind of birthmark anywhere.
  • Happen to live on the fringes of society and be independent. 
  • Or behaved in any way that threatened the delicate and insecure patriarchy.

This barbaric book was followed to the letter by many hopeful witch hunters but none more famous than Matthew Hopkins who killed over 300 suspected witches between the years 1644 and 1646. So time moved on in this way and witch mania moved from Europe to the new world of Puritan early America.

With the smallpox epidemic, crop failures, wars with native Americans and the strict surveillance created by Puritan teachings the society needed a scapegoat and so up to 800,000 suspected witches unwillingly became the victims of 4 centuries of persecution.

Witch trail
A black-and-white portion from the painting “Witch Hill (The Salem Martyr)” by Thomas Satterwhite Noble

The now famous Salem Massachusetts witch trials in the year 1962 sparked the beginning of the end of the witch trial mania. Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams 9 and 11 years began having convolutions, hallucinating and screaming.

Today is believed that these were caused by certain moulds present in bread and wheats that become damp whilst being stored over winter.

More women began to experience these fits and mass hysteria spread. Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn and Tituba (an enslaved woman of the Parris’ father) were accused of witchcraft.

Tituba confessed and accused other women. Bridget Bishop was the first to be accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death and was hanged at the Salem gallows. Over 150 people were accused, and 18 women and men were put to death. The trials were a scandal and created gossip and suspicion within the community.

There were rivaling families accusing daughters of the opposing family of witchcraft and there were also political and power plays at hand: criminals are stripped of possessions upon a conviction and so witch hunting could be very profitable for the state and the accusers. There are also similar events in Connecticut 1647 and throughout various settlements in North America.

The trouble stemmed from demanding confessions and names of accomplices under torture. This meant all people would eventually break at some point and make false confessions just to end the insufferable pain. So more witches would be discovered and wrongly accused and tortured, therefore, witchcraft would seemingly run rampant within the community. In Virginia 1655 the tides began to turn.

Torturing Witches
Lithograph by Joseph E. Baker

A law passed making false accusations of witchcraft illegal. Soon after torturing for accomplices was banned and witchcraft seemingly dried up. Only 24 witch trials took place in the whole of Virginia between 1626 and 1730.

From here witchcraft and the fear of witches hiding within the community gradually faded. The last person to be accused of witchcraft and executed was Anna Göldi in Switzerland in 1782.

Like most witch trials this had nothing to do with magic: Anna was fired from her job after the children of the house had played a prank on her involving putting nails in the milk she had brought in for the family.

This was discovered by the owner of the house she was having an affair with. When she threatened to reveal the affair which would have harmed her wealthy employer’s budding political career, he demanded her execution.

Christians vs witchcraft history

But why did early Christianity have such a problem with witchcraft anyway? This is a complex topic but ultimately it becomes a matter of where one puts their faith: in themselves or a higher power.

Early Christians saw witches as in league with evilness because the act of using witchcraft was seen as taking control of your life away from God and into one’s own hands which directly threatened their structure.

The reason why Christianity is such a widespread belief is that Christian leaders sought to make it so. They actively spread the message of God and aimed to dominate the world. Christianity can be seen as the world’s first conglomerate, with believers paying tidings all over the world Christian leaders throughout time became wealthier and more powerful. They were able to do this using a mixture of submission and fear for 100’s of years.

Inside of a church

By preaching that the world is full of sin and God is the only one who can purify believers and keep them safe, they kept people afraid and coming back. A powerful business model. Witches, however, were not an organized religion with wealth and power behind them.

They were often individuals who had differing beliefs but on the who venerated benevolent pagan gods of the Earth and believed that there is no such thing as sin and no need for salvation.

There was no need to remain pure for the next life because to them there wasn’t one, there is just this life now so they might as well enjoy it. So they would dabble in witchcraft, have sex if they wanted to, speak out, stay unmarried and this would shock those in favor of the Puritan message and disrupt a delicate patriarchal system. This is the main divider, where two very different paths of thought collide and there is no compromise.

Add to this the vilifying of the pagan god Pan and the fact that accused witches would have their property acquired by the state (or often the male accused who had discovered the witch) and it’s easy to see how the witch trials became a lucrative and corrupt business.

