Don't Be Such a Basic Witch
The Old Hag Profile
If someone asked you to describe a witch, it's likely that your description would be similar to most others. It'd probably be something along the lines of an ugly old woman, a pointy hat and nose to match, with a wart or long fingernails, generally out to get people. Most likely someone you wouldn't want to come across in your everyday life and someone Dorothy wouldn't want to ever see again.
Witchcraft dates back to around 300 CE and originally was not gendered (Lucas). It was simply a term to describe the crafts of the wise, such as healing and medicinal practices. That is, as long as their magic worked. If it was to fail or cause harm, their community would likely turn against them. Also, as the church in Europe began to expand, witchcraft was condemned as being an act against Gods people and God Himself. However, knowing this doesn't quite explain where the gender split profile began.
We know now that 75% of the accused in Europe and 80% of the accused in America were women (Lucas), so it’s not surprising that we would make a gender assumption when we hear the word “witch.” So why such high female numbers? In todays world, we would probably be quick to assume that the accusations are based solely on sexist agendas, but to understand the true reasoning it’s important to step out of our modern worlds views.
Back before our technological advances, our understanding of disease and chemistry, and before research and hospitals made life processes such as childbirth an almost certain success, every beginning medicinal remedy was pretty much a shot in the dark. One reason why women were likely to be pegged more heavily with the accusations is due to the lines of work their time period allowed them to take part in. Most women were in charge of collecting herbs for medicinal purposes and of course, cooking (Lucas). Therefore, knowledge of what plants were and how they did or didn't work came easily to most females as they grew older. As women used this knowledge of herbs to heal the ill, it's likely that on occasion their remedies fail. Not surprisingly, communities didn't take to these harmful practices well and frequently threw that women under the bus for witchcraft.
Witches communing with the devil and sacrificing a baby
Another job that led to the condemnation of females was one known as lying-in-maid. The occupation was typically taken by older women who no longer had families of their own to take care of because they would be brought in to live and take care of a woman and her newborn baby. Because giving birth was more dangerous and brutal in those days, a woman would likely be on bed rest for many days, therefore needing someone to do the usual chores of a wife and mother (Lucas). Naturally, newborns made connections with the lying-in-maids and as witch accusations were on the rise, jealous mothers were able to make vicious claims against these older women simply to get rid of them. You know, because witches obviously take and kill newborns to be able to fly.
It wasn't just the hobbies of women that raised suspicions against them, but simply the beliefs of the church that governed Europe at the time. Biblically, it was Eve who was tempted by the serpent to eat fruit off of the forbidden tree; therefore it must be women who have communed with the Devil. Women are the bearers of children; therefore it must be women who hold the most power on this earth. They also have much more access to perceived powerful substances such as blood, milk, placenta, and umbilical cord; and, because of procreation, mans high-powered genitalia (Lucas). To the Catholic and Protestant churches of the time, women were inherently dangerous and inherently evil, however "necessary" they may be to life (Lucas).
In modern times, we fight for equality in the outlook of women and men, and that fight generally transcends whatever religious belief someone may have. But in these times, a crisis is a crisis and the psychological need for a scapegoat definitely played a role as much if not more then as it does now. It's an obvious assumption too that men who believed such things about women were likely to fear losing whatever control or power they had over their communities. Therefore, a woman who was outspoken or stepped out against the stigmas against them wouldn't be favorable to society (Lucas). With witchcraft accusations and executions as a means to rid themselves of these problem women, men could easily turn a woman's projected beliefs into devilish constructs.
Now, while there are all of these pieces of historical evidence that back up the profile our society has created, not every witch fits the bill. There were men accused as well, most likely because of their connection to female witches (Lucas), but you can see why our perspective of witches tends to be feminine. There's a reason for such a stereotype and that's a big reason for our need to throw out our hold on the modern outlook of gender roles and hopes of equality. People in the 4th-17th centuries (and beyond) were not looking to level sex/gender playing fields.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?" History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 12 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Folk Magic & Christianity." History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 17 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
- Lucas, Wendy. "Witchcraft in Germany." History of Witchcraft. University of Central Arkansas. 19 Jan. 2017. Lecture.
