Witches and Wicca

Witches and the Religionof Witchcraft:
Coming Out of the Broom Closet
by Carolyn Terpstra

Virtually every religion can look back intothe dark corners of history and find a period when it was heldin disrepute. Some religions were accused of crimes through ignoranceand malice, while others faced prejudice and inquisitions. Unfortunately,witchcraft, or the religion of wicca, has had perhaps the longesthistory of misjudgments, accusations, and persecutions. The witchcrafthysteria and consequent reign of terror gripped Europe and NewEngland well into the 19th century. Even in presenttimes, the words ‘witch,’ ‘witchcraft,’ and ‘wicca,’ ward offand repel people who have no real knowledge of the religion. Perhaps through knowledge and an open mind, one can bring thereligion of witchcraft out of the broom closet.

Unlike some film portrayals, witches do notfly on brooms or vacuum cleaners, worship the devil, or conspireto harm others. Nor do they always dress in black capes and pointedhats, cast spells over a boiling cauldron, or keep the companyof black cats and full moons. Films such as The City of theDead (1960), Hocus Pocus (1993), Little Witches(1996), and Macbeth (1997), portray the stereotypical covenof flying and black magic-practicing witches. In addition, children’sfilms like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Simple Wish(1997) have capitalized on the ‘evil witch’ versus the ‘good fairy’typecast. Throughout the years, these stereotypes and other untruthshave been built from people’s lack of true knowledge about thewitchcraft religion.

Witchcraft is an earth religion based onpre-Christian European traditions. Often called one of the oldestreligions existent in the West, its origins can be traced backto the Paleolithic people who worshiped a Fertility Goddess anda Hunter God. Witchcraft takes its teachings and inspirationsfrom nature by re-linking with the life-forces of nature. Thesun, moon, and stars are looked to for their insights and information,as well as trees, birds, animals, and seasonal cycles. Many diversetraditions or sects exist within the religion because covens (groupsof witches) and individuals derive their practices from variouscultural and ethical sources. For the most part, modern witcheshold rituals according to personal needs, the turning of the seasons,and the tides of the moon. However, many of the modern traditionsand even ‘old traditions’ are different from the ancient Paganpractices because of the religion’s ambiguous history.

The witchcraft hysteria can be traced backto a 15th century inquisition that laid the groundworkfor a reign of terror that gripped Europe and New England wellinto the 19th century. During this period it is estimatedthat more than nine million men, women, and children were accusedof being witches, and either tortured or burned. In the late-1400s,the Christian Church instituted the task of Witch-hunters to combatwhat was believed to be the sorcery and black magic of witches. A century later, an archbishop in Germany accused 120 villagersof causing severe weather, and all 120 were burned to death aswitches for interfering with the elements. Yet, perhaps the mostinfamous witchcraft craze was the Salem witch trials in 1692 thatwere related to a group of young girls. The consequent onsetof hysteria in New England can be seen in such films as Dr.Terror’s Gallery of Horrors (1966), Matthew Hopkins: WitchfinderGeneral (1968), Teen Witch (1989), and Hocus Pocus(1993) which make some kind of reference to the Salem witch trials. The long history of witchcraft misjudgments, accusations, andpersecutions forced the surviving craft to go underground untilthe 19th century.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the 1950s thatthe last laws against witchcraft were repealed in England andmodern witchcraft was brought to the attention of the public. Since then, modern witchcraft has considerably grown as morepeople are drawn to reconnect with the old ways and the earth. Many feminists have turned to witchcraft for healing and strength,while others are attracted to the greater understanding of oneselfand the universe. Witches believe there is much to learn by studyingtheir past-through myth, ritual drama, poetry and music, loveand living in harmony with the earth. By coming out of the broomcloset, witches hope to educate the world about the unique religionof witchcraft.