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What is Witchcraft? - Definition, History & Types

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  • 0:01 Hocus Pocus
  • 0:59 Witchcraft in Europe
  • 2:39 Witchcraft in the New World
  • 3:10 Witchcraft in Other Cultures
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The idea of witchcraft is ubiquitous throughout human history and culture. Explore the meaning, history, and significance of witchcraft, and test your understanding of witchcraft and magic across various cultures and moments in history.

Hocus Pocus

Eye of newt and toe of frog, double double toil and trouble, hocus pocus.

Witchcraft is a broad term for the belief and practice of magic. It can be found in various cultures across history and means something slightly different to every group. Anthropologists define witches as different than sorcerers because their magic comes from inside, and not through tools. In other words, a witch can curse someone without having to use a wand or crystal, while a sorcerer must use something.

People in many cultures throughout history blamed witchcraft for events they could not explain or predict, such as disease, physical deformities, famine, and even social problems. The person accused of causing these events was often some sort of social outcast or minority, and did not conform to the culture's religion and accusations tended to reflect political and social agendas of the time.

Witchcraft in European History

Witchcraft, as we think of it today, has been reported in Europe since the Middle Ages. The ancient Roman Empire also believed in magic and curses, but when they were Christianized, any worship of Roman gods became associated with evil magic designed to cause mischief or hurt others, called maleficium in Latin. In Christian Europe, witchcraft remained associated with either worshipping Roman gods, notably Diana, or with worship of the Devil. However, many European peasants also firmly believed in the use of magic for good and sought 'cunning-folk' to cure their diseases.

The tradition of hunting witches first developed in France and Switzerland during the 14th century and reached its height in Germany during the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1486, a German Catholic clergyman named Heinrich Kramer published the 'Malleus Maleficarum', a book on locating and punishing witches. During this era, inquisition judges hunted witches actively and cracked down on folk customs that included healing magic.

Healing magic tended to be focused around preventing or curing the evil eye, a traditional form of curse that could make a person ill or cause physical deformities. These folk practices were highly respected in many areas, but after years of persecution by the Church, the practicioners of magic became social outcasts. This happened to the 'Benandanti' of Italy, who had claimed for generations to use magic to fight against evil witches. In Europe, witchcraft also became very associated with women. This may be largely due to the increased status of women and men's fear of women dominating society.

European protestants took witch-hunting fervor with them to the New World. Although there were fewer witch trials in the New World, they made a dramatic impact on national folklore. Moments like the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 displayed the anxiety and instability of living in young colonies that were often beaten down by disease and famine. Accusing people of witchcraft was one way to relieve social tension and do something, anything, to improve their hardships.

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