views updated May 14 2018


WITCHCRAFT. Despite a generation of excellent research, the history of witchcraft remains bedeviled by a host of misperceptions. Ordinary readers often assume that the major witch-hunts occurred in the Middle Ages, that they were conducted by the Catholic Church, and that they reflected the prescientific notions and sexual fantasies of fanatics and neurotics. Elsewhere one can read that huge chain reaction witch trials constituted a "women's holocaust" accounting for millions of deaths, and that the witch-hunters especially targeted midwives and female healers. All of these conclusions are both wrong and misleading. The great age of witchcraft trials came after 1430, and primarily after 1570. The prosecuting magistrates were almost always secular officials, imbued with the best thinking of prominent theologians, philosophers, and even scientists. The numbers of those executed have often been exaggerated by a factor of one or two hundred. Men made up perhaps a quarter of those executed, and there is little evidence that midwives or healers were singled out for suspicion anywhere. But historical prejudices are hard to uproot.


Depending on one's definition, various histories of witchcraft are defensible. It was once common, for example, to understand the crime of witchcraft as consisting essentially of having a pact with the devil, an agreement in which one exchanged one's eternal soul for monstrous powers. Such a crime of diabolism had not existed in the ancient world and only slowly emerged from the medieval campaign against magic and heresy, especially against medieval heretics such as the Cathars and Waldensians, groups who challenged both Catholic doctrines and papal jurisdiction. By the late fourteenth century, however, canon lawyers, prominent inquisitors, learned academics, and several popes came to agree that by means of a contract with the devil, whether explicit or only implicit, a magician might work genuine harm in this world. These theorists also gradually worked out a composite view of all the different sorts of crimes and activities their heresy involved. It was increasingly believed that witch-heretics flew off to a "sabbath" where they renounced their Christian faith and baptism, worshipped the devil, danced together, and enjoyed a cannibalistic feast, devouring children whom they had killed while using their fat or other body parts to make loathsome potions. They were also thought to receive instruction in working harmful magic by which they might destroy their neighbors' crops, interfere with the fertility of their cattle, and with the sex lives of those around them. Most luridly, witches were thought to have sexual relations with the devil or with lesser demons. During the fifteenth century large numbers of heretical "witches" or sorcerers began to be discovered, and increasingly they were women.

Another definition of witchcraft emphasizes the continuity of magical practices that witches had used in the West ever since classical times and the similarities between such practices and those found all around the world. On such an understanding, witchcraft is the belief in and use of unusual, secret, or even supernatural forces in order to force or promote specific desired ends. The ancient Greeks had believed in such magic but had not seen it as much of a daily threat. They originally thought that "magic" (mageia) was the strange, foreign religious practice of Persian priests (the magi) and of beggars or other dishonorable Greeks. Magic seemed both alien and disreputable. In Greek literature, the figure of the witch included characters such as Circe and Medea, women who used destructive magic to express their anger, lust, and frustration, but magic does not seem to have been a prominent fear among the Greeks. With the ancient Romans, however, harmful magic (maleficium) was forbidden in the earliest set of laws (the Twelve Tables, 451 B. C.E.) and was punished with increasing severity. The Roman historian Livy (History 39.41.5 and 40.43.2f) recounts episodes when apparently thousands of persons were executed by jittery judicial officials, and, in the late first century C.E., the Romans began to crack down on fraudulent magicae vanitates ('worthless magic'), practices that included healing, divination, and astrology. Thus, this understanding of witchcraft did not require a devil or a pact but insisted on the dangers lurking in the hidden practices of lustful and vengeful witches.

A third notion of witchcraft may be found in the injunctions of the Old Testament, in which the authors of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Kings, for example, forbade necromancy and divination, practices that competed with the rituals of the Levites and sacrificial priests while also challenging God's sovereignty over the dead and the future. From this point of view, witchcraft represented not diabolism or a physical danger but an abomination, not a conspiracy in league with the devil but impiety, a denial of God's omnipotent control over blessings, punishments, and history (and hence the future as well); such witchcraft constituted an attempt to gain knowledge or advantages that were for God alone. Over time the Israelites intensified their prohibitions against magic, sorcery, divination, and consulting the dead (necromancy), which all hinted at popular polytheism during the exilic and post-exilic period.

All of these notions of witchcraft blended together in various proportions during the late Middle Ages and early modern periods. Some jurists and demonologists were more concerned about a supposed Satanic conspiracy, whose goal seemed to be the destruction of humankind and Christianity. Others remained convinced that witches were primarily a physical danger to their neighbors. Still others were inspired by the image of idolatrous or irreligious magicians who did not constitute a physical danger to anyone and were not members of some hideous conspiracy, but were committed to "heathenish practices" and to foretelling the future by means of astrology, numerology, or other illicit means. In the seventeenth century some writers began to think that the basic crime of witchcraft consisted in being antisocial, regardless of any actual harm done or religious error.


In the early Middle Ages, these components had not yet blended to any extent, and so one finds approaches to the crime of witchcraft concentrating on the old Roman or Germanic fear of harmful magic, while churchmen felt free to express deep skepticism about other elements of witchcraft. In perhaps the most important early medieval text, the Canon Episcopi (c. 910; "Bishops," a title taken from the first word of this admonition), Regino of Prüm condemned maleficium ('wrongdoing') and sortilegium (harmful magic and 'fortune-telling') harshly in his first paragraph, but also went on to express deep doubts about the stories told of women who supposedly went out at night to ride on the backs of beasts with the goddess Diana. Such persons were dreaming or hallucinating, he thought, and any Christian who believed these tales was guilty of conceding too much power to a pagan goddess. This canon found a prominent place in Gratian's Decretum (1140; Resolution), the most important medieval codification of canon law. From then on, all commentators had to concede that anyone who thought he or she flew might well be deluded.

Following the notion of witchcraft as diabolical heresy, one can trace the rise to prominence of an ecclesiastically flavored fear of a new and growing sect of witches. In the early fourteenth century, Pope John XXII (reigned 13161334), for example, repeatedly condemned his enemies for using charms, wax figures, and incantations in their efforts to kill him. In a couple of papal bulls aimed at combating these threats, Pope John widened the understanding of heresy to claim that sorcery involved heresy and a pact with the devil. It was once thought that his reign also witnessed the beginnings of large-scale witchcraft trials with hundreds of executions in southern France, but research in the mid-1970s established that the sources purportedly describing these trials are in fact nineteenth-century forgeries. Consequently, historians over the past twenty-five years have relocated the beginnings of major witch-hunts to the fifteenth century, and especially to the 1430s.


The earliest trials seem to have sprung up around Lake Geneva, to the east in the Valais and Vaud, to the north in Fribourg, Neuchâtel, and Basel, and to the southeast in Leventina (Ticino) and Valle d'Aosta (Italy). During that decade, several authors elaborated the notion of the witches' sabbath and expressed a sharpened sense of the dangers of a witches' conspiracy. For example, the Dominican Johannes Nider (c. 13801438) wrote extensively in favor of church reform and against witchcraft. Although he maintained a skeptical attitude toward the flight of witches, he helped propagate the view that witches assembled for dancing, feasting, and sexual orgies and for murdering babies and eating their flesh. Gradually the notion took hold that witches gathered regularly at meetings called sabbaths or synagogues, terms that make the parallel with Jewish assemblies obvious. Frequently, however, these newly detected witches were seen as analogous to medieval heretics, especially to the Cathars and Waldensians. One treatise (c. 1450) described the "heresies" of the witches under the title Errores Gazariorum (The errors of the Cathars, referring to the dualist heretics), while many texts referred to fifteenth-century witches as Vaudois (Waldensians, another prominent medieval heresy). Although the concept of witchcraft drew on ideas of how medieval Jews and heretics were organized, there is no credible evidence that the European witchcraft trials were actually directed at Jews or surviving pockets of heresy or paganism.


By the late fifteenth century many ecclesiastical writers had concluded that witchcraft was a fairly new heresy with its origins in the 1380s. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII (reigned 14841492) issued a papal bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, reporting the wide extent of the threat and authorizing two Dominicans, Jacob Sprenger (c. 14361495) and Heinrich Kramer (for centuries called Institoris [Latin for 'merchant']; c. 14301505) as inquisitors to root out the heretics, especially in southernGermany and in the alpine regions of Tyrol. Secular magistrates were to cease obstructing their efforts and offer their assistance. Despite the bull, Kramer continued to have trouble prosecuting witches, partly because of continued secular and ecclesiastical resistance to his haughty and brutal methods. In the diocese of Constance, Kramer seems to have over-seen the conviction and execution of at least forty-eight women, but at Ravensburg he secured the conviction of only two, while many other suspects were released. In 1485, Bishop Georg II Golser of Bressanone quashed Kramer's investigations at Innsbruck and exiled Kramer, noting that he seemed credulous, unethical, and perhaps crazy in his use of torture and in his wild imaginings of what witches did.

While licking his wounds, Kramer composed what is perhaps the most famous treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum (late 1486 or early 1487; The hammer of witches), in an effort to justify his fear that witchcraft was gaining ground against Christendom and that lustful women were naturally attracted or seduced into a life of devil worship, demonic sex, and harmful magic. Historians have often thought that the more distinguished Cologne theologian and coinquisitor, Jacob Sprenger, was the coauthor of this book, but the evidence for this collaboration is thin. It is worth noting that Kramer's Malleus never embodied accepted Catholic doctrine and that Kramer himself, after being banned from Innsbruck, was rusticated to the mission fields of Bohemia, where he died in obscurity in 1505.

In the Malleus Kramer laid out both the new theological understanding of witchcraft and the harsh inquisitorial methods by which one could force suspects to confess and to implicate others in their heresy-crime. Kramer also pleaded successfully for the intervention of secular officials in the prosecution of witchcraft, and, indeed, after 1500 most of the trials north of the Mediterranean were run by secular magistrates and according to secular laws. The vast majority of witchcraft executions came at the hands of ordinary secular magistrates who enforced secular laws and did not follow the prescriptions or share the peculiar phobias of the Malleus.


Those who define witchcraft as a sort of heresy have often argued that by the end of the Middle Ages the construction of the crime was complete and that the great witch-hunts that followed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were only the automatic result of this late medieval construction. On this view, common among certain medievalists, the "great witch craze" merely combined this fantastic crime with the supposedly relentless procedures of the Inquisition. Those who have emphasized the nature of witchcraft as harmful magic, however, have thought that the emphasis on heresy and inquisition seriously underestimates the fear of witchcraft among humble villagers, who were always more concerned about their crops, herds, and families than any supposed deviations in belief, and point to the slow adoption of witchcraft statutes by the civil authorities of northern Europe. Emperor Charles V's (ruled 15191556) imperial penal code (Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, 1532; The criminal code of the Emperor Charles), valid for the whole Holy Roman Empire, described the crime in these words: "When someone harms people or brings them trouble by witchcraft, one should punish them with death, and one should use the punishment of death by fire. When, however, someone uses witchcraft and yet does no one any harm with it, that person should be punished otherwise, according to the custom of the case" (Article 109). There was no mention of pacts with the devil, no sabbath, cannibalism, flight, or heresy. This secular code was obviously most concerned with maleficium, 'harmful magic'.

A similar emphasis is visible in the English statute of 1563, which threatened the death penalty for any witchcraft, enchantment, charming, or sorcery if it resulted in the death of a human being; but if these dark arts were less successful (if the victim was maimed or if animals were killed), the witch was to be punished with only a year's imprisonment. Reduced penalties were introduced for the lesser crimes of using magic to find lost or stolen goods, or to incite someone to illicit love. Other secular states also continued to consider witchcraft as first and foremost an attack on others by magical, supernatural means; it was only in the seventeenth century that some of these northern European states finally adopted a fully diabolized understanding of witchcraft, one that made it a capital crime to "consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose," as the English statute of 1604 put it. Just as most secular states in northern Europe continued to place maleficium at the heart of witchcraft accusations, so too most jurisdictions under an ecclesiastical law (for example, the Mediterranean regions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal) persisted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in seeing witchcraft mainly as a spiritual offense. But that did not mean that the inquisitorial regimes were fiercer. Rather, it meant that throughout southern Europe the scrutiny of witchcraft rumors, accusations, and confessions was more intense, and executions for the crime of witchcraft correspondingly scarce.


The wave of recent research into witchcraft trials across Europe has underscored dramatic variations from time to time and from place to place. No region was ever subject to a hundred years of terror; the worst witch-hunts came in waves or spasms, starting in the 1560s and 1570s in southern Germany and in Lorraine, rising again in the 1590s, again in the 1610s and late 1620s, and coming to an end in the 1660s. Across the Holy Roman Empire, the largest persecutions occurred in smaller territories, especially those under the secular jurisdiction of a prelate, an imperial abbot, or some other ecclesiastical administrator. The bishoprics and archbishoprics of Trier, Mainz, Cologne, Augsburg, Würzburg, Bamberg, and Eichstätt were among the fiercest in all of Europe, while the Duchy of Lorraine was perhaps the worst secular territory. Together they accounted for about 10,000 executions.

It was not only Catholic territories that proved to be zealous prosecutors of witchcraft. The Swiss territory of Vaud (under the general control of Bern) conducted perhaps the most extensive witchcraft trials in any Protestant land (perhaps 2,000 executed in all), but the reformed courts of Scotland probably executed 1,000 witches as well. Lutheran Mecklenburg, a land of splintered jurisdictions and widespread noble autonomy, may well have executed 2,000 of the approximately 3,700 persons tried there for witchcraft. In these large persecutions, village accusations of witchcraft usually proliferated in the wake of some climatic disaster, a late frost or a cold, rainy summer that ruined crops, as was common in Germany in 1626, "the year with no summer."

Magistrates responded to local pressures demanding punishment for the witches thought responsible for these disasters; by the seventeenth century some magistrates were ready to interpret such crop failures and the resulting famine as the consequence of a satanic conspiracy. Thus, village suspicions were reinforced by elite fears. In general, however, it appears that larger secular territories with better-developed appeals courts were able to contain the panic of witchcraft more effectively. The Electoral Palatinate, for example, never carried out witch-hunts of any magnitude, and Bavaria after the 1590s also displayed an increasing skepticism. The Parlement of Paris, the appeals court responsible for a huge jurisdiction that took in most of northern France, became increasingly skeptical from the 1580s onward and, after 1624, made the prosecution of witchcraft almost impossible. After a high point in much of Central Europe in the 1620s, another wave of witchcraft trials erupted in the 1660s from Germany north to Sweden, but then became rare except in Poland, where trials continued until about 1725. By then, witchcraft trials were long over elsewhere. It was long supposed that the last German execution for witchcraft occurred in 1775 in Kempten, but it is now known that the suspect there, though condemned, was not actually executed. In 1782 the Protestant canton of Uri executed a woman as a witch, and a few Polish trials resulted in executions even after that.

Witchcraft remained a crime mainly prosecuted in Catholic and Protestant Europe. The thoroughly developed notion of the pact with the devil was never introduced into the lands of Eastern Orthodoxy, so there were basically few trials (and no massive chain-reaction trials) in Russia. Even in Catholic Poland it appears that earlier accounts of huge witchcraft trials are seriously exaggerated. Suspicions of magic and a variety of other popular spiritual beliefs remained common among the Russian peasantry, however, right down to the twentieth century. Altogether, for all of Europe and over a period of about 300 years, scholars now estimate that perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 people were executed for the crime of witchcraft, a large number to be sure, but small compared to estimates that suggest nine million executions, a number for which there is no basis.

Variations in the severity of witch-hunts and punishments imposed on those accused of the crime-heresy of witchcraft seem to have depended on whether local convictions could be appealed to a distant (and usually more skeptical) court. Where local courts could act autonomously, local excesses were difficult to moderate. It may even be that the term witch-hunt is misleading because, in many of the worst cases, magistrates were not actively hunting anyone but were, instead, responding to accusations that bubbled up from neighborhood suspicions. In a surprising number of cases, the original accusations were launched by village women against one or more other women suspected, sometimes for decades, of causing local harm.


The third definition of witchcraft as impiety surfaced in early modern Europe among magistrates who reacted in horror at the "superstition" of common villagers whose impious attitudes, magical practices, illicit charms, and devotion to local magical healers or shamanlike prophets seemed to prove their adherence to irreligion and witchcraft. Such "superstitious" peasants seemed to deny God's omnipotence, omniscience, and sovereignty over the future and over all blessings and troubles. From this point of view, witchcraft accusations seem connected to efforts of churchmen and magistrates to enforce severe reforms of parish and devotional life. This pattern has been found in Friuli, north of Venice, among villagers who confessed that some of their neighbors regularly went forth "in the spirit" at night to combat the witches who threatened their fields.

Another study has examined the similar case of an alpine horse wrangler who confessed that he traveled with the "phantoms of the night" to learn the secrets of life and death and to gain healing powers. Pastors and priests, however, complained that their parishioners were too quick to blame their pains on witchcraft instead of recognizing the ways that God tested and punished them for their deviation from the devotion expected of them. So the common notion that ordinary people were "superstitious" did not automatically lead to charges of witchcraft among them. Instead, it often happened that elite judges sitting in provincial or national capitals disdained to take seriously accusations or convictions at the village level.


Much recent research has concentrated on the sociology of the victims of witchcraft trials. The old notion that midwives and popular healers were singled out for repression has faded in the light of evidence that most of those convicted were more often women and men who failed in their neighborly obligations. The fantasies and tensions that led some women to accuse other women of witchcraft, for example, have been examined. In the German lands and in Britain about three-quarters of the executed were women, but elsewhere the proportion of men could be higher. In northern France men and women seem to have been executed in about equal numbers, while in Iceland and Finland men made up the majority of convictions. It was once held that women were the targets of misogynistic (and supposedly celibate) inquisitors, but it has become clear that most magistrates responded to pressures for witch trials from below and that the Mediterranean lands of the Inquisition (together with Ireland) were among the safest places to suffer local suspicions. There is also little evidence that those suspected of witchcraft were mentally ill or "hysterical." Many of those convicted may, however, have seemed like "bad neighbors," quarrelsome or dangerous, isolated and suspected of harboring vengeful feelings toward fellow villagers.


There was never a time when "everyone believed in witchcraft." Even at the height of witchcraft trials, some people expressed doubts about the crime itself, about details (for example, whether witches could really fly to the sabbath), or about judicial procedures (whether torture could reliably force suspects to confess the truth). Johann Weyer (Wier; 15151588), personal physician to the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, reacted to the renewal of witchcraft trials by publishing De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563; On the deceits of demons), which questioned whether the crime of witchcraft was even possible. Although Weyer conceded large powers to the devil, in his view magic could never be effective (and therefore maleficium could never harm anyone); no one could really have a binding pact with the devil, and so confessions of guilt suggested that the suspected witch (usually an old woman) was actually melancholy (mad). In 1584 Reginald Scot (1538?1599), a Kentish gentleman, published his Discoverie of Witchcraft, an even more radical rejection of witchcraft that questioned even the power of demons to produce wonders or harm of any sort. During the seventeenth century these sorts of skepticism were reinforced by a growing procedural skepticism of the sort expressed anonymously by Frederick Spee, S.J. (15911635), in his Cautio Criminalis (1631; A warning concerning criminal cases). Spee movingly criticized the brutal employment of torture, the reliance on perjured testimony, and twisted interpretations of the law, so that in his view no one once accused could expect to escape conviction. Doubts like these finally made an impression all across northern Europe, so that the secular courts there became as skeptical as the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions had been ever since the mid-sixteenth century. Only after witchcraft trials had almost died away did a more fundamental skepticism spread, a philosophical or theological doubt that spirits of any sort could have any physical effects in this world. Here we may point to the example of Balthasar Bekker (16341698), the Dutch reformed theologian, whose Betoverde Weereld (1691; The world bewitched) did not challenge the existence of demons but tried to show that they could not affect human affairs or the natural world. In his view the doctrine of demons had crept into Catholic Christianity from the pagans and needed to be thoroughly reformed. Christian Thomasius (16551728), a celebrated jurist of the University of Halle, took a similar position in De Crimine Magiae (1701; Regarding the crime of magic).

It is noteworthy that witchcraft remained controversial, at least among theologians, well after the crime of witchcraft was essentially no longer pursued. The Netherlands had ceased prosecuting this crime around 1600 and the Parlement of Paris had made witchcraft hard to prove by the early seventeenth century, but it was not until 1682 that King Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) prohibited witchcraft trials in France, while England did not abolish the crime until 1736, and Austria and Hungary waited until 1755 and 1768, respectively, for this step. Even after these legal reforms were imposed, certain theologians and many villagers continued to believe in magic and to fear the powers of witchcraft.

See also Astrology ; Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Crime and Punishment ; Folk Tales and Fairy Tales ; Inquisition ; Magic ; Midwives ; Popular Culture ; Religious Piety ; Thomasius, Christian ; Women .


Ankarloo, Bengt, and Gustav Henningsen, eds. Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries. Oxford, 1990.

Bailey, Michael D. Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. University Park, Pa., 2003.

Behringer, Wolfgang. Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night. Translated by H. C. Erik Midelfort. Charlottesville, Va., 1998.

Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of Early Modern Witchcraft. New York, 1996.

Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford, 1997.

Clark, Stuart, ed. Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology, and Meaning in Early Modern Culture. London, 2001.

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. London, 1975.

