See Magic; Occupations and Professions: Sorcerer.

The use of natural and/or supernatural powers to coerce or harm others in a way which arouses community concern. The boundaries between witchcraft and magic are indefinable, and both are closely related to prescientific cosmology, in which man is part of a world of spirit. Historically the demise of witchcraft in Europe is recent, and witch beliefs are still potent in Africa and Asia, where they have important social functions in relationships and as an explanation of misfortune. Yet witchcraft persists in the midst of technological and highly literate nations, and as recently as the mid-twentieth century has experienced a revival in which it takes the form of an organized and even institutionalized religion.

Christian attitudes to witchcraft have been shaped by the Bible, Roman law, and the folk customs of Europe. The early Christians believed that membership of Christ conferred immunity from demonic powers and that sin exposed one afresh. Witchcraft was associated with idolatry and a denial of love and truth, so that the sorcerer was the opposite of the saint. Penance was imposed for recourse to witches, and some penalties of Roman law were incorporated into canons. By the sixth century the witch was frequently regarded as a servant of Satan, but early medieval writers were skeptical about many of the alleged powers of witches, like aerial flight, following Augustine's argument that much witchcraft was based on illusion. Canonical sin and civil wrongs were distinguished, and though the medieval penitentials suggest the persistence of pagan witchcraft practices, there was no intellectual foundation for treating the witch as the menace to society. Eastern Churches developed no persecuting streak, but it is difficult to isolate the reasons for the European witch-craze.

The threat of dualist heresy, the stresses generated by Crusades, and development of the theology of Satan removed earlier ambiguities and skepticism and provided the intellectual basis for witch beliefs which were to lead to tragic persecutions in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Alexander IV (1258) and John XXII (1320) permitted the Inquisition* to deal with witchcraft if it was associated with heresy. The influential Malleus Maleficarum (1487) further systematized witch beliefs and emphasized the need to rid society of witches. Though humanists and Reformers rejected some attributes of the medieval witch, they offered no challenge to the basic assumptions underlying witchcraft beliefs. G. Bruno* (1548-1600) showed the Renaissance fascination with the occult, and classical and biblical references to witchcraft were regarded as authoritative by Reformers.

Yet more is involved than the imposition of witch beliefs by a clerical elite. There is considerable evidence for persistent folk-beliefs, and witch-crazes which reached their peak between 1580 and 1650 also owe something to disease, deviant sexual behavior, personal and mass hysteria, blasphemous actions, hallucinogenic drugs, deceit, the search for social scapegoats, and the effect of village rivalries which were all readily interpreted in the framework of witch beliefs, which developed a momentum of their own. Torture undoubtedly led to gross exaggerations and confessions which the inquisitors like B. Carpzov (1595-1666) wanted to hear, but in England, where there was no judicial torture for witchcraft, many of the unpleasant details of continental trials still emerged. Fears of witches were also heightened by religious conflicts, social tensions, and suspicions of any strangers or extraordinary behavior. J. Weyer's (1516-68) attempts to explain that witches were only harmless old women (De praestigiis daemonum, 1563) was, for contemporaries, convincingly refuted by J. Bodin (1529- 96) in Démonomanie des sorciers (1580).

Serious questions have recently been raised against the exclusively Protestant origins of witch beliefs in England, where the Essex trials were alleged to have close links with Puritan ideas about witchcraft imported from Europe. Translations of L. Daneau (1530-95) and L. Lavater (1527-86) and W. Perkins* (Discourse on the damned art of witchcraft, 1608) undoubtedly had some influence on the literate, but they did not erect the full-blown demonology of Europe, and magistrates were more influenced by legal precedents in sentencing than by theological considerations. Except for a brief period during the Civil War (1645-47) when M. Hopkins hunted out witches remorselessly, English witch accusations were rarely official in origin. Most Essex trials stemmed from tensions of village life, breakdown of mutual help for the needy, and the end of the ritual protections against witchcraft which had been provided by the Medieval Church. Recourse to law was provided by acts of 1563 and 1604, providing an important channel for the release of tensions over grievances and misfortune, until men began to apply other explanations.

Witchcraft beliefs retained considerable power in the latter part of the seventeenth century, as the Swedish trials (1668-77) and the Salem craze (1692) showed. In tolerant Holland, B. Bekker (1634-98) was disgraced for his denial of Satan in Betoorverde Weereld (1691), and another critic of witchcraft beliefs in Germany, C. Thomasius (1655-1728) was careful to assert his belief in both witches and a devil, but attacked witch trials (1701). Many great names were still to be found supporting the intellectual superstructure of witch beliefs.

