Witchcraft is not typically considered a religion on its own but rather practices that people in any religion, or no religion, engage in or are accused of engaging in. Paganism is a blanket term for religions outside the religious mainstream in an area. Discover witchcraft, and a Christian response, today.
By Mark D. Harris
Paganism encompasses a wide variety of religious activities in the modern world. The word pagan comes from the Latin word (paganus) for rustic or rural. Beginning in the fourth century, it was used by Christians to describe their neighbors, especially peasants, who participated in polytheistic or ethnic religions. Paganism, therefore, originally referred to many religions, including emperor worship, the elysian mystery cults, Egyptian mythology, and many others.
In this article, I have used the pronoun “her” for historical accuracy since the vast majority of people who claim to be or have been accused of being witches are female.
Classification of Paganism
By the 20th century, people engaged in religious activities not associated with an organized religion began to call themselves pagan. Neopagan religions are modern versions of pre-Christian religions that focus on the supremacy and unity of nature in spirituality. Wicca, neo-Druidism, and Heathenry are examples. Paleopagan religions are modern versions of the ancient Greek, Roman, and other polytheistic national faiths. Mesopagan religions range from African-diasporic faiths to New Age groups. Another way to categorize pagan religions is by primary traits. Polytheistic religions honor many divine beings, nature-based religions see nature and supreme, not fallen as Christians do. Sacred feminine beliefs use the concept of a female goddess to join or replace a male god.
Witchcraft is broadly understood as the use of magical powers to achieve some end. A patient of mind years ago admitted being a wiccan but claimed to use only helpful, not harmful, magic. If this is the definition, witchcraft is almost universal, as divination and spells are found in Hinduism, Islam, and most other religions. A narrower and more common definition of witchcraft is using supernatural powers to inflict misfortune or harm on someone else. In Rome, for example, religious rituals were considered acceptable if done as part of a public ceremony, but unacceptable, or even witchcraft, if done privately. In public, onlookers could see what you were doing and hear what you were saying. If you used a ritual and a spell against someone, many nearby would know it.
Early Christians were condemned for their private love feasts, including the Eucharist, which critics described as orgies, child sacrifice, and cannibalism. Consider the Octavius, Minucius Felix’s ideas of a Christian love feast, written in the 2nd century AD.
“Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.”
There is no evidence that anything like this ever happened in the early Church, or any genuine Christian organization, but Felix’s fervid imagination caused Christians to be described as moderns might describe a witchcraft ritual.
Every society in history has, at some point, believed in magic and witchcraft. Five beliefs about witchcraft are common among societies:
- A witch causes harm by uncanny means. Her power is supernatural. It may work whether or not it acts deliberately and whether or not she knows about it. Some believe that spirits in witches can use her power while she sleeps.
- A witch is an internal threat against her own community. Magic to harm outsiders was not necessarily frowned upon. In fact, Amazon, Siberian, Australian, and Melanesian societies used groups of magicians to attack enemies. The efficacy of witchcraft is directly proportional to the closeness between witch and victim. In some peoples, witchcraft can be used by leaders to punish those with whom he disliked.
- The witch works within a tradition. Powers of witchcraft were believed to have been acquired through inheritance or initiation. Magical items are important, but not necessary with some witches.
- The witch is evil. It was seen as immoral and often thought to involve communion with evil beings.
- Witchcraft could be thwarted by defensive magic, persuasion, intimidation, or physical punishment of the alleged witch.
Accusations of witchcraft commonly occurred in the following scenarios:
- Accusations from neighbors with whom you have had conflict.
- Injuries, or diseases that come on rapidly or dissipate slowly.
- Impotence in men and infertility in women.
- Death, sickness, or poor performance by animals (cows not giving milk).
- A person was caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery.
- A well-meaning sorcerer or healer lost their clients’ or the authorities’ trust.
- A person did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbors.
- A person was reputed to be a witch and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs or occultism.
Techniques of witches
- Verbal actions like curses, spells, chants, and repeating words
- Objects like wax or clay images, herbs.
- Body parts of animals or humans.
- Substances to make potions or poisons.
- Using something belonging to a victim like hair or nail clippings.
- Work at night, alone or with a group.
- Necromancy for prophecy or divination.
- Witches use knives (athames), pentagrams, and herbs in their ceremonies.
- Rosemary is thought to be protective.
- Beltane is a common festival in witchcraft.
- It is uncommon for witches to practice astrology.