Davies, Owen. Witchcraft, Magic, and Culture, 17361951. Manchester, U.K., 1999.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by J. and A. Tedeschi. Baltimore, 1983.

Henningsen, Gustav. The Witches' Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition (16091614). Reno, Nev., 1980.

Kieckhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundation in Popular and Learned Culture, 13001500. Berkeley, 1976.

Levack, Brian. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. London, 1995.

Pócs, Éva. Fairies and Witches at the Boundary of South-Eastern and Central Europe. Helsinki, 1989.

Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality, and Religion in Early Modern Europe. London, 1994.

Sharpe, James A. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England. Philadelphia, 1997.

Soman, Alfred. Sorcellerie et justice criminelle: Le Parlement de Paris (16e18e Siècles). Aldershot, U.K., 1992.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England. 2nd ed. London, 1997.

Zika, Charles. Exorcising Our Demons: Magic, Witchcraft, and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe. Leiden, Netherlands, 2003.

H. C. Erik Midelfort


views updated Jun 27 2018


The word "witchcraft" derives from the Saxon wicca, some-times translated as "wise person" but more accurately derived from an Indo-European root, "weik," that produced words in various Western languages related to magic, religion, and divination. Currently, the word is used to designate a variety of very different but vaguely related phenomena including, but not limited to, (1) the magical/religious practitioners in a variety of third world pre-industrial societies; (2) the Satanism described in the anti-witchcraft books beginning in the late fifteenth century in Europe; (3) the Neopagan followers of Wicca, the religion started by Gerald B. Gardner in the 1940s; and (4) individuals (primarily female) who are reputed to have psychic abilities.

Interpretations of Historic Witchcraft

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the figure of the European witch was interpreted and reinterpreted in numerous ways, depending on the orientations of the scholars involved. They described her (typically) as variously an antisocial practitioner of malevolent magic; as a pro-social healer, midwife, and magician condemned by churches and universities; as a victim of mental illness or of accidental poisoning by mind-altering plants; or as a deliberate user of mind-altering plants who sought a shamanic "soul flight." She was either the follower of a Satanic religion developed in opposition to Christianity, or she was the inheritor of pre-Christian Paganism. She was supported by her neighbors, or she was the unfortunate scapegoat for social tensions, a lonely victim with no family to protect her. These different pictures of the typical witch of the Burning Times or the Great Hunt (both terms for the persecutions that peaked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) in turn reflect the sympathies of the writers, whether pro or anti-Catholic, socially rebellious, socially conservative, feminist, or Neopagan. These different perspectives on historical European witchcraft have also influenced what is today called Neo-pagan Witchcraft, a new religious movement.

Since the mid-1970s, historians have more closely examined the court records of witch trials in various European countries (and in North American colonies). They have studied the verdicts, punishments, social status of accused witches, lists of goods confiscated from the accused, and other evidence. In one notable case, scholarly re-examination of older work revealed a major forgery, a portion of Etienne Leon de Lamothe-Langon's Histoire de l'Inquisition en France (History of the French Inquisition), written in 1829. Lamothe-Langon's description of huge 14th-century witch trials with hundreds of executions in the South of France turned out to be complete inventions by the writerwho had also written a profitable series of "gothic" horror novels with titles like The Monastery of the Black Friars.

Today, informed estimates of the total deaths in central and western Europe range from 40,000 to 50,000, much lower than the millions once claimed. Contrary to the picture created by writers such as Lamothe-Langon, the Inquisition (an arm of the Roman Catholic Church created in 1246 to combat heresy) did not execute many witches; secular courts were more likely to condemn accused witches than were church courts. As many or more accused witches were executed in Protestant lands as in Catholic countries, and the witch trials did not peak until 1550-1650, a period that historians describe as "early modern" rather than "medieval."

During the early Middle Ages, Church writers were more likely to insist that witchcraft was a delusion and that priests should discourage their congregations from believing that anyone could cast spells or fly through the air in the entourage of a Pagan deity. The famous Canon Episcopi, publicized in the tenth century but possibly of earlier date, stated that it was heretical to believe in witchcraft, not to practice it. This ecclesiastical legal document, like others of its kind, urged bishops and priests to combat the practice of sorcery, but also suggested that people who believed that they were witches were deluded by the Devil. Another set of church ordinances from the late eighth century demanded the death penalty not for the witch, but for the person who murdered an alleged witchagain, because believing in witches was a Pagan superstition.

After the Black Death swept Europe in the 1340s, mysteriously killing thousands of people, Europeans were more likely to accept conspiracy theories involving enemies of Christianity, defined variously as heretics, Muslims, Jews or possibly witches. Officers of the Inquisition now began to expand their scope from Christian dissenters and heretics, such as Cathars and Waldensians, to people who supposedly had chosen to follow a diabolical anti-Christian religion (rather than a lingering Paganism). New manuals for witch-hunters appeared, such as the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or "Hammer of Witches," a book that although authored by Dominican monks was used and reprinted equally by Protestant witch-hunters in Germany and England. By the sixteenth century, the witches' sabbat was regarded by authorities as a parody of the Christian Sabbath, the worshipful aspect of a religion which was a distorted image of true religion, i.e., Christianity. According to the records, the sabbat was generally held in some wild and solitary spot, often in the midst of forests or on the heights of mountains, at a great distance from the residence of most of the visitors. (The use of the word "sabbat," clearly derived from the Jewish Sabbath, indicates the way in which medieval and early modern Christians tended to blur distinctions between all perceived enemies of Christianity, whether Jews, Muslims, Pagans, or perceived sorcerers and witches.)

The witches themselves told a storyusually after torture of taking off their clothes and anointing their bodies with a special unguent or ointment. They then strode across a stick, or any similar article, and, muttering a charm, were carried through the air to the place of meeting in an incredible short space of time. Sometimes the stick was to be anointed as well as the witch. They generally left the house by the window or by the chimney, which perhaps suggests survival of the custom of an earth-dwelling people. Sometimes the witch went out by the door, and there found a demon in the shape of a goat, or at times of some other animal, who carried her away on his back, and brought her home again after the meeting was dissolved.

In the confessions extorted from them, the witches bore testimony to the truth of all these details, but those who judged them, and who wrote upon the subject, asserted that they had many other independent proofs in corroboration.

Powers of Witches

In the eyes of the populace, the powers of witches were numerous. The most peculiar of these were: The ability to blight by means of the evil eye, the sale of winds to sailors, power over animals, and the power of witches to transform themselves into animal shapes.

Witches were also believed to possess the power of making themselves invisible, by means of a magic ointment supplied to them by the Devil, and of harming others by thrusting nails into a waxen image representing them.

New research has shown that witch trials were more likely to occur in areas of political instability and religious conflict. Hence both Germany and Switzerland, each a patchwork of small political entities and divided between Catholics and Protestants, witnessed more witch trials than did France or Spain. In late seventeenth-century Spain, after an outbreak of witchcraft accusations in the Basque region (shared with France), a lawyer for the Spanish Inquisition convinced its supreme council not to prosecute. Instead, the council ordered an "Edict of Silence" forbidding further discussion of witchcraft. In that Spanish case and others, local secular authorities went around the Catholic Church and appealed to the king for the right to try witches. The king agreed with their request and accused witches began to be sentenced until the Inquisition stopped the process on the grounds that this was church business only.

By the eighteenth century, however, fewer educated Europeans believed in spell-casting, witches flying through the sky, or other typical accusations of the Great Hunt. Thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire (1694-1778) had denounced the witch trials as the product of religious bigotry, whether Catholic or Protestant, supported by superstitious monarchs across Europe. They hoped that new, more rational attitudes would produce societies where such events could not occur.

In America, the Salem witch trials of the 1690s were similarly seen as the product of a repressive Puritan church struggling to hold onto power. Nineteenth-century American historian George Bancroft's History of the United States used the Salem trials to condemn Puritan "superstition," as did the poet and editor James Russell Lowell. As part of the nineteenth-century struggle for authority between science and religion, the witchcraft trials were entered into evidence as examples of the excesses of religion. This view tended to overlook the fact that secular courts were as likely or more likely to execute accused witches than were religious courts, producing the slightly skewed stereotype of "medieval" witches being hauled before the "Inquisition."

The Witch as Romantic Rebel

This anti-clerical view of the medieval and early modern witch as the victim of superstitious churchmen was strengthened by a new nineteenth-century view of the witch as a Romantic rebel or outlawan idea which partly underlies the new religion of Neopagan Witchcraft. It connects with the romanticization of medieval life (and of rural nineteenth-century life) by writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy, both of whom described fictional "cunning women" or solitary rural witches in their novels. A leading proponent of this new Romantic view of witches was the French writer Jules Michelet, a fervent anti-Catholic and anti-monarchist, who produced numerous books of history, natural history, and social reform. Advocating a turn from Christianity to worship of a Great Mother Goddess such as Isis, Michelet held that women were morally superior to men, and that their persecution as witches in former centuries was an attack by the elites on both the rights of women and the working classes. Michelet took the position of the Malleus Maleficarum that women were innately drawn to witchcraft and made a positive good of it. Medieval witchcraft, he declared in his 1862 book La Sorcière, had been an egalitarian rural religion led by female priestessesa view which was to resonate with later maverick writers on witchcraft such as Charles Leland and Margaret Murray. Had the witches worshipped Satan, as their accusers claimed? Indeed they had, Michelet wrote, for "Satan" was merely the god of fertility and the patron deity of those persons condemned by kings and bishops and their henchmen. Although he did little actual research for La Sorcière, Michelet succeed in introducing ideas that would be taken up by later generations of non-academic writers and by unconventional academics. One was the idea that witches were healers and midwives persecuted by a male-dominated medical establishment; another was that the persecuted witches represented traces of a secret Pagan religion.

Michelet's advocacy of a Mother Goddess religion helped reinforce a new current in nineteenth-century scholarship: that there had once been a universal matriarchal period of goddess-worship, later buried by a patriarchal Paganism typified by the well-known Greco-Roman pantheon: Jupiter/Zeus, Hera/Juno, and so on. The notion of a universal ancient matriarchy appealed to thinkers as different as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, both of whom incorporated parts of it in their theories of communism and psychoanalysis respectively. It also influenced the first wave of women's rights advocates, such as the American feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, who published her own version of the anti-clerical witch trials in 1893, Women, Church, and State. Basing her research largely on Michelet, Gage produced a figure of nine million victims of the Burning Times, a figure which although wildly inflated continues to be repeated by some persons today.

Witches, Drugs, and Shamans

As the nineteenth century closed, two interpretations of the medieval and early modern witchcraft period were gaining adherents. One interpretation, suggested above, held that the persecuted witches were leaders and followers of an underground pre-Christian religion. The second, somewhat related to the first, was that at least some of the accused practiced an underground form of European shamanism, utilizing an ancient tradition of entheogenic plants such as Amanita mush-rooms and members of the solanaceous plant genus such as henbane, mandrake, belladonna, and datura.

During the height of the Great Hunt, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, some lawyers and physicians had made their own tests of the unguents or "flying ointments" seized from accused witches, attempting to learn their compositions and effects. At the time, these men were advancing a counterargument to the witch-hunters' position that the witches worshiped Satan. No, said such men as Andrés Laguna, physician to Pope Julius III, the witches were merely "wretched ones," deluded by drugs, who "firmly believe that they have done in a waking state all of that which they dreamt while sleeping."

Theologian Nicholas Remy, writing at the height of the trials, in the late 1500s, made numerous references to witches smearing their bodies with oils and ointments, noting, "Now if witches, after being aroused from an 'iron' sleep, tell of things they have seen in places so far distant as compared with the short period of their sleep, the only conclusion is that has been some unsubstantial journal like that of the soul."

In an account published in 1555, Laguna described one of his experiments, using "a jar half-filled with a certain green unguent" confiscated from some accused witches, which he believed was prepared with "cold" herbs such as henbane or man-drake. He took the mixture to another city, where he gave it to the wife of the public hangman. This woman suffered from insomnia, lying awake with worry because she thought her husband was unfaithful to her.

"On being anointed," Laguna wrote, "she suddenly slept such a profound sleep, with her eyes open like a rabbit, that I could not imagine how to wake her. By every means possible, with strong ligatures and rubbing her extremities, with effusions of oil of costus-root and officinal spurge, with fumes and smoke in her nostrils, and finally with cupping glasses, I so hurried her that at the end of thirty-six hours she regained her senses and memory: although the first words she spoke were: 'Why do you wake me at such an inopportune time? I was surrounded by all the pleasures and delights of the world.' And casting her eyes on her husband (who was there all stinking of hanged men), she said to him, smiling: 'Knavish one, know that I have made you a cuckold, and with a lover younger and better than you,' and she said many other and very strange things."

Such experiments led Laguna and some of his contemporaries, including some clergy, to a conclusion that the theologians and demonologists were wrong: the flights through the air, feasts and orgies, encounters with Satan and other fantastic experiences reported by (or tortured out of) the accused witches were really the results of using psychedelic drugs.

These earlier accounts of experiments with witches' unguents led to new experiments using old recipes in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Karl Kiesewetter, a German scholar of the occult, reported dreams of flying after reproducing some of the old ointments; his later experiments were fatal. The pharmacologist Gustav Schenk wrote in The Book of Poisons that he experienced the sensations of flying through the clouds after breathing the smoke of burning hen-bane seeds. As interest in entheogenic or psychedelic drugs increased in the 1950s and 1960s, anthropologists such as Michael Harner returned to the older writings about "flying ointments" in order to suggest that European witches took part in shamanic "soul flights," projecting their consciousness into other realms of existence even while their physical bodies appeared to sleep. If parallel with the shamanism reported from other cultures around the world, these soul-journeys might be attempted to gain a cure for a sick person, for knowledge or simply for the experience.

Some of the same herbs, such as datura, have been traditionally used in India both for religious purposes, pleasure, and as poisons. Likewise, the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, has been proposed as the source of soma, the drink of the gods in the ancient Hindu scriptures. Unlike the peyote and ayahuasca of the New World, plants such as henbane, datura or fly agaric can be fatally poisonousthey continue to claim victims today. Therefore, if sixteenth-century witches such as Laguna's indeed were using them, they likely were heirs to an underground tradition of safe preparation and use, although we do not know what form such a shamanic tradition might have taken.

Witchcraft as "The Old Religion"

The identity and motives of the witches and their accusers continue to be re-interpreted. In the period from 1890 to 1930, however, one interpretation of the trials not only blossomed but produced a genuine new religion. That was the theory that the witches followed an underground pre-Christian religion. Even though most modern scholars reject the notion, it contributed to the birth of today's fast-growing Neopagan Witchcraft.

Charles Godfrey Leland, an American lawyer, political journalist, and folklore scholar who lived a number of years in the Italian city of Florence, produced three books in the 1890s arguing that some Italian peasants, through their innate religious conservatism, maintained not only a pre-Christian but a pre-Roman religion, dating to the days of the ancient Etruscan culture. Camouflaged with Catholic saints' names and other details, this hidden "Old Religion" maintained its own deities, creation stories, prayers, and rituals, Leland wrote, describing these surviving bits of Paganism as "something more than a sorcery and something less than a faith." His most influential book, Aradia: or the Gospel of the Witches, published in 1899, synthesized traditional legends with material gathered for him by a woman known as Maddalena or Margherita (her surname may have been Talenti) and translated from local dialects into standard Italian, which Leland spoke and wrote moderately well. Aradia, which Leland claims was originally a Semitic goddess name, is described as the daughter of Diana, goddess of darkness, and Lucifer, god of light. Aradia comes to earth, and in the style of Michelet, teaches her ceremonies to outlaws and outcasts, as well as the secrets of poisoning corrupt feudal lords. What remains problematic about Aradia is the source of Leland's witchcraft gospel. Is it genuine, or did Maddalena herself concoct it to please her wealthy American patron, or did Leland shape it from a body of genuine invocations, stories, and folk practices?

Twenty years after Leland's work, the English archaeologist Margaret Murray (1862-1963) developed her own version of the "Old Religion" through her reading of witch-trial records from the British Isles and France. A recognized Egyptologist, Murray turned her attention to the witch-cult problem while World War I prevented her from working in Egypt. Her 1921 book The Witch Cult in Western Europe and its two successors laid out an apparently clear picture of the Old Religion. Even though that picture has largely been refuted by more recent historians such as Russell Hope Robbins, Elliot Rose, L'Estrange Ewen, and Ronald Hutton, its evocative power threatened to overwhelm the former academically accepted idea of the medieval and early modern witches as victims of bigotry, social stresses, and mob psychology. Many followers of modern Witchcraft continue to accept large portions of Murray's version of earlier witchcraft.

In essence, her version was this. The "witch cult" was a pre-Christian religion centered on a fertility god (somewhat parallel to the Greek Pan), whom Christian theologians deliberately confused with their Devil in order to persecute the witches. This god was often depicted with horns, and a man portrayed and embodied him during group rituals. (Murray had much less to say about goddesses than did Leland.) Covens of witches, ideally consisting of thirteen persons, grouped together at four major holidaysCandlemas, around 1 February; May Day; Lammas, around 1 August; and All Hallows or Hallowe'en. These large-group meetings, with their feasting and fertility rituals, alternated with smaller meetings ("esbats") for spell-casting and other local witch business.

In medieval England, Murray claimed, the Old Religion had been protected by the Plantagenet dynasty of kings, beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066. These were "sacred kings" who had to die as sacrificial victims or else find a substitute after they had reigned for seven years, or a multiple of seven years. Murray held that the murder in 1170 of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket (later made a saint), supposedly at the orders of King Henry II, his longtime friend, was actually the substitution of a voluntary victim for the king himself. Murray also maintained that the French mystical warrior maiden Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was in fact a priestess of the Old Religion. This underground religion, in Murray's view, permeated medieval society, and its followers left traces in the carvings on Christian churches and in folklore.

Murray's views were almost immediately attacked by historians who pointed out that she manipulated evidence, lifted quotations from witch-trial records out of context, and ignored evidence that did not fit her theory. But her picture of the "Old Religion" was embraced by many folklorists, occultists, and all those who wanted to believe that British rural life retained traces of ancient Paganism, even after 1500 years of Christianity.

Neopagan Witchcraft

Neopagan Witchcraft is the only worldwide religion to have begun in England. Its apparent birth date lies between 1939 and 1951, when the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was repealed by Parliament and reports about people claiming to follow the religion of Witchcraft began appearing in British newspapers. Contemporary Witchcraft appears to have multiple parents, and historians of religion continue to debate who exactly was present at its creation, for no solid evidence exists of a religious continuity with pre-Christian Paganism. This new religion of Witchcraft (usually capitalized it differentiate from definitions 1, 2, and 4 above) has grown rapidly in all English-speaking countries and in Western Europe, aided by its compatibility with the feminist and environmental movements. It is often referred to as Wicca, although some Neopagan Witches limit that term to the "tradition" founded by Gerald Gardner (see below), and as "The Craft," a term borrowed from Freemasonry along with certain aspects of Masonic ritual.

The most public figure associated with the new religion of Witchcraft was Gerald Gardner (1884-1964). Gardner spent most of his adult life in Britain's Asian colonies, owning and managing tea plantations and later working for the colonial customs service in Malaya. He and his wife retired to England in 1936. During his time in Asia, his lifelong interest in magic and the supernatural led him both to the Masonic order and to visits with Buddhists priests, tribal shamans, spiritualists, and any other practitioners he chanced across.

In 1949 Gardner published an adventure novel, High Magic's Aid, set in the Middle Ages and incorporating much ceremonial magic. He claimed that he had met members of a surviving witches' coven shortly before World War II, operating under the cover of the Rosicrucian Theatre at Christchurch, Hampshire, and headed by a wealthy widow. He had been accepted into the group, which performed a magical ritual during the summer of 1940 to stop the threatened German invasion

of England (thus identifying the Witches with the patriotic soul of Great Britain). In 1954 his nonfiction book Witchcraft Today was published, which he wrote in the voice of a sympathetic outsider describing the modern continuation of an ancient fertility religion. Margaret Murray supplied an approving introduction.

Subsequent research suggests that it is more likely that Gardner and a female companion whose Craft name was Dafo, plus possibly other individuals, actually began the coven. They drew inspiration for their practices from ceremonial magic, from Classical Pagan religions, and from British folklore. What Gardner in 1954 described as "Wica" or cult of the "wise people" contained "no crucifixes, inverted or otherwise, no sermons, mock or otherwise, and no absolution or [eucharistic] hosts save for the cake and wine. There is no praise or homage to the Devil, no liturgy, evil or otherwise, nothing is said backwards, and there are no gestures with the left hand; in fact with the exception that it is a religious service and all religious services resemble one another, the rites are not in any way an imitation of anything I have ever seen."

In other words, Gardner denied the reality of "Burning Times" witchcraft with its pacts with the Devil and parodies of Christian ritual. For this he substituted a Murray-style "Old Religion," in which the "Devil" was merely the ritual leader with his crown of stag's hornsand often a nobleman in disguise. Witchcraft, he alleged, had come down from the Stone Age as a fertility religion that honored the "God of death and what comes after" (in other words, rest and reincarnation) and the Great Mother Goddess of nature, love, and pleasure.

