By the 1400′s, the practice that concerned the church the most was witchcraft. The church viewed witchcraft as an organized cult, opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. By this time, witch trials and persecutions had been going on for the last 2 centuries. Witches were generally women and were thought of by the church as having supernatural powers that practice sorcery and use their powers for evil influence. Witches symbolized the very worst of paganism and were feared on Samhain more than at any other time of the year because of their “magical” powers and supernatural experience. With Christianity being a male dominated religion, the idea that women could be powerful and dominant was not a popular one. Church zealots took to hunting witches and making entertainment out of torturing and killing these women. Often, they would put them on trial and the guilty would be hung or worse yet, burned alive, usually binding them to a stake in the town square.
During this time, the Europeans entertained the idea that on Halloween witches flew on broomsticks throughout the night until the sun shed its first light. They defined a time of night the “witching hour” – that being the time of midnight on the night of the full moon when witches are thought to draw the most power from the moon. It has also been used to define the hours of midnight to 3 am, when the veil between worlds is thought to be the thinnest. Coincidentally, in modern times it is often reported that midnight to 3 am is when haunting phenomena is mostly experienced.
In the mid 1480″s Pope Innocent VIII published his much-abused Bull against witchcraft, titled Summis desiderantes affectibus, which claimed a direct association between witchcraft and the Devil, helping to further the already rampant witch hysteria. He then outlawed Paganism all together no doubt because of its association with witches.
Cats accused of being witches’ familiars were generally burned alive. Western superstitions would have us believed that black cats have special powers, that they can represent spirits or even incarnated humans, thereby linking black cats to occultism. On Easter and Shrove Tuesday during the Middle Ages, black cats were routinely hunted down and burned.
The word witch actually comes from the Old English term wicca, meaning wise one. The implication of being a witch has greatly changed throughout the centuries. Thoughts of old wrinkled green skinned hags with grey stringy hair and a nose wart are what many think of. Others think of witchcraft and the negative propaganda associated with it. A more realistic view of the modern witch is a socially conscience individual who practices Wicca and is proud to be considered a Pagan. Today, Wicca as a religion is practiced among modern witches and is often called the “craft of the wise”. Many modern witches and pagans still celebrate the Samhain holiday with traditional bonfires and feasts, singing and dancing, divination games, and through rituals and chanting.
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