Witchcraft of the Past
What images does the word "witch" create in a person’s mind? Most people would tend to think of an old woman wearing a black, cone-shaped hat, with a large mole on her face, and perhaps flying on her broom. This is the stereotype of witches, and although some witches of the past may have fit into this category, one must remember witchcraft is a religion with a variety of followers. On the Covenant of the Goddess website, the basic philosophy of witchcraft is stated in one simple sentence: "Our religion is not a series of precepts or beliefs, rather we believe that we each have within ourselves the capacity to reach out and experience the mystery – that feeling of ineffable oneness with all Life." 1 This website is devoted to finding the origins of witchcraft, specifically faith and reason, and how it has affected society over the past 700 years.
In the thirteenth century, witches, then called cunning folk, "played a positive role in helping people cope with calamity."2 They provided hope to townspeople that through magical means, natural disasters might some how be avoided. The cunning folk provided this important service that kept village life moving ahead. Possession of these so-called magical powers made one an important member of village society. People in need of "security and influence, namely, the old and the impoverished, especially single or widowed women" most often made these claims.3 In the late thirteenth century, the Christian church "declared that only its priests possessed legitimate magical powers," and "those who practices magic outside the church evidently derived their power from the Devil."4 The church wanted to rid society of the witches’ influence, and thus witch-hunts began.
"The 300-year period (1450-1750) of witch hunts and executions that took place in Western Europe were one of the darkest periods in human hisory."5 The men and women who found a source of hope and happiness in the religion of witchcraft, were now being persecuted. People suspected to be witches were brought before a judge for conviction. "In theory two methods of proof were acceptable for conviction: confession by the accused and denunciation by one witness who did not have to confront the alleged witch."6 People accused of being witches were submitted to torture so they would confess. If a witch did not confess to the accusations brought against him or her, he or she was brought to trial. The person accused had to succumb to a physical examination where his or her body was searched for the Devil’s mark. Supposedly, this was the identification mark of the witch’s compact with the Devil. If the witch was pricked with a sharp instrument on the so-called Devil’s mark and experienced no pain or did not bleed, this was evidence the accused was guilty. "But often times the pricking instrument was constructed with a retractable blade, so the person would feel no pain or would not bleed!"7 The accused was always assumed...