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The malevolent exercise of supposed supernatural powers, especially by women, attributed to a connection with the devil or evil spirits. The witch's male counterpart is wizard, sorcerer, or warlock. There are accounts of witchcraft in ancient Greek and Roman texts, for example Medea, who uses sorcery to help Jason win the Golden Fleece. In the Old Testament King Saul consults the Witch of Endor. In the early Middle Ages popular superstition began to associate witchcraft with demonic possession and the rejection of God. By the late 13th century the Inquisition dealt with cases of witchcraft involving heresy, and secular courts, especially in Germany, punished these supposed crimes with characteristic cruelty. Mass persecutions began to take place in the 15th century, and the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) in 1487, describing witches' sabbaths, night‐flying, intercourse with the devil, transformation into animals, and malicious spells cast on men and cattle, greatly increased superstition and persecution. Witches were popularly depicted with a black cat (the ‘familiar’) and a broomstick. The 16th‐century Reformers further contributed to the persecution of witches, as did the unrest stirred up by the religious wars. The last trials for witchcraft in England were in 1712, and on the Continent (in Prussia) in 1793. In America the belief in witchcraft was rife but the Salem witch trials (1692) caused a general revulsion. In the 17th century better education led to rejection of belief in witchcraft, but popular superstition survived much longer. In the 20th century, in Europe and the USA, a new kind of witchcraft, claiming to be a revival of pre‐Christian pagan religion, has been practised by a small number of adherents and has been associated with allegations of animal sacrifice and child sexual abuse.

Subjects: History

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