These new Witches celebrated a cycle of eight festivals a yearthe solstices and equinoxes and the four cross-quarter days between them: Lugnasadh or Lammas (Loaf-Mass) at the beginning of August, a harvest festival; Samhain (Hallowe'en) a festival honoring the ancestors; Brigid or Oimelc, at the beginning of February, a feast of creativity and new beginnings; and Beltane, at the beginning of May, celebrating the new growing season. New Moons and full Moons were times of magic-working as opposed to the celebration and attunement of the seasonal festivals.

They worshipped in the nude, a practice indeed claimed of medieval witches. Gardner and his first associations were "naturists," people who advocated sunbathing for better health, and he and his first associates purchased land next to a naturist club north of London. While many Neopagan Witches today wear either ritual robes or other clothing, those who continue to meet nude or "skyclad" claim that the practice erases social distinctions, helps them to overcome the fear of aging and death, and makes magic-working easier.

Other common practices include the creation of a temporary sacred space, the circle, usually marked by candles, which may be drawn indoors or out, but which is erased at the conclusion of a ceremony. Most Neopagan Witchcraft rituals involve the use of a sacred knife, the athame, symbolizing the God, and a chalice symbolizing the Goddess.

Coven leadership typically lies with the high priestess ("high" because all experienced Witches are considered to be priests and priestesses themselves) who may or may not have a permanent male partner. This combination of female leadership and a powerful feminine image of deity has drawn many women to the Craft, which they see as a religion that values and sacralizes their bodies, their cycles, their ability to nurture as well as their rage and anger against other male-dominated religions.

Gardner's coven produced a number of offshoots in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, other Witches came forth who claimed (sometimes falsely) to have no connection with his coven but rather to represent independent traditions of Witchcraft. These included Alex Sanders (1926-1988), Robert Cochrane (d. 1966) and Sybil Leek, who emigrated to the United States in 1965, where she continued to write books on occult topics and to lecture on Witchcraft.

Two more British Witches of Gardner's lineage, Ray and Rosemary Buckland, moved to Long Island, New York, in the mid-1960s and many American and Canadian "Gardnerian" Witches trace their initiatory lineage to them.

Meanwhile, modern Pagan religions were being developed independently in the United States and elsewhere during the 1960s, including Feraferia in Los Angeles, The Church of All Worlds in St. Louis, and others. However, as more books about Witchcraft were being published, including an edition of the basic Gardnerian ritual manual, the Book of Shadows, in 1973, followers of these new movements tended to adopt many of the key characteristics of Gardner's traditionor else to define themselves in opposition to it. Those saying that they followed some other form of Witchcraft often cast it in ethnic terms such as Italian or Scottish. Other forms of Witchcraft include women-only groups (often called "Dianic" Witchcraft) and male-only groups, including the Radical Faeries.

By the 1980s, most elders and leaders in Witchcraft began to distance themselves from claims of an unbroken pre-Christian religious tradition, saying instead that their practices were inspired by ancient Paganism but adapted to the present times. Whether known as Wicca or Witchcraft, this new religious movement grew steadily from the 1970s to the present, typically among people in their twenties and thirties. The Cold War expansion of the American military provided one means, as Wiccan personnel shuttled between the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Neopagan Witchcraft is now found throughout the English-speaking world and parts of Europe, particularly Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.

The historian Ronald Hutton describes these common characteristics of the "protean and ecclectic" varieties of Neopagan Witchcraft: They "aim to draw out and enhance divinity within human beings, abolish the traditional Western distinction between religion and magic, [are] a mystery religion or a set of mystery religions [and their essence lies] in the creative performance of ritual."

Estimates of total membership in North America range into the low millions, but since covens are fluid and ever-changing (and since not all Witches belong to covens), an accurate count is impossible. While Witchcraft has no sacred scriptures, modern Witches have produced dozens of books on the practice of their religion. Notable authors, besides those named, include Stewart and Janet Farrar, Starhawk, Scott Cunningham, Vivi-anne Crowley, Marion Weinstein, Margot Adler, Evan John Jones, and Michael Howard.

In the early 1970s, two organizations, the Church and School of Wicca and the Council of American Witches, began holding conventions for their members and other interested people in American hotels. By 1980, outdoor festivals began at campgrounds across the United States, beginning in the Midwest and spreading to both coasts, the South, and the Rocky Mountains. These provide a venue for the exchange of songs, ritual formats, and the merchandising of clothing, jewelry, and other artifacts of the Pagan lifestyle.


Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston: Beacon, 1979, 1981.

Buckland, Raymond. Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1986.

Crowley, Vivianne. Wicca. London: Thorsons, 1996.

Ewen, C. l'Estrange. Witch Hunting and Witch Trials. London: Kegan Paul, 1929.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do: The Modern Coven Revealed. New York: Coward, McGann, & Geoghegan, 1973..

Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London: Rider & Co., 1954.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

. Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeen Centuries. New York: Penguin, 1983.

Glanvill, Joseph. Saducismus Triumphatus. London, 1681.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jones, Evan John and Chas S. Clifton. Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1997.

Jones, Evan John and Doreen Valiente. Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix, 1990.

Lea, Henry Charles. Materials Towards a History of Witchcraft. 3 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1939.

Leland, Charles G. Aradia: or the Gospel of the Witches. London: David Nutt, 1899.

Lewis, James R., ed. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Luhrman, T. M. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Melton, J. Gordon, and Isotta Poggi. Magic, Witchcraft, and Paganism in America: A Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

Michelet, Jules. The Sorceress: A Study in Middle Age Superstition. Paris, 1904. Reprint, London: Imperial Press, 1905. Reprint as: Satanism and Witchcraft. Wehman, 1939.

Murray, Margaret A. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Ox-ford: Oxford University Press, 1921.

Notestein, Wallace. A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718. American Historical Association, 1911.

Orion, Loretta. Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revived. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1995.

Remy, Nicolas. Demonolatry. 1595. Edited by Montague Summers. London: John Rodker, 1930. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

Rose, Elliot. A Razor for a Goat. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Scot, Reginald. Discoverie of Witchcraft. London, 1584. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

Sprenger, Jakob, and Heinrich Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. 1486. Translated and edited by Montague Summers. London: John Rodker, 1928.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance. San Francisco: Harper, 1979.

Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. London: Robert Hale, 1973. Reprint, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

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views updated May 23 2018


J. A. Sharpe

Witchcraft is a subject that has attracted considerable scholarly attention as well as a lively popular interest, and around which a number of historical myths have gathered. Most of the scholarly work on this phenomenon has, understandably, centered on the era of mass persecutions, the so-called European witch craze, between about 1450 and 1750. Work on this period has produced an extensive and ever-expanding body of publications rich in varied, imaginative, and exciting interpretations. Yet beliefs in witchcraft, themselves part of a wider intellectual framework incorporating popular magic and what the modern observer would categorize as folklore, have been present in Europe throughout recorded history.

The terms "witchcraft" and "magic" have, of course, been used broadly and present considerable definitional problems. In 1937 the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard proposed a widely accepted set of definitions that attempts to distinguish clearly between witchcraft and magic. He argued, in effect, that witchcraft is normally thought of as an innate quality, probably inherited by the supposed witch, and is used primarily to inflict harm through the occult power of the witch's ill will. Magic, conversely, involves a number of techniques, and the ability to carry out these techniques is not inherited but rather acquired through learning.

It might be possible to sustain something like this distinction when dealing with witchcraft as a phenomenon in European history. Observers in 1600, for example, generally accepted a difference between the witch, normally female, illiterate, and lower class, and the magician, often learned, sometimes a member if the social elite, and nearly always male. Yet the village witch always existed in the intellectual context of a culture that enjoyed much wider beliefs in the magical, the occult, and the supernatural, and throughout the medieval and early modern periods terms that translate as witchcraft, sorcery, or magic tended to be used interchangeably. Witchcraft is, therefore, best understood as a broad range of beliefs and practices that flourished within a wider belief system that accepted the supernatural.

As noted, witchcraft attracts popular interest and has been surrounded by more than its fair share of historical myths. The problems resulting from this became increasingly marked in the twentieth century by the emergence of Wiccan and Pagan groups that adhered to witchcraft as an ancient, pre-Christian religion. While having no wish to offend people's religious sensibilities, one should point out that there is little evidence that what was described or persecuted as witchcraft in the medieval or early modern periods was an organized religion—though admittedly a number of contemporary theorists thought it was—and that the practices of Pagans and Wiccans have only tenuous connections with peasant beliefs of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. Modern witchcraft, despite its claims, seems to have little historical foundation.

The subject of witchcraft was also firmly lodged in the mentalities of learned writers in late medieval and early modern Europe, when it was referred to frequently in theological, medical, and scientific writing. Along with the peasant belief in witchcraft, demonological writers from the fifteenth century onward created a view of the subject that stressed the importance of the demonic pact, the witches' sabbat, and the notion that the witch was a member of an organized, heretical, satanic sect. Peasants had witchcraft, and members of the elite had natural magic, a set of occult ideas and practices that often attracted men of considerable intelligence and learning. The latter was closely connected to pursuits such as astrology and alchemy as well as to mathematics, astronomy, and science. Witchcraft existed in relation to a broad, rich, intellectual context.


Anthropologists have demonstrated that belief in witchcraft and associated phenomena was present in a wide range of societies and likely has been a part of the mental world of Europeans from the earliest times. As might be expected, however, evidence for early witchcraft beliefs and practices has to be drawn mainly from the works of Greek and, more important, Roman writers. The concept of magia, which seems to have corresponded roughly to medieval and early modern magic, was familiar in ancient Rome and comprehended sorcery and witchcraft. Certainly by the end of the Roman period something like the witch image, so common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, already existed. Consider the following description given by the poet Lucan (a.d. 39–65) in his Pharsalia (book 6, lines 511–523):

The gods of heaven, and the fact that she was still living, did not prevent her from hearing the silent converse of the dead, or from knowing the dwelling places of hell and the mysteries of subterranean Pluto. The witch's face is haggard and loathsome with age; her dreadful countenance, overlaid with a hellish pallor and weighed down by uncombed locks, is never seen in the clear sky; but if storms and black clouds take away the stars, she then comes forth from robbed tombs and tries to catch the night-time lightnings. Her tread blights the seeds of the fertile cornfield, and her breath poisons air that was previously innocuous.

The stereotype of the witch as the hag, the elderly, worn, and probably lower-class woman, clearly dates back to classical culture.

The problem of magic, witchcraft, sorcery, and the occult became somewhat more complex with the beginning of the era of the Christian conversions in about the fourth century. The realities of the situation meant that, despite the reservations of some Christian thinkers, the early church had to make a number of accommodations with the pagan religions it sought to supplant. Thus churches were built on or near the sites of pagan worship, saints' shrines were located in pagan holy places, and Christianity incorporated many aspects of the preexisting practices surrounding divination, prophecy, and folk healing. The "magic of the medieval church" obviously helped make Christianity accessible and acceptable to the bulk of the population, although it never quite escaped the censure of religious purists. The learned held some practices unwarrantable despite an inherently ill-defined line between the sacred and the profane. Partly as a result of this lack of definition, occasional charges of sorcery arose, and certain people, because of their actions or public opinion, were considered appropriate targets for accusations of witchcraft. Conversely, early law codes suggest that at least some rulers regarded accusations of witchcraft as ungodly and disruptive and consequently attempted to discourage them among their populations.

Certainly the religious observers upon whose writings much of our knowledge of early medieval Europe is founded were convinced that their world was full of magical practitioners, denounced variously as praecantatores, sortilegos, karagios, aruspices, divinos, ariolos, magos, maleficos, inantantores, phitonocos, or veneficos. (The terms defy precise or consistent translation.) For these writers, however, the problem was still that occult practitioners offered a type of magic that competed with that of the church. They were diviners, fortune tellers, lot casters, and faith healers rather than malefic witches. The malefic existed, of course, but the tendency was to regard witchcraft and associated popular magical beliefs as a sign of ignorance and superstition rather than the presence of demonic influences. Occasionally writings refer to witches being punished, like the tenth-century note of a woman proved guilty of witchcraft who was drowned "as is the custom with witches." But most stories about witchcraft end with a description of the clergy deploying saints' relics or other holy items to defeat the witch's magic rather than with a description of execution.

This situation was to change during the fifteenth century. The exact processes involved remain perhaps a little unclear, but three main factors seem to have been at work. First, there was a general theological shift, perhaps as a by-product of the psychological impact of the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, which emphasized the uncertainty of human life, the pervasiveness of sin, and the power and influence of the Devil. Second, in a series of treason-cum-sorcery cases among Europe's political elite, highly placed persons were found guilty of using sorcery and magic to harm monarchs and popes. Last, the persecution of heretics, which had flourished over the High Middle Ages, shifted its focus to include witches, now defined as a satanic sect. The witch was no longer the individual with occult powers that might occasionally be used to do harm but rather one of Satan's agents in the cosmic struggle between Good and Evil. The religious insisted on the importance of the pact between the witch and the Devil, and the development of ideas regarding the sabbat provided a collective image of witchcraft. The witch now flew to nocturnal meetings, where she met scores, hundreds, or even thousands of other witches, feasted on the flesh of newborn children, danced, drank, and engaged in orgiastic sexual intercourse, the whole proceedings being presided over by the Devil.

By the late fifteenth century the witch myth was firmly established, and the witch, for the educated at least, was a willing tool of the Antichrist. Two changes had taken place. The developed witch stereotype was now generally that of a lower-class person, more than likely a female. In theory anybody could be a witch, but in practice it was peasant women who were most often accused. But contemporaries were aware that educated, relatively wellborn men also practiced magic. One of the contextual elements that allowed belief in witchcraft to flourish among Europe's elites was the involvement of some of their members and associates in magic, in attempts to contact the spirit world, in alchemy, in astrology, and in that broad neo-Platonic mode of thought that left ample room for the occult. The educated and the wellborn, of course, rarely incurred the wrath of officialdom for their magical or occult interests; peasant women were burned as witches by the thousands.


Belief in witchcraft was firmly entrenched in late medieval Europe and was part of a wider system of thought that accepted the occult and magic as everyday realities. However, during the period following the Middle Ages, from about 1450 to about 1750, witchcraft enjoyed its highest profile as a historical phenomenon. That was the timespan of the persecution of witches, described by some historians as "the European witch craze" (Trevor-Roper, 1969). Because of deficiencies in the survival of records, it is impossible to determine how many people suffered legal prosecution as witches over those three hundred years. Certainly the figure of 9 million executed witches, once accepted in feminist and Wiccan circles, has been exploded. Scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s has suggested much lower figures, with perhaps 100,000 accused and 40,000 executed (Levack, 1995). What is also certain is that the period of the witch persecutions was the tragic outcome of a confluence of elite and popular concerns. This general conclusion is borne out by that handful of detailed scholarly local studies of the rise and fall of witchcraft persecution which have demonstrated what a complex and multifaceted phenomenon the craze was.

The crucial issue was the desire for a purer, more defined, and more rigorous Christianity, which lay at the root of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In the two centuries preceding the Reformation, the struggle of the Catholic Church against heresy had continued, and during the fifteenth century the traditional village witch came to be identified as a member of a new, diabolical, heretical sect. At the same time that the inquisitors were beginning to try people for witchcraft, learned theologians in their libraries and studies were developing a new and more frightening image of the Devil. This formative phase of demonological theorizing was summed up in 1487 with the publication of the Malleus maleficarum (witches' hammer), written by two Dominicans, Johann Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer. The importance of the Malleus has been overstated: it did not represent the ascendancy of a triumphant, hegemonic view of witchcraft but was rather a propaganda piece written to justify the actions of its authors in a set of controversial trials. One of its major objectives, in fact, was to convince sometimes reluctant secular authorities that they had a part to play in witch-hunting.

This last issue became less contentious as the sixteenth century progressed. The Reformation and the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation helped define Christian and hence anti-Christian beliefs and behavior more clearly. But these religious movements also had a political dimension: the secular concept of the good citizen was now inextricably enmeshed with the church's concept of the good Christian. At a crucial stage of state formation, many people in positions of influence thought they were attempting not only to bolster secular government but also to produce a "godly commonwealth." The witch became the enemy of the king and the magistrate as well as of the clergyman and the true Christian.

These long-familiar developments led to the once standard interpretation of the witch craze as concocted by bigoted, ignorant, power-crazed judges and clerics and foisted on the population to destroy pre-Christian beliefs. The subject was treated as an issue of intellectual rather than social history—until the early 1970s, when two British historians, Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas, developed a paradigm that put witchcraft accusations firmly in their social context. They shifted their focus of attention away from legal treatises and demonological tracts to court records and trial pamphlets on English witchcraft cases. Arguing that it was possible to write a history of witch-hunting "from below," they stressed that the phenomenon is explicable not just through the thoughts, policies, and actions of the powerful but also through the fears, strategies, and cultural horizons of the ordinary villager.

In particular Macfarlane's work, founded on a close examination of the unusually rich documentation for the English county of Essex, convincingly rooted witchcraft accusations in both village life and the broader socioeconomic changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He noted that witchcraft accusations were normally brought by richer villagers against poorer ones. Probing more deeply, he discovered that a witchcraft accusation commonly was brought after a dispute between the accuser or members of his or her household and the accused over the denial of charity. The alleged witch, characteristically a poor and elderly woman, would come to the accuser's house and ask for money, food, drink, or perhaps the chance to work. Her request denied, the old woman would make off in an angry mood, possibly muttering threats. A little later an inexplicable illness or some other disaster would befall the refuser of charity, his family, or his farm animals. The earlier altercation, threats, or ambivalent phrases uttered by the supposed witch would be connected to the misfortune, especially if the woman requesting charity had already been suspected of witchcraft.

Macfarlane linked this model of witchcraft accusations after the refusal of charity to broader changes in the region during the period of accusations. In England, as in most of Europe, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were marked by steady population increase. This increase created tremendous pressure at the bottom of society, especially in that it created a large body of poor. Traditional forms of poor relief, in Macfarlane's model, were unable to cope with the extent of poverty, and it took time to put an effective poor law into operation. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries many substantial villagers were uncertain about how to deal with the poor, both in practical and in psychological terms. In harsh times the neighbor begging at the door was refused, but a lingering communal ethic made the refuser feel guilty. Under these circumstances, a witchcraft accusation was a method of transferring guilt: it was not the refuser of charity who was challenging community values but rather the perpetrator of malefic witchcraft. Macfarlane had learned from anthropology that witchcraft accusations ran along the fault lines in society, symbolizing redefinitions of community and the severing of social relationships. He connected the Essex cases to broad and familiar themes, such as the development of capitalist agriculture, the breakup of the traditional village community, and the rise of individualism.

Macfarlane's charity-refused model, although a consistent theme in accusations, has not proved universally applicable to early modern Europe. He and Thomas, however, did demonstrate convincingly that witchcraft can be studied in the context of peasant beliefs, which can no longer simply be dismissed as ignorant superstitions or ideas foisted on the peasantry by the elite. Rather, witchcraft on this level, however distant and alien to the modern observer, made sense and had a function for those involved in the phenomenon. In the 1970s historians' ideas about witchcraft trials were dominated by knowledge of the big crazes, which, for example, led to hundreds of burnings during the early seventeenth century in the German territories of Ellwangen, Trier, Würzburg, and Bamberg. Further research demonstrated that the pattern Macfarlane established was far more common, and accusations were launched sporadically, normally against individuals or two or three supposed witches. Robin Briggs's work reveals that witchcraft accusations were an established feature of early modern Lorraine, for example, but they were located in the world of the peasant and in the petty disputes endemic to village life. Moreover, it became clear that over the whole of Europe the major peasant concern was with maleficium, the concrete harm supposedly perpetrated by witches, rather than the demonic pact or the witch's candidacy for membership in a diabolic heretical sect.

Another striking feature of accusations of witchcraft during the witch craze was that they were most frequently directed against women. A few regional case histories to the contrary, most court records containing witchcraft accusations demonstrate that the malefic witch was thought of as female. In Macfarlane's Essex sample, over 90 percent of the accused were women, and perhaps 80 percent of the accused in Europe as a whole were women. A number of differing interpretations attempt to explain the connection between women and witchcraft.

In the 1970s writers, most of them not academic historians, within the women's movement interpreted the gender imbalance in witchcraft accusations as one of the most overt and horrific outcomes of the male oppression of women. The acceptance of the estimate of 9 million executions made this manifestation of men's unpleasantness toward women seem all the more terrible. These writers did well to focus attention on and demonstrate the importance of an issue on which male historians had rarely commented, but few scholars of witchcraft history have regarded the inordinate accusations against women simply in terms of male oppression. Early modern Europe was a male-dominated society in which medical theory, science, and theology all agreed on the moral, intellectual, and physical inferiority of women, but it has proved difficult to establish exactly how this generalized intellectual context translated into individual witchcraft accusations.

Research has suggested a deeper set of issues. Pertinent questions are how frequently witchcraft accusations were launched between women, how often women acted as witnesses against women, and how often women participated in semiofficial actions against female witches, such as searching for the witch's mark. No political system, not even early modern patriarchy, works unless the majority of those it seeks to rule accept or at least acquiesce to it. Thus the involvement of women as accusers and prosecution witnesses in witchcraft cases might be further evidence of the dominance of male values. It seems more fruitful, however, to regard witchcraft as a phenomenon that operated to a large extent within the female sphere, in that world of female concerns over child rearing, the protection of domestic space, and the politics of reputations and local gossip that social and cultural historians of early modern Europe have been slowly reconstructing. A number of studies assert that accusations often revolved around the bewitchment, frequently to death, of children. Their mothers were the accusers, and postmenopausal women were the accused. Psychohistorians have begun to explore this theme within the paradigm, familiar in psychoanalysis, of the malevolent mother. At the very least, examinations of popular attitudes toward menopause, rather than a consideration of generalized misogyny, are needed.

