New Worlds: Witchcraft

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Witchcraft — 15 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Witchcraft - Swan Tower

  2. Side bit of amusement:

    Moments after checking this column, I logged in to my local library’s site and found a brand new (like, since midday today) feature on witches…

    But the real question is whether the accused witch weighs more than a duck.

  3. On the other hand, the two largest witchhunts in history — thousands of victims — were in the Roman Republic.

    • Oh, not to say they never considered it a problem. But it was a different flavor of problem, in terms of where it fit into society and the legal framework.

  4. I’d wager that in fiction, witches go by other names – enchantresses, sorceresses, mages, wizards…or just “magic-using (insert race here)”

    >metaphysical ripples
    Sounds like a…I wanna say New Guinea thing (a lot of the texts I’ve seen, say that most sorcery and traditions on how to deal with them, are in Africa and New Guinea) wherein sometimes somebody deliberately casts a “hurt this guy’s leg!” and sometimes unintentionally does something thats either a no-no or in the grey area.
    I imagine that if a spirit latches on for the ride, its definately going to be worse.

    • Yeah, I mentioned different terms above — it’s just interesting to me that “witch” is so rarely used (though not the same thing as never used).

      wherein sometimes somebody deliberately casts a “hurt this guy’s leg!” and sometimes unintentionally does something thats either a no-no or in the grey area.

      I’m just especially intrigued by it not even being an action: when it’s merely the automatic outgrowth of negative feeling.

  5. “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 sounds a lot like the Jewish (and Muslim as well, to some extent) conception of the ‘Evil Eye’ – where success or accomplishment can breed anger and jealousy in other people, and their jealous/covetous angry thoughts then affect you. There’s even a prohibition in the tractate against watching your neighbor’s wheat grow. One method of dealing with the problem is reciting some sort of preventive verse, another is wearing something to prevent the evil eye from afflicting you (sacred colors, mirrors, an eye symbol like the hamsa), and a third is to hide the good fortune – dress up the newborn son as a girl, for example, as in ancient times girls were not considered as fortunate as boys. Interestingly enough, another method suggested and very popular today is not to worry about it at all – the tractate says that if you don’t believe in the evil eye, it can’t affect you.

    “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.”
    I think this may actually be because of the role witches tend to play in stories. you don’t get many heroes going around adventuring among the common folk – they tend to leave that area pretty quickly, and move on to the realm of saving the kingdom/world/etc, and there’s less call for a person who can cause/prevent common troubles there. Also, there is the conception of witches as more of a common thing – that is, ‘hedge-witch’, a kind of local phenomenon. When you want a magicker with more power, you give it a different name, to differentiate from the common ones – and so we get sorceress/enchantress/mage.

    • Good call on the evil eye comparison! Because yes — it isn’t always that people deliberately cast a curse on you; it can just be their jealousy or anger or whatever that curses you.

      Interesting philosophy with “if you don’t believe in it, it can’t hurt you.” 🙂 That actually comes up in fiction, too; the World of Darkness RPG systems in several cases include a component where it’s harder to work magic on a disbeliever, because belief shapes reality itself.

      there is the conception of witches as more of a common thing – that is, ‘hedge-witch’, a kind of local phenomenon. When you want a magicker with more power, you give it a different name, to differentiate from the common ones – and so we get sorceress/enchantress/mage.

      That could be a component of it, yeah. I also suspect the gendered element attached to “witch” in the English language plays a role: most stories at least adopt a different term for male magic-users (wizard, warlock), and often dodge it entirely by adopting a word that default either gender-neutral (mage) or makes the feminine version an adaptation from the masculine (sorcerer -> sorceress; enchanter -> enchantress).

  6. Ooh, a challenge. What witches can I think of in fantasy?

    * Female ‘wizards’ in Harry Potter, our world.
    * Damiano and others in the eponymous trilogy. Our world, some centuries back.
    * Poorly educated female magic-users in Earthsea, very much not our world.
    * The Witch-King of Angmar (Nazgul). Sort of “our world” but only because Tolkien said so, so far back it might as well be secondary.
    * The White Witch of Narnia. Not our world, though we visit. The Green Lady was said to be one of some “Northern Witches.”
    * The Witch-King of Nekrien, Hodgell’s Kencyrath books. Not our world, and also probably more benevolent or at least neutral. Rawneth is called the Witch of Wilden or some such, and is not at all benevolent.
    * Female magic users in Discworld (leaving aside Esk? the one female wizard from Equal Rites). Not our world.
    * One culture of powerful psychics in the Liaden books, similar to the dramliz of Liaden culture. Which (the books) are SFnal and contain a ‘Terra’ though the cosmology gets rather interesting.
    * Psychic magic users of the Vlad Taltos books. Dragaera is not our world though there might be a very tenuous connection.
    * Thessaly, from Sandman. Our world, and very very powerful.

    • Thanks! I also used the term in the Doppelganger series — in fact, the two seeds out of which that whole story grew were the thoughts “Doppelganger would make a good title” and “how come the term ‘witch’ seems to be so rarely used?”

      • Oh yeah, forgot that. I got in on the ground floor, when I think you called them _Warrior_ and _Witch_?

  7. Shades of Pennethorne Hughes 🙂 Could well be. Trying to rake old literature references out of my aging brain does give an evil association to the word. The quotations in the OED are interesting, because the negative connotation for men begins round about 1500, but that for women round about 1300. Whether that matches the actual usage of the time, I can’t say. I can easily believe that modern authors have avoided the term because it comes with so much baggage but, as you say, is that the reason?