A guide to writing witchcraft
What is witchcraft? Chances are that answer varies depending on who you talk to. Some will reference Salem, others Wicca, some Harry Potter, and others something entirely different. Whatever the roots, witches and the craft come up quiet often in storytelling be they a piece of a larger supernatural universe or the focal point if your story. So here is some information and helpful resources to help you if you plan to incorporate witches of any kind into your writing.
For starters, know your witches. Think about their roots. Are these witches that derive from Salem? Are they are practicing Wiccans?
For the sake of talking, we’ll divide witches into some different groups based on what the normally comes to mind when we discuss witchcraft:
- Halloween witches: This is your green hag, wart chinned, children eating witch. The witches of hocus pocus, stirring cauldrons or the likes of that. These are the witches we see in Shakespeare’s MacBeth or The Wizard of OZ.
- Popularized witches: These are the witches of movies and television. Most commonly groups of women, and sometimes with roots from Wicca or the like but not entirely realistic. Think Charmed, or the Secret Circle, or Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
- Historical witches: These are your witches of Salem. They’re generally woman from the dark place in history during which people were persecuted if it was considered they were witches. They were commonly healers and medicine women around the town as well as some falsely accused for other reasons.
- Practicing witches: These are the people who worship the Wiccan religion, practice which craft in real life, also known as Pagans. They believe in more nature based witchcraft and not like the hollywood magic that most of us are used to seeing. These are essentially, the real life witches.
These are just very broad groups but it’s what we’re going to use for the sake of talking. Most commonly, at least in writing, you’ll see practicing witches or popularized witches so that’s probably what we’re going to talk the most about.
But in case you’re going to use historical witches, here’s a quick overview of things to take into consideration if you’re going to include them in your writing:
The Salem Witch Trials are where most historical witch stories will come from. They were a series of persecutions that took place for about a year between 1692 and 1693. During this time, many women in Salem Colony and the surrounding areas were accused of witchcraft and brought before a court. Most of these trials took place in the following locations:
- Salem Village (now Danvers Massachusetts)
- Salem Town
The times are classified by a feeling of mass hysteria and are often used as a figure of speech reference when someone is being accused of something they didn’t do. The accusations were centered most around the bible, with the court assuming that these women who were “witches” were enacting crimes against God in their practice and thus had to be put to death.
The following is the list of the 12 persons who were executed for witchcraft in New England before 1692, when 24 other persons were executed at Salem, whose names are well known. It is possible that the list is not complete ; but I have included all of which I have any knowledge, and with such details as to names and dates as could be ascertained : — 1647, — “Woman of Windsor,” Connecticut (name unknown)[later identified as Alice Young], at Hartford. 1648, — Margaret Jones, of Charlestown, at Boston. 1648,— Mary Johnson, at Hartford. 1650? — Henry Lake’s wife, of Dorchester. 1650?—Mrs. Kendall, of Cambridge. 1651, — Mary Parsons, of Springfield, at Boston. 1651, — Goodwife Bassett, at Fairfield, Conn. 1653,—Goodwife Knap, at Hartford. 1656, — Ann Hibbins, at Boston. 1662, — Goodman Greensmith, at Hartford. 1662,— Goodwife Greensmith, at Hartford. 1688,— Goody Glover, at Boston.”[Clarence F. Jewett, The Memorial History of Boston: Including Suffolk County, Massachusetts. 1630–1880(Ticknor and Company, 1881) pages 133–137]
Salem Witch Trials FAQs: (From the Salem Witch Museum website)
- How was the practice of witchcraft viewed in 17th century New England?: Under British law, the basis for Massachusetts Bay Colony legal structure in the 17th century, those who were accused of consorting with the devil were considered felons, having committed a crime against their government. The punishment for such a crime was hanging.
- What was the difference between the “afflicted” and the “accused”? The “afflicted” were those supposedly “possessed” and “tormented”; it was they who accused or “cried out” the names of those who were supposedly possessing them.
- What caused the girls’ behavior: This is a complex question. There are many theories to explain the “fits” of the young girls who accused so many of practicing witchcraft. Among the theories are adolescent hysteria and ergot poisoning; however, there is no definite answer.
- What role did Tituba play in the Salem witch trials: Tituba, an Arawak or Carib Indian from Barbados, was Reverend Samuel Parris’ slave. Her documented role in the witch trials includes arrest and confession of witchcraft on March 1, 1692. Her influence on the afflicted girls’ behavior is unclear.
