The mention of witchcraft is bound to conjure up some image in your mind. Now, that image could be of Hermione Granger, with her bushy brown hair and dragon heartstring wand, or that of an old lady with terrible green skin and a long crooked nose or even Bonnie Bennett from The Vampire Diaries. But have you ever wondered if witches are real and if witchcraft is an actual practice?
To answer that question, yes, witchcraft is not alien to our world. It is, however, slightly different from the conventional perceptions that surround it. Historically, witches have always been seen as all-female Satanists whose agenda behind practising magic is to inflict pain or damage upon others. This historical perception has resulted in witch-hunts across cultures. Shockingly enough, mass hysteria being caused by witches is not just a thing of the past. In 2016, over 400 women in Tanzania were convicted of practising witchcraft and subsequently killed for performing black magic. Many villages have been abandoned by its residents out of the fear of being harmed by witches. Every Tanzanian community, even today, has a witch doctor, whose job is to spot witches. These ‘witches’ are then killed and their bodies burned. With so many women dead, the question that arises is this: who is fuelling this witch hysteria? Tanzania continues to have laws that ban the use of magic, indirectly lending legitimacy to witch doctors.
Even in India, witch hunts are common. Since 2001, an estimated 2,500 people have been killed for the practice of witchcraft around the country. In fact, witch hunters are often highly esteemed by the villagers, who genuinely see them as rescuers, protecting the village from the hands of evil witches.
In Romania, the home of Count Dracula, witchcraft is recognised by the current government. There are many thriving organisations of witches, all government recognised. Being a witch is considered to be a job. They are employed, not just by Romanians, but people from all over the globe to cure them of heartbreak, depression, demonic possession or even to kill or harm enemies. Our Romanian witches carry out most of their operations online these days and are confident that their influence is not dying out. Instead, thanks to modern technology, it is only on the rise. This isn’t how it always was in Romania. In fact, under Communist rule, witchcraft was banned and punishable by law. And yet, the secret societies of witches and their practices survived, in hiding from the eyes of the ruler. Today, witchcraft is commonly accepted by Romanian society.
Witch doctors are very common across the continent of Africa. In South Africa, commonly among the Zulu, they are of two main types: Inyanga and Sangoma. While Inyanga practice natural medicine, Sangoma practice magic, predict the future and use various rituals to communicate with ancestors. Many seek out their expertise and help, without any fear. There are some, however, who consider these practices unnatural and thus, are afraid of them.
Various countries have come up with innovative ways to deal with the mass hysteria surrounding witches. In Ghana, nearly a century ago, witch camps were established to help people who were accused of practising witchcraft by the locals. Many countries have separate laws altogether to deal with the practice of magic and those who falsely accuse innocent women of being witches.
In the West, pagan witchcraft or Wicca is on the surge. It is the fastest-growing religion in the USA and the only truly British religion. The followers of this exponentially growing religion, born not before 1940, are self-proclaimed witches who believe in magic. Even though for many, a belief in magic outside the realm of Harry Potter is a taboo, the growing Wiccan community is reaching beyond the British Isles with a strength in the millions. However, contrary to popular belief, they do not just comprise women. Men can be witches too. Wiccans are not a Satanic cult either. In fact, Wicca takes pride in worshipping nature and abides by the saying: “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Their rituals do not involve any kind of sacrifices or dead animals or their poop, as one might expect. They, however, do draw energy from natural phenomena like the solstices and equinoxes; a common feature among many such communities. Most of their spells and incantations are compiled in a book named The Book of Shadows.
The most famous witches that have ever roamed our earth were probably the witches of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 (although it is unlikely that they ever actually practised witchcraft). During the infamous Salem witch trials, some of the women, like Tituba, confessed to having used black magic to inflict pain and disease upon young girls in the community. It is possible that the confessions were a result of community pressure. The witch trials saw the death of several females and a few males. The accusations, unlike most other witch hunts, weren’t made by adult males and instead by young girls, who were ill with various conditions. Between 1482 and 1782, around 100,000 people across Europe were convicted of witchcraft. Not all of them were burned at the stake, though. Some were hanged to death. They were generally not persecuted by the Church, contrary to popular opinion. Although most of the accused were women, in some places, male witches outnumbered the females. The ratio between male and female witches stood at 7:3 to in Moscow and 3:1 in Normandy. Malleus Maleficarum was published in 1486 and it quickly became a best-seller, being second only to the Bible. This book was considered to be the highest authority on how to spot, interrogate and kill witches and, thus, guided witch hunts for centuries to come.
If you think sorcery and belief in magic are only a few centuries old, then you are wrong! It is actually a few millennia old. Ancient Egyptians had many secrets to hide. Besides building humongous structures like the pyramids, they also practised magic. Sorcery was an integral part of their lives. The position of a sorcerer was hereditary and the spells were passed down through generations. The Book of the Dead famously contains various spells to aid one in the transitional journey to the afterlife. The sorcerers of ancient Egypt often tried to tackle deadly diseases using magical potions. Though there is no written record of what actually happened following the administration of such a cure, it would be stupid, in our science-driven millennial minds to believe that potions of rats’ tails benefitted anyone. And yet, the sorcerers weren’t ever condemned or banned from practice. Routine trials of their potions on humans continued as long as the great civilisation thrived.
With all the advancement of science comes the rejection of the existence of magic. Many, however, believe that Egyptian curses might have been real. Let’s go back to 1922 when Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in the Valley of Kings by Howard Carter. 4 months and 7 days after the opening of the tomb, George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who had financially backed the excavation team died after a mosquito bite became infected. There have been around 11 deaths following the opening of the tomb. These deaths have been popularly attributed to the famous Pharaoh’s curse. This curse was placed on tombs and is believed to affect anyone who disturbs the final resting place of the tomb’s occupant, especially if it’s a Pharaoh. The curse did not distinguish between robbers and Egyptologists. However, it is important to note here that Howard Carter himself died only in 1939, almost two decades later. Hollywood movies have done a great job of instilling a fear of ancient Egyptian curses among the masses. The truth, however, is that no one has seen these curses in action.
Witches are surprisingly ubiquitous. But the problem is this: they evolved in different cultures, separately and yet almost identically. Most cultures have only female witches. And burning them at the stake almost universally seems to solve the problem. Although some communities, mostly modern ones, seem to hold beliefs that witches are helpful, historically, they have often been associated with famines, death, and other ill-occurrences. Humans have always strived to decipher mysteries and whenever there are gaps in our understanding, we have assumed that something supernatural is at play. As our understanding widened, we rejected pagan explanations of lightning and rainbows and moved on to more complex schools of thought. Presently, atheism is on the rise. Interestingly enough, paganism is on the rise too.
While some have dismissed it as a historical practice, in others witchcraft still thrives as a part of their culture to this day. While some have reduced witchcraft to a fictional plot device, for many those spells and incantations hold supernatural powers. It isn’t so much about witchcraft, after all, as it is about the world’s relationship with it. Dismissing it seems rational. But what’s intriguing is the existence of the human urge to look for magic in a world that tells you against it, an urge that transcends beyond the modern world desperation to cling to rationale.
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