Introducing the History of the Witch

witch on a broom

In my time of researching paranormal history, I’ve seen witches come up way more than I thought they would. It seems that nearly every culture has some form of history calling something a witch. So, like any person with access to the internet would, I decided to do some history on the haggard old woman who lives in the woods.

Depiction of the witch
Depiction of the witch

What even are witches?

A history that is common nearly everywhere, even a small country like Togo in Africa, witches and their beliefs sprouted to possibly explain why strange things happen. This is also fairly common with religion, as many have the same stories, just with different presumptions.

But what exactly is a witch? In 1978, [1] anthropologist Rodney Needham states that a witch is

‘someone who causes harm to others by mystical means’.

[2] Author Raymond Buckland in his book Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, states that witchcraft is a historical religion that is about animism and equality.

Witchcraft can also be seen as coming up with an idea that is not yet scientifically proven. As much as I would like to agree with this, it does not explain the rejuvenation of witchcraft in the 1950’s. There are many elements to witchcraft today and I don’t see it as explaining something that we cannot understand anymore.

When did witches first appear?

I’m going to tell you right now, even with the theories, no one knows the answer to this. Not one. Every historical monument of discovery has either been detested or another older artifact was found. Anyways, witchcraft has way too many contradicting definitions to pinpoint its exact origin. In some cases, it is all about evil and, in others, it is about practice. So, when I give these theories, do not expect an answer to be correct.

Dr. Margaret Murray stated witchcraft came from paleolithic times, roughly 25,000 years ago, but her work has been discredited over the years for being too outlandish.

In the same link, writer Montague Summers theorized that witchcraft came from Satan, who in this context is a bad guy. Summers explained in his book, Witchcraft and Black Magic, that witchcraft is no different than worshipping Satan. He defines the term witch in a more linguistic way, stating that it is just someone who practices the craft, but goes a bit farther. Summers acknowledges that witchcraft does exist, but it is evil, wicked, and perhaps false. [3]

This guy really does not like witchcraft.

He also never states when it could have started, but it seems that he can assume it begins when everything else did in Christianity.

From more cases from Christianity, it is possible that a witch showed up in the Bible in Samuel, at which the date of the story being written to be around 931 B.C. to 721 B.C.

We will further assume that the Old Testament is the starting point for witches in Christianity with these ideas and state the earliest start of the witch in this context is around 1200 B.C., the earliest theorized time of the book’s compilation.

Back in the day

Around the same time, in 800 B.C., Homer’s Odyssey speaks of a possible witch named Circe. In Africa, there is not much evidence to announce a possible time when their belief in witches started, but Christianity and Islamic persuasion may have heightened the belief.

Ancient Greek woman
Ancient Greek woman

In the olden times of Greece, you do see a form of the witch in the mageia, which was an amalgam of science and divination. This jumps the time back to roughly 4,000 B.C. Speaking of Greece, Aristophanes states in The Clouds (423 B.C.) that you could buy the service of a witch [4].

Egypt was a little bit different in that they may have believed in magic, but didn’t have witches, per say. It seemed more religious than anything, but Egypt did have magical priests, so they sort of count. This brings back the first witch to around the same time between 6,000 B.C. to 3150 B.C., but I’m going to guess closer to 3150 B.C.

To venture even further back, Mesopotamians also believed in some form of witchcraft, but it may have been seen more negatively than others as a possible illness. This dates around the same time as the older civilizations, but assuming that they always believed in this, the very, very latest we can say the first witch appeared was maybe about 7500 B.C. with the Jarmo Village, and that is extremely generous given that we do not know what these people practiced.

All these witches in history are fairly diverse. While some are evil, others are healers. It just depends on the culture.

Why do some cultures hate witches?

It is all about religion and assumption. I decided on these two reasons because looking at the history of witchcraft, these two became very apparent. Like with what you saw with Montague Summers and noticed with the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, certain religions do not welcome witchcraft. These are a few times when society snuffed out witches:

So many deaths for a cause

Many of these were based on religion, but some were based on law… that extended from religion. It’s religion all the way down. I’m kidding, sort of. It also is based on what I spoke of before: magic as an explanation for what science cannot. If it is an illness, it could be that dirty water in the river, or, you know, witchcraft. In older civilizations, you see that what isn’t accounted for in a holy book or by that times’ common sense, it is probably witchcraft.

How much do we know about actual witches? It doesn’t even date back a millennium. The oldest documented witch was Mother Shipton, who was born in 1488. She was a possible seer and since divination is a part of witchcraft, she is considered the first documented witch. She predicted the Black Death to happen in 1665 and for the following year, the Great Fire of London. Surprisingly, she died of old age.

Witchcraft in recent times.

The witch and their craft died out around 18th century, nearly worldwide. Either the practice devolved, was burned out, or converted [5]. Thanks to some 1950’s rebranding, witchcraft today has exploded. I’m not even going to explain it all.

Based off current websites, there are a ton of new witch-related ideas out there and it is growing. I got curious and searched on Pinterest (I know, it isn’t all accurate. I’m looking for result numbers) and business is booming for witches. Even searching “present day witch” gave me 95 million results on Google.

Every day witch
Every day witch

Witches nowadays, thanks to a massive amount of information readily available, are springing up and creating something that cannot be burned down. The ideals are based off either the knowledge of a past culture, information passed down generation to generation, or an influence from books ranging from the ancient Egypt to 1950’s Gerald Gardner.

Each ideal looks to be self-made or copied from the possibilities above. Either way, the witch nowadays is nothing like what you would see in the past. Have any other thoughts on historical witches? Add in a comment. We need more comments around here.

More information on the witch

While you can look at other sources, I have a small series on paranormal creatures on my YouTube page. The witch needs so much more information than just this posting and the video, but they are a good start to understanding where witches came from, how they appeared in the world, and what they can offer. Furthermore, you can look at the history of the witch as the start of witches.

References

[1] Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present. United Kingdom, Yale University Press, 2017.

[2] Buckland, Raymond. Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. United States, Llewellyn Publications, 2002.

[3] Summers, Montague. Witchcraft and black magic. United States, Dover Publications, 2000.

[4] Collins, Derek. “The Trial of Theoris of Lemnos: A 4th Century Witch or Folk Healer?” Western Folklore, vol. 59, no. 3/4, Western States Folklore Society, 2000, pp. 251–78, https://doi.org/10.2307/1500236.

[5] Mesaki, Simeon. “THE EVOLUTION AND ESSENCE OF WITCHCRAFT IN PRE-COLONIAL AFRICAN SOCIETIES.” Transafrican Journal of History, vol. 24, Gideon Were Publications, 1995, pp. 162–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24328661.

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