The History of
Witchcraft and Magic
An historical overview
of how modern-day magic evolved from the beliefs and customs of the
Celts and other ancient, Indo-European peoples.
The roots of magic come from the Celts, a people living between 700 BC
and 100 AD. Believed to be descendants of Indo-Europeans, the Celts
were a brilliant and dynamic people . gifted artists, musicians,
storytellers, metalworkers, expert farmers and fierce
were much feared by their adversaries, the Romans, who eventually
adopted a number of their customs and traditions.
The Celts were a deeply spiritual people, who worshiped both a god and
goddess. Their religion was pantheistic, meaning they worshiped many
aspects of the "One Creative Life Source" and honored the presence of
the "Divine Creator" in all of nature. Like many tribes the world over,
they believed in reincarnation. After death, they went to the
Summerland for rest and renewal while awaiting rebirth.
The months of the Celtic year were named after trees. The Celtic new
year began at Samhain, which means "summers end," and was the final
harvest of the year. This was also their "Festival of the Dead," where
they honored their ancestors and deceased loved ones. Many contemporary
Halloween customs come from Samhain.
Next on the wheel of the Celtic year was the Winter Solstice,
celebrating the annual rebirth of the Sun. Our Christmas customs today
are similar to this ancient celebration. Around the beginning of
February came Imbolg, a time when domesticated animals began to give
birth. The Spring Equinox and Beltaine, sometimes called "May Day,"
were fertility festivals. The Summer Solstice, known as Lughnassa,
celebrated the glory of the Sun and the powers of nature. Lughnassa,
the Fall Equinox, and Samhain, were considered as Celtic harvest
The "Druids" were the priests of the Celtic religion. They remained in
power through the fourth century AD, three centuries after the Celts'
defeat at the hands of the Romans. The Druids were priests, teachers,
judges, astrologers, healers and bards. They became indispensable to
the political leaders, giving them considerable power and influence.
They were peacemakers, and were able to pass from one warring tribe to
another unharmed. It took twenty years of intense study to become a
Translated, the word Druid means "knowing the oak tree." Trees, the oak
in particular, were held sacred by the Celts. Mistletoe, which grows as
a parasite on oak trees, was a powerful herb used in their ceremonies
and for healing. Mistletoe was ritually harvested at the Summer
Solstice by cutting it with a golden sickle and catching it with a
white cloth while never letting it fall to the ground.
The religious beliefs and practices of the Celts grew into what later
became known as Paganism, not to be confused with the term
Neo-Paganism, which is beyond the scope of this writing. The word Pagan
is derived from the Latin word Paganus, meaning "country dweller." This
outgrowth was consistent with the Celts' love for the land and their
holding such things as the oak tree and mistletoe sacred.
Paganistic beliefs and rituals blended with those of other
Indo-European descended groups, and over several centuries spawned such
practices as concocting potions and ointments, casting spells, and
performing works of magic. These practices, along with many of the
nature-based beliefs held by the Celts and other groups, became
collectively known as witchcraft.
The term witch, which means to "twist or bend," has its origin in the
ancient, Anglo-Saxon word "wicca," which is derived from the word
"wicce," which means "wise." Witch is also related to the German word,
"weihen," which means "to consecrate or bless." Some say that the
origins of the witch date back thousands of years, to the days when the
goddess was worshiped and humanity had great reverence for the powers
of nature and for women as creators of new life. In the "New Age"
philosophy, this relates to the concept of "Gaia," or "Mother Earth,"
which views planet earth as essentially a living being.
Prior to the 14th century, witchcraft came to mean a collection of
beliefs and practices including healing through spells, mixing
ointments or concoctions, dabbling in the supernatural, divining or
forecasting the future, and engaging in clairvoyance. Groups holding to
other beliefs and rituals often branded witchcraft as "demon-worship."
After North America was discovered and Europeans began migrating to the
new land, witchcraft came into practice by some of the early, colonial
settlers. Since it had previously been branded as "demon-worship,"
witchcraft was forbidden throughout the North American colonies.
Despite this decree by the powers of the day, some colonists secretly
practiced witchcraft knowing they would be hanged or burned if caught.
It has been said that certain rituals performed by early-American
witches helped shield their settlements from attacks by Native
Magic can effect many outcomes, some good and some evil, depending on
the type of magic and the intentions of the practitioner. The more
well-known types of magic are denoted by colors.
"Black magic" is performed with the intention of harming another being,
either as a means of building the practitioner's power or as the goal
itself. The underlying ideology upon which black magic is based states
that the practitioner and his or her pursuit of knowledge and/or
physical well-being, are more important than other concerns,
theological or ethical. "Green magic" involves the practitioner's
attuning himself or herself to nature and the world around him or her.
"White magic" is where the practitioner attunes himself or herself to
the needs of human society and attempts to meet those needs. This is a
form of "personal betterment" magic, and does not entail harming other
"Grey magic" is magic that is neither green, nor black, nor white, and
which usually replaces the absolute stand of these realms with an
ethical code that is particular to the practitioner. It is a type of
magic all its own, and may be used for many different purposes. "Folk
magic" is an eclectic collection of herbalism, faith healing, curses
and hexes, candle magic, and other workings that has thrived in rural
areas for centuries. There is also the term, "hedge wizard," which
refers to an individual who attempts to practice magic with little or
no formal training.
Return to Paganism