What is Witchcraft? Taking a Closer Look at the History of Witchcraft

November 11, 2021

          Since we recently celebrated Halloween, I thought I would share a short introduction to the history of witchcraft. When we talk about witchcraft, the first things that come to mind are movies and T.V. shows that depict witchcraft, Halloween decorations and costumes, the Salem Witch Trials, et. cetera. It is important to acknowledge that witchcraft history can be found around the world not just in Europe and Colonial New England. Witchcraft looks different for each culture, and therefore not one definition describes what is witchcraft. There are many definitions of witchcraft and witches used by historians in the past and now. Ronald Hutton in his book The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present shared a number of definitions past historians have shared. For instance, Hutton stated that a witch is “…any person who uses magic (although those who employ it for beneficial purposes are often popularly distinguished as ‘good’ or ‘white’ witches); or as the practitioner of a particular kind of nature-based Pagan religion…”. He wrote this book as a contribution towards the understanding of the beliefs concerning witchcraft, and the resulting notorious trials of alleged witches, in early modern Europe. Hutton’s The Witch also described witchcraft history found outside of the United States and Europe. I will go into more depth about witchcraft history in future blog posts, and if there is something you would like to know more about, please let me know. In the meantime, I will introduce the history of witchcraft on Long Island.

While one of the most well-known witchcraft cases took place in Salem, Massachusetts, there have been witch trials in New York and even one that was decades before the Salem Witch Trials. In 1658, a woman named Elizabeth “Goody” Garlick in East Hampton, New York was accused of witchcraft but was spared the same fate accused people faced in Salem. After the East Hampton magistrates collected the evidence, they decided to refer the case to the higher courts in Hartford, Connecticut (Long Island was four years shy from becoming a part of the Connecticut colony at the time; it was not until 1664 when it became a part of New York colony). While witchcraft was a capital offense at the time, John Winthrop, Jr.’s court rendered a non-guilty verdict for Goody Garlick. John Winthrop, Jr., the son of the co-founder of the Massachusetts Bay colony, was made the Governor of the Hartford colony and was one of the few people that were skeptical of magic particularly common people having the capabilities to practice magic; part of his skepticism was inspired by his background as a scholar whose research pursued finding explanations for magical forces influencing the world around them. In addition to learning about witchcraft in New York, I also previously did some research on modern witchcraft history and the pagan origins of Halloween.

Some witches and pagans (or Neo-Pagans) celebrate Samhain (“saah-win”), an ancient Gaelic festival that marks the time of year when seasons change, and many believe the boundary between the world and the world of the dead is at its thinnest. Samhain is known to be Halloween’s earliest root.  Early celebrations of Samhain involved a lot of ritualistic ceremonies to connect to spirits including celebrating in costumes (using animal skins) as a disguise themselves against ghosts, special feasts, built bonfires and made lanterns by hollowing out gourds. To learn more about the history of Halloween, I wrote about Halloween’s origins in the post “The History of Halloween and How Museums Celebrate” and I have included it in the links section below.

I included more links about witchcraft on Long Island if you would like to read more about this part of history. If you want to read more blog posts about witchcraft history, please let me know.

Links:

The History of Halloween and How Museums Celebrate

Hutton, Ronald. The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.

https://history.hanover.edu/texts/nyhah.html

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/before-salem-there-was-the-not-so-wicked-witch-of-the-hamptons-95603019/

http://bklyn-genealogy-info.stevemorse.org/LI/WitchesofLongIsland.html

https://bronx.news12.com/beyond-the-broomstick-witches-on-long-island-36714763

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