Occultism in the Victorian era

The next big shift we see in history is in the Victorian era. The upper crust of the society began to explore the world of the occult and soon was fascinated with witchcraft, using forms of divination as parlor games. Our favorite Victorian magic is a method of divination to find one’s future husband.

On Samhain (Halloween) night, young women would take a looking glass or hand mirror and holding it over their right shoulder would walk backwards in the moonlight chanting:

“Round and round, O stars so fair!

Ye travel and search out everywhere;

I pray you, sweet stars, or show to me 

This night who my future husband/wife will be!”

This was the first time in post-Christian history that witchcraft (a very tame and frivolous form of it at least) was socially acceptable, popular even, with adults and children participating in these parlor games.

Many products were revamped and invented during this time including the first mass published tarot deck the Rider-Waite Smith deck printed in England in 1910 and what we would recognize now as a Ouija board back then called a spirit or talking board and sold as a family game in 1891.

Reading Tarot Cards

Spiritualism, the belief of spirits existing and communicating with them, had gripped England and America. It fit in with Christian doctrine of the Holy Ghost and as strange as it seems for us now talking to the dead was quite normal in these times.

This was a time of mass death, women in child birth, many children from various diseases, and men in wars meant the desire for communication with the dead and the comfort and solace it provided were very welcome.

This paired with the Victorian fascination of death and mourning attire becoming fashionable because of Queen Victoria’s long mourning period meant women draped in black practicing witchcraft had its first huge trending moment.

Witchcraft no longer illegal

Long gone were the days of executions and severe punishment for practicing witchcraft, in 1951 the witch laws were repealed effectively meaning it was no longer a crime to practice witchcraft. Gerald Gardner, a practicing witch, published witchcraft today in 1954 causing another spike in the trend and the creation of a new religion by Gardner himself called Wicca.

From here on we see secular bursts of witchcraft through the 70’s and 90’s. Owing to its history of mainly young women being accused and persecuted for not remaining repressed we see witchcraft exist on the fringes of society just out of the grasp of Christianity.

It generally interests those that are repressed by the main religion of the society. We see soars in witchcraft popularity during times of female liberation and in times where a society feels disillusioned and untrusting of their government and leaders so turns to themselves to manifest their wishes.

Witchcraft and witches today

As Christianity loosens its grip and we move further into an era of science the stigma and suspicion around witchcraft ebbs away. Thanks to social media, we are becoming a global society. One large society that is becoming more tolerant for the ‘other’ (a person or persons that are new or have different beliefs) and hopefully this will continue and in the near future we become a society of not just tolerance but acceptance.

With tolerance comes the freedom for all to practice their beliefs and talk about them openly without persecution on social media. The mixture of political unease and the self-development trend online means more and more are turning to witchcraft as a lifestyle choice and belief system. Some will identify as pagan, Wiccan, a witch or anything they’d like to be called.

Atheists, the religious and anyone in-between can incorporate a witchcraft practice into their daily routine with the former using the psychological and mindfulness approach and the latter allowing their god to be the granter of the magic through them. A quick google search can reveal 1000s of forums and groups for different religions incorporating witchcraft, most popular are Christian witches, Buddhist witches and atheist witches.

Witchcraft as a business

As this trend grows, we will continue to see those within the community with pagan and ‘witchy’ beliefs create products and services for their fellows. Witchcraft is an umbrella term and there are many avenues of the lifestyle to be explored:

  • Educational tools like books and online content.
  • Spell craft and spell ingredients.
  • Divination through tarot cards and crystals.
  • Mindfulness using mediation aids like journals and singing bowls.
  • Altar decor and magical items like wands and athames.
  • Clothing which is usually ethically sourced and planet friendly.

A big part of this movement’s success is that it tends to attract peace loving people that just want to practice their beliefs without persecution which has only been legally possible for the last 70 years. Aside from witchcraft we are seeing overarching trends of ethical purchases, green businesses and Veganism grow, these fit perfectly alongside witchcraft and are part of its success and rise in popularity.

With most of us aware of the planet’s condition, the days of mindless consumption seem to be nearing their end. In its place is a culture who want to practice their beliefs and help the planet at the same time.

Witchcraft has survived so long despite barbaric persecution because it is not concerned with global domination and wealth but instead the ability to look within and be happy and grateful for what we currently have.