From court records and the published works of contemporary demonologists, moralists, and skeptics emerges a folklore of countermagic providing strategies for those who thought themselves bewitched to use against their alleged tormentors. On a village level witchcraft was about power. The accused witch was often an old woman who was unlikely to seek revenge through violence or litigation against those who had offended her, but she supposedly wreaked havoc on her adversaries through the deployment of occult forces. Her power could be counteracted by rival magic. Religious reformers argued that these countermeasures were without scriptural basis and hence were as ungodly as maleficium, but they had little impact on a population that desired more immediate and overt relief from witchcraft than the church's remedy, prayer. In hopes of alleviating the sufferings caused by witchcraft or transferring them to the witch, people scratched witches to draw blood from their faces, burned hair from their heads or thatch from their roofs, or made witch cakes from grain and the urine of the bewitched and burned them.

"Good witches" were crucial to this countermagic and an essential element in the broader culture of popular magic. The practitioners of popular magic, folk medicine, and divination, good witches were probably as common a feature of the period's witch beliefs as were the malefic witches who loom so much larger in the historical consciousness. Macfarlane and Thomas, in their studies of English witchcraft beliefs, gave due importance to those the English commonly called "cunning folk." Many contemporary writers observed that these folk were widespread and their services eagerly sought by the population at large. Cunning men and women offered medical services that were cheaper, probably less unpleasant, and possibly as effective as those available from the officially qualified physicians of the period. They could find stolen goods or identify the thieves who had taken them. They could tell fortunes and were consulted by young girls on the identities of their future husbands and by pregnant women regarding the sex of their unborn babies. They were the obvious counselors for victims of witchcraft, for they confirmed suspicions about who was behind the bewitching and recommended methods of combating the malefic witch and averting her witchcraft.

As might be expected, the equivalents of the English cunning men and women were to be found all over Europe. Research on Lorraine, for example, has demonstrated the importance of what were, literally, "witch doctors," specialists in treating witchcraft and identifying witches, who frequently played a key role in focusing and developing accusations. Some were itinerants, and even those who were not sometimes acquired reputations that spread over a radius of twenty miles. These devins or devineresses (soothsayers) did little more than confirm existing fears that an illness was supernatural and existing suspicions as to who was responsible for its occurrence. Much of the knowledge about them surfaces through records of formal prosecutions of witches, but their main objective was to keep their patients away from court action, which would undermine the good witches' position as the major source of relief and possibly attract the unwanted attention of officialdom. The activities of these Lorraine practitioners, like good witches everywhere in Europe, were illegal and reprehensible in the eyes of the church. The evidence in the Lorraine archives and elsewhere of the activities of devins and cunning folk constructs, in effect, a magical underworld.

The techniques used by the cunning folk and other practitioners varied widely. Mostly unlettered, they used charms and bastardized versions of Christian prayers. In England following the Reformation, for example, cunning folk apparently were fond of using doggerel fragments of the Latin prayers and creed of the old church, much to the distaste of the Protestant authorities. In Catholic areas like Lorraine, cunning folk often used prayer and holy water in their deliberations. All over Europe cunning folk used the sieve and shears, a practice in which the sieve, balanced on the points of a pair of shears, would move when questions were put to it. Another common technique involved primitive versions of the crystal balls popularly associated with fortune tellers. Other practitioners of folk magic employed more elaborate techniques, some of which point toward connections with the learned magic of the elite. By the mid-seventeenth century a reasonable proportion of cunning folk, in some regions at least, was literate, possibly signifying access to unusual and powerful knowledge in a period when illiteracy was the norm. Some had books, particularly of astrology, and used them when aiding their clients. No doubt the literate cunning man or woman had access to the almanacs and popular medical treatises of the period. As the frequent references to both cunning men and cunning women and devins and devineresses make clear, if malefic witches tended overwhelmingly to be female, good witches were of either sex, the implications of which deserve full exploration.

The cunning folk attracted particular odium from Protestant writers, locked as they were in the battle to inculcate right religion in the face of entrenched ignorance and superstition. The English Protestant theologian William Perkins (1558–1602) argued that, since good witches got their powers from the Devil as clearly as did the bad ones, they were equally deserving of death and were doubly reprehensible because they used devilish practices to convince the population that they were doing good. Nevertheless, good witches rarely received severe punishment. The secular authorities treated them lightly or subjected them to the generally weak penalties of the ecclesiastical courts. Yet the theologians' attitude brings into question officialdom's perception of witchcraft and why the witch-hunts declined.

The established tradition, in many ways correct, is that the Christian church, both before and after the Reformation, played a key role in creating the witch persecutions of early modern Europe. The church's revised view of the importance of the Devil, the perceived need for a more sharply defined Christianity, and the "acculturation" of the population at large, or at least some sections of it, to accept this official, more stringent Christianity were all of essential importance. Many societies have accepted that witches exist and that they are evil, but the European witch craze was a unique event that owed much to changes in official Christianity from about 1450 onward. Yet the church's role was not one of simple and unthinking repression. Some convinced and theologically orthodox Christians allotted witchcraft only a marginal importance. The key theological issue was the significance awarded to Divine Providence. Skeptical writers argued that many of the afflictions popularly attributed to witchcraft were, in fact, the product of the will of God, designed as a test for the faithful. This position was a little austere for the bulk of the population. People could take a witch to court or consult cunning folk about how best to deal with witchcraft, but such remedies were not available against the Almighty. A related position regarded the whole slate of witchcraft beliefs as the product of popular superstitions rather than of the influence of the Devil. Thus a conundrum arises. In some areas the processes of Christianization unleashed by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation resulted in witch persecution, but in others they led to the attitude that witchcraft beliefs were a sign of popular ignorance, demanding the mild sanctions of the church courts and the education of the population rather than witch burnings.

While theologians and senior clerics developed a number of theoretical positions on witchcraft, judges and legal writers also demonstrated ambivalent attitudes toward the phenomenon. The legal codes of most if not all European states of the period included laws against witches, but witchcraft in many respects enjoyed a peculiar status as a criminal offense and was difficult to prove. To solve the problem some judges simply dropped the normal rules relating to evidence, especially to evidence and confessions elicited by torture, which frequently fueled the large witch-hunts. Other judges were more cautious. In England the high acquittal rate in witchcraft cases, the comparative lack of large-scale hunts, and the rarity of convictions after the 1650s owed much to the fact that assize courts, where most English witch cases were tried, were presided over by highly qualified and experienced judges appointed by the central government. In France, where those convicted of capital crimes had a right to appeal to the judges of the Parlement of Paris, most local convictions for witchcraft were quashed by the 1630s. In Scotland, Sir George Mackenzie, the lord advocate during much of the late seventeenth century, was extremely skeptical about witchcraft accusations and helped reduce the number of trials and convictions.

These signs of elite skepticism about witchcraft lead to that most complex of problems, the decline of the belief in witches and witchcraft. Some discussions of this development have centered around the marginalization of witchcraft beliefs by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. A new religious style stressing rational belief rather than extreme sensitivity to daily manifestations of Divine Providence was also of considerable significance. The importance of these factors is undeniable, yet seemingly the skepticism among the elite was caused as much by a cleavage between elite and popular culture as anything else. By about 1700 senior judges, senior ecclesiastics, senior bureaucrats, and learned and polite society in general were likely to deride witchcraft beliefs and witchcraft accusations as evidence of peasant ignorance and popular superstition, just as they might dismiss some manifestations of popular religion. To understand the end of the European witch craze requires an awareness of the social history of snobbery.

By 1750, except for a few isolated burnings, the persecutions had ended. In France, England, and much of Germany the executions had been reduced to a trickle by 1650. In the Dutch Republic, Spain, and Italy malefic witchcraft had never been a matter of much concern to the authorities. In some places, like Poland and Hungary, witch persecution came late, but even in these territories it had more or less collapsed by the mid-eighteenth century. The provincial elites, local clergy, petty noblemen, and urban patricians joined their social superiors in rejecting witchcraft beliefs, although this process was slower and less complete than might be imagined. Belief in witchcraft and magic had become the prerogative of the common people. Although such matters were rarely recorded in the late eighteenth century, the few extant reports of a good witch's activities, the occasional record of supposed malefic witches being assaulted or killed, the odd paper charm that survived, all suggest the resilience of what were by then subterranean supernatural beliefs.


For the elite the early eighteenth century marked the point at which, whatever their subsequent ideas about the occult, credence in the old style of witchcraft had waned dramatically. Among the lower orders, above all Europe's peasantry, the established beliefs in witchcraft, sorcery, and magic lived on, waiting to be rediscovered by nineteenth-century folklorists and country clergymen.

One of those clergyman, the Reverend J. C. Atkinson, recorded the existence of witchcraft beliefs and the pervasiveness of popular magic among nineteenth-century country dwellers. In 1841 Atkinson became vicar of Danby in North Yorkshire, a remote parish on the edge of the North York moors near the North Sea coast. England by that time regarded itself as a progressive, advanced society marked by science and industrialization. Atkinson, a southerner, was amazed to discover how widespread beliefs in witchcraft were. He wrote in 1891:

I have no doubt at all of the very real and deep-seated existence of a belief in the actuality and the power of the witch. Nay, I make no doubts whatever that the witch herself, in multitudes of instances, believed in her own power quite as firmly as any of those who had learned to look upon her with a dread almost reminding one of the African dread of fetish. Fifty years ago the whole atmosphere of the folklore firmament in this district was so surcharged with the being and the works of the witch, that one seemed able to trace her presence and her activity in almost every nook and corner of the neighbourhood. (Atkinson, 1891, pp. 72–73)

Atkinson described beliefs in shape changing, concerns about maleficium, the widespread use of charms and amulets, and a general willingness to consult cunning folk.

Indications are strong that the situation Atkinson described probably prevailed in other rural areas of nineteenth-century England. Specific research demonstrates the persistence of witchcraft beliefs even in the urban lower classes, in London, for example, up to the mid-nineteenth century. Judith Devlin constructed an overview of France in the century and a quarter after the Revolution. Popular magic, quasi-magical manifestations of popular Christianity, and belief in the occult were still firmly entrenched. Christianity was still distorted by popular misconceptions, by a lively folklore surrounding saints and shrines, and by a refashioning of the fundamentals of the faith to meet the pragmatic devotional needs of the peasantry. Folk medicine, which depended on pagan rites, traditional techniques, miracles, and faith healing, still offered a viable alternative to "official" medicine. The popular mind, especially in rural areas, still accepted apparitions and prodigies and a world suffused with werewolves, monsters, fairies, elves, ghosts, and omens, and belief in demonic possession, astrology, and prophecy continued.

In this mental world, Atkinson's "folklore firmament," witchcraft enjoyed a central position. Devlin argued that witchcraft by this time was not a matter of explanatory and practical functions so much as an adaptable social vocabulary that allowed individuals to bring retrospective charges against those who they thought inflicted excessive or unnatural misfortunes on them. Countermagic, spells, charms, and good witches still helped against bad witches. But the basic functions of witchcraft in nineteenth-century France were, as had probably always been the case in peasant Europe, to reflect strained relationships in a backward, traditional society and to relieve and justify anxiety and anger. For people worried that they had fallen short of the ideals of their society, witchcraft transferred feelings of guilt or uncertainty onto others, who were accused as witches.

It might seem that developments in the early twentieth century finally rendered witchcraft beliefs redundant. How could such beliefs survive in a world marked by universal education, the triumph of science and technology, secularization, mass culture, and rapid communications? Over much of Europe witchcraft disappeared as a genuine traditional element in popular belief. Yet in the 1960s the French anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada, working in the Bocage region in western France, discovered persistent beliefs in malefic witches. Those who thought themselves bewitched sought help from "unwitchers," the equivalents of sixteenth-century cunning folk. Obviously witchcraft in the Bocage in the 1960s was not exactly the same as the witchcraft of the early modern period, but striking parallels appear, including concern about occult power and occult fields of force, apprehension over series of inexplicable misfortunes, feelings of helplessness in the face of bewitchment, and nervous confrontations and negotiations between witches and victims. Although most educated moderns would assume that the history of witchcraft ended three centuries ago, Favret-Saada's work leaves room for speculation as to what beliefs and practices have persisted in isolated parts of rural Europe.

Witchcraft has been the focus of considerable attention from specialist scholars, nonspecialist thinkers, and the general public. This attention has created a lively historiography that has postulated a variety of interpretations of the phenomenon, especially regarding the "burning times" in early modern Europe. Among these interpretations, social history methodologies have attempted to reconstruct what witchcraft and witchcraft accusations meant in the context of the village communities of late medieval and early modern Europe. Research in these periods, and that dealing with witchcraft in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has produced an unexpected possible conclusion. Often dismissed by historians as a marginal or even bizarre topic, witchcraft, defined as a set of beliefs that help people make sense of many aspects of their world, has been one of the most enduring components of popular mentality in European history.

See also other articles in this section.


Atkinson, J. C. Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: Reminiscences and Researches inDanby in Cleveland. London, 1891.

Behringer, Wolfgang. Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria: Popular Magic, ReligiousZealotry, and Reason of State in Early Modern Europe. Translated by J. C. Grayson and David Lederer. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Briggs, Robin. Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of EuropeanWitchcraft. London, 1996.

Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons. London, 1975.

Devlin, Judith. The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in theNineteenth Century. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1987.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford, 1937.

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. Translated by Catherine Cullen. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1980.

Flint, Valerie I. J. The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Levack, Brian P. The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe. London and New York, 1987, 1995.

Macfarlane, A. D. J. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study. London, 1970.

Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. London and New York, 1996.

Roper, Lyndal. Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Sexuality, and Religion in EarlyModern Europe. London, 1994.

Sharpe, James. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England. London, 1996.

Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. London, 1971.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and SeventeenthCenturies, and Other Essays. New York, 1969.

Willis, Deborah. Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in EarlyModern England. Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1995.

Witchcraft Trials

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Witchcraft Trials

In the period from about 1450 to 1750, somewhere around 40,000 to 60,000 individuals were tried as witches and condemned to death in central Europe. Of that number, as high as three-quarters of the victims were women.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that beginning in the fourteenth century, the close of the Middle Ages, the Christian establishment of Europe was forced to deal with an onset of social, economic, and religious changes. It was also during this time (134749) that the Black Death, the bubonic plague, nearly decimated the populations of the European nations and greatly encouraged rumors of devil-worshippers who conspired with other heretics, such as Jews and Muslims, to invoke Satan to bring about a pestilence that would destroy Christianity and the West. During most of the Middle Ages, those who practiced the Old Religion and worked with herbs and charms were largely ignored by the church and the Inquisition. After the scourge of the Black Death, witchcraft trials began to increase steadily throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The first major witch-hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427; and in 1428, in Valais, there was a mass burning of 100 witches. In 1486, the infamous "hammer for witches," Malleus Maleficarum, the official textbook for trying and testing witches written by the monks Sprenger and Kramer, was published.

In the early decades of the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation began to restructure nearly all of Europe politically as well as religiously, witches were largely overlooked by the rulers of church and state who now struggled with the larger issues of the great division within Christianity. Then, after a time of relatively little persecution, the period of the great witchcraft craze or hysteria that many practicing witches and students of witchcraft today refer to as the "Burning Times," occurred from about 1550 to 1650.

Although organized witchcraft trials continued to be held throughout Europe and even the English colonies in North America until the late seventeenth century, they were most often civil affairs. About 40 people were executed in the English colonies between 1650 and 1710, and half of these victims perished as a result of the Salem trials of 1692. Persecution of witches and the trials held to punish them had been almost completely abolished in Europe by 1680. One last wave of the witch craze swept over Poland and other eastern European countries in the early eighteenth century, but it had dissipated by 1740. The last legal execution of a witch occurred in 1782 in Glarus, Switzerlandnot far from where the witch craze had begun in 1428. The last known witch-burning in Europe took place in Poland in 1793, but it was an illegal act, for witch trials were abolished in that country in 1782.

The Inquisition or the Church itself had little part in any witchcraft trials after the latter part of the seventeenth century, but the Holy Office continued to serve as the instrument by which the papal government regulated church order and doctrine.

Delving Deeper

adler, margot. "a time for truth: wiccans struggle with information that revises their history." beliefnet. [online] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/40/story_4007.html. 25 february 2002.

gibbons, jenny. "a new look at the great european witch hunt" (excerpted from "the great european witch hunt," published in the autumn 1999 issue of pangaia). beliefnet[online] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/17/story_1744_1.html. 25 february 2002.

lea, henry charles. the inquisition of the middle ages. new york: citadel press, 1963.

netanyahu, b. the origins of the inquisition. new york: random house, 1995.

russell, jeffrey burton. witchcraft in the middle ages. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1972.

seligmann, kurt. the history of magic. new york: pantheon books, 1948.

trevor-roper, h. r. the european witch-craze. new

york: harper & row, 1967.


The first record of a witch being burned at the stake in the British Isles was the execution of Petronilla de Meath at Killkenny, Ireland, on November 3, 1324. But from that time until the witch craze ended in the eighteenth century, Ireland would neither try nor burn any more witches. England did not really succumb to the witch craze that seized Central Europe. There was no law against witchcraft in England until 1542and that law was repealed in 1547. Perhaps because the nation had a strong central government, as opposed to the independent city states which at that time created constant political turmoil within so many of the European countries, England did not tolerate wholesale witch burnings. The few burnings that did occur took place on the borders where different religious faiths were in conflict and the people were more disposed to see Satan in the other person's manner of worship.

The first recorded execution of a person associated with witchcraft occurred in 1441, but the convicted woman, Margaret Jourdemaine of London, was put to death not because she was a witch, but because she had been found guilty of murder. In 1563, perhaps in reaction to the witch craze in Europe, a new law against witchcraft was passed, and a 63-year-old widow named Agnes Waterhouse was condemned to death in 1566 for bewitching a man to death.

Torture could not be used against accused witches in England; therefore, only about 20 percent of those suspected of dealing with the devil were executed. The single period during which something approaching the witch hysteria on the European continent blighted England occurred during the English Civil War during the 1640s when the central government's power collapsed and opposing factions struggling for dominance were more likely to accuse their opponents of trafficking with the devil.

The last witches executed in England Temperance Lloyd, Susanna Edwards, and Mary Trembles, all of Bideford, Devonwere all hanged on August 25, 1682. The death penalty of witches in England was abolished in 1736. Estimates of the number of witches put to death in England are about 400, and approximately 90 percent of those condemned were women.

Alleged murders by witchcraft and subsequent trials for witchcraft have not disappeared from the world scene, and the fear of cursing, hexing, and causing death by witchcraft remains very powerful in many nations.

In 1998, in scenes reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, mobs in Indonesia attacked and killed 153 people who were accused of practicing sorcery. In an eight-year-period, from 1990 to 1998, more than 2,000 cases of witchcraft-related violence, including 577 murders, were recorded in the northern corner of South Africa.

In June 2001, the London Sunday Times reported that the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, feared that he and his government had become the victims of black magic directed at them by powerful Sangomas (witchdoctors). In August 2001, a teenaged girl in Nigeria confessed to taking part in the ritual killing of 48 people after being initiated into a secret witchcraft cult. Three men were arrested by police in that African nation after they were found in possession of a human skull that they were using in Black Magick rituals.

The Washington Post reported on November 28, 2001, that Black Magic murders in the state of Maranhao in northeastern Brazil had claimed the lives of at least 26 boys. Although as many as one in six Brazilians practice a form of religion that combines Roman Catholicism with the ancient beliefs of African and Amazonian magic, such as Tambo de Mina, Umbanda, and Macumba, the priests of those religions denied any part of the mutilation deaths of the young boys. Authorities remained convinced that Black Magic witchcraft was somehow behind the murders.

In December 2001, the Romanian Parliament announced that it was passing new laws to regulate the thousands of witches practicing in their country. It was suggested that politicians be given special advice on how to deal with the witches after the finance minister sufferred a broken leg the day after he introduced a special tax on witches.

Although the widespread horror of the Inquisition being visited upon innocent individuals and hauling accused men and women into torture chambers has receded into a shameful chapter in human history, trials for witchcraft have by no means been relegated to the Middle Ages.

Delving Deeper

"case study: the european witch-hunts, c. 1450 1750," gendercide watch. [online] http://www.gendercide.org/case_witchhunts.html.

faiola, anthony. "witchcraft murders cast a gruesome spell," november 28, 2001. [online] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/a25297-2001nov27.html. 25 february 2002.

johnson, r. w. "mugabe's men on the run from witchcraft," june 2, 2001. [online] http://www.sunday-times.co.uk.

notestein, wallace. a history of witchcraft in england. new york: thomas y. crowell, 1968.

russell, jeffrey burton. witchcraft in the middle ages. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1972.

trevor-roper, h. r. the european witch-craze. new york: harper & row, 1967.

summers, montague. the history of witchcraft. new york: university books, 1956.


