Broomsticks, cauldrons and pointy hats often come to mind when someone says the word “witch.” Around Halloween and spooky season, famous characters and specific imagery surfaces when witches are mentioned.
From the Wicked Witch of the West to the Sanderson Sisters from “Hocus Pocus,” women using magic for evil (and in some cases, good) has shaped cultural understandings of the craft. But these, among other stereotypes, are far from the truth for real-life practitioners.
Here’s a breakdown on the history of witchcraft and an answer to the age-old question, “Are witches real?”
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What is witchcraft?
Witchcraft is a nebulous term and is hard to distinctly define as it is open to interpretation depending on the practitioner or scholar.
As a practice, witchcraft dates back as early as the 10th century. However, it grew in prominence as a Renaissance phenomenon around the 15th century, said Fabrizio Conti, Ph.D., historian and lecturer in history at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy.
“We can define witchcraft as a series of beliefs that were put together by intellectual means,” he said.
According to Conti, historical interpretations of witchcraft depend on certain scholars. For instance, some believe all witchcraft shares the same elements and beliefs everywhere. However, others take an approach similar to historian Richard Kieckhefer, who stated certain mythologies in witchcraft are found in specific geographical locations and not in others, defining witchcraft as more individual, cultural and regional.
“We can have a degree of a shade of differences,” said Conti. “In northern Italy, for instance, you have, according to Kieckhefer, different mythologies of witchcraft: the Umbrian type of witchcraft, central Italian type of witchcraft, the French (type of witchcraft) and so forth.”
Additionally, witchcraft is often solely associated with black, or dark magic but this is not the case. Not all practitioners of witchcraft use it with “bad” intentions. In fact, most practices are benign and often used as a form of empowerment.
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Who made witchcraft a crime?
Negative images of witches within Western society came into view when religious leaders, particularly Dominican inquisitors, took a skeptical approach toward witchcraft, thus beginning “the process of diabolization,” said Conti.
In the 15th century, the “Malleus Maleficarum,” translated to “The Hammer of Witches,” by Heinrich Kramer popularized the idea that witchcraft is to perform evil acts and spells, particularly against men.
The first visual of witches flying on broomsticks came through “Le champion des dames,” which depicted two women, one riding a broom and the other riding a stick. These women were “Waldensians,” who were later accused by the Church of practicing witchcraft and holding illicit Sabbath celebrations.
From there, the condemnation of witches continued to grow as witchcraft became a heretical crime. The “Malleus Maleficarum” spurred centuries long witch-hunts and trials within Europe, codifying folklore into fact.
Additionally, gender played a large role in shaping the stereotypes of witchcraft. Religious clergymen depicted that only women could be witches. These men saw women to be weaker, thus perpetuating misogynistic ideals.
“It was a religious intellectual tradition claiming women were particularly prone to fulfill the desires of the death of Satan,” said Conti. “They were consider to be weak: weak in their mind, weak in their own behavior, weak in their own body, limbs and so forth.”
Back then, men were seen as smarter and more clever, being able to resist the so-called demonic temptations women could not. As a result, even the crime of heresy was gendered. Heresy is a doctrinal, theological component meaning to contradict religious beliefs. Generally, men were accused of being heretics, but not witches.
“In order to become a heretic, you need it to be smarter,” said Conti. “On the contrary, in order to become a witch, (you could be) a simple woman from a village scattered in the middle of nowhere.”
In the U.S., these same principles applied to the vilifying of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials which occurred between 1692 and 1693. More than 200 people were accused of practicing “Devil’s magic,” and 20 were condemned to execution.
Are witches real?
Yes, witches are real, and they are no different than anyone else.
“Witches are your neighbors,” said Jason Mankey, author and Wiccan-Witch. “And more and more of them are becoming your neighbors as we’re in the middle of this witch moment right now.”
As of 2021, the number of Americans who identify with Wicca or paganism has risen over the last two decades with approximately 1.5 million witches in the U.S.
For Pam Grossman, author of “Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power,” witchcraft is a spiritual and creative practice of personal change and bringing about change in the world. Grossman had been interested in magic, mythology and fairy tales since childhood, and with age, her connection grew deeper.
“I often say that most people grow out of their magic phase, and I just grew more deeply into mine,” she said.
Every person’s experience with witchcraft is different. In its current state, there are many different types of witchcraft, ranging from kitchen witchcraft and green witchcraft to crystal witchcraft and cosmic witchcraft.
“Depending on what people are attracted to that often defines what kind of witchcraft they practice,” said Mankey. “If you love herbs and you love playing in your garden, you might identify as a green witch. If you love cooking and you find magic in food and drink, you might identify as a kitchen witch.”
Witchcraft can also be a spiritual or religious practice. For instance, certain sectors of witchcraft, such as Wicca, center around modernized Pagan traditions and beliefs.
“Paganism is a spiritual path which honors the divinity of nature and the cycles of the seasons, the cycles of the body,” said Grossman. “For me, celebrating the Pagan holidays has helped me be more in tune with nature.”
This includes Halloween, or in the Pagan community, “Samhain.” It is seen as the time when the veil between the physical and spirit worlds is thinnest. “So, it’s a time of honoring our ancestors and connecting with the spirit world,” said Grossman.
Additionally, magic and witchcraft is an opportunity for people to take control over their own circumstances, said Mankey.
“Over the last six years, for many of us, things have been a little topsy turvy,” he said. “Magic and witchcraft provide a way to feel as if you’re in control of this situation and what’s going on in the world.”
For Emily Ramirez, a green witch and kitchen witch, practicing has given her a sense of freedom.
“Witchcraft is to me is self-empowerment and attunement with the divine,” she said. “I’ve been able to find strength and courage.”
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How to become a witch
Anyone can be a witch. Witches can be from any background, identity or gender.
“I don’t think there are any barriers to being a witch,” said Mankey. “If you say you are a witch, I think that you are a witch.”
There are not specific tools you need to become a witch. Practitioners can choose what to use, whether it be candles and crystals or tarot cards.
Grossman uses altars to engage with the physical realm to elevate her practice. She also uses herbalism and plants, as well as talismans and amulets to bring protective energy.
Ramirez said one of the most amazing thing about witchcraft is its self-direction. “There is no wrong path. There is no wrong move,” she said. “You do what feels good to you and that is the craft; that is you practicing.”
Being a witch is about using the power and intuition from within to better yourself and those around you.
“Witchcraft is also an incredibly creative act, and the more personal one gets with their practice, the more powerful the results are,” said Grossman. “There’s an art fullness to it. There’s a playfulness to it. There’s a joyfulness to it, and I think we all need more of each of those things in our lives.”
“There are a lot of people who like to put barriers up when it comes to the practice of witchcraft. I’m not one of them,” said Mankey. “If it calls to you, find out about it, embrace it, research it, and then most of all, start doing it.”
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Misconceptions of witchcraft
There are still many misconceptions and stereotypes when it comes to witchcraft. Namely, people believe all modern witchcraft is associated with the devil. But, this is not the case. Mankey said early modern witches distanced themselves from this idea entirely.
There is also the general misconception that witchcraft is related to anything demonic, said Ramirez.
“The most obvious one is just this association of witchcraft with evil,” said Grossman. “I often say that darkness is not evil. Witchcraft honors shadow and light; it honors life and death.”
As for the stereotype of the black-clad, green-skinned, warty-nosed witches, that is not the reality for modern witches either.
“All of that really came from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ in 1939,” said Mankey. “There’s a direct line to the ‘Wizard of Oz’ to that stereotype of the Halloween witch.”