What is a witch? Most people imagine witches as evil, ugly, old and dangerous women; others associate the word “witch” with magic and depictions of witches as shown in the popular media, e.g. Bewitched, Harry Potter, etc. Regardless of whether the word “witch” has a positive or negative connotation in today’s language, culture and understanding, when one examines witches and their persecution in historical perspective it becomes evident that these stereotypes are misconceptions. In reality, the witch-hunts were a very sad story of injustice and cruelty, involving the vilification and torment of countless innocent women.
The witch hunts took place over many centuries and over both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, the witch hunts were not uniform; they happened for different reasons and in different societies. Furthermore, the true nature of the witch hunts has been masked by the misinformation, biased superstition and propaganda that has been fed to the public by those groups who were in power and responsible for these massacres. In my view, this is why the word “witch” has a negative connotation in the modern English language. Calling someone a witch is rarely meant as a compliment. Consequently, I hope to demonstrate that it is not analytically sound to generalize about witches and witch hunts for that is what has led to the majority’s confusion about what these women actually were and about what really happened to them.
So were witches real? Yes, that is to say witch beliefs and practices indeed existed. However, not all the people who were killed during the witch hunts were witches. As mentioned above, most of them were innocent of the crimes they were accused of. This brings us to the meaning of witchcraft.
Witchcraft is a kind of explanatory system –not based on science- used by society to explain natural misfortunes. In other words, witches were the scapegoats , i.e. they were blamed for undermining the world and their sacrifice was not only considered just, but also beneficial for the rest of society. Continue reading