Witchcraft is seeing a resurgence in popular culture, and not just at Halloween. Websites, blogs, YouTube channels, and TikTok accounts abound, focused on the hows and whys of witchcraft. But witchcraft has a long, deep history, and knowing the background of the craft is worthwhile, whether you consider yourself a witch or just someone who's interested in this complicated, dramatic, and sometimes heartbreaking history.
History of Witchcraft Timeline: Witchcraft in the Ancient World
As long as there have been written records, there have been records of those who had abilities or magic that went beyond those of ordinary people.
As far back as 3000 B.C.E., there are records from both ancient Sumaria and ancient Egypt about magical systems and spells.
Just from ancient Egypt alone, historians have found texts full of spells, including The Pyramid Texts, The Coffin Texts, and (most well-known of them) The Book of the Dead. There are also references to certain priests who were tasked with keeping the Pharoah safe from harm or curses (a clear form of protection magic), and there were even spells to try to raise a dead Pharoah and bring them back to life.
And then, of course, there's The Bible. One of the earliest references of witchcraft in the Bible was written sometime between 931 B.C.E. and 721 B.C.E. The text is found in the story of King Saul taking counsel with the Witch of Endor. The witch summoned Samuel's spirit to assist Saul in defeating the Philistine army. Instead of giving Saul advice, Samuel's spirit foretold of Saul and his sons dying in battle. The next day, Saul's sons died in battle, and Saul killed himself. And that's just one story of many; in general, The Bible is full of mentions of witchcraft, divination, and magic, demonstrating how commonplace such practices were.
And, as in more modern times, some places were more fearful of witchcraft than others. In China, the Empress Wei (129 B.C.E. to 91 B.C.E.) and daughter of the Emperor Wu (ruled from 141 B.C.E. to 87 B.C.E.) were accused of practicing the dark arts. The Empress was exiled to the capital city for practicing love magic in her attempt to become pregnant. The woman helping her, along with 300 other people involved in creating magical potions, were executed.
Ancient Romans and Greeks are credited with making witchcraft a concept of magic and superstition. The Greeks tended to view witches in a negative light, while the Romans practiced and cast spells, believing in various superstitions. Romans are credited with making magia (magic) a type of generalized concept that was first used in literature sometime between 23 and 79 B.C. by Virgil, a poet.
Indigenous American and African Witchcraft
Witchcraft is an ancient world practice. Timelines are difficult to pinpoint for closed cultures, such as Indigenous Americans, and to those that are a mix of religion and magic, such as those found in Africa (Vodou). Vodou migrated to Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, and America, specifically New Orleans, which evolved into Voodoo. America became a vast melting pot of cultures, religions, and beliefs, especially witchcraft and magic. A unique form of religion and witchcraft, Hoodoo, combined Indigenous American traditions/practices with African and even European magical rituals that included grimoires. Biblical context was added to this New World hybrid religion that was Christian based to disguise the ancient magical practices.
History of Witchcraft Timeline: The Middle Ages
People often associate the Middle Ages with witch hunts and the like, but the fact of the matter is that many of those happened in the Early Modern Period, after the year 1500. While far from being a tolerant free-for-all, the Middle Ages were clearly an age in which a good part of the population believed in magic.
While it was widely condemned by both religion and governments, the sheer number of books and texts that include magical formulas, spells, and rituals makes it clear that it was a popular belief system among many laypeople. The Church, largely concerned with ridding the world of paganism (and making it clear that God and the Saints due to their holiness, and not man, were the only ones capable of magic), went from considering magic to be nothing more than superstition to accepting that witches do exist, though this didn't officially happen until 1484. This, of course, led to trials and executions.
However, things only got worse during the late 1400s, and those things led up to the witch hunt craze in the 1500s through 1700s. Once the Church said that witches exist, it didn't take long for witches to become scapegoats for all manner of things and in 1487, a German inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer released a text called The Malleus Maleficarum, which soon was second only in sales to The Bible itself. The book detailed the various offenses of witches and recommended punishment for those offenses.
Before long, witch hunts were the trend, in Europe and then, later, in the New World.
History of Witchcraft Timeline: The Early Modern Period
Things got bad in Europe, to say the least, for anyone suspected of being a witch. While it was mostly women, some men were tried as well. Older women, single women, and those who kept to themselves were especially vulnerable, made worse by the continued popularity and expansion of the Malleus Maleficarum, which was reprinted multiple times between 1487 and 1669. Each release added new offenses. As the popularity of the book grew, even most laypeople started to see witchcraft and magic not as harmless superstitions, but as the work of the Devil.
