Depending how witchcraft history is defined, it has existed as a religious practice since ancient times and continues to exist in a greatly evolved form today.
What is Witchcraft?
Witchcraft is a poorly understood word. Although contemporary witches or "pagans" believe that witchcraft history, in its modern form, pre-dates Christianity itself, most historians and theologians disagree. The disagreement is centered on how historians, and pagans themselves, define witchcraft.
Pagans connect modern witchcraft with a number of ancient, pre-Christian pagan faiths. However, historians and scholars define modern witchcraft as an invention of the Christian Inquisition, in which the Church redefined all pre-Christian faiths throughout Europe. The historical definition is the more accurate one, because it recognizes that before the Christian Church grouped all non-Christian faiths into one category, all of these religious practices were very different from one another.
Understanding Witchcraft History
Ancient tribal witches within most cultures across the world, from the Celtic druids to the Native American shaman, consisted of spirituality and "magic" centered around herbology, affecting weather patterns, offering blessings or bestowing curses. These practices remained, in one form or another, until the Christian Church gained enormous control and power throughout the world. The Inquisition and the Crusades transformed all non-Christian practices into one category, which later generations have come to call "witchcraft".
Paganism Before Christianity
Much of Paganism originates with the ancient Greeks, and elements of those traditions exist throughout Greek mythology. These traditions, including the use of magic, herbalism and divination, existed well into the Middle Ages. Pagan cults included their own priests and priestesses, such as the Celtic priests who were called "Druids". This Celtic cult was a very common European paganism centered around the worship of trees. Many of these religious communities had mystics, temples, and even religious statues. The term "wizard" has its roots in the Pagan priests who had gone into hiding, yet traveled the countryside to perform services for practitioners scattered throughout the land.
During this time period, a "witch" was a person who used herbs, roots and other natural elements to either heal or hurt others through the use of particular magical concoctions, practices and rituals. Much of the folklore that forms current images of the "old hag" witch comes from the old female peasants who continued using pagan ceremonies and spells into the first few centuries of Christianity when pagan practice was not yet a crime. In some parts of Europe, Pagan ceremonies and practices were still common, although historians agree there is no evidence of an organized cult system that connected all pagan religions across the continent. For the most part, these practices were rooted in old tribal beliefs centered around nature, weather and primitive spiritual practices.
Christianity Turns the Primitive "Pagan" into a "Witch"
The founding of the Inquisition and the Crusades were initially directed against Muslims, but then became focused on "heretics" within the Church's own ranks. From the 11th century to the 14th century, Inquisitors and nobles confiscated property and persecuted those who were deemed to be a heretic by the Church leaders. As heretics became more difficult to locate, Pope Innocent VIII eventually sanctioned adding those who practiced "witchcraft" into the same category as heretics, and made them subject to arrest and trial. Church leaders taught that witches worshiped a false deity called Satan. Through this new definition, Church leaders essentially invented an entirely new form of witchcraft that never existed before, known today as Satanism or "devil worship". During this time period, the Church grouped all religions, including Pagans, Jews, Gypsies and others, under a category called "witchcraft."The Inquisition included horrific actions against anyone suspected of being a witch. Men, women and children were tortured and killed in unmentionable ways. By the time this dark period of witchcraft history was over, over 50,000 people were murdered for being labeled a "heretic" and a "witch."
1900s: Witchcraft is "Reborn"
From the '20s through the '50s, a new form of "witchcraft" was created from remnants of those earlier primitive pagan beliefs and practices. As scientific psychic research became more popular within European culture, intellectuals throughout Europe began attempting to develop explanations for these phenomena, and in the process created a new religion called "witchcraft."
- 1920s: Margaret Alice Murray - Margaret Alice Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and The God of the Witches, in which she claimed that early Pagan beliefs were focused on the worship of the same Goddess and Horned God. Most scholars disproved Murray's theories by showing how varied Pagan and folk religions practiced throughout Europe.
- 1930s: Gerald Gardner - A man named Gerald Gardner recreated a new Pagan tradition of witchcraft. He created rituals, meditations and other writings. Various covens started throughout the UK. By 1949, when Gardner published High Magic's Aid, he was a member of Aleister Crowley's O.T.O. system of occult theory. During the '50s, after the Witchcraft Law of England was repealed, witchcraft expanded into a much larger movement across Europe.
- 1960s: Witchcraft Comes to America - In the 1960s, the counterculture within America picked up on the European movement, and a number of "Gardner Covens" began operating in the United States and Canada. The late '60s brought hallucinogenic drugs and an interest in the mystical. The "hippie" of the '60s and '70s created intense interest in mysticism and psychic phenomenon. At this time, new pagan traditions based on Gardner's writings were formed throughout the U.S.
Practicing Witchcraft Today
Today, throughout the world, witchcraft remains a practice that is both growing in popularity, but also greatly misunderstood, even by those who practice it themselves. Today, practices including divination, clairvoyance, herbology and other activities now termed "new age" have a witchcraft history that originates from the new "witchcraft" that was reborn throughout the early 1900s.