Historian Ronald Hutton recently published a book that reveals the truth behind the history of Witch Hunts. Entitled "The Witch," Hutton defines the historical traits of witches and their prevalence throughout history. His definition of a witch is "one who causes harm to others through mystical means."

Hutton stresses that the historical meaning of the word "witch" is completely different from the modern term. It also carries a different meaning than those who practice nature-based, pagan religions. Historically, being branded as a witch could turn deadly.

The beginning of witch hunts

Witches were not always female. This is a modern-day stereotype perpetuated by the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. For example, Iceland's witch hunts targeted mostly men, whereas Scotland primarily accused women of practicing the craft. Setting gender aside, there was one common characteristic among the accused that struck fear into the hearts of the people. Black magic.

Traditionally, a witch was described as being a worker of destructive magic. He or she was often accused of causing magical harm to the local people, typically targeting neighbors and family members. If any ills befell someone in the village, the community would blame the witch.

People believed that these witches were conspiring with the devil to bring destruction down upon humanity.

Those accused of witchcraft were deemed a threat to society, thus sparking the long, brutal history of witch hunts across Europe.

Witches around the world

Accounts of witches can be seen in almost every culture in every documented time period around the globe. Although practices and traditions may vary, written historical accounts have shown that humans very much believed in the powers of witches that may cause harm to others.

However, not every culture deemed witchcraft to be evil or dangerous to society.

Ancient Egyptians were not afraid of magic. In fact, they utilized it on an almost daily basis. The Celts, who believed in the existence of fairies, also did not have any qualms with witches. Even many nomadic tribes did not seem to demonize the use of black magic.

So what caused the sudden shift in the perception of witches in society?

The Middle Ages

With the expansive conquest of the Roman Empire, Christianity quickly dominated many parts of Europe and North Africa. Ceremonial magic and divination were considered heresy and immediately outlawed by the church. By the 1420's, witch hunts began to break out across Italy and Spain.

In the late 16th-century, English Protestants condemned all forms of magic. The response from the Catholic Church then accused Protestants of being witches and consorting with the devil. This split in Christian beliefs led to the most heinous acts being committed against people accused of witchcraft on both sides. Historians call this the most brutal witch hunt in human history.

Modern day witch hunts

Witch hunts still surface occasionally in Africa and Asia. Today, many elderly women are murdered by their neighbors on accusations of being witches. This can be seen predominantly in India and several countries in Africa. Some nations still have laws prohibiting the use of witchcraft.

Hutton's "The Witch" is a historical account witch hunts all around the world. Twenty years of research went into writing this book. Hutton warns that witch hunting is not dead. It is still very much alive and could potentially get worse. If history has taught society anything, it's that history always repeats itself.