Witchcraft is another concept that’s, if not universal, then as near to it as makes no difference. And while the term can mean a lot of different things, there are some general underlying similarities that tend to hold true across cultures — which makes sense when you consider that we are, of course, going to apply the English word to things that have at least some resemblance to the western concept.
I took a college course once on witchcraft. I literally mean the name of the course was “Witchcraft,” and our textbooks included titles like Servants of Satan and Raising the Devil. Which isn’t to say that the course was entirely about witchcraft in the devil-worshipping sense; rather, sensational titles like that help books sell, and also persuade college students to sign up for your course.But it’s fair to say that the English term “witchcraft” has most often been associated specifically with malevolent magic.
Witchcraft in pre-modern Europe was specifically linked with heresy, i.e. supernatural actions outside the sanctioned and sanctified confines of the church. Which immediately gave it a political dimension, because the church was a political power; witchcraft was therefore heresy was therefore often treason as well, and those in a vulnerable political position — women, foreigners, non-Christians, and so forth — were far more likely to be accused of it than those who enjoyed a comfortable status. Not always, of course; there were male aristocrats implicated in the French L’affaire des poisons, and George Burroughs, executed during the Salem witch trials, was a minister. But when such accusations start flying, it’s the outsiders who often get hit first.
The heretical angle isn’t strictly a European thing. In Japan, the ushi no koku mairi or “shrine visit at the hour of the ox” refers to a kind of black magic, performed by going to a shrine between 1 and 3 a.m. to perform a ritual there. It isn’t at all surprising that people have often seen power in the perversion of sacred places and objects; those things have power to begin with, so naturally you can warp it to malicious ends by using them incorrectly.
As my course pointed out, though, witchcraft hasn’t always been thought of as inherently foul. According to my professor, in ancient Roman times there was no law against witchcraft in its own right; instead there were laws against using witchcraft to harm people. In other words, their legal system treated it as a tool, and punished bad uses of that tool, instead of treating the thing itself as an abomination.
Which brings us around to another sense of the word: “witchcraft” is whatever spiritual things Those People Over There do. My prayer to my god for my child to be healed is faith, but your incantation to your idol for the same purpose is either witchcraft or superstition, depending on whether I believe it holds any power or not. And if I don’t understand your prayer, your rites . . . how can I be sure your prayer was for healing? Maybe you were cursing my child! Maybe you’re the reason they were sick in the first place!
Blaming witchcraft for misfortune is common. Another course of mine, however, provided a different way of thinking about that link. I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find my notes on this, so I can’t pinpoint which people it comes from; I know it was an African group, but that’s as far as my memory goes. The idea in broad strokes was that witchcraft isn’t always a set of actions consciously performed, and witches aren’t always intentionally malicious. Instead, witchcraft can arise naturally out of feelings like anger or jealousy — in essence, it is the metaphysical ripples caused by those unpleasant feelings.
This version of witchcraft has more in common with the Japanese concept of an ikiryō or “living ghost,” where a person overwhelmed by negative emotions astrally projects out of their body in their sleep to wreak havoc on the ones responsible. But in this situation, there may be a physical manifestation of the witchcraft: some object like an animal skull or twisted root buried near the target’s house, which must be dug up and destroyed. That, coupled with social or therapeutic efforts to address the cause of the witchcraft in the first place, resolves the problem.
Usually, though, the response to witchcraft is much less forgiving. During the height of the witch craze in Europe and North America — which, contrary to the usual assumptions, was not the medieval period but roughly 1450-1750 — and in many other periods and areas, accused witches ran or still run a high risk of being injured or killed. This might be done to break the witch’s spells, or to purify their soul, or simply to extract a confession. Interestingly, in European contexts your best strategy was usually to confess to witchcraft, and then accuse some other people of being your confederates. The ones who got executed were often those who insisted on their innocence, even in the face of torture.
The types of activities that can fall under the header of “witchcraft” are very broad, and sometimes magic gets divided into multiple fine-grained categories (necromancy, sorcery, and so forth). A great deal of it revolves around the idea of a curse: inflicting disease, crop failures, livestock deaths, impotence, financial misfortune, and so on. But alleviating such problems is the other side of that coin, and many people who are said to do one are also capable of the other. Witches may consort with the dead or with demons — there’s your boundary-crossing again — or exert control over the minds and actions of their victims.
All of which is rather separate from witchcraft as it’s spoken of today. While there is such a thing as Satanism, modern-day Wicca doesn’t involve much in the way of Black Masses, infant sacrifice, or kissing the Devil’s anus in exchange for magical power. And the black-hatted hags on brooms — or their sexy, non-hag sisters — that you see in yard decorations or Halloween costumes have very little to do with either the heretical specters of the past or the religions of the present.
In fiction, though, witches tend to be thin on the ground. They show up sometimes, but almost always in stories set in this world; when it comes to secondary worlds, they’re more likely to be mages or sorcerers or wizards or enchanters or some word specific to their setting. Is that because of the malicious connotation that still attaches to the concept? Or just because Halloween decorations have made the term seem a little silly?