Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Witches and witchcraft are associated with some of the most horrifying episodes in western European and American history. Some historians estimate that upward of one million people were put to death for allegedly being witches during several centuries in Europe, with the major persecutions occurring in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries (Johnson 1990). The Salem witch trials episode that took place in colonial America was a tragic although small example of the strength of such beliefs about witchcraft (Erikson 1966). It is of note that most of those accused and put to death as witches were women, leading some scholars to suggest that the witch craze was in part a way to control women and to take their property on behalf of the dominant religion (Catholicism) and other authorities in European society. A number of major figures in Christianity—including Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and St. Thomas Aquinas—offered theological justifications for the persecution of alleged witches.

Witchcraft and witches have attained a new level of visibility recently in American society, in part because of the growing interest in paganism and more specifically in "goddess religions," a significant aspect of some "New Age" religions (York 1995). Johnson (1990) suggests that as many as 100,000 people, mostly women, are involved in witchcraft, which has gained considerable attention for this movement by the media. Some see the growth of interest in witchcraft as partially a reaction to the perception of the extremely patriarchal nature of Christianity. Witchcraft is practiced under the rubric of "Wicca" today and is also sometimes referred to as "the Craft." Practitioners often are associated with "covens," which is the usual name for the small groups of witches that meet to practice Wiccan rituals.

Typical practitioners of Wicca believe in the sacredness of the Earth, revere living things, and assume that the Divine is not just a male personage. They observe cycles of nature, with special celebrations (called "sabats") associated with the changing of seasons. They make use of magical powers, typically to achieve self-development and to help others with some personal difficulty. These beliefs are not typical of traditional religious groups in Western society, which means that practitioners often experience difficulty being accepted by authority figures, including religious leaders, and receiving the typical protections of freedom of religion laws (Hume 1995). Sometimes associated mistakenly with satanism, Wicca has managed to receive somewhat better treatment in the media than representations of satanism (Rowe and Cavender 1991). This may be the case because of current ties that exist between Wicca and feminism.

James T. Richardson


M. Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (New York: Viking, 1979)

K. Erikson, Wayward Puritans (New York: Wiley, 1966)

L. Hume, "Witchcraft and the Law in Australia," Journal of Church and State 37(1995):135-150

P. J. Johnson, "Witchcraft," in J. Patton (eds.), Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling , ed. R. Hunter (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990): 1328-1329

L. Rowe and G. Cavender, "Cauldrons Bubble, Satan's Trouble, But Witches Are Okay," in The Satanism Scare , ed. J. T. Richardson et al. (Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine, 1991): 263-275

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance (San Francisco: Harper, 1979)

M. York, The Emerging Network (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).


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