Witches are practitioners of witchcraft. According to tradition, witches are skilled in sorcery and Magic. Belief in witches, sorcerers and magicians has existed universally since prehistoric times. A witch can be either male or female. most have been feared and abhorred because they are believed to be vindictive, cast evil spells upon others and consort with evil spirits. Witch with a capital W applies to contemporary followers of a Pagan religion, who advocate use of magical skills only for good.

Origin of witch.

The word “witch” comes from the middle English word witche, which is derived from the Old English terms wicca, wicce and wiccian, which mean “to work sorcery, bewitch.” The Indo-European root of these terms is weik, which has to do with magic and religion.

Witches in non-Western cultures.

Outside of the West, most witches are viewed as evil. In Navajo lore, men and women become witches to gain wealth, hurt others out of envy and wreak vengeance. Initiation into Witchery Way requires killing a person, usually a sibling. Witches rob graves, shape-shift into animals, hold nocturnal Sabbats, eat corpses and shoot alien substances into the bodies of victims to cause illness. They then charge the victims a fee for a cure. more men than women are witches, but the women are usually old or childless. Among the Shawnee, Fox and other tribes of eastern North America, male and female witches organize into societies with their own rites, which include cannibalism.

African beliefs about witches are similar. Witches are at the least unsociable and irritable and at the worst thoroughly evil. mandari witches dance on the graves of their victims, while Lugbara witches dance naked—the ultimate outrageous behavior. Lugbara witches also have other extraordinary behaviors, such as walking on their hands instead of their feet. The Dinka believe witches have tails. Some tribes, such as the mandari, Nyakyusa and Zande, believe that witchcraft is inherited and that a person cannot help committing the antisocial and evil acts that are part of witchcraft.

Witches in Western beliefs.

The Western concepts of witches evolved from the sorcery and magic beliefs of the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Akkadians, Hebrews, Greeks and romans. An ancient Assyrian tablet speaks of the bewitching powers of witches, Wizards, sorcerers and sorceresses. In ancient Greece and rome, witches were renowned for their herbal knowledge, magical potions and supernatural powers. Thessaly, a region in Greece, was particularly “notorious for witchcraft” and “universally known for magic incantations,” according to Apuleius, a roman poet of the Second century. Thessalian witches reputedly had the power to bring the moon down from the sky (see DrAwIng Down the moon). Pythagoras is said to have learned from them how to divine by holding up a polished silver disc to the moon. So potent was their power that the roman poet Horace of the First century b.C.e. posed, “What witch, what magician will be able to free you from Thessalian sorceries?”

The roman poets Ovid and Statius described witches as having long, flowing hair and going about barefoot. In Amores, Ovid describes a “certain old hag” named Dipsas:

She knows the Black Arts and the spells of Aenea [Circe] and by her skill turns back the waters to their source. She knows what herbs, what the threads twisted by the magic circle, what the poison of the loving mare [a love philtre] can do. At her will, the clouds mass in the entire heavens. At her will, the day shines in the clear sky. I have sent the stars dripping with blood—if you may believe me—and the face of the moon glowing red with blood. I suspect that she flits through the shades of night, and that her aged body is covered with feathers. She summons from the ancient tombs her antique ancestors, and make the ground yawn open with her incantation.

In his novel Metamorphoses, Apuleius describes meroe, an old witch who owns an inn:

She is capable of bringing down the sky, suspending the earth, making springs dry up, sweeping away mountains, conjuring the spirits of the dead. She can weaken the gods, put out the stars, light up Hell itself. When a neighboring innkeeper would not return her love, she changed him into a frog. A lawyer who prosecuted her she turned into a ram.

Classical witches were said to possess the Evil Eye. Pliny wrote of those who killed by looks, Tully wrote of women who had two “apples” in one eye, and Ovid and Plutarch wrote of poison in the eyes.

