It’s a topic that has intrigued our society, the topic of witchcraft and magic, a growing religion and practice across our nation. Whether you believe that magic is real, or that it’s all nothing but a hoax, the history and truth about witchcraft is a fascinating one!
For most Americans, a witch is nothing more than a character associated with Halloween, a villain appearing in your favorite fairy-tales. After all, we all know to steer clear of the Wicked Witch, right? However, what most people don’t realize is that real living, breathing witches are walking among us today.
How much do you know about witches? Here are 12 fun, yet terrifying facts:
#1 – Wicca, a witchcraft-based religion, was officially declared a religion in the United States in 1985.
Many Americans may not realize this, but with witchcraft-based religion, Wicca is actually a recognized legal religion in the United States. It was ruled as such in 1985 by the District Court of Virginia. An important case, as it changed the way these religions were treated throughout the nation, the ruling stated that members of this religion adhere to a ‘fairly complex set of doctrines relating to the spiritual aspect of their lives’ and for this reason, it foals under the definition of religion for First Amendment purposes.
#2 – Most ‘witches’ that were executed weren’t actually burned at the stake.
It’s an image that most associate with the witch-hunts, however, the majority of ‘witches’ that were executed weren’t actually burned at the stake. Written records indicate that most who were convicted of practicing witchcraft were either hanged. However, that’s not to say that it didn’t happen! The Medieval law codes called for witchcraft to be punished by fire. Most of these ‘witches’ were either hanged or beheaded prior to their body being burned, but some were left to endure the horror of being burned alive.
#3 – An official book called the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was better known as the ‘witch-hunting manual’.
First published in 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for ‘The Hammer of Witches’) was written to instruct on the ‘correct ways’ to identify, interrogate and convict witches. While the document was not actually granted approval by Pope Innocent VIII, the papal bull appearing at the beginning of the book misled many to believe exactly that. Some even claim that the ‘Letter of Approbation from The Faculty of Theology of the University of Cologne’ was falsified after the authors were denied endorsement. The book never gained great ground with the authorities and leadership, with the Inquisition reportedly denouncing Heinrich Kramer in 1490. However, the book itself never appeared on any Index Librorum Prohibitorum, meaning it was never officially banned.
#4 – Saint Joan of Arc was one of the many accused that was tried and convicted of witchcraft.
A well-known historical figure, Joan of Arc was a young peasant girl who made her mark on medieval France where she convinced crown prince Charles of Valois to permit her to lead a French army into the city of Orleans. The battle was a successful, a momentous victory that had a significant impact on the history of the French people. She was eventually, however, captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces (the French allies to the English that lost the battle at Orleans). They tried her for witchcraft and heresy at the age of 19, ultimately burning her at the stake. She was officially canonized in 1920.
#5 – Witchcraft wasn’t originally banned by the church, in fact, ‘witches’ weren’t hunted until 1484.
When most people think about witchcraft throughout history, the first thing that comes to mind is the persecution and killing of those accused of being practicing witches. However, if you look back throughout history you will find that witches weren’t always feared, persecuted and hunted. The first ‘witch-hunts’ began in 1484 under the rule of Pope Innocent VIII. This included not only those that were accused of practicing witchcraft but anyone that remotely opposed the church including those who practiced a different religion (Jews, Muslims) or those that were suffering an inexplicable ailment like the lepers. While the number of ‘witches’ accused, tried or executed is unknown and debated, there are approximately 12,000 executions that have been identified in the existing records being studied today.
#6 – Halloween is not the only holiday celebrated by practitioners of witchcraft.
While Halloween may be the first holiday that comes to mind when most people consider the celebration of witchcraft, it is only one modern holiday based on a traditional pagan festivity. Pagans followed an annual schedule of seasonal festivals known as the Wheel of the Year, which was closely tied in with the changing of the seasons, as well as the harvest schedule. Other celebrations include Yule (Winter Solstice), Ostara (Spring Equinox) and Mabon (Autumn Equinox). Festivities were seasonal in nature, celebrating the harvest in the fall or the planting of crops in the spring.
#7 – The Assamese village of Mayong is known as the ‘Land of Black Magic’.
The small village of Mayong in Assam, India has earned a reputation as the ‘Land of Black Magic’. There are many stories and legends surrounding this particular area, including those of people vanishing into thin air, or being turned into animals. In one legend Muhammad Shah and his army wandered into the village during war times only to disappear, all 100,000 of them! Today many of the local inhabitants continue to practice black magic, and the tourism industry in the area heavily relies on this dark reputation.
#8 – The ingredients used in many potions aren’t as dark and twisted as they may appear.
If you were to read through a traditional potion, it may leave you wondering about how many animals were sacrificed to practice this magic. With ingredients like ‘serpent’s tongue’, ‘cat’s paw’ or ‘mouse’s ear’, it can come across as pretty dark. However, most of these ingredients actually just refer to the use of various plants. Some plants, such as ‘serpent’s tongue’ actually went by this misleading name. Others, however, were code words used to keep their potions secret. Often these code words would describe the plant to make it easier to remember, for example ‘eye of’ may refer to a plant or herb with a rounded shape.
#9 – The practice of witchcraft does not necessarily mean that one worships Satan.
Another common myth that paints those practicing witchcraft in an incredibly negative light is the idea that witchcraft and satanism are one and the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Church of Satan describes their beliefs on their website stating, “Satanists are atheists. We see the universe as being indifferent to us, and so all morals and values are subjective human constructions.” Meanwhile, practitioners of Wicca, for example, have strict teaching about the importance of not causing harm to others, with their belief system based around the importance of creating unity with nature and harmony in the world.
#10 – While practicing witches may not have actually taken to the sky on a broom, some rituals had them feeling as though they were flying.
It’s one of the best-known depictions of witches throughout our modern society, the witch atop her broomstick, flying through the skies. Obviously, these women weren’t actually flying through the night, however, some of their rituals may have had them believing that they were! One of the ingredients in many traditional potions was mandrake, a thick root known for its hallucinogenic properties. During these early rituals, the mandrake was included in an ointment that was rubbed all over the nude body, including the private parts. This would cause those taking part to experience a sensation as if they were floating, so maybe they believed that they were flying on broomsticks at the time?
#11 – A witch’s ‘familiar’ is their companion, spy, and guide in life.
Throughout history, we have seen many different pictures and depictions of witches with an animal close at hand, often cats, crows, or owls. These are known as their ‘familiar’. The first recognized familiar by many throughout history was Mr. Hotfoot Jackson, the jackclaw often seen on the shoulder of English witch and astrologer Sybil Leek. There is no rule stating what type of animal or bird can be a familiar, it is all dependent on which being connects with the witch in question.
#12 – Witchcraft is still being practiced today.
One of the biggest myths relating to the practice of witchcraft is that it is a thing of the past. In fact, while not every study recognizes witchcraft as a religion, the witchcraft-based religion of Wicca is believed to be the fastest growing religion in the United States today. Some numbers even indicate that the number of American Wiccans may be doubling every 30 months. While many practitioners may do so behind closed doors, fearing the judgment of their peers, the rise of social media and the internet has provided modern-day witches with a great opportunity to connect and network with one another. While there are other ‘darker’ forms of witchcraft, Wiccan beliefs include a deep respect for nature and the environment, as well as the Wiccan Rede, the prime teaching of the religion which states (in modern English): “As long as it doesn’t harm anyone including yourself and future generations, do whatever you want to.” This highlights the importance of doing no harm.