And it wasn't just the supposed witches themselves. No, in the height of the witch hunt obsession, even those who were suspected of knowing a witch could be tried and found guilty. The rise of Protestantism only made it worse, since both Protestants and Catholics alike believed that witches were in league with the Devil. And, because religion was so strongly tied to everyday life in the Middle Ages, that meant those accused were ostracised and often lived in fear of those around them. By the time the hunts and trials finally ended in Europe, it's estimated that somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people had been executed, most of them women.
Over time, the obsessive witch panic eventually died down in Europe... just in time for it to rise in the Colonies.
American Witches and Salem Witch Trials
The boiling pot of Colonial America brought a myriad of cultures, superstitions, and, of course, witchcraft. The fear associated with superstitions, magic, and witchcraft grew into a frenzied panic when three young girls from Salem Village, Massachusetts accused three women of witchcraft. Elizabeth (9), the daughter of Reverend Parris, along with her cousin Abigail Williams (11), and Ann Putnam (11) claimed to be possessed by the devil. The girls accused -- Tituba (Parris' Caribbean enslaved laborer), Sarah Osborne (poor elder), and Sarah Good (homeless beggar) of casting a spell on them. This started a hailstorm of accusations and resulted in the Salem Witch Trials. After days of interrogation:
- Tituba confessed and was eventually pardoned.
- Sarah Osborne died before trial.
- Good was the first hanged for witchcraft although she never confessed.
The paranoia spread to other townships and before it subsided, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft. Twenty were hanged. The paranoia came to an end in the Colonies in great part due to an article written by Benjamin Franklin, which ridiculed the entire situation. And by 1700 in Britain, belief in witchcraft was cause for derision, with laws being passed instead saying that anyone who claimed to be a witch was a fraud, because of course witchcraft wasn't a real thing!
History of Witchcraft Timeline: The Late Modern Period
It's safe to say that witchcraft never fully went away. Sometimes, it was practiced in secret. Sometimes, it was folded into Christianity and called "folk magic." There are people who have always been drawn to the old ways, the old beliefs, and it was in the Late Modern period that those people began to step into the pubic eye and reclaim their beliefs.
Much of modern witchcraft (as well as the creation of Wicca) can be traced directly to English Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who wrote a book called The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921). Murray wrote that a coven was made up of 12 witches with the devil as the coven's leader. She proclaimed the witches practiced animal and child sacrifices. However, in her 1933 book, The God of the Witches, Murray's opinion about witches and the devil seemed to have changed. In her second book, she referred to Satan as The Horned God and renamed the witch-cult as the old religion that predated Christianity.
Not too long after, this led to the creation of Wicca. Gerald Gardner wrote a book in 1954 called Modern Witchcraft, which gave the modern blueprint for the practice followed by those who ascribe to the Wiccan religion. Gardner drew heavily on both the work of Murray, as well as the work of Aleister Crowley, who, like Gardner, called for a resurgence in the old pagan beliefs, as well as a yearly schedule of rituals and celebrations based on solstices, equinoxes, and seasons. Gardner's book was later reworked by future Wicca leader Doreen Valiente, who removed much of the Crowley-inspired information in the book.
Wicca rose in popularity in the United States in the 1970s, and has only grown more popular as time has gone on.
However, Wicca isn't the only form of witchcraft to rise in modern times. Modern druidism also saw a resurgence, with druids inventing, borrowing, and creating rituals to connect them to their druidic roots.
All of this brings it full-circle. Today, books, websites, blogs, and even courses and conferences about witchcraft abound, and you can find information about any facet of the craft that interests you, whether it's Wicca, green witchcraft, hedge witchery, kitchen witchery, or good old-fashioned folk magic. It's worth noting here that not all Wiccans consider themselves to be witches, and not all witches are Wiccan. Wicca is a religious belief, and witchcraft doesn't necessarily tie itself to faith. That's up to each individual practitioner.
The world has expanded. With the rise of the internet and social media, it's so easy to connect to those things that call to you, to form one's own belief system and practice, and that is something the witches of old would have appreciated.
A Long and Winding Road
The history of witchcraft is long, complicated, and full of trials and tribulations, but also full of triumph and each person's desire to strive for their own truth. It also shows how easy it is to vilify a person or a whole group of them, and how quickly that can cause harm. Learning history is the best way to prevent the past from repeating itself.