Don't Worry, We'll Save You
Spanish Inquisition torture
The Church Will Do the Trick
It's really interesting to cross the history and growth of the Catholic and Protestant churches with the growing demonization and convictions of witches. It's no surprise that the Church played a major role in providing "justice" for the communities in which they thrive, but the extent of their reigns in these times truly created the perfect storm for persecuting incredibly massive numbers all throughout Europe.
For instance, the Spanish Inquisition went into effect to purge Spain of Jews and Muslims under Pope Sixtus IV. During this purge, all heretics became targets of widespread persecution and often, execution by burning. As Pope Sixtus IV called for greater restraint, the Inquisition slipped from his hands only to get more and more brutal. In 1483, many inquisitors were appointed to areas of Spain including the infamous Tomás de Torquemada. Torquemada was a big fan of torture and made no excuses for those Jews or Muslims who had converted to Catholicism. These "conversos" were viewed to still have the hearts of heretics.
The next papal supreme, Pope Innocent VIII, came in with a burning fire (if you will). It wasn't just about purging the country for him, as exile of the heretics wasn't good enough. Any Jews that fled were to be brought back and put on trial. Crossing the histories here is where things get a bit too convenient for the Church. Considering it was generally Jewish families that owned the large plots of land, the Churches acquired a great deal of their land and money from executing roughly 4,000-8,000 of them. And it wasn't just executing, but also publicly humiliating them with flogging, then burning them on a stake at a big Sunday festival known as "Auto de Fé" which translates to "Act of Faith," but which I like to call the "Sunday torture fest." People were practically mandated to attend to watch which, also how convenient for the Church, provided a pretty good display of their power.
A little later in Germany in 1556, the instability of the countries religion was the reason for the growing executions of witches. The individual princes chose the religions of the land they ruled so the shifts between Catholic and Protestant "correctness" led to heavy accusations against people of the conflicting religions. With the stabilization of the Church, when the Prince-Bishops came to charge the numbers increased exponentially. Bishop Johann Gottfried von Aschhausen executed 300 witches, then Bishop Johann Georg II executed 600 witches (including a Chancellor and his family because he basically told Georg to chill), then Bishop Phillipp Adolf executed 900 witches (including a child as young as 7-years-old).
The most intriguing part of the church being in charge of the trials and executions of witches is their ability to place their guilt elsewhere. Especially within the realm of torture, they believe that they're doing right by God. These non-believers, heretics, and witches–they're in dealings with the devil and need to confess their sins. Under the Church, torture creates a cathartic experience with God in which the confession saves their soul. Of course, they're still going to be killed in the end (not via torture) but at least the Church doesn't have to hold the guilt of the heretics' damnation. It was truly believed that they were doing good for the accused.
A pretty profound and recognizable movement of the Church into the justice system happened in Scandinavia. Originally, groups of men called Ping's took care of the community and the needs of the people such as deciding punishments for crimes or changes in the community. Magic was occasionally frowned upon and generally only became a serious trial if death occurred due to the magical practices resulting in exile or fines. Soon enough though, the Church sort of realized this big hunk of land they'd missed and they began moving in. As soon as that happened, witchcraft (or as it was known in Scandinavia "Trolldómr") was all looked at as a crime against God and against His peoples given free will.
In Denmark in 1540, Lutheran Bishop Peter Palladius arrived to inform the people that they were trying witches all wrong and that they were to be hunted and persecuted. Conveniently enough, under the umbrella of witches fell Catholics as well.
In Norway, however, it was the Lutheran clergy members that were charged for destroying holy relics. But eventually because they were clergy members, they couldn't be targeted directly so their wives became the brunt of the accusations.