When an overview of the witchcraft trials in France is made in an effort to derive an accurate picture of the extent of the persecutions of those alleged to be witches, the issue becomes clouded because of two great heretic hunts that had far-reaching repercussions. The first was the crusade launched against the heretical Cathars in the south of France in 1208, and the second was the trial of the Knights Templar for heresy and witchcraft in 1312. From the beginning of the thirteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century, neither the church or civil courts nor the common people were able to make clear distinctions between Cathars, heretics, and witches.

In 1246, Montsegur, the center of the Albigensian (as the Cathars were also known) resistance fell, and hundreds of the sect who had for so many years withstood the only crusade ever launched against fellow Christians were burned at the stake. In that same year, the headquarters of the Inquisition was established in Toulouse. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV (d. 1254) issued a papal bull that placed the inquisitors above the law and demanded that every Christianfrom the aristocracy to the peasantryassist in the work of seeking out witches and heretics or face excommunication. In 1257, the church officially sanctioned torture as a means of forcing witches and heretics to confess to their evil ways.

In 1305, the Knights Templar, who had for centuries been the bulwark of Christianity against those who would destroy or defame it, were themselves accused of invoking Satan, consorting with female demons, and worshipping black cats. While many clergy, including the pope himself, were reluctant to believe such charges against the Knights Templar, it soon became apparent that the order had become too wealthy and powerful to fit suitably into the emerging political structure of France and the aspirations of its king, Philip the Fair (12681314).

After years of persecution, many knights scattered and went into hiding throughout Europe and England. Those valiant Templars who insisted upon presenting a defense were finally brought to trial in 1312; and in spite of 573 witnesses for their defense, at least 54 knights were tortured en masse, burned at the stake, and their order was disbanded by Pope Clement V (c. 12601314).

Perhaps because of such large numbers of Cathars having been executed at Montsegur and other cities in the Albi region of southern France, along with reports of the mass burning of the Knights Templar, exaggerated accounts of mass executions of witches passed into the literature of the witch craze in Europe and remained there for centuries. For example, there are many reference books that document the burning of several hundred witches in Toulouse between 1320 and 1350. In one single terrible day during that time, according to the old texts, 400 women were burned at the stake. Historians have since determined that such mass executions of witches at Toulouse never occurred. Such claims are exaggerations or fictions.

The old records also reveal that the witch-hunters in France were not as gender biased as their counterparts in other European nations. Of the 1,300 witches whose appeals were heard by the French parliament, just over half were men. Also, contrary to popular supposition, in countries such as France, where the Catholic Church was firmly entrenched, the inquisitorial church courts were much more lenient than the civil courts in handing out death sentences to accused witches. Overall, in such Catholic nations as France, Italy, and Spain, the church courts executed far fewer people than the local community-based courts or the national courts. According to some statistics, in the period from 1550 to 1682, omitting the numbers of Cathars and Knights Templar executed, France sentenced approximately 1,500 accused witches to death.

Delving Deeper

"case study: the european witch-hunts, c. 14501750." gendercide watch. [online] http://www.gendercide.org/case_witchhunts.html. 25 february 2002.

russell, jeffrey burton. witchcraft in the middle ages. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1972.

trevor-roper, h. r. the european witch-craze. new york: harper & row, 1967.

summers, montague. the history of witchcraft. new york: university books, 1956.


From the perspecive of the papacy, it seemed that witchcraft had become particularly virulent in Germany, and in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII (14321492) became so distressed with conditions in that country that he issued the papal bull Summis Desiderantes Affectibus. As an additional antidote to demonism, the pope authorized two Dominican inquisitors Henrich Institoris (also known as Kramer) (14301505) and Jacob Sprenger (14361495) to prepare a kind of guide book for those witchhunters who sought to battle Satan in the Rhineland. Their collaborative work, Malleus Maleficarum, "A Hammer for Witches" (1486), soon became the official handbook for those who conducted witchcraft trials throughout nearly all of Europe. While some members of the laity, the civil courts, and even the clergy had begun to question the actual power of witches, Malleus Maleficarum strongly refuted those arguments that suggested that the reality of the hellish works of those individuals who claimed an alliance with Satan existed only in troubled human minds.

According to Malleus, those angels who fell from heaven were intent upon destroying the human raceand anyone who believed otherwise believed contrary to the true faith. Therefore, any person who had consorted with demons and who had become witches must recant their evil ways or die.

The country that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation was also the center of the witchcraft trials in Europe, condemning to the stake 48 percent of all those who were accused of consorting with demons, perhaps as many as 26,000 victims. Oddly enough, although much political and religious restructuring was occurring in Germany, the country was not tolerant toward divergent ideas and beliefs. In southwestern Germany alone, more than 3,000 witches were executed between 1560 and 1680. Perhaps the reasons for such heavy persecution of suspected witches lay in the distrust that the warring Christian factionsthe Roman Catholics and the newly emerging Protestant sectshad toward one another, and their religious zeal prompted them to accuse a variety of scapegoats as servants of Satan.

In 1630, Prince-Bishop Johann Georg II Fuchs von Dornheim, the infamous Hexenbischof (Witch Bishop), constructed a special torture chamber which he decorated with appropriate passages from scripture. He burned at least 600 heretics and witches, including a fellow bishop he suspected of being too lenient.

While the Protestant states in Germany abandoned the persecution of witches a generation before those states under Roman Catholic dominance, the uncompromising nature of the Lutheran and Calvinist doctrines contributed to the continuation of the witchcraft trials until around 1660. The witchcraft trials in Germany ended in 1684. Of the approximately 26,000 accused witches condemned to death from around 1550 to 1684, 82 percent were women.

Delving Deeper

"case study: the european witch-hunts, c. 1450 1750." gendercide watch. [online] http://www.gendercide.org/case_witchhunts.html. 25 february 2002.

russell, jeffrey burton. witchcraft in the middle ages. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1972.

trevor-roper, h. r. the european witch-craze. new york: harper & row, 1967.

summers, montague. the history of witchcraft. new york: university books, 1956.

Salem, Massachusetts

The Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials of 1692 provide a classic example of what scholars mean when they refer to the "witch craze" or "witch hysteria" that swept through Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because of the accusations of a small circle of prepubescent girls, an entire community became crazed and caught up in the fear that many of their neighbors were serving Satan in secret. The witch hysteria in Salem village resulted in the deaths of 24 men and women, who were hanged, were crushed to death, or died in prison.

The reign of terror that seized the village of Salem in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 remains perhaps the single most celebrated of all witch hunts. Playwright Arthur Miller's (1915 ) moving stage treatment of the nightmare at Salem, The Crucible (1953), receives periodic revivals on Broadway, and in 1996 Miller wrote the screenplay for the motion picture version, starring Winona Ryder, Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Scofield, and Joan Allen. In her study of the witchcraft trials The Devil in Massachusetts (1961), Marion L. Starkey made the following observation: "No definitive history of the Salem witchcraft trials has ever been written or is likely to be, for it would take a lifetime and would be encyclopedic in dimension."

The madness began innocently enough in the home of the Rev. Samuel Parris when his slave Tituba began telling stories of voodoo and restless spirits to his nine-year-old daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11. While it is certain that the Puritan preacher would have either scolded or beaten Tituba for filling the girls' heads with such spooky tales, Abigail and Betty cherished these secret times with the slave woman and kept quiet about the nature of their conversation. Soon the exciting storytelling sessions in the Parris household were attracting older girls, such as 16-year-old Mary Walcott and 18-year-old Susanna Sheldon, who wanted Tituba to tell their fortunes and predict their future husbands, as well as tell them ghost stories. Although Rev. Parris and the other preachers fulminated from the pulpits about the dangers of seeking occult knowledge, the girls of Salem ignored such warnings in favor of having a thrilling pastime that could help them through a long, cold winter.

Then came the fateful afternoon when Ann Putnam, a fragile, highly strung 12-year-old, joined the circle in the company of the Putnams' maid, 19-year-old Mercy Lewis. Ann was much more widely read than the other girls and was blessed with a quick wit, a high intelligence, and a lively imagination. She soon became Tituba's most avid and apt pupil. Together with her literate mother, Ann had read far more than the other girls in the circle, and she was quite familiar with the imagery in the Book of Revelation with its dragons, horned beasts, devils, and damnation. It seems that while part of Ann's psyche was thrilled with the forbidden knowledge Tituba shared with them, another aspect was conflicted with guilt that they were flirting with devilish enchantment.

Undoubtedly most of the other girls were also conflicted with conscience and the fear of discovery. As the days passed, little Betty seemed distracted from her chores, subject to sudden fits of weeping, often noted to be staring blankly at the wall. Shortly thereafter, Abigail went far beyond weeping and blank stares. She got down on all fours and began barking like a dog or braying like a donkey. Mary Walcott and Susanna Sheldon fell into convulsions. Ann Putnam and the family maid, Mercy Lewis, also began to suffer seizures. Something evil seemed to have come to Salem.

About four years previously in the north end of Boston, four children in the John Godwin family had fallen into such fits, babbling blasphemies, ignoring the prayers of the clergy. It took the famous preacher Cotton Mather (16631728) to quiet the work of an alleged witch, an Irish washerwoman named Glover, and restore the children to normalcy. The memories of this horrid event, including the hanging of Witch Glover, were much alive in the minds of the Salem clergy when they began to ask the girls who it was who was tormenting them.

To no one's surprise, Tituba was the first name from the possessed childrens' lips. Nor did anyone doubt the naming of Sarah Good, considered by the townsfolk to be a bit of a tramp with a foul-smelling pipe, who had been suspected of spreading smallpox through witchcraft. But when the children named Sarah Osburne a witch, the village was shocked. Osburne was a property owner, who lived in one of the most substantial homes in Salem. Nevertheless, warrants were issued for all three women.

And from such a dramatic beginning, the list of names of the devil's disciples who were tormenting the girls grew steadily longer. The wealthy merchant Philip English; Goodwife Proctor, the wife of successful farmer and tavern keeper, John Proctor; Martha Cory, the wife of another prosperous farmer, Giles Cory. Sarah Good's four-year-old daughter, Dorcas, was also put in chains as an accused witch. Two magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, were sent out from the General Court of Massachusetts Colony to hear testimony that described tales of talking animals, dark shapes, red cats, and a tall man, who was undoubtedly the devil himself.

When 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse was arrested for witchcraft against her neighbors, the townsfolk realized that if she could be named as a witch, no one was safe from such accusations. Nurse was considered a veritable saint by the village, a woman noted for her piety and simplicity of heart. Although the jury initially acquitted her, the judge ordered the jury to reconsider and she was found guilty. She was hanged on Gallows Hill on July 19, 1692.

Several hundred people in and around Salem were accused of witchcraft, even the wife of Massachusetts governor William Phips. Such an absurdity provoked Phips into taking a stand against any further imprisonments and he forbade any more executions for witchcraft in Salem. Because of the governor's actions, the nearly 150 men and women who were still chained to prison walls were set free and many who had been convicted of witchcraft were pardoned.

In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed a general amnesty that exonerated all but six of the accused witches. In 1957, the state legislature passed a resolution exonerating Ann Pudeator, who had been hanged. Finally, on November 1, 2001, acting Massachusetts governor Jane Swift approved a bill that cleared all the accused witches hanged in Salem in 1692 and 1693. The bill exonerated the final five who had not been cleared by the previous amnesty resolutionsSusannah Martin, Bridget Bishop, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd.

Delving Deeper

hansen, chadwick. witchcraft at salem. new york: new american library, 1970.

noble, christopher. "relatives cheer bill clearing salem witches." [online] http://dailynews.yahoo.com/htx/nm/20011102/od/life_witches_dc_1.htm l. 4 march 2002.

starkey, marion l. the devil in massachusetts: a modern enquiry into the salem witch trials. garden city, n.y.: dolphin/doubleday, 1961.

"a village possessed: a true story of witchcraft." discovery online. [online] http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/witches/trials.html. 4 march 2002.


Although torture was forbidden to be used as an instrument to obtain confessions from witches in England, it was allowed in Scotland where half of all those accused of witchcraft from 1537 to 1722 were burned at the stake, a total of 1,350 to 1,739 victimsat least three times as many as were hanged in Englandwith women comprising 86 percent of that number.

The first recorded execution of a witch in Scotland occurred in July 1537 when Janet Douglas, also known as Lady Glamis, was burned at the stake in Edinburgh. Lady Glamis died not because she was the victim of a trial inspired by the witch craze of Europe, but because she had been found guilty of using her abilities as a witch to murder.

In 1583, Englishman Reginald Scot (15381599) wrote The Discovery of Witch-craft, which was his answer to the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) and what he considered the abuses being conducted against accused witches in Scotland, where torture was freely used to wring confessions out of those unfortunate enough to have gone to trial. Scot considered the witch-hunters to be sexually obsessed madmen who took delight in inflicting sadistic tortures on their victims. A person being put to torture could be made to confess to any charge, Scot argued. And if the witches were really so powerful, he questioned why had they not enslaved the human race centuries ago?

Scot's book so infuriated King James VI of Scotland (15661625) that he himself wrote a treatise on the reality of demon worship and the power of witches entitled Demonologie to refute The Discovery of Witchcraft. A few years later, when he ascended the throne of England, one of King James' first official acts was to order the public burning of Scot's book.

The last witch in the whole of the British Isles to be executed was Jenny Horn of Sutherland, Scotland, who was burned at the stake in 1722. Horn had been tried together with her daughter, who, the jury decided, was a victim of her mother's witchcraft, rather than an accomplice.

Delving Deeper

"case study: the european witch-hunts, c. 1450 1750." gendercide watch. [online] http://www.gendercide.org/case_witchhunts.html. 25 february 2002.

notestein, wallace. a history of witchcraft in england. new york: thomas y. crowell, 1968.

russell, jeffrey burton. witchcraft in the middle ages. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1972.

summers, montague. the history of witchcraft. new york: university books, 1956.

trevor-roper, h. r. the european witch-craze. new york: harper & row, 1967.


In 1478, at the request of King Ferdinand V (14521516) and Queen Isabella I (1451 1504), papal permission was granted to establish the Spanish Inquisition and to maintain it separate from the Inquisition that extended its jurisdiction over all the rest of Europe. The Spanish Inquisition was always more interested in persecuting heretics than those suspected of witchcraft. It has been estimated that of the 5,000 men and women accused of being witches, less than 1 percent were condemned to death. The Spanish Inquisition was concerned with trying the Marranos or conversos, those Jews suspected of insincerely converting to Christianity; the converts from Islam, similarly thought to be insincere in practicing the Christian faith; and, in the 1520s, those individuals who were believed to have converted to Protestantism. The support of Spain's royal house enabled Tomas de Torquemada (1420 1498) to become the single grand inquisitor whose name has become synonymous with the Inquisition's most cruel acts and excesses. Torquemada is known to have ordered the deaths by torture and burning of thousands of heretics and witches.

The Spanish Inquisition seemed to take special delight in the pomp and ceremony of the auto-de-fe, during which hundreds of heretics might be burned at one time. If an auto-de-fe could not be made to coincide with some great festival day, it was at least held on a Sunday so that the populace could make plans to attend the burnings.

The ghastly event began with a procession of the penitents led by Dominican friars. Behind them marched the wretched victims of the Inquisition, barefooted, stumbling, hollow-eyed with the pain and nightmare of their ordeal.

As in Spain, the same lack of concern regarding the practice of the Old Religion and the folk customs of the herbalists and strega (witches) was also the prevailing attitude in Italy, another nation in which the Roman Catholic Church was strong and was not weakened by the Protestant Reformation. The clerical tribunals in either nation levied few death sentences toward witches, but many scholars have estimated that the neighbors had killed many men and women suspected of witchcraft. Some researchers have stated that as many as 25 percent of those executed for witchcraft in those countries were lynched by mobs who carried out the fatal sentences that they felt the Inquisition had failed to deliver.

Delving Deeper

lea, henry charles. the inquisition of the middle ages. new york: citadel press, 1963.

netanyahu, b. the origins of the inquisition. new york: random house, 1995.

russell, jeffrey burton. witchcraft in the middle ages. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1972.

swain, john. the history of torture. new york: award books, 1969.


views updated May 29 2018


Since the Middle Ages, witchcraft, the "Old Religion," or Wicca, the "ancient craft of the wise," all of which are different names for the same nature-based religion, has been unjustly, and for the most part purposely, interwoven with Satanism until, in popular thought, the two comprise a tapestry of confusion and misidentification. Wicca, in its contemporary expression, has evolved into what its followers term "neo-paganism," a concept reviewed in another section. The Old Religion, that which in the Middle Ages came to be known as witchcraft, is thought to have had its genesis in the later Paleolithic period, a time when early humans faced the elements and their environment with little more than their hands and a few crude tools of bone and stone to aid them in the struggle to survive. Like the other creatures around them, Stone Age humans had to adapt themselves constantly to changes in the weather, climate, and food supply. Having greater powers of perception, humankind's responses to these changes involved more than an instinctual change of habits or location. The human species could also wonder about the whys and wherefores of these things, and because of the remarkable facility of human imagination, these early men and women could ponder how these things might change for the better or worse in the future. As consciousness of humans increased, their world became more wonderful and more terrifying.

Primitive humans were primarily hunters. They needed the meat obtained from their prey, and they needed the animal skins for clothing. From the teeth and bones of the slaughtered animals, they fashioned simple tools and weapons. When the hunting was bad, they knew that their own existence was threatened. Why was the hunt successful at times and not at others? Perhaps there was a spirit who decided these things. If so, perhaps that spirit could be persuaded to control the hunt in favor of the human hunter.

In his classic work The Golden Bough (1890), Sir James George Frazer points out two factors influencing the nature of primitive religion:

  1. the older concept of a "view of nature as a series of events occurring in an invariable order without the intervention of personal agency"; and
  2. the later development that the "world is to a great extent worked by supernatural agents, that is, by personal beings acting on impulses and motives."

From the first concept arose the earliest rites of primitive religion consisting of sympathetic magic, which is based on the belief that something that resembles something else is able to become or attract that which it resembles, or a given cause always produces a certain effect. An example of such rites is the shaman's lighting of the ceremonial fire each morning to ensure the sun's rising. If the shaman lights his fire each morning, then the god who lights the great fire in the heavens must see and follow suit.

By a similar process Stone Age humans sought to ensure the success of the hunt. In Witchcraft from the Inside (1997), Raymond Buckland writes:

One man would represent the God and supervise the magick. As a God of Hunting, he was represented as being the animal being hunted. His representative, or priest, would therefore dress in an animal skin and wear a headdress of horns.

This God of the Hunt, then, is the Horned God pictured on the wall of the Caverne des Trois in southern France. At Le Tuc d'Audoubert, near the Caverne des Trois, archeologists found the clay figure of a bison. The figure shows a number of marks where spears were thrust into it during a ritual of sympathetic magic performed to ensure a successful hunt. According to Buckland: "A model of the animal to be hunted was made . . . and under the priest's direction, was attacked by the men of the tribe. Successful in 'killing' the clay animal, the men could thus go about after the real thing confident that the hunt would go exactly as acted before the God."

It is interesting to note the association of horns with divinity, a condition that finds expression in numerous strange and seemingly unassociated places. It is not difficult to associate the horned headdresses worn by the shamans of various tribal societies with the concept of a God of the Hunt. The headpieces of many ancient rulers, including the pharaohs of Egypt, include horns either of realistic or stylized design. Although the religion of the biblical Israelites was represented as distinctly antipagan, their sacrifices were offered on horned altars. The two bronze altars in Solomon's (10th century b.c.e.) temple were equipped with horns, as was the altar at the shrine of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem before Solomon. Most curious of all, however, is Michaelangelo's (14751564) famous statue of Moses (14th13th century b.c.e.), which depicts him with horns, thereby causing his head and face to bear a remarkable resemblance to Cerrnunos, as the Celts named the Horned God.

Because of the importance of human and animal fertility, the Horned God was soon joined by a goddess, whose purpose it was to ensure the success of all reproductive activities. She was also the goddess who oversaw the birth of human and animal progeny. At a later date, when primitive religious thought had evolved to the point of belief in some form of continuation after death, the goddess oversaw human and animal death as well.

With the advent of agriculture, the goddess was called upon to extend her powers to ensure fertility of the crops. From this point on, the figure of the goddess began to overshadow that of the Horned God. A population that did not have to keep on the move increased rapidly, and soon a portion of the human tribes began to move out of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the so-called cradle of civilization, and spread northward to what is now Europe and Asia. To the west, the fertile valley of the Nile proved an attractive site to agricultural peoples. And as humankind moved, their gods moved with them.

The population of medieval Europe had descended from the central Asian plateau. Centuries ago, they had strained against the barriers that the Roman legions had set against them until they had finally broken through and flooded the continent. Christianity and "civilized" ways were unknown to them at first, and they brought their own gods, customs, and rituals into the land. At the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the civilizing force in Europe became the Roman Catholic Church, and even though the ecclesiastical institution made great inroads into the pagan culture, it could not completely wash away the old rituals and nature worship.

