Witchcraft in European History

Witchcraft in European History

Christians in medieval and renaissance Europe viewed the indigenous religious system and magical spells, incantations, blessings and healings as a threat to their hold on the people. They began to condemn the practices as witchcraft and labeled them as evil practices, even if the practices were not evil in purpose. A schism was created between magic and miracle, the battle-line was drawn.

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The definition of witchcraft is the use of magic and religion for an evil purpose, sorcery, out of the norm of the local religious practices. It is the use of supernatural powers to harm other’s minds, bodies or property. It involves communication with evil spirits or the devil, and utilizes negative forces in casting spells.

Many practitioners of primal religious traditions have been labeled as “witches” by members of other co-existing religions in order to castigate and attack the works of the shamans and spiritual figures, even to condemn them to death as “witches,” and thus dispose of religious competition through “witch-hunts.”

What is a Shaman or a Witch?

A shaman is a spiritual figure and healer common in primal or traditional religion. A shaman can be self-appointed, or sometimes inherits the office. He/she has the ability to communicate with spirits and perhaps animals and animal totemic spirits. The shaman is respected and fulfils functions within the social group, including leading ritual activities.

The category of shaman includes good and evil. The terms witchdoctor, witch and sorcerer are often labels for those who deal with the dark side and are much feared among the people. In rationalized, literate religions we see the office of priest replacing the shaman in the religion.

Witchcraft in Early Europe

The word “witch” comes from the Old English “wicce” for a female and “wicca” for a male, and was a term used to mean a practitioner of witchcraft. Most shamans in Europe were not labeled as witches prior to Christianity. The Christians found themselves in competition with practitioners of the old magic and primal religion of the area already in place for hundreds of years.

Early Christians used the term maleface to describe the blessing and cursing, healing and manipulation of people and objects and considered all shamans as enemies to Christianity. If the shaman was an old and ugly woman, she was even further persecuted and hated by the Christian clergy.The label of “witchcraft” often said more about the people using the label than it did about the person so labeled. It indicated fear and jealousy of the practitioners of the indigenous religion.

Ancient religion in Europe often involved worship of the goddess. Germans in particular believed that women were especially sensitive to the supernatural, and most shamans were female. Not all early Christians persecuted the female shamans, although the clergy labeled them as witches and non-Christian beliefs as witchcraft. Charlemagne ruled that the burning of witches was a pagan custom that would be punished by death.

Eventually all non-Christian magic was condemned as coming from the wrong source and was sought for annihilation, whereas magic in Christianity was labeled as miraculous. The trial of the Knight Templar in 1307 may have been the beginning of the great European “witch-huntl,” where those of non-orthodox beliefs were tried for heresy and condemned to death.

Malleus Maleficarum

Malleus Maleficarum, The Tool of the Witchhunters or Das Hexenhammer (Latin/German for The Hammer of Witches) was an important medieval document which helped early Christians identify and battle witches. Written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, with the strong endorsement of Pope Innocent VIII, it was based largely on earlier similar documents focused on witchcraft.

Women are described in the treatise as especially susceptible to the enticings of the devil. They are feeble-minded, lascivious creatures who harbor ill-will and malice. This characterization of women continued on in the Church and the treatment of women, particularly in the judgment of non-obedient or women with odd traits as being witches and not to be trusted.

The Malleus Maleficarum stated that there were four basic descriptions of a witch:

1. they renunciated of the Catholic faith

2. they were devotion to evil

3. they offered up unbaptized children to the Devil

4. they engaged in orgies which included intercourse with the Devil

Other accusations in the Hammer of Witches included: the power to cause impotence, to turn milk sour, to strike people dead, to cause diseases, to raise storms, and to cause infants to be stillborn.


Bowie, Fiona. The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing

Jolly, Karen. “Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, Practices,” in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages, ed. By Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark. University of Pennsylvania Press

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