The reasons for the decline of witch beliefs in Europe during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries are obscure. More was involved than declining religious fanaticism and expanding rationality, for anthropological studies of modern witchcraft suggest that the replacement of witch beliefs is a long and complex process. A new cosmology, deepened insight into the theology of creation, decline in angelology and demonology, rejection of torture and witch hunts as a satisfactory legal procedure, growing religious skepticism-all contributed. Recourse to “cunning” men and women was still common, but witchcraft was no longer used as an overall explanation for the mysterious and misfortune, even though technology was not advanced enough to make magic superfluous. There were important regional differences in the process. Changes in legal procedure (abolition of the charge of sorcellerie sabbatique in 1672) were significant in France, while in England the emergence of a more individualistic social morality and public acceptance of responsibility for poor relief removed some of the tensions which inspired witchcraft accusations. In England there was also a growing reluctance to convict. The last trial was held in 1717 and the witchcraft laws were repealed in 1736, though in England and elsewhere there were extralegal acts of violence against suspected witches as late as the nineteenth century.

Witchcraft beliefs survived in small, esoteric groups in Europe, but they are still a serious practical problem in African churches where Christians remain close to the old cosmology. Between 1956 and 1964, Chikanga exercised enormous influence in Central and East Africa, and African Zionist churches show the power of the old beliefs.

N. Paulus, Hexewahn und Hexenprocess (1910); H.C. Lea, Materials towards a history of witchcraft (1939); E. Delcambre, Le Concept de la Sorcellerie dans Lorraine (1949-51); J.C. Baroja, The world of witches (1964); C. Ginzburg, I Benandanti (1966); R. Mandrou, Magistrats et Sorciers en France (1968); H. Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1968); L. Mair, Witchcraft (1970); M. Douglas (ed.), Witchcraft confessions and accusations (1970); A. Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (1970); K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

wich, wich’-kraft:

1. Meaning and Use of the Words

2. Biblical Usage

3. Common Elements in Witchcraft and Ancient Oriental Magic

4. Rise, Spread and Persecution of Witchcraft


1. Meaning and Use of the Words:

The word "witch" seems to denote etymologically "one that knows." it is historically both masculine and feminine; indeed the Anglo-Saxon form wicca, to which the English word is to be traced, is masculine alone. "Wizard" is given as masculine for witch, but it has in reality no connection with it. Wright (English Dialect Dictionary, VII, 521) says he never heard an uneducated person speak of wizard. When this word is used by the people it denotes, he says, a person who undoes the work of a witch. Shakespeare often uses "witch" of a male (compare Cymbeline, I, 6, l. 166: "He is .... a witch"). In Wycliff’s translation of Ac 8:9 Simon Magus is called "a witch" ("wicche"). Since the 13th century the word "witch" has come more and more to denote a woman who has formed a compact with the Devil or with evil spirits, by whose aid she is able to cause all sorts of injury to living beings and to things. The term "witchcraft" means in modern English the arts and practices of such women.

2. Biblical Usage:

Since the ideas we attach to "witch" and "witchcraft" were unknown in Bible times, the words have no right place in our English Bible, and this has been recognized to some extent but not completely by the Revisers of 1884. The word "witch" occurs twice in the King James Version, namely, (1) in Ex 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch (the Revised Version (British and American) "a sorceress") to live"; (2) in De 18:10, "or a witch" (the Revised Version (British and American) "or a sorcerer"). The Hebrew word is in both cases the participle of the verb (kishsheph), denoting "to practice the magical article." See MAGIC, V, 2. In the first passage, however, the feminine ending (-ah) is attached, but this ending denotes also one of a class and (on the contrary) a collection of units; see Kautzsch, Hebrew Grammar 28, section 122,s,t.

The phrase "the witch of Endor" occurs frequently in literature, and especially in common parlance, but it is not found in the English Bible. The expression has come from the heading and summary of the King James Version, both often so misleading. In 1Sa 28, where alone the character is spoken of, English Versions of the Bible translates the Hebrew ’esheth ba`alath ’obh by "a woman that hath a familiar spirit." A literal rendering would be "a woman who is mistress of an ’obh or ghost," i.e. one able to compel the departed spirit to return and to answer certain questions. This woman was therefore a necromancer, a species of diviner (see DIVINATION, IV; ENDOR, WITCH OF; FAMILIAR), and not what the term "witch" imports.

The word "witchcraft" occurs thrice in the King James Version in 1Sa 15:23, "the sin of witchcraft" should be as in the Revised Version margin, "the sin of divination," the latter representing the Hebrew word qecem, generally translated "divination".

See Divination, sec. VII, 1.

The phrase "used witchcraft" (of Manasseh, 2Ch 33:16) is properly rendered in the Revised Version (British and American) "practised sorcery," the Hebrew verb (kishsheph) being that whence the participles in Ex 22:18 and De 18:10, translated in the King James Version "witch," are derived (see above). The word translated in the King James Version "witchcraft" in Ga 5:20 (pharmakeia) is the ordinary Greek one for "sorcery," and is so rendered in the Revised Version (British and American), though it means literally the act of administering drugs and then of giving magical potions. It naturally comes then to stand for the magician’s art, as in the present passage and also in The Wisdom of Solomon 12:4; 18:13; and in the Septuagint of Isa 47:9, where it represents the Hebrew noun keshaphim, translated "sorceries"; compare the Hebrew verb kishsheph; see above.