Surviving the Roman Empire socially in the Middle Ages was the oppressive feudal system. Once-proud warriors were reduced to the role of serf farmers, and although they resented such a docile status, they were forced by necessity to accept it. Partially because of the frustrations of the common people and partially because of the tenacity of long-conditioned customs, the celebration of nature worship and various adaptations of the ancient mystery religions came to be practiced in secret. On those occasions when such seasonal nature celebrations were witnessed by members of the Christian clergy, the gatherings were condemned as expressions of witchcraft and were named "black sabbats," to distinguish the ceremonies as the complete opposite of the true and holy Sabbath days. The Horned God was deemed to be Satan, and the goddess believed to be Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt.

For the serfs, the observance of the old nature worship was an expression of their conscious or unconscious yen to throw off the yoke of feudalism. The rulers had imposed the Christian God and the Christian ethic. The nobility and high church officials realized that such celebrations could only lead eventually to a rebellious and uncontrollable populace. The popularity of the pagan celebrations rose to its greatest height in the period of 1200 to the Renaissance. During this period, Europe was devastated and depopulated by famines, the ill-fated Crusades, and the black death.

Raymond Buckland feels that it is the naturalness and simplicity of the Old Religion that continues to hold great appeal for the individual who has become alienated by the pomp and ceremony and exclusivity of orthodox religion, as well as the small size of the "congregation." A coven of witches consists of no more than 12 members, the high priest or high priestess bringing the number up to the traditional 13.

"Witchcraft is very much a religion of participation," Buckland said. "Rather than being a spectator sitting in a pew at the back of a church, you are right there in the middle of things, participating."

It was in their enjoyment of the excitement and vigor of the Old Religion that the peasants could allow themselves the luxury of experiencing pleasure without the interference of the church, which sought to control and repress even human emotions. But it was that same expression of seeing the divine in all of the creator's works that brought the wrath of the church down upon the witches in the terrible form of the Inquisition.

Delving Deeper

Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft from the Inside. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.

Frazer, Sir James George. The New Golden Bough. Edited by Theodor H. Gaster. New York: Criteri on Books, 1959.

Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


The concept of certain spirit beings who assist a magician or a witch undoubtedly hearkens back to the totem animal guides that attended the ancient shamans, for the familiars express themselves most often in animal forms. The black cat, for instance, has become synonymous in popular folklore as the traditional companion of the witch. Attendant upon such a sorcerer as the legendary Cornelius Agrippa is the image of the black dog or the dark-haired wolf.

The ancient Greeks called upon the predrii, spirit beings who were ever at hand to provide assistance to the physicians or magicians. In Rome, the seers and soothsayers asked their familiars or magistelli to provide

supernatural assistance in their performance of magic and predictions. In many lands where the Christian missionaries planted their faith, various saints provided an acceptable substitute for the ancient practice of asking favors or help from the witches' familiar. Interestingly, many of the saints of Christendom are identified by an animal symbol, for example, the dog with St. Bernard; the lion with St. Mark; the stag with St. Eustace; and the crow with St. Anthony. However, in those regions where the country folk and rural residents persisted in calling upon their familiars, the church decreed the spirit beings to be demons sent by Satan to undermine the work of the clergy. All those accused of possessing a familiar or relying on it for guidance or assistance were forced to recant such a devilish partnership or be in danger of the torture chamber and the stake. While the much-loved St. Francis of Assisi was often represented symbolically by a wolf, if any of the common folk identified the wolf as their personal totem or guide, such a declaration would be taken as proof that they were witches who had the ability to shapeshift into a werewolf.

Delving Deeper

Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Dictionary of Sym bols and Sacred Objects. Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1988.

The InquisitionThe Time of the Burning

The Inquisition came into existence in 1231 with the Excommunicamus of Pope Gregory IX (c. 11701241), who at first urged local bishops to become more vigorous in ridding Europe of heretics, then lessened their responsibility for determining orthodoxy by establishing inquisitors under the special jurisdiction of the papacy. The office of inquisitor was entrusted primarily to the Franciscans and the Dominicans, because of their reputation for superior knowledge of theology and their declared freedom from worldly ambition. Each tribunal was ordered to include two inquisitors of equal authority, who would be assisted by notaries, police, and counselors. Because they had the power to excommunicate even members of royal houses, the inquisitors were formidable figures with whom to reckon. In 1257, the church officially sanctioned torture as a means of forcing witches, sorcerers, shapeshifters, and other heretics to confess their alliance with Satan.

The Inquisition became a kind of hideous industry. It employed judges, jailers, torturers, exorcists, woodchoppers, and experts to destroy the evil ones who were threatening the ruling powers. "Witch persecutorswere craftsmen with a professional pride," Kurt Seligmann wrote in The History of Magic (1948). "A hangman grew melancholic when a witch resisted him unduly. That was akin to a personal offense. In order to save face he let the accused die under the torture, and thus his honor was not impaired, for the blame for the killing would then rest on the devil.The business became so prosperous that the hangmen's wives arrayed themselves in silk robes.For every witch burned, the hangman received an honorarium. He was not allowed to follow any other profession, therefore he had to make the best of his craft."

It was not long before the torturers had discovered a foolproof method for perpetuating their gory profession. Under torture, nearly any witch could be forced to name a long string of her "fellow witches," thereby turning the trial of a single individual into an ordeal for more than a hundred. One inquisitor boasted: "Give me a bishop, and I would soon have him confessing to being a wizard!" Another declared that the Holy Inquisition was the only alchemy that really worked, for the inquisitors had found the secret of transmuting human blood into gold.

The Jesuit Friedrich von Spee (15911635) became an opponent of the witchcraft trials in 1630 when the wise Duke of Brunswick brought him and a fellow priest into a torture chamber. As the duke and the two fathers, champions of the cause of the Inquisition, stood beside a confessed witch, who was being tortured further for her increased good of soul, the German nobleman asked the priests if, in their consciences, they could say that the Holy Tribunals were doing God's work. When the Jesuits answered loudly in the affirmative, the duke asked the poor woman on the rack to look carefully at his companions. "I suspect them of being witches," he said. With this, he indicated that the wretch be stretched another notch on the rack. At once she began screaming that the two devout fathers were agents of Satan, that she had seen them copulating with succubi and serpents and had dined with them on roasted baby at the last Sabbat.

Later, in an anti-Inquisition work, Father Spree declared: "Often I have thought that the only reason why we are not all wizards is due to the fact that we have not all been tortured. And there is truth in what an inquisitor dared to boast, that if he could reach the Pope, he would make him confess that he was a wizard."

By the late sixteenth century, the power of the Inquisition was beginning to wane. In 1563, Johann Weyer (Weir) (15151588), a critic of the Inquisition, managed to publish De praestigus daemonum in which he argued that while Satan does seek to ensnare and destroy human beings, the charges that accused witches, werewolves, and vampires possessed supernatural powers were false. Such abilities existed only in their minds and imaginations. However, as if to provide an antidote to Weyer's call for a rational approach to dealing with accusations of witchcraft, in 1580 the respected intellectual Jean Bodin, often referred to as the Aristotle of the sixteenth century, wrote De La demonomanie des sorciers, a book that argued that witches truly possessed demonic powers and caused the flames once again to burn high around thousands of heretics' stakes.

With the spread of Protestantism through Europe, Pope Paul III (14681549) established the Congregation of the Inquisition (also known as the Roman Inquisition and the Holy Office) in 1542 which consisted of six cardinals, including the reformer Gian Pietro Cardinal Carafa (14751559). Although their powers extended to the whole church, the Holy Office was less concerned about heresies and false beliefs of church members than they were with misstatements of orthodoxy in the academic writings of its theologians. When Carafa became Pope Paul IV in 1555, he approved the first Index of Forbidden Books (1559) and vigorously sought out any academics who were prompting any thought that offended church doctrine or favored Protestantism.

Although organized witchcraft trials continued to be held throughout Europe and even the American colonies until the late seventeenth century, they were most often civil affairs and the Inquisition had little part in such ordeals. However, the Holy Office continued to serve as the instrument by which the papal government regulated church order and doctrine, and it did try and condemn Galileo (15641642) in 1633. In 1965, Pope Paul VI (18971978) reorganized the Holy Office and renamed it the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

For many years and in dozens of books and articles on witches and Wicca, the number of innocent people executed for the practice of witchcraft during the four centuries of active persecution has been estimated as high as nine million. In 1999, Jenny Gibbons released the results of her research in the autumn issue of PanGaia in which she verified that overall, approximately 75 percent to 80 percent of those accused of witchcraft were women, but to date (circa 1999) an examination of the official trial records of the witchcraft trials indicate that less than 15,000 definite executions occurred in all of Europe and America combined. The period of the heaviest persecutions of witches occurred during the 100 years between 1550 and 1650, Gibbons reported, and the total number of men and women accused of witchcraft who were actually hanged or burned probably did not exceed 40,000.

Wiccan author and scholar Margot Adler has noted that the source of the oft-quoted nine million witches put to death was first used by a German historian in the late eighteenth century who took the number of people killed in a witch hunt in his own German state and multiplied by the number of years various penal statutes existed, then reconfigured the number to correspond to the population of Europe. "It serves no end to perpetuate the miscalculation," Adler commented. "It's time to put away the exaggerated numbers forever."

Delving Deeper

Adler, Margot. "A Time for Truth: Wiccans Struggle with Information that Revises Their History." beliefnet. [Online] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/40/story_4007.html.

Gibbons, Jenny. "A New Look at the Great European Witch Hunt" (excerpted from "The Great European Witch Hunt," published in the Autumn 1999 issue of PanGaia ). beliefnet [Online] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/17/story_1744_1.html.

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition. New York: Random House, 1995.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


The Sabbat is a day of ascendancy for witches. In the European countrysides during the Middle Ages, the eight festival observances took on immense importance as thousands of peasants, common people, and members of the lesser nobility attended the seasonal celebrations. The Sabbats mark the passage of the year as it moves through its seasons: Samhain begins the year for those who follow the ways of witchcraft, and it occurs near October 31. Yule marks the Winter Solstice and is celebrated near December 21, the longest, darkest night of the year. Candlemas, observed on February 2, is the festival of the Goddess Brigid. The Spring Equinox happens around March 21 and is a powerful time of magic. Beltane, May 1, celebrates love and oneness. The Summer Solstice, occurring around June 21, is also a time of power and strength of the deities of nature. August 1 recognizes Lammas, a time when fruit ripens and there are signs that harvest is near. The Fall Equinox, near or on September 21, celebrates a balance between light and dark, night and day.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian influence, so visible during the day, seemed to vanish at night as great groups of people gathered around a statue of the Horned God and began professing their allegiance to the great deities of nature. To staunch Christians, this horned image was an obscene representation of Satan, a black, grotesque figure that was fiendishly lit by the roaring fire in front of it. In the flickering light, the torso of the figure appeared to be human while the head, hands, and feet were shaped like those of a goat and covered with coarse, black hair. The altar beneath the image of the Horned God was constructed of stones, and the ceremony performed was intricate.

Although there was plenty of food and beer, many scholars of witchcraft believe that the high priests and priestesses took advantage of the entranced state of most of the worshippers and spiked the drinks with belladonna or other drugs. The crowd was then easily whipped into an intoxicated frenzy, which tended to free the inhibitions of the celebrants. At the peak of the collective emotions, the crowd acted as a single person and began almost automatically to dance the hypnotic witches' round. As the dance continued, the cathartic influence of the entire celebration magnified the energy of each individual until all of them forgot their own personality in expression of worship of the Horned God and the Goddess.

The Sabbat dance, or, as it is commonly known, the witches' round, was performed with the dancers moving in a back-to-back position with their hands clasped and their heads turned so that they might see each other. A wild dance such as this, which was essentially circular in movement, would need little help from the drugged drinks to bring about a condition of vertigo in the most hearty of dancers. The celebration lasted the entire night, and the crowd did not disperse until the crowing of the cock the following morning.

Reports of regular celebrations of the various Sabbats came from all over Europe. An estimated 25,000 attended such rituals in the countrysides of southern France and around the Black Forest region of Germany. As rumors of even larger gatherings spread throughout the land, the nobility and the churchmen decided to squelch such expressions out of existence with the use of the hideous machinery of the Inquisition. Even the most innocent amusements of the serfs were taken away. In the face of such large-scale persecutions, the mass meeting celebrations of the Sabbat were made impossible. But even though great pressure was brought to bear on such outward manifestations of the rituals, the Sabbats were still performed in modified versions in the private fields, orchards, and cellars of the peasants.

Delving Deeper

Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft from the Inside. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.

Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Murray, Margaret. The God of the Witches. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


views updated Jun 08 2018


The word witchcraft is used in many different ways. The word witch is derived from Old English wicca (masc., "wizard") and wicce (fem., "witch"). The term wiccan ("witchcraft") referred to human acts intended to influence nature, usually through the use of power unavailable to all human beings. This use of the word witchcraft is synonymous with the more general word magic. The acts associated with witchcraft were sometimes called spells (Old English "talk, tale"). The person could conduct these acts for his or her benefit, or for others who did not have access to the necessary power. In contemporary academic work and in popular culture, however, it is still generally assumed that the influence or change resulting from the act is harmful. With these negative associations, witchcraft is also used for diabolism, acts performed with the assistance of the devil. Other acts, those that attempt to influence nature in a beneficial way, are usually not considered. Witchcraft also refers to ideas and practices believed to influence nature that emerged in the twentieth century, largely in Europe and North America, sometimes referred to as neo-paganism. This use of witchcraft is similar to the one derived from the Old English wiccan.

Witchcraft is the term most commonly used in the social science literature, and the practices it refers to can be found in all societies. Over the years there has been some debate about the similarities and differences between the practices of witchcraft and sorcery, and in the social sciences there are several traditions. Studies conducted in Asia tend to use the term sorcery for the practices referred to by magic, while studies in South America use shamanism in a similar way. Studies in Africa use both sorcery and witchcraft, and the use of both terms usually assumes that the magical acts are intended to be harmful.

In the twentieth century, there were debates about whether different terms should be applied to rituals that were conducted with and without the assistance of spirits. There were also discussions about distinguishing between practitioners whose power was innate and those who learned the knowledge and skills from existing practitioners. In the social sciences, it is generally assumed that both witchcraft and sorcery can be used interchangeably, but it is important for the scholar to explain the particular way each term is being used, as well as its relationship to local terms.

The Social and Political History of Witchcraft in Europe

The ancient Greeks made distinctions among forms of magic, although they differ from the categories found in contemporary thought. The Greeks considered all magic to be performed with the assistance of spirit entities called diamones ("demons") that could be either harmful or helpful. During the Hellenistic period, a new belief emerged that developed the notion that evil spirits were led by Satan. Christians then began to divide the diamones into good angels and harmful demons. People involved in magic were thought to use the power of demons. During the Renaissance, this idea expanded into a full-fledged belief in diabolical witchcraft. The idea of the devil in Christianity overshadowed all other ideas concerning magic, and the fear of witchcraft took a central place in the religious imagination.

During the period of the European witch craze (14501700), many beliefs and practices rooted in paganism and folklore came to be associated with influences from the devil. The idea of diabolical witchcraft also came to be applied to medieval heretics, who were imagined to be involved in a pact with witches and with Satan himself. In Spain and its colonies, the Inquisition, which provided a legal forum for persecuting those identified as witches and heretics, further collapsed the concepts of magic and diabolical witchcraft. Gradually, any form of magic came to be viewed in Europe as diabolical witchcraft.

During the witch craze, patterns in accusation show that the accused generally had a low social status, already had been faulted for other transgressions, and exhibited difficult personality traits. Many were practitioners of medicine, and a disproportionately large number were women, as discussed below. Although there were no witch hunts in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many colonial societies developed new versions of witchcraft laws that were used to stigmatize the religious ideas and practices of colonized peoples.

The Functions of Witchcraft

In the 1940s and 1950s sociologists and anthropologists explored the many positive functions of witchcraft and illustrated them with detailed studies. As E. E. Evans-Pritchard (19021973) observed in his classic study of the belief in witches in an African society, the Azande, witchcraft can be understood as an explanation for unfortunate events. That explanation enabled people to maintain a sense of control over their lives and feel that they understood their world. Understandings about witchcraft could also help to define values and moral standards in a society.

The ideas that a society creates about witches can be seen to support norms and values in that society, and, when analyzed along with a structural model of the society, can also provide insights into the organization of the culture and society. Ideas about the negative characteristics of the witch can be a way to guide behavior, as functionalist anthropologists argued in a series of studies showing that the belief in witchcraft served as a social control mechanism. In his work on the Navajo, Clyde Kluckholn found that the fear of becoming the victim of witchcraft encouraged them to cooperate, share resources, and minimize public displays of anger. The socially permitted form of aggression toward the witch allowed other hostilities to be displaced onto an individual, a useful outlet in situations where in-group hostilities could threaten the survival of the group or damage people's abilities to act collectively.

The central problem with studies that assumed a cohesive function for witchcraft was that, like other functional analyses, the theory could not be proved or falsified. Some sociologists and anthropologists such as Max Marwick were more interested in analyzing the social basis of witchcraft accusations and the life conditions that placed particular strain on these relationships. Against the dominant functionalist trend, Robert Murphy proposed that beliefs about witchcraft and accusations could have disruptive effects. Working with the Mundurucú in Brazil, he found that witchcraft accusations, combined with a rubber economic boom, created group divisions and family migration, which eventually supported a more dispersed settlement pattern. From her comparative analysis of African Studies, Mary Douglas (1963) came to a similar conclusion.

It has been observed that people in relatively marginal positions in society might be able to use witchcraft, or the threat of witchcraft, as a form of social power. The relatively weak could then influence people with more power or wealth to redistribute it and minimize some of the inequalities in the society. In his study of the Maka in Cameroon, Peter Geschiere shows that witchcraft can work both to promote accumulation and leveling.

Symbolic and Ideological Aspects of Witchcraft

Largely through the influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist approach, anthropologists have placed great emphasis on the position of witches in symbolic systems. In ethnographic studies, it has often been observed that witches are associated with the left hand and with wild or nondomestic realms, and are placed in opposition to the moral standards of a society. Actors' understandings of witchcraft are extremely important, although most anthropologists are cautious in interpreting these exegeses, placing them within more comprehensive analyses that also examine symbolic meanings more generally, as well as their relationship to the social, political, and economic processes in the society. This approach is best shown in the work of Bruce Knauft in New Guinea.

Scholarship has also explored the role of witchcraft beliefs in diverting people's attention from economic and political explanations for untoward events. This kind of argument, similar to Karl Marx's (18181883) understanding of ideology, claims that witchcraft as a form of explanation functions to maintain the existing sociopolitical structure of a society. According to George Bond, witchcraft explanations in Muyombe, Zambia, work to obfuscate the changing labor and property relationships among villagers. While their participation in accusations emphasizes their common membership in the community, it deemphasizes their increasingly unequal economic status.

Witchcraft and Gender Relations

Scholarly works from many different societies and time periods have shown that witch-finding rituals, popularly called witch hunts, are used by more powerful segments of a society to persecute people who are opponents or who present a threat to established power. Christina Larner shows that in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England the church and state entered new forms of cooperation and identification that especially targeted women as witches. Her explanation is that men identified themselves as the proper professional group to offer healing services, and women were persecuted because their healing traditions competed with this new system.

It is important to understand that the disproportionate number of women targeted by European and American witchcraft accusations should not be taken to mean that this focus is a universal. In some societies, men are more commonly accused of witchcraft and represent that society's ideal witch. Diane Ciekawy (1999) shows that among Mijikenda in Kenya witchcraft accusations are primarily directed toward men. In her analysis of the witchcraft accusation process, women collect evidence and shape ideas about culpability in the homestead, thereby wielding a great deal of power. The work of Rosalind Shaw with Temne women in Sierra Leone illustrates the ways that women are active agents in diviner consultations. She shows how women can select from diviner consultations the explanations for their problems that they most favor. These chosen explanations can resist patriarchal explanations that disadvantage them or create less favorable power relations.

Witchcraft: Questions of Translation and Meaning

Scholars continue to debate the question of how well scholarly concepts like witchcraft convey the meanings of local terms, and how much a term like witchcraft can reduce the diversity and complexity of ideas and actions to which it is applied. Regarding the history of scholarship around the terms magic, sorcery, and witchcraft, we see that, although magic can be indigenously conceived as having both harmful and helpful potentials, the latter can be deemphasized by scholars who are more interested in its harmful potential. While these questions are not entirely newboth Victor Turner and Malcolm Crick encouraged anthropologists to use local terms and their specific meanings as much as possible in their workcurrent scholarship is more sensitive to the possibility of misrepresenting the cultures it attempts to describe. In view of the political history of witch hunts in Europe, and the ways non-Christian religious ideas and practices were demonized, it is possible to ask if a similar process continues in the structure of contemporary academic discourse.

Some scholars regard witchcraft as a discourse of power that requires knowledge about the historical and ethnographic conditions that shape understandings about it. This might entail a more careful analysis of the semantic range of terms for magic and harmful magic, with an attempt to separate local discourses from wider regional or national ones. Ciekawy (1998) does this in her analysis of the application of the Witchcraft Act in colonial and postcolonial coastal Kenya. She describes different words that Mijikenda people use for harmful magic: utsai is a Kimijikenda term, the kiSwahili words are uchawi and ulozi, and some people use witchcraft. Mijikenda employ these terms in different contexts. She concludes that, for conceptual and analytical purposes, the terms must be distinguished because utsai refers to a discourse on harmful magic that is created and operates within local social and political settings largely under the control of Mijikenda who use them, while witchcraft is best understood as a technology of power that emerged under European colonialism, supported largely through discourses of mission Christianity and colonial law and administration.

