Witchcraft in America was rampant during colonial era, the seventeenth century. During the occurrence of calamities such as epidemics, dry spells, or floods, the British colonialists laid their blame on the witchcraft.
Moreover, the colonial government blamed their poor governance on witches whom they believed intelligently or wittily challenged them. Consequently, the colonialists arrested the alleged witches and then put them on trials to substantiate their crimes before imprisoning, persecuting, or torching them to death. More than eighty percent of the witches were women while some even young girls who faced the law. In America, the fear and persecution of witches started to subside in nineteenth century and became extinct in the twentieth century. Although the colonial government blamed the occurrence of calamities on the witches, thus persecuting them, the main reason for the conflict was the contradiction in religious doctrines. Historically, the origin of witchcraft in early America finds it way to first settlers (Hicks 1988, 5).
Nevertheless, witchcraft practices are in line with paganism. According to historians, witchcraft is a cult, Satanism, or religion. The witches, especially the evil ones, had gothic and satanic symbol that usually put people in fear. They lived in caves with satanic paintings or in dark rooms. There were different categories of witches; the social witch, supernatural witch, sorcerer, and the night witch. The social witch had powers to curse or cast a spell on a neighbor or friend they had fallen out with while the sorcerer through an ‘evil eye’ had the ability to alter the health or mind of the body, which may lead to insanity. The night witch had the tendency to disturb people’s sleep by constantly appearing to them through dreams or visions especially at night.
The supernatural witches had powers to connect the society or human beings to their gods. They had the ability to communicate with gods and predict calamites, rainfall, and abundant harvest among others in the society. Therefore, due to their magical powers the witches had the ability to manipulate the community to enrich themselves or earn respect. In America History, generally there were two common divisions of witches applied either good/positive who majored in midwifery, healing, weather and calamities predictions.
Then there were the bad/negative witches who majorly cursed or cast spells on enemies and innocent people due to jealousness. Sometimes evil people in the community who wanted to get back at their enemies used witches to punish them. The good witch had the powers to counteract a spell cast by another witch. On the other hand, the evil witches had the powers to manipulate a person’s health, psychology, good luck, and financial wellbeing. For instance, they had powers to instill madness, sickness, poverty, or calamities in a person or a family. The practices of most witches were always without anybody’s consent or will and the ability to instill suffering or even kill people led to the public resentment of the witches.
Although some people were against the witchcraft, others approached them to solve their social problems and even seek magical powers to acquire wealth. Some people used the witches to kill their enemies or to deprive them their wealth. For identification witches had to be coerced to reveal themselves while others publicly confessed after facing accusations from their neighbors. The major method for performing witchcraft was through use of body parts like eyes, hands, mouth, or the whole body. The witches had to utter words or sing strange songs that were neither familiar to the common people nor to another witch. They had a collection of paraphernalia like swords, knives, herbs and mirrors, which they used to evoke their magic powers.
Witches kept Herbs and other concoctions in small pots while charms acted as a prescription for those who sought their intervention and protection. Others had the powers to communicate with spirits of the dead people especially when a calamity faced the community. The ability to communicate with the dead was the source of fear to most people in the community.
The paraphernalia in their house were the major identification of any witch and used as evidence when prosecuting them. Although witches were enemies to many in the early America, the ancient rulers or people sort their assistance to identify and punish anybody who broke the law. The most common was the identification of thieves from the community who had to pay a fine or face imprisonment. Incase a calamity like drought and disease befall the community, the supernatural witches intervened through seeking divine help. Furthermore, witches cured diseases and psychological problems like madness from the society. Positive witches were beneficial to the society because they gave solutions to complicated problems like theft and calamities. On the other hand, some witches not only instilled fear in the society but also led to suffering of the community. Through magical powers, the malicious witches killed people or animals in the community (Saada 1981, 15).
Consequently, the community stoned some of them to death, excommunicated others, and imprisoned others. Unfortunately, it was not easy to identify witches especially those who did not do their magical powers in open place. Furthermore, some especially the evil ones even had to hide their identity to protect themselves from the wrath of the community. Therefore, the malicious witches were unacceptable in the community while the non-evil magicians received respect and honor from the society. When Britain colonized Americans, they thought witchcraft was a constant bother to their governance. Thusly, in seventeenth century, the colonial government decided to fight against the principalities and practices of the witchcraft.
Due to the widespread witchcraft in North America especially in Salem and Massachusetts, the British colonialists embarked on carrying out trials to stop the vice. They blamed the calamites that befall their colonial territory to the witches. About one hundred and fifty suspected witches faced the trials in the courts. Consequently, approximately fourteen women and five men died through execution while about fifteen people faced imprisonment, the rest were set free due to lack of sufficient evidence against them. Through establishment of a number of courts in the colonial Massachusetts and Salem, the government publicly condemned witchcraft, which eventually reduced in eighteenth century. On the other hand, in Latin America, women used witchcraft as a way to overcome their male counterparts especially the whites. Through social and cultural gatherings, the Spanish women collaborated with African women to practice witchcraft (Behar 1987, 34). Moreover, witches in Mexico were from a specific cast, class, or ethnic group.
Thus, witchcraft not only led to persecution of many children, women, and few men but also led to the division of the society along social classes and ethnic groups. The fight against witchcraft in early America was a combination of efforts from the colonial government and the indigenous people. The colonial government fought the witches in America because of the contradiction in religion and not as governance as it claimed. Through hatred and suffering instilled by the witches, neighbors had to identify witches and force them to confess publicly their magical evil practices.
Incase he/she defied the orders, the public could stone him/her death. The most condemned witches were the night and bad witches who were a source of nuisance in the community. Therefore, by twentieth century, witchcraft was almost extinct in America. The few existing witches practiced their witchcraft in hideouts. Finally, there are still witches in modern America who inherited their practices from ancient witches. In summary, witchcraft is an ancient practice that existed in America. The origin of witches is not in any records though historians compare the practice with paganism.
Witches have very many categories but the commonly known are two, bad and good witches. From their names, bad witches practice evil magic, which is contrary to the good witches. Through incarnations, utterances, song and communication with the spirits, the witches could solve a problem in the community or cast a spell on the community. Although the community sought help from the witches, the ability of some of them to kill led to their persecution. During the colonial period, the British fought witchcraft killing most of them. Most people especially Christians disliked the witches due to the contradiction of their practices with Christianity. Finally, before colonization in early America, witches existed freely in the society but all that changed immediately after colonization.
Behar, Ruth. 1987. Sex and Sin, Witchcraft and the Devil in Late-Colonial Mexico. American Ethnologist 14, no.1 (November/December): 34-35.
Hicks, Brad J. 1988. Witchcraft in America. News Magazine (March): 4-7. Saada, Jeanne F. 1981. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage.
London: Cambridge University Press.