While the Christian church demonized a witch as a person who worships the Devil, that’s a narrow, self-serving, untrue and limited definition, defining witchcraft from a Christian perspective.
There has likely always some form of witchery–some attempt to perform magic with the aid of conjured spirits. Individuals wanted protection, power or love; hunters wanted to attract game; farmers wanted to predict and control the weather, and ensure a good crop. Some witchery was natural and common, like watching for omens or having a lucky charm, while other was more esoteric, more dramatic, and risky.
These were the wise men and women: the cunning folk. Perhaps they were priests, perhaps they had once been priests in a previous religion, and devolved to simple fortune-tellers and rustic medics. Some people claim that witchcraft was a pre-Christian pagan witch cult, but there is little evidence for this.
To the Church, they may have been an offensive contradiction to the magic of Jesus – an example of magic outside of the realm of Christ and a reminder of its own ineffectuality in both doing magic (see Holy Spirit) and combating competing world-views.
Witches explored the nature of cause and effect. They experimented with words and symbols to effect change in the real and spiritual worlds.
These were not necessarily what we would call witches. Perhaps “witch doctor” or “shaman,” a word borrowed from Northern Asia is a better word. Folk wisdom was generally benevolent, so the psychological element that makes witches scary was missing–people are generally good and want to please others.
Being a little bit crazy and powerful made them a mixed blessing in any community. While they could do good works, they could as easily do harmful things, and this would have led many people to distance themselves from them. Being left alone, even shunned, would have increased the distance between witch and village people, making them even more crazy and the village people a little bit more fearful.
“Another case of comparatively recent date happened in Alvebrode, Hanover. An old spinster, daughter of the widow Steingrob, had a brother who suffered from attacks of asthma. Her mother was blind and lame, and her sister had died of consumption.
Some people in the village suggested that the attacks which came upon her brother were due to witchcraft, and at last the old spinster herself declared she was a witch and described her relations with the Devil in the minutest terms. She was convinced herself that she had bewitched her mother and sister and could injure people by a mere glance.
Anxious about the welfare of the villagers, she warned them to avoid her, and tried to drown herself during an attack of melancholy, but she was rescued and imprisoned.
The physician, a sensible and humane man, declared, judging from bodily symptoms, that she suffered from a disease which had confused her mind, but she could not be prevailed upon to submit to treatment. She insisted that she was as healthy as a fish and that the Devil could not be driven out by medicine. She said: “It is in vain to try to cure a witch. I deserve death and shall gladly die, but please do not burn me, have me dispatched with the sword. Everything will be well when I am dead.”
Thereupon the physician resorted to a stratagem. He persuaded her that her neck was sword-proof, and succeeded in inducing her to take medicine to make her neck soft again for decapitation. She was then treated according to the prescriptions of her physician, with bodily exercise and regular diet and sleep until her mind improved, and she forgot all about witchcraft and her sword-proof neck.”
History of the Devil (page 292), by Paul Carus, (1900), at sacred-texts.com
Ye gentlemen, don’t pass me thus!
Let not the chance neglected be!
Behold my wares attentively:
The stock is rare and various.
And yet, there’s nothing I’ve collected–
No shop, on earth, like this you’ll find!–
Which has not, once, sore hurt inflicted
Upon the world, and on mankind.
No dagger’s here, that set not blood to flowing;
No cup, that hath not once, within a healthy frame
Poured speedy death, in poison glowing:
No gems, that have not brought a maid to shame;
No sword, but severed ties for the unwary,
Or from behind struck down the adversary.
Faust , by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, at The Project Gutenberg EBook of Faust