The very word “witchcraft” scares some people. I acknowledge that fact in my upcoming book The Edge of the Circle. The book includes a teenage girl exploring witchcraft and that might be upsetting to some. So, I want to talk a bit about what that means. Why does witchcraft scare people and what does it mean anyway?
In general, the rejection of witchcraft comes down to two things – a belief that religious practices should be standardized and a belief that there are alternative dangerous sources of supernatural power that people might tap into. I’ll look at those one at a time.
The criticism of witchcraft has been part of enforcing monotheism and the power of the priesthood or clergy. The clergy alone were supposed to provide blessings or state whom God has cursed. Other gods are rejected as evil. Worship of them was seen as witchcraft. Anything attempting to draw power from anything but the main God is seen as evil. The medieval accusations against witches often resembled the accusations people made against Jewish and Muslim people – that they killed children for rituals, etc. Accusations of witchcraft was another form of religious slander to justify oppressing others.
Witchcraft provided an explanation for why bad things happen. One God can still be seen as powerful and good, with the evil attributed to witches.
Even among groups that claim to reject magic, items such as amulets with the name of God or the names of angels, relics, crucifixes, and such are seen to posess special powers. I can give just a few examples, though many, many more exist. In the middle ages, several places associated with the rebellious baron Simon de Montfort became pilgramage locations. People would measure their bodies with strings and then use the strings as wicks in candles that would be burnt at the pilgramage site to bring healing. In the early 20th century wax was used in healing and diagnostic rituals by the Ukrainian immigrants who settled in northern Alberta. To the extent that these things were able to support the churches and their infrastructure they were permitted. They were accepted if they encouraged pilgramage to church sites or supported the power of the clergy. If they encouraged people to reject particular church leaders or support the political opponents of the church leaders, they were condemned.
Many people would probably say that these practices of magic within the Christian tradition are totally different than magic outside of the Christian tradition. They would say that these practices within the Christian tradition still allow God to make the decisions rather than trying to force or alter God’s will. (This raises interesting questions like how can an all-powerful being’s will be opposed.)
Yet as a teenager, Wicca (modern witchcraft) was a way for me to explore who I thought God was and what role I felt I had in the world. It gave me an opportunity to craft my own religious rituals, to develop an active religious practice. At the time, I saw the different mythological gods as all portrayals of different people’s attempts to understand the one divine being within the world. There is a God, I thought, and God is all-powerful, so all things must come from that one being.
I realize that the idea of someone exploring different ideas of God can be very scary for those who believe that there is one right idea of God and that failure to believe that one right image results in punishment. There is not much I can say to those who might believe that, other than that it brings up questions about why their God would put humans through such a test.
I was very startled when as thirteen year old I spent a few weeks at a private religious school where each day started off with a prayer that included people saying things like “now Devil, you get away from these children…”. To me the devil was a way of talking about our worst instincts, and suddenly I was confronted with someone who believed the devil was a real supernatural being. That startled me. I didn’t believe in that at all.
Often it is the religious people who advocated for the presence of magic in the world, and a disbelief in magic has been seen as an aspect of atheism. Saducismus Triumphatus, a book on witchcraft published in 1681, a little after its author had died, says that “those that dare not bluntly say, there is no God, content themselves (for a fair step and introduction) to deny there are spirits or witches.
Now I am pretty much atheist. I don’t believe in magic. In many ways, in editing The Edge of the Circle, I gave my adult religious beliefs to the character Damian, while letting my teenage beliefs show through in the characters of Jessica and Evelyn.