- Were only women accused of practicing witchcraft: Actually, men were accused as well. Five men were convicted and hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for refusing to cooperate with the court.
- How long did the witch trials era last: The witch trials era lasted less than a year. The first arrests were made on March 1, 1692 and the final hanging day was September 22, 1692. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved in October of 1692.
- What was the aftermath of the trials: Jurors and magistrates apologized; restitution was made to the victims’ families and a Day of Fasting and Remembrance was instituted. Little is known of the lives of the afflicted girls. Tituba is believed to have been sold and taken out of the Salem Village area. The 300th anniversary of the trials served as an opportunity to bring a sense of reconciliation and an appreciation of the lessons of that time.
- What are contemporary perceptions of witchcraft: It is widely understood that witchcraft is a pantheistic religion that includes reverence for nature, belief in the rights of others and pride in one’s own spirituality. Practitioners of witchcraft focus on the good and positive in life and in the spirit and entirely reject any connection with the devil. Their beliefs go back to ancient times, long before the advent of Christianity; therefore no ties exist between them and the Christian embodiment of evil. Witchcraft has been confused in the popular mind with pointy black hats, green faces and broomsticks. This is a misrepresentation that witches are anxious to dispel.
For further reference here are some other things to read:
As far as writing the trials: If you’re going to write a story involving the trials, keep in mind that your history should be as accurate as possible. It’s not a far stretch to use fictional characters in surrounding areas who were accused of witchcraft for the sake of fiction because such a thing was common, but if you’re writing right in Salem Village or Salem Town, be sure to make sure your history is accurate. There isn’t much information on the time since it was so short, and doing some thorough research won’t be all too difficult. Remember that the irony of the witch trials centers around the fact that most all of these women were not actually practicing witches, simply ordinary women accused as such.
Practicing witches: This bit I’m not going to say too much about, because these are real people who follow the Wicca religion. These are the witches of the real world, where most of your backstory for the popularized witches come from. One of the most useful articles I found in my own research is this simple article called “what is wicca" I find that to be very thorough and informative. There are also all different kinds of practicing witches outside of Wicca, this includes tribal religions, celtic religions, and other different kinds. Keep in mind that Wicca is not the only one, however like Wicca, most practicing religions like that are nature based. Here is a great list of the different types of Practicing Witches and religions (x)
Now let’s talk about popularized witches and most importantly how to include them in your writing. Because these are the witches of fiction, and the real witches of now and of history are important to that. So here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re going to create some witches of your own:
- Do they have roots in history?
- Do they have religious based roots (such as Wicca)
- Do they posses actual magical powers
- What sorts of things to their powers draw on (ie; spiritual, personal abilities, the elements)
- Are there any special totems your witches use? (Think about talismans, athame, amulets, symbols, pendants and charms)
Here are some symbols to use as reference points but there are many more.
Remember that you’re creating your own species so there really are no rules. Be as creative or as close to reality as you want. In my own writing, my witches are wicca based however they’re definitely popularized witches, much like those of the television show “Charmed.”
Another think that’s important is to think about the limit of your species’s power. What can they do? How powerful are they? You’re writing stories and the most important part of stories is conflict. One of the best ways to bring about conflict is to make sure your characters’ power is limited. Set aside limits right from the get go. Limits can range from how far their powers actually go, to repercussions if they take their power too far. In Charmed, the witches are only allowed to use their power for the greater good. In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, when Willow pushed her powers too far she became a dark witch and was nearly consumed. Giving your characters limits to how far their powers can go can help you to provide great storylines for them in the future.
Also speaking about conflict, consider, does your species have any enemies? Are their other covens that they rival? Are their dark witches that are trying to hurt them? Demons? Hunters? Non believers? Be sure to give your characters enemies be they past present or future for the sake of your story. This will help to drive them and probably help to test those limits you set before.
The most important thing to remember when creating your own witches, and the reason I set this guide up as I did, is that you have a whole history of witches to work from. You have tons of religions, and hundreds of historical figures. There is a huge world of information out there. Get to googling. It can’t hurt at all, and the more you find and read the more ideas you’ll have. Creating a species of it’s own is barely something I can tell you how to do, but my most important suggestion, is to read around. This guide will provide you with some guidelines, but nothing does amazing creativity like inspiration and that you will only get on your own.
Here are some other resources that may help you when creating characters: