A Brief History of Witchcraft

A Brief History of Witchcraft

A Brief History Of Witch Craft
Photographer: Halanna Halila | Source: Unsplash

It is not known exactly when witchcraft first made an appearance.  Witches were mentioned in the Bible – yet it is unlikely the Bible was referring to Witchcraft as we know it today.  The following reference found in Exodus 22.18, “Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live”, may have been mistranslated.  In the King James version of the Bible, this quote was thought to be largely responsible for the persecution of those accused of being Witches in Europe and America. So, it would seem, the history of witchcraft is rather askew.

A Brief History Of Witch Craft
A Brief History Of Witch Craft

The mythology and folklore of ancient people, particularly Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans has led to many of the beliefs held in Western Witchcraft.  It seems that Witchcraft as we know it, stems largely from the Celts.  These were a group of tribes from the Iron Age, believed to have originated from around 700 BC in Europe.

The Celts were spiritual people.  Celtic Polytheism or Paganism meant that they worshipped many Deities, both Gods and Goddesses.  Celtic Priests, known as Druids, were believed to be Sorcerers and Prophets.  

The Druids also took on roles as teachers, philosophers, astrologers, healers, midwives, bards and judges.  The number three was very significant to the Druids and many aspects of the old religion can be found in threes – the Triple Goddess (Mother, Maiden, Crone), the three phases of the Moon, the Earth, Sky and Sea, and the three stages of Life. 

Witches believe in the ‘Law of Three’ meaning that what is sent out will return threefold.  An ancient symbol known as the Triskelion was used by the Celts.   This symbol depicts three interconnected spirals.

The Druids and The History Of Witchcraft   

The Druids observed eight Holy Days based on lunar, solar and seasonal cycles, Samhain (Halloween) on October 31st, Yule – Winter Soltice on December 21st, Imbolc on February 2nd, Ostara (Easter) – Spring Equinox, Beltane, April 30th, Litha – Summer Soltice on June 21st, Lughnasa – First Harvest on August 2nd and Mabon – Autumn Equinox.  Druidry has influenced some of today’s religions, such as Christianity and Wiccan.  Witches celebrate the eight Holy Days or Sabbats every year.


The word ‘Wicca’ means ‘The Wise Ones’.  Anglo-Saxon kings in England used to consult the Witan (meaning moot or meeting), a council of wise ones, before making important decisions.  Wicca had knowledge of herbal lore, magick and divination.  They were often doctors, lawyers, magicians and priests.  Today Wicca is recognized as a religion, whereas Witchcraft is not.  It is a nature-based religion in which there is a belief that the spirit of the Divine, God and Goddess, exists in all things. Wiccans live by two codes: The Wiccan Rede which states ‘An Ye Harm None, Do what Ye Will’ and means they are free to use magic but must not harm anyone; and The Threefold Law, meaning that whatever good or harm they do will return threefold.


As Christianity increased in popularity, Church leaders promoted the persecution of Witches and the belief that they were evil and participated in devil worshipping and acts of human sacrifice.  During Medieval times, particularly the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, tens of thousands of people were executed after being accused of witchcraft. They were burned, drowned, hung and tortured to death.  Many of these had nothing to do with witchcraft and were victims of mass hysteria and even grudges.  There are many publicized Witch trials which took place in Europe and America, one of the most well known being The Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Massachusetts, United States, between 1692 and 1693.


In 1597, King James VI of Scotland wrote a book called Daemonologie, after he became obsessed with the Dark Arts.  His book focused on Witches, magic and necromancy.  As this book was written by a Monarch, its influence led to a great rise in the number of Witchcraft trials in Scotland at this time.

King James VI also became King James I of England in 1603 when the two Crowns united and in 1604 he persuaded Parliament to pass the Witchcraft Act.  This was a much harsher statute than the previous one and meant that anyone accused of using any form of magic would be severely punished.  A first offense of Witchcraft became punishable by hanging.  

Witchcraft trials became widespread across England, one of the most famous being those of the Pendle Witches in 1612.  There were 12 suspects from Pendle Hill in Lancashire who were charged with the murders of ten people, using Witchcraft.  Ten were hanged after being found guilty, one died in prison and one was found not guilty.

Witchcraft History

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One prominent figure in English Witchcraft history was Matthew Hopkins, Witch-finder General.  In March 1644, Hopkins overheard several women discussing communications with the Devil.  This was the start of his career as self-appointed Witchfinder General, which ended in 1647.  During his short career Hopkins was responsible for the execution of nearly three hundred women and was well paid for his work.  

One of the methods he used on the accused women included sleep deprivation which led to them being coerced into confessing.  He also used pins and needles to prick their arms and if they did not bleed they were accused of being Witches.  Another method used was tying the women to chairs and submerging them in water to see if they floated.  If they did, they were found guilty.

The Witchcraft Laws in England were repealed in 1951.  A writer, Gerald Gardner, began to hear from Witches across Europe after telling their story.  He was surprised to hear that there were so many Covens still practicing the Craft, yet they did not wish to come out in the open as they were concerned that persecution could re-emerge.  Gardner rewrote ‘The Book of Shadows’, a book containing spells and rituals, written by Witches who met in the shadows due to fear of persecution.  

Gardner’s Book of Shadows contained his own spells and rituals and led to a form of witchcraft known as Gardnerian Witchcraft.  There are many variations of witchcraft today, too many to mention.  Witches today have their own book of shadows, similar to a journal, where they record spells, recipes and rituals.  Traditionally, a Witch’s Book of Shadows would be destroyed upon death, so there was no evidence of them ever having been a Witch.  This is no longer the case today.

Witchcraft has become hugely popular and widespread.  For anyone interested in learning about Witchcraft or Wicca there are many books available on the subject and groups on social media where like-minded people can come together, share their experiences, learn from one another and celebrate old traditions.  Some Witches belong to a Coven, others are solitary Witches.  Unfortunately, prejudice still exists, with a minority still believing that Witches are Satanists and involved in evil practices.  The media has had both a negative and positive influence.

Modern television programs and films have come away from using the stereotype ‘evil Witches’ shown in Disney films and old women with warts and pointy chins flying around on broomsticks!! Newspapers and other sources of media occasionally produce scare stories and misinformation.  However, there are many positive and factual articles online and in magazines written by Witches that dispel the myths and misinformation being spread.

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