Witchcraft as an Ancient Religion

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The word "witchcraft" or "paganism" is often connected to a negative belief and more times than not to a specific religious belief and practice known as "Satanism". The history associated with witchcraft beliefs and practices is vast and filled with continuous violence and inequality among different religions and people of different cultures. Individuals accused of witchcraft executed by hanging, burned at the stake, or drowned, often without any concrete evidence as noted in the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. This constant persecution continues today in many countries and communities around the world, often carrying the same outcomes of death, isolation, and torment. Men, women, and children alike are sometimes accused of witchcraft by others in their community for reasons such as race, income, and the way they carry themselves, thus penalized. This mentality and perception associated with witchcraft beliefs and practices, and with those affiliated with this religion, face as much harm within their community in today's society as they did during the late sixteen and early seventeenth century. Witchcraft, or better known as Neopaganism, varies among many countries and cultures, and has many subcategories of variation such as Wicca, Voodoo, Hoodoo, and Santeria; all of which face the same negativity and alienation within a community. Nevertheless, each religious practice is sometimes, if not always, associated with negativity and conformed to a single definition: "harmful actions carried out by persons who possess a supernatural power or powers" (Schnoebelen 3). The belief in witchcraft aides in creating perceptions about how life works, regulates the way in which people in the community should act, and is often used to answer questions related to misfortunate events.

I will use the numerous scholarly articles on Neopaganism and the implications that surround Witchcraft in general to show there is a clear connection that they have stemmed from previous "primitive societies." These negative assumptions fashioned by society have created a negative stigma associated with Witchcraft beliefs and practices, even though they have changed and developed over time by incorporating elements of nature and feminism into its many rituals and practices such as goddesses and different herbs and plants. By realizing that Witchcraft is not a negative belief or practice, one can then see that many of the ideas and definitions made by anthropologists and society do not properly define nor accept different religions and beliefs.

Witchcraft is an ancient religion that is seen in many cultures around the world that make use of rituals and gods or goddesses as a way to comprehend the reality of life. It is a complex set of beliefs that vary through its many subcategories and have changed over time. The anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard studied and recorded this pre-modern witchcraft from what he calls, "a primitive society" (Evans-Pritchard 18) known as the Azande. Evans-Pritchard's theory of witchcraft in the Azande community was "combined with his own skepticism regarding the truth behind witches, thus isolating the debate that witchcraft is a type of specialty case" (Mills 18). Evans-Pritchard described Azande witchcraft as being part of a social category that regulates the way people act and tries to explain events of misfortune when they lack a reasonable explanation. In the article Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, he states that "witchcraft is an important theme of mental life in which it forms the background of a vast panorama of oracle and magic" (Evans-Pritchard 18). This means that witchcraft is seen in those societies that are similar to the Azande community life that it shapes the people's values in the community. However, he continues to say that: "we must not be deceived by their way of expressing causation and imagine that because they say a man was killed by witchcraft, they entirely neglect the secondary causes, that as we judge them, were the true causes of his death" (Evans-Pritchard 25). This statement proves that Evans-Pritchard views witchcraft according to a functionalist approach that reduces it and conforms it to be a less developed religion created by those living in underdeveloped societies. This theory of witchcraft attaches a negative definition to it by failing to remain unbiased and fails to incorporate all aspects that define witchcraft as a whole. He then continues to say that "the Zande notion of witchcraft is incompatible with out ways of thought...they do not profess to understand witchcraft entirely" (Evans-Pritchard 31). Not only is this statement once again limiting the vast set of beliefs that define witchcraft, but it also adds to his previous notion of witchcraft being related to underdeveloped societies. This later deems to be true when he states "in truth Azande experience feelings about witchcraft rather than ideas, for their intellectual concepts of it are weak..." (Evans-Pritchard 31), thus stating that Azande witchcraft is a way to express how one feels about a situation, because they do not have the mental capacity to fully express their ideas. This idea once again proves that Evans-Pritchard fails to see witchcraft as an equal religion and that it is not limited to those underdeveloped societies that supposedly contain a "primitive" thought process. He later concludes and proves his theory of the "primitive" and witchcraft being connected when he states "hence the difficulty of discussing the subject of witchcraft with Azande, for their ideas are imprisoned in action and cannot explain and justify action" (Evans-Pritchard 32). Given this statement, it is evident that from Evans-Pritchard's account of Azande witchcraft, it is viewed as a less advanced and irrational way of thinking that fails to truly explain reality and misfortune. Although Evans-Pritchard tries to effectively analyze and define witchcraft as a whole, he only bases it on accounts of Azande life. In doing so, witchcraft as a whole becomes limited and seen as a way for those who live in isolated societies to view and rationalize cause and effect in life, instead of seeing witchcraft as another religion that essentially attempts to uncover the mystery of life and beyond.