With all of these countries in the late 1500's and early 1600's being so heavily patrolled and controlled by religious systems, witchcraft was easily looked at as the devils work. It meant that people could put their hatred and hurt on a power they couldn't see but that they trusted reigned via bishops. It was just a manmade crime against a non-human power, and the Church was going to do everything they could to save their people from it.
Not All Witches Were B****es
Though many of the early witchcraft accusations often ended in humiliating deaths, some countries and some different time periods experienced some pretty radical changes from the "Burn her at the stake!" states of mind.
In the 18th century, Russia experienced a dramatic shift from Peter I to Catherine II. Peter I governed by the Military Statute of 1716 that stated witchcraft and any occult practices were forbidden and punishable by death. When Catherine II was in charge, however, she governed by what I like to call common sense. First, she stated that witchcraft should be handled as a crime of fraud. To her, it was obvious that no one was truly using magic, they were therefore lying about their medical practices and powers. In 1775 she put "courts of conscience" (sovestnye sudy) into play. These courts treated witchcraft with cases such as juvenile offenders, criminally insane and the possessed.
Knowing the excuses made by the Church to accuse and kill so many in past decades in other countries, Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, was a surprisingly enlightened ruler. It's easy for us to look at all other countries and statements from them damning witches as heretics and say that they're crazy and spiteful. Catherine II deciding to finally see witchcraft as fraud seems to deserve a round of applause.
Another area that didn't quite punish witchcraft so heavily was Italy. To me, this was surprising considering the strength of Catholicism in Italian roots. And it's not to say that part isn't true, considering that witchcraft allegations started in the middle of the 16th century due to Protestantism threatening the Catholic Church. However, local tribunals saw the cases before the Holy Office and were sort of left with the decision to involve the Holy Office or not. The Venetian Inquisition was in full effect during these times out to get heretics, but most local tribunals were unsure whether to classify witchcraft as heresy (which is much different than other countries we've looked at). With this being the case, witches could only be found guilty of heresy if their craft included the devil and abuse of the sacraments, which was not normal for most Italian witches.
Another reason for few charges of witchcraft in Italy was that there simply weren't enough judges in the local tribunals. Considering the complications involved in sending witchcraft trials to the Holy Office and knowing if it'd be worth it, it wasn't exactly worth the lower courts time either. There were more pressing matters than someone with too many seeds and powders in their kitchen.
But it wasn't just the laws that made it easier for witches to get by. The traditions behind witchcraft in Italy, Sicily especially, distanced the people from the negative perceptions other countries had towards witches. "Donna di fuora," or "the lady from outside," was commonly used to reference witches and fairies. It was believed that the witches, who were mostly cunningfolk and healers, learned their craft from the fairies of the woods that used the power of nature to practice their magic.
Magical power from nature generally meant that it was used for the better. There would occasionally be mischievous spells cast or what I think more of as pranks, but no "maleficío" (or magic resulting in purposeful death) was ever recorded so the cases against witches or fairies were few and far between anyway. In fact, between the years of 1579-1651 the Holy Office only had 65 people accused. It's even said that the interrogations of these people often consisted of the accused becoming confused on what they even did wrong in the first place. The Holy Office couldn't really pin them with murder or anything so the witches were sort of left questioning, "Wait, what am I in trouble for? Using nature is wrong?" and basically the Holy Office just decided to leave them alone.
All this to say that in the history of witchcraft, there really were good and bad witches. But as we've seen, even the good were prosecuted as bad in other countries. In Russia after Catherine the Great and in Italy for many years, however, witches were looked at for being exactly who I think we would consider them to be today. Either lunatics who deserved to be tried as insane, or hippies who maybe just made a couple herbal mistakes here and there.
But Some Were
Puritan women gossiping as per usual
Leave the B****craft to the Americans
In the last post, I argued for the acceptance of some magic as purely for good. That it could be lighthearted, healing, and for the benefit of not just the witch but of others. I also talked about the more positive and accepting states of mind around witchcraft, or that some areas didn't even believe it to be a possible phenomenon.