Witchcraft as a Discourse of Power

Jeanne Favret-Saada's study of witchcraft in the Bocage of western France examines the power of words used by people to talk about witchcraft. She distinguishes this approach to witchcraft as power from its more conventional use in anthropology as knowledge or information, pointing out that in the Bocage there is no neutral position that a person can have when it concerns such socially and politically powerful speech. She also questions the way academics have viewed witchcraft as the backward and untrue beliefs of people who do not use academic forms of reasoning. This is consistent with the general approach used to study many forms of magic offered by Arens and Karp. Rather than use the words magic and witchcraft, they advocate the use of the terms transformational capacity and power.

The Modernity of Witchcraft

Contemporary scholarly work indicates that the study of witchcraft is as relevant today as it has been in the past. Ideas about witchcraft address new circumstances and are very much a part of people's understanding of how their lives are connected to events and processes both near and far. It is common for witchcraft discourses to relate to the countryside, town, state, and world. Few current studies see witchcraft only as a social construction; it is also understood to be a concept that meaningfully provides people with a representation of the complexity of the order in which they live, including power and inequality, individual and collective interests, and resources and their allocation. Witchcraft addresses issues of globalization and transformations within the state, and continues to explain events and the mechanics of their integration into daily life. It is also important to remember that the constructions of witchcraft can be powerful realities, and have the ability to maintain or transform social relationships.

See also Anthropology ; Astrology: Overview ; Demonology ; Evil ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Heresy and Apostasy ; Magic ; Miracles ; Nature ; Superstition ; Witchcraft, African Studies of .


Arens, W., and Ivan Karp. Creativity of Power: Cosmology and Action in African Societies. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Bond, George. "Ancestors and Protestants: Religious Coexistence in the Social Field of a Zambian Community." American Ethnologist 14, no. 8 (1986): 5572.

Boyer, Paul S., and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Caro Baroja, Julio. The World of the Witches. Translated by O. N. V. Glendinning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Ciekawy, Diane. "Witchcraft and Statecraft: Five Technologies of Power in Colonial and Postcolonial Coastal Kenya." African Studies Review 41, no. 3 (1998): 119141.

. "Women's 'Work' and the Construction of Witchcraft Accusation in Coastal Kenya." Women's Studies International Forum 22, no. 2 (1999): 225235.

Cohn, Norman R. C. Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Crick, Malcolm. Explorations in Language and Meaning: Towards a Semantic Anthropology. New York: Wiley, 1976.

Demos, John. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1937.

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. Translated by Catherine Cullen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Geschiere, Peter. The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

Kluckholn, Clyde. Navaho Witchcraft. Boston: Beacon, 1962. Originally published in 1944.

Knauft, Bruce M. Good Company and Violence: Sorcery and Social Action in a Lowland New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

Macfarlane, Alan. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Mair, Lucy P. Witchcraft. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.

Marwick, Max. Sorcery in Its Social Setting. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1965.

Middleton, John. Lugbara Religion: Ritual and Authority among an East African People. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Murphy, Robert F. Mundurucú Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.

Russell, Jeffrey B. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans. London: Thames and Hudson, 1980.

Shaw, Rosalind. "Gender and the Structuring of Reality in Temne Divination: An Interactive Study." Africa 53, no. 3 (1985): 286303.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh R. The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Diane Ciekawy


views updated May 18 2018


Witchcraft embraces a range of phenomena whose meanings vary according to historical and cultural context. It encompasses a belief system described by anthropologists and common to many cultures; a historical phenomenon responsible for the execution of tens of thousands of women and men in early modern Europe and its colonies; and a modern religious movement that seeks to reclaim the worship of the divine feminine. This entry treats each of these separately, emphasizing the differences as well as the relationships among them.


At the most basic level, a witch is a person who is believed to have the ability to harm others through supernatural (i.e., nonphysical) means, either through magic, or simply by wishing them ill. Witches are typically thought to work within their own societies: They harm neighbors and kin, and are thus imagined as a particularly terrifying threat. Their motivation is seldom rational; rather, they work from sheer malice or envy, and are sometimes believed to be under the control of an evil force they cannot resist. Witchcraft is never an isolated phenomenon; it is usually thought to be part of a tradition, whether inherited or learned, that includes other witches. Wherever there is a belief in witchcraft, humans also believe that it can be fought, either through countermagic, by depriving witches of their powers, or by destroying the witches altogether. Most societies with witchcraft belief also have unwitchers, individuals who specialize in finding and eliminating the magical harm caused by witches.

Belief in witchcraft is extremely widespread in human societies, occurring on every continent; but it is not universal. It occurs most frequently in small-scale agricultural societies with a stable settlement pattern, where neighbors have intimate knowledge of one another and social relationships are intense and multilayered. Each society with witchcraft belief has its own unique set of cultural variables and parameters that specify the gender of alleged witches, their activities, physical characteristics, and relationships to factors such as age, sexual activity, and social class. In European cultures, witches were commonly assumed to be women, but this assumption is by no means universal. Similar cultures may differ greatly in the gender attributed to witches. The South Pacific islands of Trobriand, Dobu, and Fergusson are all within sight of one another off the northeastern New Guinea coast. Their inhabitants are genetically and culturally similar, and have frequent contact with one another through maritime systems of exchange. All share a belief in witchcraft, but on Trobriand witches are always male; on Fergusson, they are mostly female; and on Dobu they might be of either sex, though women are feared more.

Cultures with a belief in witchcraft often imagine witches as the very opposite of everything considered right in society. A witch is someone who disregards social rules, flouting even the most basic conventions regarded as standards of decency. Because the basic rules that maintain social order are similar cross-culturally, witches tend to be imagined in similar ways. Often, the most heinous crimes imaginable are projected onto witches; they are said to commit murder and incest, to engage in cannibalism and indiscriminate orgies, to have the ability to transform into animals, and to eat or otherwise abuse corpses.

It follows that individuals who flout other kinds of social rules, or who appear anomalous in other ways, stand a chance of being accused of witchcraft. For example, among the Azande of southern Sudan, those who did not behave as good neighbors, who had many quarrels within the village, or who had a history of violent behavior were more frequently accused of witchcraft. Among the Navajo of the American Southwest, those who appeared greedy and refused to share with their families were vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Belief in witchcraft thus serves as a form of social control, reinforcing sanctioned behaviors and creating a threat against those who violate social norms.

According to anthropologists, witchcraft beliefs can serve a number of important functions. They delineate the boundaries of acceptable behavior, allow for the expression of taboo thoughts and fantasies, maintain positive social relationships by discouraging the open expression of hostility, and attempt to explain the reasons behind otherwise unexplained negative events: illness, calamities, natural disasters, and death.

Witchcraft beliefs may also serve to explain the unexplainable. In all human cultures there are some experiences that are difficult to understand; these include experiences as diverse as sleep paralysis, near-death experiences, and dissociative states that produce very strong physical sensations, leading believers to interpret them as signs of a spiritual reality. Such experiences figure prominently in folklore about witches and witchcraft. In Newfoundland, for example, people often attributed the experience of sleep paralysis to being "hagged" or "hagridden," believing that a malevolent witch sent her spirit out to torment them in their sleep. The belief that witches cause this phenomenon may have arisen as an attempt to explain certain symptoms of sleep paralysis: a physical sensation of a weight on the chest or a presence pressing down on the sleeper.

Witchcraft beliefs become dysfunctional and deleterious when they divide communities, heighten fears, and fuel existing hostilities. This sometimes occurs during moments of great social transformation, when ordinary witchcraft beliefs may erupt into full-scale panics, leading to an escalation in the number of accusations, trials, and executions of alleged witches. This was the case in the early modern European witch craze.


In the West, the witch stereotype has been associated with women since ancient times. It is unclear how this association developed, or at what point in prehistory it emerged; but nearly all the portrayals of witches from classical literature are women. Men associated with magic in classical texts are sorcerers, individuals who acquire the power to manipulate reality through ritual. Some scholars have suggested this reflects a division of gender roles in early Indo-European societies in which men specialized in the public, communal, and political aspects of religion, while women concentrated on domestic magic. Because of their childbearing abilities, women were looked upon as repositories of powerful natural forces. These forces could be harnessed for positive ends such as healing and prophecy, but they could also be used for evil purposes.

Witchcraft and sex have been linked in European folklore from the earliest times. The witches of classical myth and literature were primarily concerned with acquiring love, or obtaining vengeance after a love had gone bad, a stereotype that persisted into the Middle Ages and early modern period. Yet this may represent an instance of projection on the part of the men who were writing these tales, rather than a reflection of social reality. The archaeological record has left hundreds of defixionum tabellae, or curse tablets, that petition deities to bind the objects of the author's erotic affection or to punish lost loves for their faithlessness. Of those for which the gender of the writers can be determined, there are more than four times as many curse tablets written by men as by women. This may simply indicate that men, by virtue of their privilege, had greater access to literacy, money to pay someone to write a tablet for them, or both; but it presents a provocative example of the gap between cultural fantasies of women as magic workers and social reality.

Roman law, like the laws of other early European societies, strictly forbade the practice of magic for harmful ends. But everyday magic for protection, healing, and good luck was practiced throughout the empire by a variety of people. Women practiced certain types of magic as an extension of their domestic responsibilities. Thus mothers would protect their children by hanging bullae, small pouches filled with amulets to bring good luck and keep away evil, around their necks. Women also used their practical knowledge of herbs to make medicines for their families. Some specialized in midwifery, using plants to induce or prevent miscarriages, ease labor pains, and prevent conception. Because the pre-Christian worldview did not separate the natural world from the supernatural, healers also invoked the help of gods and spirits to assist in their work. With the advent of Christianity, many of these practices acquired a Christian veneer, substituting the names of saints for those of earlier deities. While these folk practices changed over time, they continued to be a part of women's household responsibilities and acquired wisdom until quite recently.

Folk magic and beliefs about witchcraft persisted into the Middle Ages, but early Christianity regarded them as merely superstitious and did not take great pains to punish or persecute those who held them. This began to change during the late medieval period, as numerous factors came together to make religious and civil courts take cases of witchcraft more seriously.

The first factor was the continued existence of a belief in witchcraft accompanied by the practice of folk magic and unwitching. The second, related aspect was the survival of elements from pagan religions in the folklore of Christian Europe. In some parts of Europe, women believed that they participated in nighttime spiritual journeys led by the goddess Diana or other supernatural female figures. These nighttime spiritual assemblies would dance, feast, and occasionally enter the homes of neighbors, rewarding the hospitable and punishing the slovenly. During the Middle Ages, the Christian view of these beliefs changed; while early in the period, they were seen as merely superstitious and mistaken, toward the tenth and eleventh centuries, they began to be considered heretical. The Canon Episcopi, a legal document of the Frankish kingdom issued about 900 ce, condemns "wicked women … who believe that they ride out at night on beasts with Diana, the pagan goddess…. Such fantasies are thrust into the minds of faithless people not by God but by the Devil." Gradually, the folk concept of the games of Diana was transformed into the diabolical sabbat, a nocturnal assembly of witches under the direction of the devil where horrible acts took place.

A third element was the emergence of a dualist cosmology. According to this worldview, two principles, one evil, personified by Satan, and one good, personified by God, struggled for control of the cosmos. As various Christian heresies arose to challenge aspects of church teachings, ecclesiastical courts were established to find them and root them out. Heresy became the link between witchcraft, the devil, and fears of a conspiracy to overthrow Christianity. Accusations first leveled at heretics, such as calling up evil spirits, indulging in orgiastic sex, killing and cremating children conceived at previous orgies and use their ashes in blasphemous parody of the Eucharist, renouncing Christ and desecrating the crucifix, and paying homage to the devil, became standard elements in witchcraft accusations. By the fifteenth century, the classical formulation of diabolical witchcraft had been established. Its chief elements were (1) pact with the devil, (2) formal repudiation of Christ, (3) the secret, nocturnal meeting, (4) the night flight, (5) the desecration of the Eucharist and the crucifix, (6) orgy, (7) sacrificial infanticide, and (8) cannibalism.

The final element was the Inquisition. Initially organized by the church to identify and eradicate heretics, the Inquisition was never well organized or particularly effective; in fact, most cases of witchcraft were tried before the secular courts. Nonetheless the Inquisition provided one essential ingredient of the witch craze: the inquisitors' manuals. These manuals told inquisitors what signs of Satanism to look for, what questions to ask, and what answers to expect. The best known of these was the Malleus maleficarum (The witch hammer), by two Dominican inquisitors. Published in 1486, the Malleus went into many editions in many languages, outselling any other book except the Bible. Deeply misogynistic, the Malleus colorfully detailed the diabolical, orgiastic activities of witches and helped persuade public opinion that women were at the center of a cosmic plot directed by Satan that threatened all Christian society.


Between 1450 and 1700, as many as 100,000 may have perished in what has been called the European witch craze. In most of northern and central Europe, between 75 and 80 percent of its victims were women. There was no "typical" witch. The accused and imprisoned ranged from children as young as eight or nine to elderly women; from the very poor to those who possessed lands; from healers and midwives to farmers and craftspeople to beggars. There are a number of reasons why the witch craze focused specifically on women.

First and foremost was the dominant worldview combining ancient beliefs about witches as women with the Biblical narrative blaming Eve for the fall from Eden. Because of Eve's sin, all women were thought to be more susceptible to temptation by the devil. Social and economic factors also contributed to women's victimization. Women had little recourse to social power or economic resources of their own, and depended on husbands, fathers, and male relatives for support. Women without male relatives to support them became economically marginal, often resorting to begging in order to survive. These women were vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, and lacked relatives to defend them if they were brought to trial; they became easy targets for a community's fears and resentments. Many "crimes" of witchcraft took place in the domestic sphere: They involved causing illness in animals or children, disrupting the making of butter, luring away husbands and lovers, and other domestic troubles, reflecting tensions between women. Healers and midwives were most often women; when something went wrong with their patients, they could be accused of having caused it through malevolent spells. Women were also more inclined than men to use words in disputes with neighbors, where men might resort to physical violence; in a culture that ascribed magical power to words, this led to suspicions of witchcraft being leveled more often against women. Accusations could be useful in pressuring nonconformist women into more subservient behavior. Finally, the construction of the myth of diabolical witchcraft itself represented an inversion of the social world. As men dominated the everyday world, so women were imagined to hold power in the devil's dystopia, where they engaged in a perversion of women's proper domestic roles: Instead of life-sustaining activities such as food preparation, child care, and nursing, they cooked and consumed babies, brewed poisons, and caused illness. Instead of monogamous sexual relations with their husbands, they engaged in intercourse with the devil and indiscriminate orgies with demons and other participants in the sabbat.

Not all victims of the witch craze were women. Often male relatives of accused witches were also caught up in the net. In Spain and Italy, where the Inquisition was strongest, men were more frequently executed for heresy, whereas women accused of witchcraft were often given the opportunity to repent. In Finland and Iceland, however, men outnumbered women as accused. This may have reflected local male-dominated shamanistic practices in which men were more likely to be associated with magic than women.

During the witch panic, tens of thousands of innocent people were persecuted and hundreds of thousands terrified and intimidated. Ordinary people often invoked the discourse of diabolical witchcraft to prosecute neighbors for petty jealousies and resentments characteristic of small-scale societies. The panic migrated from Europe to its colonies; both North and Latin America suffered witchcraft persecutions of their own as a result of the importation of Christianity. There as in Europe suspicion fell more often on women, whether indigenous practitioners of folk magic in areas dominated by Spain and Portugal, or ordinary village women who fell afoul of local political tensions, as in Salem, Massachusetts. The Salem incident began with several young girls suffering from unexplained illness, or "fits," as they were described. While the cause of the illness is unclear, some scholars have theorized that it may have been caused by ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that may have been growing on the settler's rye during what was an unusually wet summer. In contrast, others have argued that the girls' play with folk divination was threatening to the male-dominated Puritan society, and that their accusations were an attempt to exonerate themselves. In either case, it is clear that the young girls were in a subdominant social position, and their accusations gave them a temporary form of authority.

By the mid-eighteenth century, increasing urbanization and the influence of the Enlightenment made witchcraft accusations a thing of the past. Belief in witchcraft and the practice of unwitching persisted in some rural areas of Europe and its colonies, in some cases into the early twenty-first century.


Romanticism, an intellectual movement that arose in Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, laid the groundwork for a new permutation of witchcraft: neopaganism. Romanticism located authenticity in the folklore of European peasants, which was presumed to contain elements of ancient pagan religions. This led to a renewed interest in both folklore and paganism, reflected in the art and literature of the time, and to a revisionist interpretation of the witch. The French historian Jules Michelet (1798–1874) and other writers of the mid-nineteenth century suggested that European witchcraft was really a widespread fertility cult surviving from pre-Christian paganism. Such arguments influenced anthropologists and folklorists at the turn of the century, such as James Frazer (1854–1941) and Margaret Murray (1863–1963). In 1899 amateur folklorist Charles Leland (1824–1903) published Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches, a text claiming to present evidence that witchcraft was the survival of a pagan cult of Diana. Aradia influenced Murray to write The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), in which she argued that witchcraft was the survival of a pre-Christian pan-European fertility cult centered on the worship of a great goddess and her horned consort, later misunderstood as devil worship. While the evidence Murray presented in favor of her argument was scanty, her work became very influential in popular circles.

In 1954, only three years after England repealed the last of its anti-witchcraft laws, Gerald B. Gardner (1884–1964) published Witchcraft Today, in which he claimed to have discovered the last surviving witch coven in England. In fact, Gardner probably cobbled together elements of revival witchcraft from his experiences with various occult and theatrical groups. Gardner's claims of having discovered an ancient religion were spurious, but he launched a legitimate new religious movement that has gained many adherents throughout the world. In the 1960s, Gardnerian witchcraft, also known as Wicca and the Craft, combined with emerging feminist and environmentalist movements to create a feminist, goddess-centered brand of New Age spirituality. Spurring interest in this movement, the feminist artist and author Merlin Stone published When God Was a Woman (1976), arguing that Hebrew monotheism had supplanted earlier pagan worship of a great mother goddess in which women had central and powerful roles. The feminist writers Z Budapest (b. 1940) and Starhawk (Miriam Simos; b. 1951) began women's covens in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, reclaiming the idea of the witch as empowering to women. Z Budapest's women-only Dianic tradition focuses on the worship of the goddess Diana, imagined as a single creatrix who is called by various names in different cultures. Starhawk is credited with the development of Reclaiming witchcraft, which mixes elements of feminism with environmentalism and political activism, and includes men in its groups. Rituals, which coincide with full moons and eight sabbats, or holy days, focus on self-realization and empowerment, healing the earth from environmental degradation, political consciousness-raising, and other positive ends. Women have central roles as priestesses and authors of liturgy.

The overall number of revival witches is difficult to estimate, but scholars calculate that it is one of the fastest-growing new religious movements, with at least 500,000 adherents in North America alone, approximately 60 percent of them women. Neopagan witchcraft offers a sense of the feminine principle in the divine, a principle almost entirely forgotten in the masculine symbolism of the great monotheistic religions. And its eclectic paganism promotes a sense of the variety and diversity of the sacred.

see also Magic; Shamanism; Witch Trials, Europe.


Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. 1994. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco: Pandora.

Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. 1974. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Briggs, Robin. 1996. Witches and Neighbors. London, Harper Collins.

Cohn, Norman. 2001. Europe's Inner Demons. Revised edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1950. Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande. 2nd edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Ginzburg, Carlo. 1990. Ecstasies, trans. John and Ann Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1990.

Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larner, Christina. 1984. Witchcraft and Religion: the Politics of Popular Belief. London: Blackwell.

Luhrmann, T. M. 1989. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Magliocco, Sabina. 2004. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-paganism in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Middleton, John, ed. 1967. Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Norton, Mary Beth. 2002. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Vintage Books.

                                           Sabina Magliocco


views updated Jun 11 2018


Witchcraft (magia, maleficium, incantatio ) may be defined as the practice of black magic, sorcery, or intercourse with evil spirits or demons in order, through supernatural aid, to accomplish evil of various kinds. Belief in the existence of demons and witches is deeply embedded in the mythology of antiquity and of the early Germans, and it received concrete expression in the acceptance of hobgoblins and vampires as actual creatures. The concept of the witch was later applied especially to women who, with the help of demons or the devil, wrought harm to men, animals, and property. The Mosaic Law had already condemned witchcraft as a crime to be punished by stoning to death.

The Witch. The German word Hexe occurs from the 13th century and is found first in the Alemanic area. The earliest Germanic words, hagazussa, Old English haegtesse (hedge woman), and Old High German zunrîte (mod. German, Zaunreiterin, fence rider) have been interpreted as taboo terms by scholars. While anthropophagy, according to Carolingian legislation [capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae (an. 785) 6; Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Capitularia (Berlin 1826) 1.26], was a characteristic trait of the striga and furia, the herbaria occupied herself with mixing poisons. The Germans ascribed to witches the power of causing storms and tempests. On the other hand, Italian witches seem to have occupied themselves rather with love spells. The complex image of the witch clearly bore the stamp of Oriental, Arabic, and Germanic ideas and rites. To this image was added the charge of heresy after people had been converted to Christianity and attacks against orthodoxy were associated with magic and witchcraft.

