This word and its million meanings.
Perhaps for you it connotes mystery, the bending of reality and personal power.
Or, it is something to fear; an invisible force with dangerous consequences.
For the purposes of our discussion today, we will define “witchcraft” as a wide variety of traditions originating in cultures around the world from ancient times to modern, including folk magic, healing, herbalism, alchemy, and divination.
But many people regard the word as a manifestation of evil.
I began to wonder why this is and how this notion became such an integral approach in our society to the ancient concept of magic.
After all, what we call “witchcraft” is nothing new. In fact, witchcraft is much older than the idea that it is inherently dark or mischievous. The practice of witchcraft, in one form or another, has existed in nearly every society around the world since the dawning of recorded history.
The “witch doctor” is a healer. She is a midwife. She knows herbs, lotions, potions and salves. She rubs sweet-smelling cool ointments on the child’s feverish forehead. She comforts the lovesick. She brings life into the world.
So what great sin did she commit? Why has the witch been cast out? Set before the background of darkness instead of light?
The surprising answer is money. Yes, that’s right. Cold, hard cash.
In its early days, the Christian church found itself in serious competition with regional pagan folk religions. Unlike polytheistic traditions, where new gods and religious practices were accepted quite readily, the idea that there is more than one way to worship a higher power is in direct conflict with the whole concept of monotheism. In order to convert the locals to this new conceptualization of god, the church needed first get them to reject their pagan roots.
This was no easy task. And in fact, they never totally succeeded. Which is why the Christian church has famously incorporated European folk traditions into its own festivals. The Easter egg and the Christmas tree are two familiar examples. It was easier to adopt some pagan customs than to root them all out completely.
What remained must either be vilified or belittled as superstition so that the church might effectively spread its own superstitions.
Enter the witch doctor.
Up until only a few hundred years ago, the practice of medicine was not based in science as we understand it today. In fact, doctors had a great deal more in common with religious leaders than even the earliest contributors to modern science, both in a practical sense and in popular imagination. In times of sickness, plague and war, a healer was of high value.
But the church had its own doctors. And it resented very much the competition.
Demonization of doctors outside the scope (and control) of church officials was a practical, effective form of propaganda. Particularly when coupled with the Inquisition.
It was, arguably, the most effective propaganda in the history of Western world. We now know that diseases are caused by invisible microorganisms; that madness has nothing to do with demonic possession; that women have the same capacity to benefit from higher education as men.
But we still believe witches are evil. We still feel a kind of ingrained apprehension about tarot cards, communication with the dead and altars that honor strange, unfamiliar deities.
Whether we realize it or not, these fears are the residual impressions of a massive, powerful message from the monotheistic culture by which we are surrounded.
Just keep that in mind.
God Against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsch
The Witch’s Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic by Thomas Hatsis
A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics & Pagans by Jeffrey B. Russell