That's not quite how the cookies crumbled within the newly founded colonies of the new and growing America. But honestly, who is surprised?
Witchcraft was able to take hold in the colonies (specifically Virginia) because of the peoples beliefs about the Native Americans. To the Europeans, the Indians were savage, barbaric, and basically flat out psychopaths for coming in and attacking them full force. According to their popular belief, the Devil resided where he found the greatest amount of these things. So basically these Europeans in Virginia were moving right in with the Devil; and where the Devil is, witchcraft must be also.
The importance of this information is that whether or not these colonists truly believed their citizens were practicing witchcraft with the devilish Indians, the possibility of it was a good enough reason for Virginians to slander and criticize people without having to simply admit that they didn't get along. Accusing someone of being a witch was a lot like calling them a "B word" today, it's defaming and political.
In colonial Virginia, there was a pretty uneven ratio of women to men going from 1 female for every 6 males to 1 female for every 3 males. With this, the men definitely dominated the political front and they really didn't have to listen to the women if they didn't want to. But also, they needed the women to stay around and living because there were so few of them.
These demographics play heavily into the witchcraft accusations too. First of all, in their gossip and testimonies, the women gained their voice. Not having the same power as the men was likely getting to them. Secondly, women could lash out at each other going to the courts with endless claims of witchcraft or being defamed by someone in this way, and pretty much nothing happened. And so they did...
This is until the courts were so fed up with their catfights, considering the "witchcraft" never actually had evidence that wasn't circumstantial, that they put a new order into place. This 1655 order said that, "any person who with scandless speeches termed women to be witches had to prove with oath and witnesses or be fined 1,000 pounds of tobacco."
It's pretty hilarious that after seeing so many countries treating witches so horribly and rarely questioning a single accusation just going straight into torture and execution, these Europeans in Virginia are so desperate to keep their society stable and growing they start to fine the people who stir up the trouble in the first place. They are not willing to waste their time with unjustifiable issues. Of course, this is probably what the other countries should have done, but even so, it's very different.
And even this didn't help! The women continued to fire shots and spit their gossip, then they would just pay the fines the court assigned them. Another pretty hilarious piece of this Virginian women way of life; real life Mean Girls.
So they made an adjustment to the order in 1662. This basically said that husbands were not responsible for paying the fines of their wives, and if it was refused to be payed the woman would be dunked into water two times for every 500 pounds of tobacco owed. Basically their government was just yelling at them to STOP SLANDERING EVERYONE.
Now they're dunking the accusers! Can you imagine if the Germans or the Spanish Inquisition heard about this? They would have a cow.
Of course to us being dipped into some water isn't that big of a deal but these people had never been fully submerged into water basically ever. Especially not with all their fabulous, heavy layers of clothing on. No one knew how to swim; no one was taught how to blow bubbles underwater. So this sort of seemed to take care of the problem.
Overall, only 10 cases made it to trial, 2 being men, and no one was ever executed for being a witch. Not a single one.
Foreshadowing for Salem
Salems Crash & Burn
It Starts in the Minister's House
And honestly, who's surprised?
January of 1692, Samuel Parris' daughter Betty (9) and orphaned niece, Abigail (11) start exhibiting stupidly turbulent behavior. Betty is unresponsively catatonic and basically comatose while Abigail is convulsing and screaming profanities/blasphemy. The family's go-to plan for the situation was of course to fast and pray but to no avail. Meanwhile, other girls in Salem Village begin having the same sort of fits.
Plan B was to call in the doctor; Dr. William Griggs. Again, to no avail. It's not very often that a doctor will admit to finding no treatable illness. But Dr. Griggs was a silly man, and it pretty well put him out of a job. His professional opinion was that they must be possessed by an evil hand. Spooky.
Parris' South American slave, Tituba, seemed to receive the collectives finger of blame for three major reasons.
