Witchcraft is the use of supernatural or magical powers to manipulate the environment and impose a will or intent. A witch is a person who engages in witchcraft and the term witch usually refers to a female. A male "witch" is more frequently termed a wizard or sorcerer. Popular culture often uses the term Warlock to denote a dark witch or a male witch. Neopagan witches and Wiccans, however generally consider the term to mean one who has broken their oaths to the coven or released a secret they were bound to keep. The word and meaning of Witchcraft is the wielding of supernatural intent.
The use of the word witch is well documented through Modern English, Middle English and Old English periods in various forms and its derivation from Old English wicce/wicca is consequently well established.
However, its origins predating the Anglo-Saxon era remain a field of debate. The belief in witchcraft and its practice seem to have been widespread in the past. Both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part, as existing records plainly show. It will be sufficient to quote a short section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 B.C.). It is there prescribed:
"If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him."
Colloquially, the term witch is applied almost exclusively to women, although in earlier English the term was applied to men as well. In Old English, the masculine and feminine noun forms, wicca and wicce respectively, were distinct. Contemporary Neo-Pagan Wiccans have reclaimed the terms witch and witchcraft in an attempt to remove the negative Christian and Patriarchal connotations so woefully bestowed upon them.
Witchcraft is often used to refer to the practice of indigenous magic. Depending on the values of the community, witchcraft can be regarded with varying degrees of respect, suspicion, or ambivalence. Some religious sects have applied the term witchcraft to all magical or ritual practices other than those sanctioned by their own doctrines. According to some religious doctrines, all forms of magic are labeled witchcraft, and treated as superstitious.
Witchcraft is also used to refer to the practice of magic in an exclusively hostile sense. If the community accepts magical practice in general, then there is usually a clear separation between witches and legitimate practitioners. This use of the term witch in a negative sense is most often found in accusations against individuals who are suspected of causing harm in the community through supernatural means. Belief in witches of this sort has been common throughout time, in much of the world, and has sometimes led to witch hunts.
Under the monotheistic tenets of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to name a few, witchcraft became associated with heresy, rising to a fever pitch among the Catholics, Protestants, and secular leadership of the European Late Medieval/Early Modern period. Throughout this time, witchcraft came to be considered a form of Devil worship. Accusations of witchcraft were frequently combined with other charges of heresy against such groups as the Cathars and Waldensians.
The witchcraft label has been historically applied to practices that seem to influence another person's body or property against his or her will or appear to intend to undermine social or religious order.
In modern times, the concept of white witches and white witchcraft, which is strictly benevolent, has gained considerable popularity. Neopagan witches often tend to associate themselves with this concept, and profess strong ethical codes that prevent them from wielding magical influence over someone without that person having requested it or at least having granted permission.
Malicious magic practices are usually forbidden where belief in them exists, while beneficial white witchcraft is tolerated or even encouraged, even if the orthodox establishment objects to it.
Spell casting (spellcasting - the ability to cast magic spells) is probably the most obvious characteristic of a witch. Spells can be cast by many methods, including meditation, burning of candles, chanting or reciting incantations, performing physical rituals and making herbal preparations. Sometimes quite simple and mundane actions can constitute the physical casting of a spell, and it is a common belief among modern witches that the intention behind the actions is at least as important as the actions themselves. Methods are many and differ from witch to witch, although the vast majority of the modern witchcraft community concurs that spellcasting requires three components: a vocal component (such as a command word or incantation), a gesticulative component (usually involving the hands), and a material component or substances.
Inspired by Margaret Murray's theory of a pan-European witch-cult, published in 1921, and then the revelation of Gerald Gardner in 1954 that witchcraft still existed in England, interest in witchcraft in English-speaking and European countries grew rapidly during the 20th century. Since then the Wicca has attracted many more initiates and become the largest witchcraft tradition in the western world. There has also been a strong movement to recreate witchcraft traditions where the old forms have been lost, hence the term "neopagan". Wicca and some of the other hereditary traditions are sometimes described as neopagan, either because their antiquity is disputed, or because it is recognized that these old traditions existed only in fragmentary form and have been significantly reconstructed.
Some Neopagans believe that witchcraft should only be used for good, and eschew any evil usages. Their belief is sometimes very similar to the belief of Christians in prayer, that the Divine will acknowledge and grant answers to a ritual given in a Deity's name. Many Wiccans believe that if you use your powers for evil, you will have your powers taken away.
Some witches subscribe to the idea that all of reality is at some level interconnected, forming a single universal 'self' or 'oneness', and that by becoming conscious of this connection people can directly influence things around them. This view also implies ethical considerations, for harming another is, at a certain level, harming oneself. Of course there is nothing "neo" about this belief either. Faiths around the world have alluded as much for thousands of years, including Buddhism and Christianity . Others believe instead that the power of witchcraft comes about primarily through psychological and psychosomatic effects, rather than any divine or paranormal means.
For Neopagans who take a purely psychological approach to witchcraft, the power of a ritual is in the way its symbolism speaks to the unconscious mind. Psychology and medical research have shown that beliefs have an effect on one's perception of reality, and that beliefs and perception appear to effect behavioral and other quantifiable physical changes; one well known example is the placebo effect.
Whatever the individual's personal perception or assumption might be, there can be no denying of this: Witchcraft is old and has many faces.
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