Nothing else says Halloween quite like a witch mounted on a broomstick with a black cat perched behind her. She's dressed in flowing black robes and a long pointed cap. Her long, crooked, sinister-looking nose carves an evil silhouette against the evening sky. She is the perfect symbol of evil and mischief. Or is she?

You've seen the movies... you've read the fairy tales... but what do we REALLY know about Witches? They are everywhere these days... perhaps your neighbor... good people doing good things. That's right. THERE ARE WITCHES! Though not the kind described above that we have learned about in the movies and in folklore. So what are witches anyway?

Basically, a witch is a practitioner of a nature-based belief system or religion. Not all Witches follow the same belief system. Some practice what is called the "old religion" which has its roots in pagan pre-monotheistic folk ways and beliefs and usually follows the seasonal cycles. These belief systems or "traditions" of Witches are often based upon the particular culture from whence they originated. Many Witches believe in a polytheistic deity structure (usually based upon the local gods and goddesses of the area of origin), but some simply practice magick (sometimes spelled with a 'k' to differentiate it from stage magic).

Witches may practice alone as 'solitaries" or in covens. There are also family groups or traditions which trace their practices and beliefs within the same close group throughout several generations.

The terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" have been used to describe those accused of Christian heresies, not-so-neighborly behavior or practicing medicine without a license. In some cultures, Witches are tribal shamans or healers to be sought out and honored. In others, they are sorcerers and magicians to be avoided or shunned. "Witch" and "Witchcraft" are also terms which many Neo-Pagans use today to describe themselves and their spiritual Path. Some also use the same terms in reference to folk magic without a religious connotation.

All throughout history, witches have been persecuted, especially in Europe. But the incident that you might be the most familiar with are the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. When they failed to improve, the village doctor, William Griggs, was called in. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the death by hanging of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; seventeen others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed. To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. Their names had been "cried out" by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England, the practice of witchcraft.

In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found guilty and was hanged on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of that year. The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the "witchcraft" court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over.

As years passed, apologies were offered, and restitution was made to the victims' families. Historians and sociologists have examined this most complex episode in our history so that we may understand the issues of that time and apply our understanding to our own society. The parallels between the Salem witch trials and more modern examples of "witch hunting" like the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's, are remarkable.

Nowadays, witches come from all walks of life. They raise families, go to work, throw steaks (or vegetables) on the barbeque and hang out with their friends. They practice their religions and belief systems, celebrate their holidays with festivals and continue to study and explore their past while contemplating their futures.

Many covens and groups meet once a month to worship together under the moon. Pagans tend to hold ceremonies or "circles" out of doors as we feel that being with nature brings us closer to the divinity who creates it.

Some pagan beliefs may seem strange to those who have not heard much about them before. Pagans, on the other hand, are usually very well versed in the beliefs of other religions. They find the various religious systems interesting and often encourage their own children to learn about these other religions. Pagans believe in free will and free choice and that an educated choice is always better than blind obedience to any religion or dogma. They are not "against" other religions. They have simply made our choice to be pagan and we expect others to respect that choice as they respect theirs.

All that they ask is that they be allowed to practice their religion without prejudice or interference as is their right guaranteed here in the United States under the Constitution and as outlined within the constitutions of many other countries. The freedom to practice religion -or no religion-as you choose-whether it be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Pagan-is the freedom to follow your spirit and your heart. This precious freedom must be defended, protected and treasured by all or it will no longer be guaranteed for anyone.

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