***CAUTION: Some of the information regarding the cruelty and real life horrors of witch-hunts, both past and modern day, may be upsetting to some readers. I will do my best to be discrete.***
Rhonny here. All this month, in honor of the Halloween season, I'm going to share the real life manifestations behind some of your favorite horror film monsters and ghouls. In our second post, I'm going to talk about real life witches.
Witches have long been a staple of Halloween costume stores and horror movie villains. Ugly, green, and warty are some of the things someone might say when you ask them to describe a witch. But what is the true story behind these magical creatures? Are they really "evil"? And, more importantly, are they real? These are just a few questions to be answered in this edition of The Truth Behind Horror Movie Ghoulies.
The word "Witch" has connections to many different origins, but the most well known ones are from the Old English words Wicca, meaning "sorcerer, wizard", and Wicce, meaning "sorceress, witch" and from the Saxon word Wica, meaning "wise one". It is hard to say exactly how long witches have been around, since early witches didn't write down what they knew, but stories of "magic folk" have been around since ancient Egypt and beyond. In ancient tribal communities, "magic folk" were given roles of recognition as healers and medicine people for their great knowledge of the healing powers of herbs and energies. These people were given positions as Priests and Priestesses and were seen as officially sanctioned practitioners. But soon, as time went on, those in power began to fear the magic folk and stripped them of their official roles. In ancient Greece and Rome, the practice of witchcraft was outlawed by those who feared that the power of the witches exceeded those who ruled and were in power. But while they were feared for their great power, they were often contacted by rulers to do magical workings for them in secret, especially when they were to go into battle.
While for most of history witches had to work in secret due to public fear, they weren't seen as "Evil" or "Devil Worshipers" until the formation of Christianity. The Protestant Church described witchcraft as a demonic practice, although the practice of magic far outdates the Christian belief in the Devil. The famed "Witch-Hunts" began between the 13th and 17th centuries. Most of those accused during these times were not Witches at all, but were women, and sometimes men, who were simply different in someway or who were accused simply because they were seen as a threat to someone's power. Fear, ignorance, and superstition fueled hundreds of years of torturing, burnings, drownings, and other forms of murdering an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 innocent people.
The most infamous of all the witch-hunts were the Salem Witch Trials. Mass hysteria, religious extremism, and paranoia ran ramped from February 1692 and May 1693 in Salem and it's surround areas. During this time period of around a year and a half, Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned. 29 were officially convicted, 19 of those were executed by hanging (burning was favored more in Europe, as is was seen as a more painful way to die). One man, an 80-year-old farmer named Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea in court and was crushed to death under heavy stones place on his chest over a 2 day period in an attempt to force him to confess. At least five more of the accused died in prison. No evidence ever existed that proves any of these people ever practiced witchcraft. The confessions and convictions were obtained through horrendous torture and false testimony. It was a dark era that I hope people take as an example of how religious intolerance and hatred of what is different can cause so much pain and suffering.
We now move on to modern day witches. Many people throughout the world still practice witchcraft to this day, myself being one of them. While witchcraft itself is not a religion, many practitioners follow the religion of Wicca, a nature based religion focusing on the worship of both a God and a Goddess who are equal to each other. Many followers of modern day witchcraft follow a code or a rede that states "An It Harm None, Do What Ye Will", meaning they can do as they please with their magic, so long as no one, including themselves, is harmed in any way. They do not believe in an all evil entity, therefore no devil, but believe in a Three-Fold Law, somewhat like Karma, that states what you do will come back to you threefold, good or bad. There are variations to the practice depending on what religion you follow, but for the most part modern day witches use magic to obtain things they need, somewhat like prayer. They use spells for love, money, knowledge, and even a little bit of luck at times. Witches can practice alone or come together in groups called covens. When a coven comes together to practice magic, elaborate rituals can be performed for specific needs which includes the burning of herbs, the raising of energy, and even the contacting of the deceased if necessary. With the rede of 'Harm None", most modern day witches are positive entities that are simply misunderstood due to a history of negative and false associations with the Devil and evil.
Unfortunately, the witch-hunts, while they have died down considerably, have never really stopped. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, the practice of any form of witchcraft is still punishable by death, and in small areas in Africa, people are still being burned, tortured, and thrown out of their homes all due to accusations of witchcraft (and these are not just adults being killed. In 2006, between 25,000 and 50,000 children in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their homes, tortured, and/or killed). Organizations have been formed to try and stop these terrible acts. I hope they do.
As much as I hope you've enjoyed this post, I also hope you've also learned something about acceptance and looking past old superstitions to see people for who they are, not what they believe in. The next time you look at a Witch costume, I hope it makes you think. In our next post, I'll be visiting our little friends from outer space...Aliens!