Azande witchcraft as discussed and accounted by Evans-Prichard can be viewed as an early definition and common attitude towards the way society reacts and understands witchcraft. However, the article Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England by Tanya Luhrmann, gives the reader a new perspective of what witchcraft includes. Luhrmann's article gives insight on a full moon ritual that the witch's coven in her account would do. She states: "in London, most rituals follow tea...the sitting room has been transformed. The furniture has been removed, and a twelve-foot chalk circle has been drawn on the carpet" (Luhrmann 42). Here, we are given a detailed description into all the preparation that goes into many witchcraft rituals. These rituals often revolve around the moon's phases or sacred days such as the summer solstice and spring equinox. This also shows that like other religions, witchcraft also contains its' own sacred days and preparations. Luhrmann continues to explain that "these rules are part of what makes it a witches' circle and they are scrupulously observed" (Luhrmann 42), indicating that witchcraft rituals are equally important as any other ritual in other religions. Modern witchcraft "was created in the forties- at least in it's current form- by a civil servant, Gerald Gardner" (Luhrmann 43). Like any other religion, witchcraft has a founder who established a text entitled "Gardner's Book of Shadows", which serves the main focal point of what modern day witchcraft is, including rules and what it means to be a witch: "in his eyes, witchcraft was an ancient magico-religious cult, secretly practiced, peculiarly suited to the Celtic race. Witches had ancient knowledge and powers handed down through the generations" (Luhrmann 43). This means that witchcraft exists in many cultures and societies, not just "primitive" ones as suggested by Evans-Pritchard. It also states that witchcraft holds knowledge about many things related to the earth and nature, such as the seasons and agriculture which often made its way through remedies that were used to heal people of an illness, or rid a place of negative energy. This of course, was mainly done in secret for "witches speak of a secretive tradition, hidden for centuries from the church's eye" (Luhrmann 44), mainly because those accused would often undergo torture. This course of political action was first seen during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, and was based and brought upon by common societal belief and later in the Salem Witch Trials where many women, of which were labeled as "outsiders" were accused and killed due to apparent speculation, rather than actual evidence. Luhrmann gives a more modernized definition of witchcraft, and explains that "it is meant to be a revival of an ancient nature-religion, the most ancient of religions, in which the earth was worshipped as a woman under different guises" (Luhrmann 45). This definition that we are given, explains that it is not a negative belief in the way most societies believe it to be. Witchcraft is goal oriented around the goodness of the earth and its followers give thanks through different ritual practices which are often symbolic of nature before modernity, "where witches try to "connect" with the world around them. Witchcraft is about the understanding of the turn of seasons, the songs of birds; it is the awareness of all things as holy" (Luhrmann 46). Here, it is evident that witchcraft has a lot of emphasis on the earth and see the world in new light, whereas Evans-Pritchard's account, states that Witchcraft is only seen in less advanced societies and that believers of witchcraft lack a mental capacity for true knowledge is wrong. In fact, as seen by Luhrmann's definition of witchcraft, Evans-Pritchard's definition is far from the reality of witchcraft beliefs and practices. Although the definition of witchcraft has changed and become less biased, the fact still remains that people continue to view it with negativity and thus, have a need to remove it from society and from culture. Luhrmann concludes that "there is a certain feel to witchcraft, a humor and an enthusiasm often missing in other groups. Wicca combines the ideal and the mundane. Wicca is the only religion that captures this" (Luhrmann 54). This statement made by Luhrmann is evident that societal views of witchcraft beliefs are wrong, and that it is a religion that treats all things as equal and revolves around the beauty and preserving of nature.

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Witchcraft as an ancient religion. (2020, Jan 20). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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