witch's tit

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witch's tit The ‘witch's tit’ or ‘witch's mark’ was considered proof of the witch's profession during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when between 60 000 and 100 000 were condemned to death as witches by both Catholic and Protestant courts. In England and Scotland, it was common to appoint a man to search the suspect's body for the witch's tit, which was thought to be an extra teat from which an imp or devil, known as a ‘familiar’, presumably sucked the witch's blood as a form of nourishment. The ‘witch pricker’ was supposed to recognize a witch if she showed no feeling when he pricked the presumed teat with a pin or if this ‘unnatural’ protuberance did not bleed.

Trial records often included the depositions of witch prickers, who sometimes reported teats not only on the chest but elsewhere on the woman's body, including her genitals. The ‘witch's tit’ may have been merely a mole or a wart, a freckle or a blemish, or even a supernumerary nipple, which occurs in approximately one out of two hundred women; but for susceptible minds, it was an aberrant breast, the sign that she had consorted with the devil and that she was a true witch.

Men, too, could be witches, but those accused of witchcraft were overwhelmingly female (80%), and predominantly old and poor. The witch-hunt was, according to historian Margaret King, a war waged by men against women, and what better symbol for that mysogynistic enterprise than the female breast, deformed and vilified under the rubric of the ‘witch's tit’?

Witches' breasts — real or imagined — were often subject to humiliating and excrutiating treatment. They were commonly exposed at public whippings and mutilated in some of the more brutal cases. The case of Anna Pappenheimer, member of an outcast family of gravediggers and latrine cleaners in Bavaria around 1600, presents one of the most shocking examples. Tortured into confessing sexual relations with the devil and then condemned as a witch, she and three members of her family were burned at the stake. But before the final ordeal, Anna's breasts were cut off and forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons.

Witches' breasts are usually depicted in art as flat, hanging dugs; they represent the underside of Western eroticism, with its glorification of firm, youthful bosoms. The ‘witch's tit’, while not pictured in art works, has its own mythical lore, as found in old religious treatises, popular expressions, and even medical records. In the case of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's ill-fated wife accused of adultery, the rumour that she possessed a third breast — with its implications of witchcraft — was subsequently recorded in books of medical anomalies. To this day, the expression ‘cold as a witch's tit’ is still used to convey the hostility some men feel toward the female breast when it is not a source of pleasure or nurturance.

Marilyn Yalom

Bibliography

King, M. L. (1991). Women of the Renaissance. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Barstow, A. L. (1994). Witchcraze: a new history of the European witch hunts. Pandora/HarperCollins, San Francisco.

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