The Real Stories Behind The Myths and Misconceptions Around Witches

"The witch is a towering figure in the history of horror," says director Eli Roth in the latest episode or Eli Roth's History of Horror. "The archetypical evil witch is everything mainstream religion tells us a woman should not be… That unapologetic, very female power frightens men and fascinates women." In movies, witches are typically seen as agents of evil, exacting their limitless magical power over hapless and helpless men, and tempting "innocent" women to the dark side of magic. These tropes perpetuate the deeply-rooted fear in Western society of women who exist outside traditional gender norms. These are women who reject what they're "supposed" to be in society. This fear runs so deep, that it wasn't long ago that calling someone a witch could lead to a death sentence, and sadly this is a very real fear that still persists in parts of the world.

But there's much more to witches and witchcraft than the movies would have you believe. Here are some common myths and misconceptions about witches -- and the truths at their core:

1. Witches Are a Relic of the Past

Legends of witches and witchcraft extend back in time for millenia, all across the world. Perhaps most notably in the Western world, the infamous Witch Trials swept across Europe and later the United States in the 16th and 17th centuries. These trials resulted in thousands of fatalities, and cemented the prosecution of witchcraft as a blight upon history. But witches are more than just a relic from history books. In fact, witchcraft in the Western world is thriving. While it's difficult to track modern witches and witchcraft, studies have shown that Wicca is more popular than ever. It's important to note that one does not need to be Wiccan to practice witchcraft (and some Wiccans don't practice witchcraft), but it can probably be safely assumed that if Wicca is on the rise, so are witches. Spell kits and tarot cards are readily available in stores, astrology is on the rise, and a quick peek through TikTok can take users to various growing online witch communities like WitchTok and parts of #cottagecore. Of course, the rise in witchcraft has more to do with the palatability of its marketing to young people. Throughout history, in times of social upheaval and turmoil, people frequently turn towards the occult. It's no wonder then, that in a time like 2020, as trust in authority and establishments wanes, the desire to embrace one's personal power is rising.

2.  All Witches Are Bad

According to horror movies and much of popular culture (and, you know, centuries of religious fanaticism), witches are evil, baby-killing, power hungry women who will kill, curse and banish whatever and whoever stands in their way. They are also typically said to deeply loathe or even eat children (Hansel and Gretel, anyone?). But in real life, those who practice witchcraft are just normal people, neither inherently good nor bad. The magick they channel in their personal craft is a tool through which to exact particular intentions -- sometimes for the greater good, sometimes for selfish and petty reasons. Witches are human and thus subject to the same personal and emotional follies as any other person.

3. Witches Curse Their Enemies

That being said, hexes and curses are still real. Like we said above -- magick is a tool through which to channel a witch's intention into the world --  and sometimes that intention is to hurt someone. There are indeed very long legacies and cultural traditions around the world focused on sculpting curses and hexing enemies, along with rituals in breaking and banishing curses. But in some traditions within the practice of witchcraft, like the neo-pagan religion, Wicca, for instance, one of the core tenets of the religion is "the Rule of Three." This rule states that whatever magick you put out into the world, will come back to you three times. This mindset can guide the practitioner to focus good into their magickal intention, so as to avoid the looming sense that whatever "curse" they've released into the world will come back to them three times stronger.

4. All Witches Are Female

This myth is totally false among modern witches. The number of practicing witches is rising dramatically in the U.S. and around the world, and among them are women, men, trans, and gender non-conforming people. Yet we cannot deny the legacy of the witch, which is certainly gendered female, and was largely perpetuated by the misogyny and sexism that demonized witches and witchcraft in the first place. In early medieval times, the term "witch" was used to describe female practitioners of magic, while male practitioners of magic were frequently referred to as "sorcerers" or "magicians." Sorcery and magicians held an esteemed place among the medieval monarchy and in medieval society; witchcraft, not so much. Historically, witches were feared because of their perceived rejection of societal and gender norms, which was seen as a threat to the patriarchal hierarchy of the monarchy and the burgeoning growth of Christianity. That being said, men have also been victims of accusations of witchcraft. During the infamous Salem Witch Trials, men were also convicted of witchcraft and executed amid the hysteria. Today, the term "witch" is more of a gender neutral term, embraced among practitioners of witchcraft regardless of gender.

5. Witch Magic Isn't Real

In the movies, witches can shoot beams of light and magic from their hands or wands, giving speedy, physical form to various spells and hexes. While real-life witchcraft certainly isn't as showy and immediate, practitioners of witchcraft still perform acts of magick that have far-reaching implications. Many witches believe that the world is filled with energy, and conducting rituals, exacting spells, and focusing intentions is a means to combine one's own energy with that of the universe in order to shape a particular outcome. It's rarely flashy -- unless you're using candle magick -- nor is it an experience in instant-gratification, but witches report that acts of focusing the will, no matter how small, are still wildly, personally powerful.

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Want more onscreen witches? Explore the dark world of the supernatural creatures like Witches, Vampires and Demons, and the powerful, forbidden love between a witch and a vampire in A Discovery Witches, available to stream now for AMC Premiere subscribers.

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