Ancient Practices of Witchcraft

A belief in magic practices through the agency of spirits and demons is universal, found in all cultures, and together with references to witchcraft, was practised by men and women going back to the beginnings of history. Egyptian records tell of soothsayers deriving their powers from devils. The Old Testament speaks of a male sorcerer in the Pharaoh’s court,64 in the court of the king of Babylon,65 and amongst the Jewish people.66 Although the code of the Babylonian king, Hammurabi, prohibited witchcraft, the practice continued to flourish amongst Babylonians, Chaldeans, and Egyptians millennia before our current era. The scriptures acknowledge the existence and power of witches. This is confirmed in Deuteronomy, where it is written: ‘There shall not be found among you any one that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer, for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord’.67 The biblical command: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’,68 was a main justification for the terrible witch persecutions of later times.

Contrary to popular opinion, ancient witchcraft consisted primarily of medium-like skills in evoking spirits such as the Old Testament witch of Endor whom Saul consulted in defiance of his own edict: ‘Then said Saul unto his servants: Seek me a woman that has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her and enquire of her. And his servants said unto him: Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor’. The witch of Endor subsequently calls up Samuel’s spirit at Saul’s request: ‘Then said the woman: Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said: Bring me up Samuel’.69

Besides attributing mediumistic skills to witches, the Old Testament sometimes links sexual immorality to witchcraft. With reference to Jezebel, the king of Sidon’s daughter, we are told: ‘...the whoredoms of your mother Jezebel and her witchcraft are so many’.70 A similar connection, one persisting in Europe during the Middle Ages when women accused of witchcraft were thought to have caused miscarriages and immoral behaviour, can be deduced from the prophet Nahum’s words when he compares Nineveh to ‘the well-favoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts....’.71 

In the New Testament, the term ‘witchcraft’ is commonly equated with the divination practices of the Romans: ‘O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye not obey the truth,72 [...]’. Similar references are also found in the Acts of the Apostles and Galatians.73 

Witches, magicians, soothsayers, and necromancers also figured prominently in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. However, it is important to note that in all the ancient cultures, witchcraft referred mainly to divination and magic, and there is no mention of any woman killed for the crime of witchcraft. It was not until the Middle Ages,74 through the powerful influence of Christianity, that the concept arose of witches receiving their powers from Satan. Medieval witchcraft thus became defined as using supernatural powers derived from dealing with the devil and evil spirits. The witch was considered able to perform her antisocial magic acts only through the co-operation of these dark forces.


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