Always remember - history is written by the winners.
Here's a short documentary about the history of witches
What is a witch? And who gets falsely accused of being one, or whatever we've swapped in as the modern equivalent? It depends on whether we're talking about the newly fashionable holistic healers and occultist dabblers or about our moral scapegoats. These days a (reclaimed) witch can be a cute blue haired girl on Instagram posting pictures of her crystals and her motivational spells. Or she can be a pretty spell caster writing an essay for a beauty magazine. And sometimes she can be a costumed middle-aged woman who just likes to dance in parades.
In medieval Europe around 80% of people accused of being witches were women. In those pre-Victorian days, women were thought to be the morally weaker, more sexually voracious sex - and as they got older and found fewer sexual partners, they became more susceptible to being seduced by the devil. Women branded witches tended to be on the older, poorer side and more autonomous and outspoken. Often they were midwives, who could be seen rushing around under cover of night to deliver babies, whose occasional deaths were blamed on them. They were cooks and healers with knowledge of medicinal herbs, which they could turn into healing remedies or harmful poisons. Libidinous spinsters and widows were threatening enough to the moral order, and God help them if they had opinions. She's a witch!
Salem witch trials - the first big American witch hunt, which took place in 1692 - were distinctly American in several ways. First, they took place in Salem Village - a very small, agrarian community addled by economic anxiety. Furthermore, the Puritans were misogynists. Women were expected to be silent, submissive and confined to the home. They were thought to be by nature more likely to enlist in the devil's service than a man was.
One American colonist, Anne Hutchinson (founder of Portsmouth, Rhode Island), who resided in Boston 56 years before the events at Salem, had evolved ideas about the rights of women, was openly critical of the church, and held Bible studies in her home that were popular with other women. Hutchinson was among those brought to trial, condemned and banned from the Massachusetts Colony. She was, in a sense, lucky: many others who faced similar censure during the Salem witch trials were sentenced to death. And, as ever, the motivation for the persecution of truth seems to lie at the end of a trail of money.
As the accusations of 1692 began, they mostly consisted of West Salem Villagers accusing East Salem Villagers. Those worried about protecting themselves from witches started filling the church, which meant the minister made more money. Most accusers were young girls, most of the accused were older women, and most witnesses at the trial were married. The trials made money for the judge, the lawyer, and even the local baker who provided food for those locked up awaiting trial. An American industry was born.
The final tally of the Salem witch trials is astounding. In addition to 20 innocent people losing their lives, at least 140 were falsely imprisoned, and countless others faced debilitating rumors. Once someone was accused of witchcraft, even after the shadow lifted, often meant disaster. Those eventually freed from prison faced extreme economic suffering as a result of the accusations. Many had been absent from their homes for months. Others, sent to prison, received staggering bills. In the 17th century prisons charged prisoners for food and shelter, even if the charges were later dropped. For many living hand-to-mouth, such debts could prove crippling, especially because under Massachusetts law, prisoners were not to be released from jail until their fines were paid. One victim of this debtors' system was Lydia Dustin, who died in prison in March 1693 despite being acquitted the month before.
The meaning of the terms "witch" and "witch hunt" have evolved to fit the modern age, now understood to be shorthand for a misguided and unjustified search for perpetrators of some wrong against society. Think back to American Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Although McCarthy's name became synonymous with the hunt for Communist infiltrators, the witch hunt preceded and extended beyond his limited career. The term is still being used today. But as witches in movies and television evolve from one-dimensional stereotypes to multifaceted characters, there are portrayals that are helping to raise onscreen witches to new heights. Think of films like Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, Charmed, A discovery of Witches and Harry Potter. Progress is being made and the stigma of being a witch is starting to lift.
So what about modern witchcraft? Forget the dusty stereotypes: today's magical practitioners are vibrant and diverse, embracing a nature-centered spirituality that evolves and grows with each new generation of witches. Witchcraft can't be defined precisely, since different cultures continue to have different practices that fall under the moniker. Both modern Wicca and witchcraft celebrate individuality, allowing seemingly boundless freedom for interpretation and practice. Both Wiccans and witches have the option of cultivating a solitary practice or joining a coven. Society is always evolving, things are changing, and many witches are coming out of the closet, beginning to celebrate feasts and holy days in public, in fun and creative ways. Some of them even dance down the middle of the street, complete with music and costumes. Just remember, there are witches all around you. One of them may even be you. Embrace your magick!