In anthropology, witchcraft is typically defined as a belief in the perpetration of harm to others through mystical means. When I first started reading about this, that actually surprised me. Modern depictions of witchcraft in television shows frequent depict a combination of spellcraft and X-Men-like magical powers. But “witchcraft” is a broad term that can encapsulate spellcraft, sorcery, and the like under one umbrella.
Some form of witchcraft has been found in almost every culture throughout history and it’s still practiced in many places. Anthropologists have less focused on the reality of witchcraft than on the underlying psychological use of the practice.
The primary idea is that witchcraft serves a few purpose:
- provides a scapegoat for why a negative event occurs and a possible recourse to improve the circumstances
- codifies the exclusion of outcasts–such as people with physical disfigurements who are misunderstood by their community
- codify the punishment of outcasts outside of a legal system (example: the Salem Witch Trials, in which some women were accused and executed for simply breaking social norms)
Because the practices of witchcraft are so varied and all put under this one term (with a myriad of sub-terms), the conversation around witchcraft is still very open. Non-academic conversations are also redefining “witchcraft.” Modern American witches, typically Wiccans, follow a peaceful tradition that teaches against harming others, but they still call their craft “witchcraft” (ha! I knew all that teenage rebellion reading would come in handy someday!).
In YA fantasy, “witch” has come more and more to mean someone with an innate power–but that may be because I just finished Truthwitch last week that I’m thinking about it. In fact, in the U.S., the term “witch” is so commonly affiliated with women that we have a whole other term typically applied to male witches–warlocks. The terminology is varied across stories because of the different gender roles assigned and whether or not the character good and evil (in some series, warlocks are evil witches, in others they’re male witches). I think the tie-in here is to be familiar with the truest meaning of the terminology you’re using and not the latest fad.
What are some books you’ve read with witchcraft in them? The Dresden Files are still some of my favorite witchcraft-driven books!