Chapter 5. Witchcraft

Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash.

5.1 What is “witchcraft”?

  • Witchcraft in pop culture: Witches are presented in popular culture as evil-doers who cause harm by harnessing dark, magical forces. This representation does not actually reflect any major religious or spiritual belief or practice and is used as a story-telling device.
  • Witchcraft as a spirituality: There does, however, exist a myriad of religions and spiritualities that believe in every person’s inherent power and in the divine elements of nature. Some of these groups engage in rituals that rely on magical beliefs. These practitioners may call themselves, “witches”. These groups are firmly against using magic to harm others and do not resemble horror-based witches from movies and television.
  • The witchcraft accusation: Across many human cultures and across generations, humans have utilized what anthropologists call the “witchcraft accusations.” The witchcraft accusation is a cultural tool that is used to punish individuals who do not conform to society’s expectations. For example, if a woman in a religious society refuses to embody her culture’s values of feminine docility, she might be publicly accused of being a “witch” so that her community can exercise power to more strictly control her behavior and regular her life. While many are familiar with the way witchcraft accusations were applied throughout the Salem Witch Trials, these accusations are used in other places across the globe, too.

5.2 Applying Cultural Relativism to Witchcraft Beliefs

  1. This belief prevents antisocial behavior. We define antisocial behavior as any behavior that does not conform with society’s expectations. So, for example, if you get into a fight with a person in public and then learn that they fell and broke their leg afterward, you might be accused of hurting them with your anger. In Azande society, a person who is accused of witchcraft is often kicked out of the community or sometimes killed. So, many of the Azande will make a big effort to maintain composure and to not behave with great jealousy because they don’t want to be accused of being witches if the person they fought with has some bad luck (Evans-Pritchard, 1935, 419). Anthropologists call these “witchcraft accusations” and they serve the function of preventing antisocial behavior. (Evans-Pritchard, 25).
  2. This belief explains misfortune. To many human beings, life can feel exceptionally illogical and out of our control. All cultures find a way to explain why bad things happen. Witchcraft beliefs explain misfortune by tying the misfortune to people’s intentions. (Evans-Pritchard, 30).

5.3 Witchcraft Accusations and Social Structure

5.4 Witch Hunts in Early Modern Europe (1450–1700)

5.5 The Malleus: “Hammer of the Witches”

5.6 The Salem Witch Trails: A Year of Terror

  • March 20 — The visiting clergyman gave a vigorous anti-witchcraft sermon from the pulpit, but as he did so, the girls again behaved hysterically. Later in the day, one of the girl’s mothers fell victim to the spell.
  • March 21 — Martha Cory was arrested and examined before several hundred persons. As she was led into the room, the afflicted girls cried out in “extreme agony”; she wrung her hands, and they screamed they were being pinched; she bit her lips, and they screamed they could feel it in their own flesh.
  • April 21 — One of the girls claimed that former pastor George Burroughs was a wizard who had masterminded the entire outbreak. An officer was sent to Maine with a warrant for his arrest.
  • June 2 — Bridget Bishop was sentenced to death.
  • On June 10, Bridget Bishop was hanged on a rocky elevation west of town called “Witches’ Hill” ever since.
  • On June 29, the court sat a second time and convicted 5 more women. On July 19 all five women were hanged. One of them, Sarah Goode, was asked to confess, but instead she shouted from the scaffold: “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”
  • August 5 — Six more trials produced six more convictions. One of these was reprieved because she was pregnant and the court didn’t want to take away an innocent life. The “wizard” Rev. George Burroughs, was one of these, he protested his innocence and recited the Lord’s Prayer as he died.
  • Early September — death sentence passed on another half dozen persons. One of them, however, was reprieved, and the other, the wife of a ship captain, was helped to escape from prison. One of these women wrote a petition from prison: “I petition your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set, but if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed.”
  • September 17 — Nine more persons were condemned. Five of them escaped hanging by confessing to the charges.
  • September 19 — Giles Cory, whose wife had already been hanged, had refused to plead to the charges, which was taken as an implicit denial of the court’s right to try him. Pressing to death was an old English procedure designed to force prisoners to enter a plea so their trial could proceed.
  • September 22 — The last 8 witches were carried by cart to the witches’ hill to be hanged. When one of its wheels lodged in a rut, a group of afflicted girls cried out that the devil was trying to save his servants. And when Samuel Wardwell choked on the smoke of the hangman’s pike while making a final appeal to the crowd, the taunting girls shouted that it was the devil who was hindering him from speaking.
  • September 22 was the last execution. A total of 19 people had been executed before it was over. There were still over 100 persons in jail waiting for trial.

5.7 The End of Terror

5.9 Reflections from practicing Witch, Griffin Ced

5.10 Reflections from practicing Witch, Jill Weiss

5.11–5.12 Varying Attitudes Toward Witchcraft






Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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Amanda Zunner-Keating

Amanda Zunner-Keating

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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