Witchcraft, witches, sorcerers, “them that have familiar spirits,” charmers and wizards “that chirp and mutter” are mentioned in the Bible (see Witch of Endor). The most famous biblical quotation cited by the witch-hunters of the Inquisition was Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” However, it was pointed out as early as 1584, by reginald Scot in Discovery of Witchcraft, that Hebrew words translated as “witch” usually referred to diviners, astrologers, poisoners and jugglers (manipulators), and not “witches” as defined by Christian Demonology. According to the historian Henry Charles Lea, the witchcraft denounced most often by the Bible was merely Divination. The Hebrews practiced magic and sorcery, which included herbal formulas, conjurations, the Evil Eye, Amulets and Talismans, necromancy and divination, but did not consider them diabolical or malevolent, as the Christians later did. Hebrew Demons, which included evil spirits, were absorbed into Christian Demonology.

During the European witch craze from the mid-15th century through the 18th century, witches were viewed as heretics who worshiped the Devil and engaged in abominable practices, such as maleficia, shape-shifting, orgiastic dances, copulation with Demons, cannibalism, vampirism and flying through the air. “The Scriptures assert that there are devils and witches and that they are the common enemy of mankind,” said Increase Mather in Cases of Conscience in 1693. John Wagstaffe, a writer well known in England and New England in the late 17th century, defined witches in terms of Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who, according to the Bible, married king Ahab in the ninth century b.C.e. and promoted the worship of her own gods, Baal and Asherah. A disgusted priest threw her out a window to her death, and God’s only recourse was to destroy the house of Ahab. Stated Wagstaffe, “Thus you shall often meet in the Bible with fornication and witchcraft joined together. By fornication and whoredom is meant idolatry and by witchcraft the art of engaging men in it. The whoredom of Jezebel was her idolatry, and her witchcraft was the maintaining of Baal’s priests.”The four witches (ALBrECHT DürEr, 1497)

Demonologists divided witches into classes. Witches also were called diviners, consulters with familiar spirits, wizards, necromancers, charmers and enchanters. Gypsies, exorcists, astrologers, numerologists and other fortune-tellers also were classed as witches. William West wrote in 1594:

A witch or hag is she which being eluded by a league made with the Devil through his persuasion, inspiration, and juggling, thinketh she can design what manner of things soever, either by thought or imprecation, as to shake the air with lightnings and thunder, to cause hail and tempests, to remove green corn or trees to another place, to be carried of her familiar with hath upon him the deceitful shape of a goat, swine, calf, etc. into some mountain far distant, in a wonderful space of time. And sometimes to fly upon a staff or fork, or some other instrument. And to spend all the night after with her sweetheart, in playing, sorting, banqueting, dalliance, and diverse other devilish lusts, and lewd desports and to show a thousand such monstrous mockeries.

West said other kinds of witches included enchanters and charmers, jugglers, soothsaying wizards, divinators and magicians.

Some distinctions were made between “white” witches and “black” witches. White witches were those who cured illness, divined lost property, exposed thieves, enhanced fertility and drove away bad weather. Black witches were those who used their magic only for the harm of others. White witches often were called other names, such as cunning folk, wise folk, wizard, sorcerer and witch doctor.

Witch-hunters did not prosecute white witches— chiefly the healers and diviners—with the same fervor as black witches, for they were perceived as serving a vital need in the community. As much as the public feared bad witches as a menace to body and soul, they valued the village sorcerer who would cure their sicknesses and help them in times of trouble.

As the witch mania intensified, Demonologists, witchhunters and the learned men who shaped public opinion began calling for prosecution of white witches as well. It was said that good witches really were a menace because of their capability of doing evil. Their supernatural gifts did not come from God, but from the Devil. In England, Perkins and Thomas Cooper of Oxford were among those who believed good witches were far more dangerous than bad witches, and that both needed to be extirpated. This view was endorsed by Cotton Mather in Massachusetts. George Giffard, an Oxford preacher, said that all witches should be put to death not because they kill others, but because they deal with devils. “These cunning men and women which deale with spirites and charmes seeming to do good, and draw the people into manifold impieties, with all others which have familiarity with devils, or use conjurations, ought to bee rooted out, that others might see and feare,” Giffard stated.

