The origins or history or witches is very much dependent on the researchers definition of just what a witch is. That might seem absurd, everyone knows what a witch is, most dictionaries define one as “a woman thought to have magic powers, especially evil ones, popularly depicted as wearing a black cloak and pointed hat and flying on a broomstick.” (See the clip art image on the left)
However, if you ask an individual that identifies as a witch or several, you are likely to get more definitions than you ever imagined existed. Thus, with so many modern ideas and concepts of a witch, it is easy to see how a researcher’s journey might actually wander ‘off-course’ in the search for the “fist witch” or the “origin of the witch.” Let us explore some of the journeys of academic witch-hunters.
In modern translations of The Bible, in English, Exodus mentions witches; Ch. 22:18 “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” (KJV) There are other English versions that use the word sorceress, however, there is scholarly debate about the original word and its actual meaning during the time of the writings. Mekhashepha is the original Hebrew word used in Exodus. What does it mean? More importantly, what did it mean to the Hebrews of the day.
Modern Hebrew does define mekhashepha as witch, however, the late Merrill F. Unger, in his book “Biblical Demonology”, identifies the root of the word, kashaph, as “mutterings”, specifying that it referenced witches whom practiced magic using incantations and mutterings. A different opinion can be found with Kenneth Kitchen, of the University of Liverpool, suggesting the root means “to cut” and thus refers to herbalists.
Jewish sages in the 3rd century BCE, in their translations used the Greek word pharmakia, which is considered by some scholars to refer to herbalists and to others such as Reginal Scott, author of “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”, to mean “poisoner”. There does seem to be an original view that magic or witchcraft was practiced in all times, but the oldest bans, such as in The Code of Hammurabi, referred to those practitioners that used their “magic” for evil or harm, declaring a death sentence for anyone who used magic to harm another, without condemning those who cause no harm.
There seems to be a general consensus that those we label as witches in history, did not get a blanket judgment of being evil and “doing the Devil’s work” until the Christian era. One thing that most people of the modern era seem to take for granted is the existence of the Devil. The Devil is not an across the board creature of all beliefs and cultures. The Devil is a Christian concept, just like Hell. The Jews do not believe in the Devil and their The Satan is not just another name for The Devil. In their beliefs The Satan (sah-tahn) is an angel or “son of God” and no, he is not a “fallen angel” or rejected son, he is in fact part of the “justice system” of Heaven or God, and his role is along the lines of prosecutor or district attorney. Thus, for our point in the story, witches came before the Devil and not with or after in the history of mankind.
Before the Church deemed all witches to be evil, historic view seems to suggest that most “witches” were actually healers and or “wise women”. There are some who claim that Lilith, the first wife of Adam was a demon and the first witch and others that liken any of the “bad” goddesses or deities of ancient times to being the original witches, such as Medusa and Isis. This search for the first witch in some preconceived demonic female is more a reflection of personal belief of the researcher than in factual historic evidence.
The most destructive blow to the existence of people, mostly women that were different or social outcasts, was the publication of “Malleus Maleficarum” (The Hammer of Witches), this work penned by German Dominicans in 1486 condemned the most vulnerable and the most independent to a life of fear. Worse, though, for 80,000 poor souls it led to their imprisonment, torture and death for nothing more than fear driven ignorance supported by The Church and The Pope.
For more than a century “Malleus Maleficarum” sold more copies than any other book, except The Bible and led to witch hunt mania from Europe to the American colonies. What transpired over the course of the 16th and into the 17th century was nothing short of social genocide and a supposed “moral cleansing” of the villages and towns that wanted someone to blame and punish for just dumb bad luck and plain misfortune.
- Haaretz — https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/thou-shalt-not-suffer-a-witch-to-live-a-murderous-mistranslation-1.5443682
- King James Version The Holy Bible (public domain)
- BibleHub — https://biblehub.com/exodus/22-18.htm
- Jew in the City – Orthodox Unexpected — https://jewinthecity.com/2017/10/what-is-the-jewish-view-of-the-devil/
- History Channel — https://www.history.com/topics/folklore/history-of-witches
- Time — https://time.com/3398176/salem-witch-trials/