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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

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witchcraft In Reginald Scot's book The Discouerie of Witchcraft (1584) appears one of the earliest descriptions:

      Witchcraft is in troth a cosening [deceiving] Art, wherein the Name of God is abused, prophaned, and blasphemed, and his power attributed to a vile creature. In estimation of the vulgar people, it is a supernatural work, contrived between a corporeal old Woman and a spiritual Divel [Devil]. The manner thereof is so secret, mystical, and strange, that to this day there hath never been any credible witness thereof. It is incomprehensible to the wise, learned or faithful, a probable matter to children, fools, melanchollick persons and Papists.

      In modern times, witchcraft has been construed as a naturalistic religion of sorts, attributing spirits of all sorts to trees, rocks, clouds, and almost all “natural” objects. Incantations are used to try to bring about desired events, and in general it is a harmless distraction for otherwise idle persons to embrace.
      The reputation for naked orgies, sacrifices, and other often odious practices that the public often attributes to witches is undeserved. Those habits are more properly assigned to followers of Satanism.
      St. Thomas Aquinas, who accepted every myth of evil, lent his validation to witchcraft. It is interesting to note that the first woman ever burned alive for accusations of having intercourse with a devil died the year after Aquinas did (1274).
      Penalties for practicing witchcraft have varied greatly over the ages. In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, witches and magicians were prosecuted severely, and Plato approved punishment for the practice of magic of all kinds. The Romans set up special councils to punish witches, and in 139 B.C. all sorcerers were commanded to leave Italy within ten days. The Emperor Augustus ordered all books on magic to be burned publicly, and Tiberius again ordered witches exiled. Subsequent rulers (Constantius, Valentinian I, Valens) decreed death for witchcraft.
      However, certain rulers such as Caracalla, Julian the Apostate, and Alexander Severus (third century A.D.) consulted and employed witches.
      Henry VIII of England, in 1542, passed a law against “conjurations and witchcrafts and sorcery and enchantments.” In 1563, Elizabeth I forbade witchcraft and when James I succeeded her to the throne he was very severe in his condemnation and pursuit of witches. His Act of 1604 put to death some seventy thousand accused witches, according to one estimate, a grossly inaccurate figure. An even stronger act was passed in 1649.
      In 1692, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, began hunting down witches and the absurdity took root in America.
      One account says that the last witch executed in England was Alice Molland, condemned in 1685 for killing three persons with spells. However, two women were hanged at Northampton in 1705 and five more in 1712, and the death penalty for witchcraft was in effect until 1736. The prohibition of witchcraft in England continued up to 1951. The last known execution in Scotland for witchcraft took place in 1722, and a woman was burned as a witch in Germany, at Würtzburg, in June 1749.
      See also conjuring, Reginald Scot, and Johannes Weyer.

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