It was believed that witches could be identified by certain tell-tale signs: insensitive spots or marks on the body, called Devil ’s mArks (almost any mole qualified); the inability to shed teArs; and supernumerary teats or excresences for suckling Imps, called Witch’s Marks. The Evil Eye was a sign, but was not infallible, said Increase Mather. Others described witches as invariably ugly and deformed (see hAg). many of the accused witches were outcasts or on the fringes of society, looked down upon by their neighbors because of their unmarried status, handicaps, homely appearances, ill temper or poverty. Not all victims were such: some were married, young and prosperous.

“Witch” was a devastating accusation. If arrested and taken before a court or inquisitor, one was often assumed to be guilty. torture was applied until one confessed. Families of accused witches were shunned, and it was not uncommon that they abandoned the victim. Such was the pathetic case of a woman burned at the stake in 1649 in Lauder, Scotland. As she faced death, she declared to the crowd:

All you that see me this day! know ye that I am to die as a Witch, by my own Confession! And I free all men, especially the ministers and magistrates, from the guilt of my Blood, I take it wholly on my self, and as I must make answer to the God of Heaven, I declare that I am as free from Witchcraft as any Child, but being accused by a malicious Woman, and Imprisoned under the Name of a Witch, my Husband and Friends disowned me, and seeing no hope of ever being in Credit again, through the Temptation of the Devil, I made that Confession to destroy my own Life, being weary of it, and shusing (sic) rather to die than to Live.

Religious Witches.

Contemporary Witches who practice Witchcraft as a religion face a powerful, negative stereotype of the witch: a hag with a large, warty nose, a pointy chin, scraggly hair and a cone-shaped black hat, who lives alone with her animals—usually black Cats—who casts evil spells on others, and who is in league with the Devil. This stereotype has been reinforced for centuries in literature, drama, the popular press and film and television.

The term Witch was used by Gerald B. Gardner in the 1950s, in his revelation that he had been initiated by a Coven of hereditary Witches in England, who practiced “the Old religion.” There is doubt that those people called themselves Witches; most likely, they were a rosicrucian group. The religion that Gardner forged became Witchcraft.

Contemporary Witches define themselves as healers, servants of the community and servants of the Goddess and Horned God. They believe in respecting the sanctity of all life and being in harmony with all living things and with the forces of the universe. They strive to attune themselves to nature and the elements, forces that can be influenced in the working of magic. They develop their psychic abilities and seek to raise their spiritual consciousness through study, worship, the practice of their Craft and observance of a moral and ethical lifestyle, in accordance with Craft laws and tenets. magic and worship are carried out in rituals. most Witches believe in using magic for good, not harm. Some Witches endorse using Curses and binding spells under certain conditions.

Since the rise of Witchcraft as a religion in the 1950s, Witches have worked to eradicate their negative stereotype and reeducate the public. The task is complicated by the diverse practices of contemporary Witches, not all of whom identify with the laws and ethics of the religious Craft. The average layperson who knows little about Witchcraft lumps all witches together under the stereotype.

Most Witches feel strongly that the word Witch should not be abandoned, though some use the term Wiccan to describe modern religious practitioners and to distinguish themselves from folklore witches.



  • Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 2006.
  • Briggs, robin. Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking, 1996.
  • Farrar, Janet, and Gavin Bone. Progressive Witchcraft: Spirituality, Mysteries & Training in Modern Wicca. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: New Page Books, 2004.
  • Flint, Valerie, and Richard Gordon, Georg Luck, and Daniel Ogden. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. London: The Athlone Press, 1999.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1948.
  • Starhawk. The Spiral Dance. rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1999.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.

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