The Church and Witchcraft. Finally, in the eyes of the Church, witchcraft and soothsaying (divinatio, necromantia, sortilegium ) were regarded without distinction as constituting superstition (superstitio ). From the 9th to the 13th century the Church prosecuted witchcraft exclusively by means of ecclesiastical penalties. Meanwhile, it remained customary on the basis of synodal decrees going back to the 6th century to excommunicate magicians [Corpus iuris canonici, ed. E. Friedberg, (Graz 1955) C.26 q. 5 cc.6.9]. The Church originally, however, rejected completely the whole idea of the existence of witches (e.g., Canon episcopi, Abbot Regino of Prüm). Bishop burchard of worms, in his penitential Corrector et medicus (Patrologia latina, 140), labeled witches' riding, flying demons, and the ability of witches to turn into animals (e.g., cats and wolves) as superstitious notions. But after the idea of the reality of the demon world had won general recognition, and magic, because of its association with heterodoxy, was no longer treated as a delictum sui generis but was brought under the formal heading of heresy, a change in the attitude toward witchcraft became evident.

In the 13th century witchcraft became a crime that was associated with intercourse with the devil. The crimen magiae was now prosecuted also by secular law. In the course of the further development of procedure the papal inquisition formulated legal principles that became basic in the markedly increasing number of witch trials in the late Middle Ages. Through the punishment of witchcraft, in accord with both ecclesiastical and civil legislation, the offense in question and its punishment constituted an actual delictum mixti fori. Magic or witchcraft was prosecuted for the first time under German imperial law by the Treuga Heinrici (King henry vii, 122035) of 1224, and its punishment was placed at the discretion of the judge: heretici, incantatores, malefici ad arbitrium iudicis pena debita punientur [Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Constitutiones (Berlin 1826) 2.284]. The German law books of the 13th century demanded the death penalty for magicians. The Sachsen-spiegel of Eike of Repgow (c. 1225) and the Schwabenspiegel composed by an unknown Franciscan (c. 1275) threatened Christian magicians with burning at the stake.

The Witchcraft Delusion. At all levels of European society the witch obsession grew steadily stronger, especially since almost everywhere it found new support. The records of French witch trials in the 13th and 14th centuries already list many victims. Italian statutes of the 14th and 15th centuries prescribed fines, banishment, and fire for magicians and witches. When belief in demons began to assume truly epidemic proportions, Pope Innocent VIII (148292) issued his bull against witches, Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484), and ordered the Inquisition to investigate persons accused of practicing witchcraft. The Dominicans Henry Institoris and James Sprenger, making use of inquisitorial writings for the purpose (that of Nicholas Eymericus, 132099, among others), composed a commentary for court procedure, the notorious "Hammer of Witches" (Malleus maleficarum ) of 1487. This work exercised a long and marked influence on forensic practice. Denunciation and torture governed procedure. Ordeals, witches' trials, and sympathetic measures were all employed to obtain evidence. For the penal treatment of witchcraft in the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation the Constitutio criminalis Carolina (CCC) of the Emperor Charles V in 1532 was decisive (art. 109). However, it still restricted burning at the stake as a penalty; it was to be used only for the practice of harmful or black magic.

The great witch prosecutions increased rapidly in the first half of the 15th century, reached their climax in the first third of the 16th, and petered out c. 1700. No one was safe from prosecution. Witchcraft came to embrace a wide field, and interpretation favored the accuser. Catholic territories emulated Evangelical areas in putting down the presumed crime. Even the leading Reformers were not immune to belief in witches. The witch craze and witch burning were not limited to a single religion, or to any one nationality, or to Europe. The mixed clerical-secular criminal trials manifest themselves rather as phenomena typical of their age in the general history of law.

Moreover, well-defined centers of witch prosecution arose. During the entire 15th century France was in the grip of the witch plague. The French victims of the late 16th century often confessed that they were guilty of lycanthropy. In 1641 ordeal by water was abolished on order of the Parlement of Paris, but even in 1670 there were severe witch prosecutions in Rouen and Normandy. In Spain the burning of witches did not begin prior to the 16th century, but in the 17th century the tribunal of Toledo alone handled 151 witch cases. Condemnation to the galleys or imprisonment for life were frequent penalties. In the magic and astrology of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic ideas were especially active beside the ancient traditions. Italian trials of the 15th and 16th centuries frequently ended with the imposition of the death penalty on the accused. In England the witch trials and condemnations in Essex (1576) aroused the whole country. Parliament in 1604 passed the famous English statute against witches. Even as late as 1716 a woman was executed as a witch at Huntingdon; in Scotland the last execution on this charge took place in 1722. Under Calvin's influence

the persecution of witches spread first through the Romansch cantons of Switzerland. In Russia the death penalty and mutilation for witchcraft were still practically unknown in the 11th century, but belief in witches developed rapidly there later. Even in the 19th century Russian peasants murdered supposed witches. The Polish Parliament forbade witch trials in 1776. In Denmark there were numerous witch trials between 1572 and 1652; in 1670 in the Danish area of Mora alone 22 death sentences were imposed on women. Distant Iceland burned a man at the stake for magic in 1685. The witch craze reached America toward the end of the 17th century and a number of persons were executed for witchcraft, especially at Salem, Massachusetts.

In 1623 Pope Gregory XV (162123), by his constitution Omnipotentis, commanded that persons who had made a pact with the devil (pactum cum diabolo ) or who had practiced malicious or black magic (maleficium ) that had caused the death of another, should be surrendered

to the secular court (curia secularis ) and be given the death penalty. If the action of the evildoer did not result in the death of another, he should atone for his crime by imprisonment for life. In Germany, where there was much suffering from witch persecutions, especially during the Thirty Years' War, the last witch trials were conducted at Würzburg in 1749, at Endingen in 1751, and at Kempten in 1775. Leading advocates of witch prosecution were Jean Bodin, Peter Binsfeld, and Benedikt carpzov. Among the chief opponents were the Catholics Adam tanner, Paulus laymann, Ferdinand sterzinger, Nicolas malebranche, and, above all, the Jesuit Friedrich von spee [Cautio criminalis contra sagas (Rintelen 1631)], and the Protestants Balthasar Bekker, Lambert Daneau, and Christian Thomasius.

Evaluation. The witch trial was clearly a typical legal procedure in which torture was employed to prevail over the demons or ghosts who had taken possession of the accused. The prosecution or persecution of witches cannot be evaluated correctly on the basis of dramatic and tendentious literature on the theme. The phenomenon must be judged exclusively from the perspective of men afflicted with superstition and in the light of its concrete historical environment. The critic should not ignore the important fact that, despite great progress in the natural sciences, a propensity for the occult has not been completely excluded from the mind of contemporary man.

Bibliography: j. hansen, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Hexenwahns und der Hexenverfolgung im Mittelalter (Bonn 1901); Zauberwahn, Inquisition und Hexenprozess im Mittelalter und die Entstehung der grossen Hexenverfolgung (Munich 1900). w. g. soldan, Geschichte der Hexenprozesse, ed. h. heppe and m. bauer, 2 v. (Munich 1912). s. j. d. seymour, Irish Witchcraft and Demonology (Dublin 1913). m. a. murray, The Witch-cult in Western Europe (Oxford 1921). g. l. kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England (Cambridge, Mass. 1929). m.o. howey, The Cat in the Mysteries of Religion and Magic (London 1930). a. mayer, Erdmutter und Hexe (Freising 1936). e. blum, Das staatliche und kirchliche Recht des Frankenreichs in seiner Stellung zum Dämonen-, Zauber-und Hexenwesen (Paderborn 1936). s. a. nulli, I processi delle streghe (Turin 1939). g. r. scott, The History of Torture Throughout the Ages (London 1940). s. cirac estopaÑÁn, Los procesos de hechicerías en la Inquisición de Castilla la Nueva (Madrid 1942). g. bader, Die Hexenprozesse in der Schweiz (Affoltern am Albis 1945). j. brunsmand, Ko /ge huskors (Copenhagen 1953). h. zwetsloot, Friedrich Spee und die Hexenprozesse (Trier 1954). f. bavoux, La Sorcellerie en Franche-Comté (Monaco 1954). m. summers, The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York 1956). f. merzbacher, Die Hexenprozesse in Franken (Munich 1957); Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 5:316319. j. palou, La Sorcellerie (Paris 1957). e. rosenfeld, Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (Berlin 1958). m. bouteiller, Sorciers et jeteurs de sort (Paris 1958). e. de martino, Sud e magia (Milan 1959). j. schrittenloher, "Aus der Gutachter-und Urteilstätigkeit der Ingolstädter Juristenfakultät im Zeitalter der Hexenverfolgungen," Jahrbuch für Fränkische Landesforschung 23 (1963) 315353. w. krÄmer, Kurtrierische Hexenprozesse im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, vornehmlich an der unteren Mosel (Munich 1959).

[f. merzbacher]


views updated May 11 2018

witchcraft can be roughly defined as the power of a person to do harm or influence nature through occult means. It has been believed in by most known cultures. Indeed, the fact that belief in witchcraft and magic has largely been rejected in post Enlightenment Europe and North America could be seen as one of the distinguishing features of the cultures of those continents in modern times.

In its historical dimension, witchcraft is most familiar in the light of the period of the witch persecutions in western and central Europe, between 1450 and 1750. Gaps in records preclude precision, but the best current estimates suggest that some 40 000 people, perhaps 80% of them women, were executed for witchcraft between these dates. (The claim that there were nine million witch executions is now rejected as a wild over-estimate.) Witchcraft as a historical phenomenon continues to attract wide interest, and has also attracted a high degree of serious scholarly attention.

This interest and attention has created a plethora of approaches to and interpretations of witchcraft, but it is only very recently that these have overtly addressed issues related to the history of the body. Certainly, there has been a degree of interest in the medical aspects of witchcraft. Physicians were frequently called in to attend the suspected victims of bewitchment, and a number of them wrote tracts on the subject. Perhaps the most famous was Johann Weyer, court physician to the Duke of Cleves, who in 1563 published De Praestigiis Daemonum, a tract which, while not denying the existence of witchcraft, argued that most cases of supposed witchcraft were, in fact, the outcome of natural causes or of trickery. More recently, writers within the women's movement of the 1970s argued that the witch-persecutions of the late medieval and early modern periods were the outcome of an emergent male-dominated medical profession attacking female healers in general or, more particularly, midwives. This interpretation has been discredited, but the broader issue of the interface between medical practice and witchcraft remains largely unexplored.

Perhaps the key to placing witchcraft within the history of the body will be provided by the investigation of two sets of problems. The first of these is the question of the source of the power of the witch and where it was thought to reside; the second is the rather better documented phenomenon of the physical sufferings supposedly undergone by victims of witchcraft and, more particularly, of witchcraft-induced demonic possession.

Certainly, the research carried out by anthropologists on witchcraft has provided ample evidence of beliefs which locate the power to bewitch in the physical body of the witch. Perhaps the fullest description of this phenomenon came with a famous early study, E. E. Evans-Pritchard's analysis, based on three periods of fieldwork carried out between 1926 and 1930, on witchcraft, magic, and oracles among the Azande, a people living in the Sudan. The Azande thought, as did many other peoples in western and central Africa, that witchcraft existed physically as a substance in the bodies of witches. The exact details of this substance and its location varied, but it was most commonly held that it took the form of an oval brackish swelling or ‘bad’ that was joined to the edge of the liver of the witch. Thus proof that a person was a witch might take the form of a public autopsy of the suspect's body after death, performed in the presence of the deceased's relatives and, blood-brothers, and important members of the local community.

This type of evidence is less overt in historical materials, and at present much of the thinking on this range of issues remains speculative. It is clear that witchcraft was in some ways conceived of as a form of power which ran between the body of the witch and her victim, and thus notions about witchcraft in this period were connected with ideas about the body, and especially the female body. The medical theory of the day, with its attachment to the importance of humours, made it easy to see the body as a type of vessel in which there might be forces which could get out of hand, were the humoural balance to be upset.

Perhaps these forces were at their most unruly when the witch changed her shape, as many cultures believed was possible. Many early accounts of witchcraft touch on this (and there is the connected issue of lycanthropy, the form of witchcraft in which humans were supposed to assume the form and nature of wolves). It was a recurrent theme when, in the nineteenth century, folklorists collected tales of witchcraft. In England, in particular, it was still held at that time that witches were able to change themselves into hares. Other witchcraft beliefs demonstrate the importance of the body of the witch. The counter measures aimed at combating witchcraft often involved sympathetic magic that was aimed at hurting the witch physically. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the witch cake. This was typically made of some sort of flour (and sometimes other substances) mixed with the urine of the person supposedly suffering from witchcraft, and thrown onto a fire. The idea was that the process would cause unbearable pain in the urinary system of the witch, who would reveal her identity by coming to destroy the source of her discomfort. It was also widely held that the witch's victim would gain relief by scratching the witch on the face and drawing blood.

The body of the witch was meant to carry the witch's mark. This normally took the form of an excrescence or area of skin that was insensible to pain, or a supernumerary teat from which the witch's familiar spirit, which normally took an animal form, was thought to suck blood. Thus the body of the witch might be subjected to penetration by bodkins or needles as the insensible spot was sought, or to searches for the teat, which was generally expected to be located on the suspected woman's genitals or anus.

If the body of the witch showed peculiar manifestations, so too, on the evidence of some of the better documented cases, did the body of the witch's supposed victim. We have numerous descriptions of the sufferings allegedly caused by bewitchment, descriptions that, for the most part, await analysis by modern doctors or psychiatrists. These descriptions are especially rich, and the symptoms they record especially puzzling for the modern reader, when contemporaries thought the problem involved the possession of the body of the sufferer by demons sent into them by the witch. Many modern readers will be familiar with such celebrated incidents as the possession of a whole convent of young nuns at Loudun in France in the 1630s, or the crucial role played by a group of supposedly possessed young girls in the witch-scare at Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. But these are merely two well-known examples of a phenomenon which was widespread in Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. In England, for example, the possession of several children at Warboys in Huntingdonshire, which resulted in the execution of three witches in 1592, created a model of possession through witchcraft that survived for at least another century. The possessed demonstrated clear symptoms: convulsions, contortions, trances, vomiting of foreign bodies (notably pins), speaking with the voice of the possessing demons, and becoming unnaturally strong or unnaturally heavy.

Perhaps the deepest analysis of such possessions has been carried out by the historian Lyndal Roper, on sixteenth-century materials relating to the German city of Augsburg. Here the crucial issue was the changes in attitudes which the Reformation had created towards the relationship between the flesh and the spirit, with both Catholics and Protestants developing rival theologies of the body. Protestantism weakened the links between the physical and the divine, and therefore forced a revision of the theological understanding of the body. The exorcism of people thought to be possessed by demons, frequently at the instigation of the witch, therefore became an area of dispute between the two sides in the local religious struggle. The fact that most of the supposedly possessed were women added another dimension: the possessed women, as they contorted in their beds as a result of the attentions of male demons, bore strong resemblance to women lost in lust. Analysis of such cases, therefore, introduces medical, theological, and wider cultural attitudes towards the body through the inherently dramatic (and usually public) phenomena of possession and exorcism.

J. A. Sharpe


Roper, L. (1994). Oedipus and the Devil: witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern Europe. Routledge, London and New York.

See also possession; witch doctor; witch's tit.


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WITCHCRAFT. No general agreement seems to have been reached in the United States on what witchcraft is, or was, or might be.

When the Puritans arrived in New England in the early seventeenth century, they soon saw evidence of witchcraft. Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop discerned it in the behavior of Anne Hutchinson in the 1630s. Hutchinson was deeply spiritual, highly intellectual, and openly critical of some clergymen's interpretations of religious doctrine. Her outspokenness and her charismatic appeal to other early New England settlers so disconcerted Winthrop and some of the colony's most influential ministers that they tried her as a heretic and banished her from the colony. At the time neither Winthrop nor his clerical allies explicitly said that her crime was witchcraft, though they called one of her female followers, Jane Hawkins, a witch and insinuated that Hutchinson and another of her allies, Mary Dyer, gave birth to demons. Only later, when he wrote his history of New England in the 1640s, did Winthrop speak openly about Hutchinson's witchcraft. Some people thought her a witch, he said, because she was so successful in drawing support from her neighbors for her heretical religious beliefs.

When Winthrop talked further about Hawkins, he linked her heresies to her medical knowledge and also denounced Margaret Jones for her medical practice and divination skills. Not all healers or prescient women or challengers of official theology were labeled witches, nor were these the only recurrent themes in the suspicions voiced. Still, when we consider the hundreds of accusations lodged over the course of the seventeenth century, especially in light of ministerial writings on the topic, the meanings of witchcraft for New England's early colonists begin to emerge.

New Englanders defined witchcraft as the use of supernatural power, usually but not always to harm. They believed that some human beings possessed extraordinary abilities that were darkly unnatural. Ann Hibbens drew suspicion in 1656 because she possessed knowledge that ordinary people lacked, in her case an awareness that two neighbors some distance away were speaking of her. George Burroughs, one of the few men and the only minister to be executed as a witch in New England, was accused of unusual strength—he could carry a full barrel of molasses with just two fingers of one hand. More commonly, accused witches were said to abuse their power, to kill rather than heal an ailing child, to obstruct ordinary domestic processes such as the making of butter or beer, or to invisibly attack the cattle or crops upon which their neighbors' prosperity rested. Katherine Harrison was known to spin more yarn than any other woman, and that was used against her in court in the 1660s, but a man's tale of how she hindered him from completing a garment he was weaving probably carried more weight with the jury that declared her a witch. Indeed, the motive that underlay the supposed act of witchcraft was part of how the crime was defined. If the deployment of superhuman

power itself was understood as witchcraft, more often accusers emphasized its angry, malicious, and vengeful use. Thus Eunice Cole stood accused of many acts, from unseemly speeches to consulting evil spirits, but the records that survive of her court appearances from 1656 to 1680 stress the viciousness of her character, motives, and personal attacks.

If witchcraft gained its everyday meanings through accusations and trials in local contexts, Puritans also understood witchcraft as a relationship between a human being and the devil. Because they insisted on finding clear evidence of a witch's alliance with Satan, ministers fleshed out this meaning in discussions of the nature, physical evidence, and purported benefits of the pact between the two, the danger of such a relationship to New England's spiritual mission, and the effects on those who resisted Satan's insatiable desire for more witches to serve him. Many young women lent invaluable support to Puritan definitions of witchcraft when they acknowledged the excruciating pain they felt (which the ministers told them they would feel) when they held out against Satan's attempts to lure them into witches' ranks.

To these two definitions of witchcraft must be added a third, New Englanders' implicit understanding of what kinds of people were likely to align themselves with Satan and do their neighbors harm. If historians of witchcraft at the turn of the twenty-first century generally accept that popular and elite conceptions of witchcraft coexisted in the seventeenth century and frequently overlapped, consensus falls apart over the more subtle meanings conveyed in the patterns visible in the lives of accusers and accused. For some, accused witches were the angry, malicious, and vengeful people their neighbors said they were, and they attempted to harm their neighbors through image magic, curses, and spells. For these scholars, witchcraft was a social reality, a set of practices that identified genuine witches. For other historians, the lack of evidence for such practices in most witchcraft records and widespread economic, religious, and social patterns linking accusers and the accused suggest that New England witch-craft is best understood as an expression of social and cultural anxieties among accusers rather than the malice of the accused. From this perspective, religion, psychology, and gender provide better analytical tools for deciphering the meanings of witchcraft than the biases of accusers.

However varied their interpretations, for the most part historians reject definitions of witchcraft as superstition, mental illness, and lies. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Salem outbreak of 1692 is recognized as merely one—if by far the most deadly—witchcraft event in the American colonies. Studies of New England are heavily influenced by recent attempts to understand Western witchcraft traditions in the contexts of early modern belief systems and world religions more generally. As scholars turn to anthropology, women's studies, and most recently, literary and visual culture studies for analytical tools and interdisciplinary frameworks, witchcraft history looks less like a narrative of the exceptional and more like a window into comparative social and cultural transformation.

American witchcraft history has also begun to incorporate the past three centuries. Although the trials came to an end in New England soon after the Salem outbreak and witchcraft was declared a superstition, belief persisted through the eighteenth century and, for a few, even longer. Mainstream Protestant ministers debated the existence of witches and witchcraft among themselves long after such discussion was no longer acceptable in public discourse; Christian fundamentalist churches continue to keep the fear of witchcraft alive in sermons and boycotts. Artists, poets, and writers of fiction picked up the threads where ministers and magistrates left off, creating children's stories and entertainment for adults that kept as much as it changed the image of the witch. Advertisers, too, found her useful in selling their wares, from lingerie to liqueurs to Halloween costumes. Witches drew followers as well as exploiters in the nineteenth century and, by the late twentieth century, in particular with the emergence of feminist neo-pagan movements, witches and witchcraft had been reclaimed as multifaceted symbols of resistance, emancipation, and social and spiritual rebirth.


Butler, Jon. "Magic, Astrology and the Early American Religious Heritage." American Historical Review 84 (1979): 317–346.

Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: Norton, 1987.

Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Salomonsen, Jone. Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender and Divinity among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Carol F.Karlsen

See alsoPuritans and Puritanism ; Salem Witch Trials andvol. 9:Evidence Used Against Witches .

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