Witches, like shamans and totemists, can have an association with animals. Familiars are thought to be demons who shape-shift into animal form and serve witches as pets. Witch hunts, such as the infamous witch hunts in Salem (1692-1693), occurred all over the world. In the modern world, for example, witches have been tried, convicted, and killed in Saudi Arabia and Tanzania. In the Salem witch trials, 78% of those accused were women. As with most societies, and as we have seen in shamanism, epileptic fits were considered evidence of witchcraft.
Belief in Witchcraft
We would be foolish to think that witchcraft is a thing of the past with only a few, poor, isolated adherents in the modern world. A 2022 study found that of more than 140,000 people in 95 countries examined, over 40% believed in witchcraft, ranging from 9% in Western Europe and the United States to 90% in parts of Africa. Factors increasing the likelihood of belief in witchcraft include:
- Countries with weak institutions and poor quality of governance.
- Counties with high levels of cultural conformity.
- Low levels of trust in a society, especially with high levels of antisocial behaviour.
- Lower levels of life satisfaction, diminished sense of control, less self-efficacy, and more fatalism.
- Poor creative culture and innovation
- Intermediate economic development. Very high or very low economic development is correlated with a lower belief in witchcraft.
- Personal misfortunes such as unemployment and group misfortunes such as drought and famine increase belief in witchcraft.
Demographically, people who are younger, female, undereducated, in a bad economic situation, Muslim, and very religious, are more likely to believe in witchcraft. Lack of societal cohesion, mistrust of out-groups, stress, diminished cooperation, a zero-sum mindset, and a pessimistic worldview are associated with higher levels of belief in witchcraft. Witchcraft belief and practice is extremely common in people who identify as lesbian, homosexual queer, transgender, radical feminist and far left. Societies have used a variety of methods to decrease witchcraft. Laws tend not to work, as the very existence of a law makes people more likely to believe in witchcraft and consider it a bigger threat.
Example of Modern Witchcraft
After Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016, a cross section of American (and some international) witches tried “A Spell to Bind Donald Trump and All Those Who Abet Him.” To bind someone in witchcraft is to make them powerless to do harm, with harm defined as whatever the spellcaster thinks harm is. Practitioners cast spells and extensively used social media to publicize their actions and resistance to Trump, whom they did not wish to name. Even more, they denied the humanity of Trump and his supporters, calling them “it” and reducing them to demon status.
In their spells and other activities, witches used “biblical language (strike, vanity, loins), Puritan-era witchcraft-related language (malignant, wickedness, thrice), and American political documents such as the Declaration of Independence (polity).” They expanded their venom to the “heteronormative, White, patriarchy,” but were forced to use the language of the “patriarchy” (Biblical, Puritan, Democratic) to do it. Conservatives organized counterprotest groups, especially prayer groups, which gave conservatives something to do but legitimized the perceived power of the witches.
Witchcraft is a present and growing force in the US and the world. This is no wonder, given the ubiquitous sadness, anxiety, and hopelessness we see across the globe today. Secularism, modernism, and postmodernism have failed. Witchcraft can be associated with any religion, as even some people who espouse Christianity claim to do magic. They do what damage they can to those who they hate and try to find meaning in their lives through belief systems that are 100% Satan-approved and inconsistent with the realities of how God made the world.
Witches, however, are not the enemy of Christians. Like all those who reject Jesus Christ, witches have rejected the light and are stumbling in the dark. The same is true for other pagans, such as Odinists and followers of Santeria. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Christians must think like Christ, speak like Christ, and act like Christ, as we reach out to those enslaved to witchcraft, those who God created, died for, and loves.
Fine, Julia C. “#MagicResistance: Anti‐Trump Witchcraft as Register Circulation.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 30, no. 1 (September 26, 2019). https://doi.org/10.1111/jola.12249.
Gershman, Boris. “Witchcraft Beliefs around the World: An Exploratory Analysis.” Edited by Eugenio Proto. PLOS ONE 17, no. 11 (November 23, 2022): e0276872. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0276872.
Hutton, Ronald. “Five Characteristics of a Witch – an Extract by Ronald Hutton.” Yale University Press London Blog, July 31, 2017. https://yalebooksblog.co.uk/2017/07/31/five-characteristics-of-a-witch-an-extract-by-ronald-hutton/.
 Ronald Hutton, “Five Characteristics of a Witch – an Extract by Ronald Hutton,” Yale University Press London Blog, July 31, 2017, https://yalebooksblog.co.uk/2017/07/31/five-characteristics-of-a-witch-an-extract-by-ronald-hutton/.