Witchcraft and its Evolution into Modern Times

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As anthropologist studying the culture of witchcraft and its evolution into modern times, I would first attempt to describe and define the cultural representation of witchcraft and the difference between the common misconceptions. I would then begin to look at the history and evolution of witchcraft over time, assessing the period in which the religion was almost wiped out completely, and how that has led to a modern version of the faith and the culture that it created; alluding to works of literature and media interpretations that have influenced misconceptions of the religion.

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Society has a fixed idea of witchcraft: women on broomsticks, with black cats, face warts, and book of spells to cast. This stereotype is a result of media and literature portrayals of witches, or those who study a similar faith. In modern times, Paganism is seen as an umbrella faith, where witchcraft and wicca falls under that denomination, with their own varying beliefs. This can be anagalogied to Christianity and its subcategories like Catholicism and Protestantism. They have common principles and ritual, with individual twists and additions. In these modern times, Paganism is seen as a spirituality, where followers practice the faith, but there are some who consider themselves witches, separate from the pagan beliefs. These people practice the forms of magic as a skill set rather than a religion, being considered more of an eclectic witch, where they do not fall in a pagan denomination nor do they have any connection to the traditional faith; Rather, they interpret more from the folklore and literature representation of witchcraft and choose to practice that kind of skill set or even faith. Many of these witchcraft followers are practicing a portion the faith that instilled fear throughout history of witches, causing the persecution and deaths of many women.

Throughout history, witches were seen as women who did practice a faith for the common good, where their beliefs and rituals were deemed threatening to others. During these times many forms of torture devices were created to identify witches and get them to confess their crimes, where they were then punished, usually by death. In England, the first statue against witchcraft was in 1542, decreed by Henry VIII, the second by Elizabeth I in 1563, where those convicted of sorcery would receive the death penalty. The third statute was declared by James I, who feared witches and blamed them for the storm that almost sank his ship, while his wife and him were aboard. James I authorized the publication of the first copies of the Bible in english, where part of the Bible that was translated into english, was then reinterpretted and changed to say “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and this was by royal decree. He continued to write his own book on witchcraft, titling it Demonology. This began to instill fear throughout Europe, where the mainlands had the most witch trials, hunts, and torture. Towns appointed inquisitors to torture witches and persecute them by burning at the stake. The possibility of being accused by neighbors and enemies, created paranoia and chaos within towns. In Germany, there were many occasions where the female population was almost wiped out. In England, over time there has been a misconception of witches being burned at the stake. However, witches sent to trial and convicted were hanged not burned, because they were not punished for being heretics, they were punished for the harm and death against other humans and animals as a result of witchcraft. Another misconception was the use of ducking, where a woman was publicly humiliated and in some cases drowned as a result, but this was not a form of witch torture or had any correlation to the witch hunts. The similar form of witch trial was called swimming, where the suspected woman was tied to a rope and dropped into a pond or river, to see whether she would float or sink. Floating meant that she was being rejected by the water, an element of baptism, and she was deemed an alleged witch and if she sank she was probably innocent. This was not seen as a formal conviction punishment, and in either case, she would still be reported to a magistrate and sent to trial in front of a judge and jury in a court of law.

The most notable witch hunter was Matthew Hopkins, who started his witch hunting in Manningtree, Essex, in 1644. He believed that the dark arts were being practiced near his home, and accused 23 women of being witches. Of those 23 women, 4 died prison while the other 19 were convicted and hanged for their crimes. This sparked his crusade, being named the Witch-Finder General in 1645, where he claimed to be appointed by Parliament, and set out to prosecute witches. Over the next two years, Hopkins has over hundred people executed for witchcraft across the eastern countries of England. However, he did have trouble rooting out the witches and had many forms of torture to get confessions out of people, but in the court law, only a fraction of the women accused were convicted. The main drive of Hopkins is a mystery to many researchers and we may never know his true intentions. Even the death of Hopkins is widely discussed and there are multiple versions of what happened to him. Some say he died of tuberculosis, others say he was convicted of witchcraft himself by his own means of swimming and sentenced to death. There is also a theory that he fled to America, where the Salem witch trials took place, and although it was some 50 years later, speculators believe he could have had an influence on the trials.

The Salem witch trials began in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, when a group of young girls claimed to have been possessed and starting accusing others of witchcraft. There were 19 people accused, all of them were sentenced to death by hanging. A dramatized interpretation of the Salem witch trials was turned into a playwright by Arthur Miller in 1953. This is to be seen as a drama and interpretation of the events, not a historical and factual representation. Another impact on history was the persecution of Joan of Arc, a french patriot and later denoted a saint of the roman catholic church. She was a threat to the church and state, and because she believed she could hear voices from God, and she was from Don Ramey, where there was a history of witches and witchcraft, she was tried and convicted of heresy, then burned at the stake, dying at the age of 19.

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Witchcraft and Its Evolution Into Modern Times. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved January 28, 2023 , from

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