Witch n: A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.
There have been literally thousands of stories recorded about witchery and it's affect on the population. From the Salem Witch Hunt from January 20, to October 8, 1692, to the 1944 jailing of Helen Duncan in Britain for the alleged raising of spirits of the dead. So, what are witches?
Basically, a witch is a practitioner of a nature-based belief system or religion. Not all witches follow the same belief system. Some practice what is called the "old religion", which has its roots in pagan pre-monotheistic folk ways and beliefs and usually follows the seasonal cycles. These belief systems or "traditions" of Witches are often based upon the particular culture from whence they originated. Many Witches believe in a polytheistic deity structure (usually based upon the local gods and goddesses of the area of origin), but some simply practice magick (sometimes spelled with a 'k' to differentiate it from stage magic).
Witches may practice alone as 'solitaries" or in covens. There are also family groups or traditions which trace their practices and beliefs within the same close group throughout several generations.
The terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" have been used to describe those accused of Christian heresies, not-so-neighbourly behaviour or practicing medicine without a license. In some cultures, Witches are tribal shamans or healers to be sought out and honoured. In others, they are sorcerers and magicians to be avoided or shunned. "Witch" and "Witchcraft" are also terms which many Neo-Pagans use today to describe themselves and their spiritual Path. Some also use the same terms in reference to folk magic without a religious connotation.
All throughout history, witches have been persecuted, especially in Europe. But the incident that you might be the most familiar with are the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. When they failed to improve, the village doctor, William Griggs, was called in. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the death by hanging of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; seventeen others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed. To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. Their names had been "cried out" by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England, the practice of witchcraft.
In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear)
and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided
over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates
and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found
guilty and was hanged on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations
of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the
court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of that year. The
Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the "witchcraft" court, did not
allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their
invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of
those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those
awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch
trials were over.