There were many pre-christian cultures that recognised witches or ‘wise women’ as they were probably better known. These were women who had knowledge of herbs and performed what we would consider basic charms and spells. They would probably have told the future, read omens and brewed up herbal concoctions- they were also probably heavily made up of women.
We do know for example that the Romans allowed what we would call ‘white Witchcraft’ but outlawed any harmful sorcery. This is an interesting piece of information as it shows how general and accepted sorcery (or for the sake of this article, ‘Witchcraft’) was.
The term ‘Witch’ probably didn’t exist back then, but we would (and I am…) look back and easily label the ‘wise women’ of those days as ‘witches’ due to the connotations that that term now holds. These were powerful and learned people (women usually) who practised sorcery, fortune telling and worked with herbs.
With the dawn of Christianity came the demise of Witchcraft. The church quickly branded the ‘wise women’ of being in league with the devil; some scholars like to argue that they did this in order to crush powerful women, to an extent I agree- I think that as a male-dominated body the Church would want to crush these powerful, independent women who stood up for everything that Christianity hated.
In order to do this they made ‘witchcraft’ an act punishable by death, however it is worth noting that in the early Christian period a lot of people still chose to visit ‘witches’ on the sly. There was still a great deal of respect for the local wise-woman even with the warnings of the Church, and this was something that would take another few hundred years to die out.
The real fear of Witches started around the 15th century, the image of Witches as servants of the devil had taken hold and the Church and people of Europe and America began to see Witches as a problem to be taken care of.
Sadly the way that they saw to take care of these Witches was by death- generally in England this was by hanging, and not burning as is the popular image. Many of these women were tortured into confessing and did so as a last ditch attempt to save themselves. The targets of the Witch hunts were old, lonely women. Whether these women were actually Witches or even considered themselves to be Witches is highly debatable, but what everyone can agree on is that they didn’t deserve their fate.
There was little of what we would recognise as ‘Witchcraft’ in the Victorian era, whilst this was the era that some scholars began to investigate it and make tentative steps forward it was largely ignored. It could be argued that the speed of technological progress and industrialisation could be an explanation for this, it was fashionable and modern to follow technology and science rather than the superstition of times past.
However, around this time period there was a craze for mediums and the occult. This could mainly be blamed on Queen Victoria herself and her obsession with death after the passing of her husband- whatever the reason, even though not technically a ‘Witch’ the Victorian medium is worth a mention in this article.
Again in this era there was little ‘Witchcraft’ as we would know it but again a large revival in mediums and interest in the occult. This trend can easily be traced to the huge losses suffered by the majority of the population in the First World War, mediums and séances became quite normal and routine as people struggled to find ways of coping with their losses.
This was the era in which Witchcraft was legalised and the famous Gerald Gardner came forward with his teachings on Wicca. Over the last sixty years these teachings have blossomed and bloomed through the modern Pagan revival and into Wicca as we know it today.