Halloween Shines Light on Witchcraft Today

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2002
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake:
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble;
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

From William Shakespeare's
Macbeth Act IV, Scene I

In William Shakespeare's England, the practice of witchcraft was already ancient. The celebration of nature—the worship of earth, sky, and the changing seasons—is humankind's oldest faith.

In the modern world witchcraft can seem outdated, a taboo practice with little relevance in a society of science. That is, until Halloween arrives.

Filmmakers for the National Geographic Channel set out to find modern witches for Taboo: Witchcraft, which airs Monday, October 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

There is no question that witchcraft exists. The rites, probably best known in the United States in regard to a non-traditional religion known as Wicca, are practiced in societies all around the world. Many objects associated with witchcraft are commercially available; charms and spells are invoked for both good and ill.

For believers, witchcraft is clearly as relevant as ever before. Yet for the millions of non-believers, the effectiveness of magic and its alleged powers is the bottom line—does it really work?

From Magic or the Mind?

Alan Fiske, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, says the power of witchcraft is rooted in the minds of believers.

"Human physiology is not independent of human psychology," he says. "We know that people who believe that they have been cursed by some powerful magicians and sorcerers sometimes do die from the fear, and people who believe that somebody has worked black magic on them sometimes do get sick. Because they believe that, they will get sick."

Similarly, those who believe in the healing power of witchcraft could feel their physical health has improved as a result of "white magic."

Fiske says witchcraft is popular in part because it offers a way for people to explain suffering and misfortune in their lives. "Everybody would like to understand the world a little better than they really can," he says, "and witchcraft and magic beliefs can make you believe that the world is controllable and understandable in a way that it is not for people who don't believe."

Modern witches such as Denise Zimmermann have a much different and more straightforward explanation for the appeal of witchcraft: "Magic works—we use it all the time" says Zimmermann of Baltimore, Maryland, the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca.

In witchcraft, as in some more traditional religions, beliefs center on a vision of harmony in the natural world. Zimmerman and other self-proclaimed witches believe that the deity is in everything, and that all living beings in turn are part of the deity.

"We have a deep connection to the earth energy," says Zimmermann. "No one animal or species is any more important than any other. The deity is in everything, so you have to honor everything."

Explaining the source of magic's power, she says: "There is an existing energy that through the use of the deity we can manipulate."

Yet, she is quick to add, magic doesn't exist in good and evil forms.

"Magic itself is not black or white—it's just energy," she says. "It's the people who use it who decide whether to use it for good or for negative purposes. You've got good people and bad people in any religion. There is good and bad in the world, and the whole lesson in life is to keep everything in balance. That's what we try to do."

In many cultures and religions, life is viewed as a constant struggle between good and evil.

Many Africans think witchcraft is inextricably linked with this pursuit of balance. They believe that unacknowledged witches live among them and can exert power unconsciously, even in their sleep. As a result, suspected witches often become scapegoats for misfortune and other problems such as failed crops or village feuds. In such cases, a traveling "witch cleanser" may be summoned to expose a local witch and restore harmony to the community.

Witches Among Us

It's been a long time since a belief in witches was widespread in Europe and the Americas. For centuries, alleged witches were persecuted because they were seen as collaborating with Satan. Thousands were put on trial, as in the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and many were burned at the stake.

Today in the United States and the United Kingdom, witches are followers of a religion known as Wicca. While acceptance is growing, followers of the practice generally adopt a low profile because of public skepticism.

"You've probably been around witches and not even realized it—we're just average everyday people," says Zimmermann. "We're in all walks of life: lawyers, doctors, nurses."

Many witches today are nurses "because there is a lot of healing in Wicca, dating from its early days," she adds. "The ancient witches were the herb-gatherers, midwives, and healers of their villages."

Zimmermann says her coven, or group of witches, embraces some of these ancient roles in modern ways but don't engage in practices that are often unfairly associated with witches, such as sacrifices and Satan worship. "We do healing circles," she says. "We do fund-raisers for homeless animals, or go camping and clean and care for the forest."

They also strive to reconnect with the natural world, which Zimmermann says draws many people to Wicca. "We've gotten away from nature so much," she says. "That's an inner need. We need that connection, and when we lose it we lose a sense of who we are."

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