The plural "witchcrafts" (in the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American)) stands for the Hebrew noun just noticed (keshaphim) in 2Ki 9:22; Mic 5:12; Na 3:4, but in all three passages a proper rendering would be "sorceries" or "magical arts." "Witchcrafts" is inaccurate and misleading.

The verb "bewitch" occurs in Ac 8:9,11 the King James Version (of Simon Magus bewitching the people) and in Ga 3:1 ("O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?"). In the first context the Greek verb is existemi, which is properly rendered by the Revisers "amazed"; in 3:13 the passive of the same verb is translated "he was amazed" (the King James Version "He wondered"). In Ga 3:1, the verb is baskaubaino, which is used of a blinding effect of the evil eye and has perhaps an occult reference, but it has nothing whatever to do with "witch" or "witchcraft."

3. Common Elements in Witchcraft and Ancient Oriental Magic:

The first two sections of the Code of Hammurabi are as follows: "1. If a man has laid a curse (kispu = keshaphim) upon (another) man and it is not justified, he that laid the curse shall be put to death. 2. If a man has put a spell upon (another) man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him (and he is drowned), the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him." Not a word is said here of a female that weaves a spell, but probably the word "man" in the Babylonian is to be taken as including male and female (so Canon C. H. W. Johns in a private letter, dated December 22, 1912).

4. Rise, Spread, and Persecution of Witchcraft:

In the early and especially in the medieval church, the conception of the Devil occupied a very important place, and human beings were thought to be under his dominion until he was exorcised in baptism. It is to this belief that we owe the rise and spread of infant baptism. The unbaptized were thought to be Devil-possessed. The belief in the existence of women magicians had come down from hoary antiquity. It was but a short step to ascribe the evil those women performed to the Devil and his hosts. Then it was natural to think that the Devil would not grant such extraordinary powers without some quid pro quo; hence, the witch (or wizard) was supposed to have sold her (or his) soul to the Devil, a proceeding that would delight the heart of the great enemy of good always on the alert to hinder the salvation of men; compare the Faust legend. For the conditions believed to be imposed by the Devil upon all who would be in league with him see A. Lehmann, Aberglaube und Zauberei2 (1908), 110 ff.

This idea of a covenant with the Devil is wholly absent from the early heathen conception of magic; nor do we in the latter read of meetings at night between the magicians and the demons with whom they dealt, such as took place on the Witches’ Sabbath. The witches were believed to have sexual commerce with devils and to be capable only of inflicting evil, both thoughts alien to oriental and therefore to Biblical magic.

The history and persecution and execution of women, generally ignorant and innocent, supposed to have been guilty of witchcraft, do not fall within the scope of this article, but may be perused in innumerable works: see "Literature" below. In Europe alone, not to mention America (Salem, etc.), Sprenger says that over nine million suspected witches were put to death on the flimsiest evidence; even if this estimate be too high the actual number must have been enormous. The present writer in his booklet, The Survival of the Evangelical Faith ("Essays for the Times," 1909), gives a brief account of the defense of the reality of witch power by nearly all the Christian theologians of the 17th century and by most of those living in the early 18th century (see pp. 23 ff). See also MAGIC, and The Expositor T, IX, 157 ff.


In addition to the literature cited under articles DIVINATION and MAGIC (which see), the following worlds may be mentioned (the books on witchcraft proper are simply innumerable): Reginald Scot, The Discovery of Witchcraft (aimed at preventing the persecution of witches, 1584; republished London, 1886); reply to the last work by James I of England: Daemonologie, 1597; Casaubon, On Credulity and Incredulity .... A Treatise Proving Spirits, Witches and Supernatural Operations, 1668; Joseph Glanrill, Saducismus Triumphatus: Full and Plain Evidences concerning Witches and Apparitions (the last two books are by theologians who class with "atheists"--a vague word in those times for unbelief--all such as doubt the power of witches and deny the power of devils upon human life). For the history of witchcraft and its persecutions see howard Williams, The Superstitions of Witchcraft, 1865, and (brief but interesting and compact) Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (2 volumes, 1851, 101-91). See also Sir W. Scott, Demonology and Witchcraft, 1830; W. R. Halliday, Greek Divination: A Study of its Methods and Principles, London, Macmillan (important); and article by the present writer in The Expositor, January, 1914, on "The Words Witch and Witchcraft in history and in Literature." For a full account of the witch craze and persecution at Salem, near Boston, U.S.A., see The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather, D. D., with a further account by increase Mather, D. D., and compare Demon Possession by J. L. Nevins, 303-10.

T. Witton Davies