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A History of Witchcraft

8 Dec

It is sometimes speculated that the word ‘witch’ came from ‘wit’ (in this sense meaning knowledge), and that it was originally a term that was applied to people who knew, or said they knew, things that other people did not. This theory as to the origin of the term ‘witch’ makes sense in view of the fact that another term commonly used for people who practised withcraft (or the ‘craft of the wise’) was ‘Cunning Folk’. Although there were male Cunning Folk, most people in western Europe who claimed to have the hidden knowledge of witches seem to have been women. Even today the popular perception of witches, derived no doubt from Grimm’s fairy tales and other such sources, is of stereotypical ugly hags with broomsticks and pointed hats, casting evil spells on people with their demon-inspired supernatural powers. In truth, however, the witches of the Middle Ages were in fact for the most part simply people who continued to worship the pagan gods. Before the coming of Christianity to western Europe, religious ceremonies were held at great stone monuments known as dolmen or cromlechs, many of which, like Stone Henge and the Rollright Stones, are still around today. In time these monuments were looked upon not only as tombs of the dead but as places from which the spirits of the dead could come to be born again in new people. These old stone tombs were therefore often the centres where witches gathered and in distant parts of the British Isles, like the Orkney, Shetland and Channel Islands, pagan ceremonies have continued to be enacted long after the coming of Christianity.

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