- She baked a urine cake and fed it to a dog to catch which girls were causing the issues. Not only is it gross but it's also countermagic which meant she wasn't trusting the Lord to sort everything out.
- She was named by the afflicted girls. It might just be me but if I was going to bewitch a bunch of loudmouths I'd also cast a spell to make them forget who did it.
- She confessed. Not only did she admit to knowing about witchcraft and having communicated with the devil, but she made the claim against the conspiracy of witches in Salem, pretty much setting the course for the crazy year.
While Tituba was never accused of being the ringleader or the devil herself (like the Puritans would ever give a woman that much power, HA!) she is definitely the most remembered person who did the devils bidding against the children and others.
For more on Tituba and her confessions check out http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people?group.num=all&mbio.num=mb29 and search around other documents if you feel so inclined.
"Arresting a Witch" and she is so over it which I highly respect
With Tituba, two women named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were also accused up front. Sarah Good was a homeless beggar who had a past life of wealth but lost it all in the litigation of her fathers property and death of her first husband. She pretty well fits our stereotype of the Basic Witch. Sarah Osborne on the other hand had land from her first husband that she tried to keep for herself (and new husband) instead of being passed to her two sons like society would expect (and accept). She also hadn't been to church in a year or so which of course to these Puritans was an absolute no-no.
Sarah Good and Tituba in their interrogations both accused Sarah Osborne, which didn't help her case, considering societal norms were already against her. This basically contributed to validating the further proceedings in the witchcraft trials. It allowed for more finger pointing and more scapegoating, unfortunately. And alas, the crash and burn of Salem Village.
From that March to May 1693, 156 people were accused, 44 confessed, 30 were convicted, 20 were hanged/crushed (sorry Giles Cory), and 20 others died in prison.
The “witches” that were left come May 1693 were just sent home…and the organized witch trials of Salem came to a close.
Documents, transcripts and further images depicting the times can also be found at http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html
"So do you know any spells?"
It’s pretty clear that the Salem Village hullaballoo is still bewitching to us (see what I did there) in modern day culture considering the reaction I get every time I mention that I’m in a witchcraft class. It never fails; everyone has something to say, usually peppered with inaccuracies, and if not they just think I’m learning spells. Not to mention the not so subtle glances or knee pats I get every time our pastor makes a reference to demonic possessions or witchcraft. It’s all fun and games with my friends but what happened in Salem happened to real people and that’s what I think our culture and the entertainment industry forgets about.
There are probably a lot of different reasons for a lot of different people for why the Salem trials are relevant.
Some people like the scary witchy movies. I can’t say that I am too fond of them but the most recent one I’ve seen came out in 2015 and is called “The Witch”; and apparently the original title was, “The VVitch: A New-England Folktale.”
This movie, while scaring the pants off of my friends, actually portrayed some incredibly important details of how the outbreaks in Salem were so rationalized and almost even warranted. It’s follows the story of a strong Puritan family on a farm in the 1630’s whose new born baby is taken right our from under them, whose crops are failing and whose big black goat (Black Phillip) turns out to actually be the devil or a demon of some sort later taking the oldest daughter naked into the woods to join a witch coven.
All of those things we’ve addressed in the history of Salem and witchcraft as the beliefs of these people. Especially with the radical religious beliefs, absolutely no knowledge of what may be in the woods or in the dark, the crops failing (must be witchcraft), a young girl being drawn in and yes, Black Phillip (the terrifying goat).
Least favorite movie character probably ever.
The only bad part about this movie is that people are too terrified to realize so much of these things were real to the people New-England in these time periods. They didn’t have explanations; they only had religion and their own word against another’s.
Some people like the funny adventure witchcraft movies. I’m a huge Harry Potter nerd and my two favorite Disney movies are Halloween Town and Hocus Pocus. What’s sad is that Hocus Pocus might be the only one that even alludes to the real misfortunes of Salem’s history. The witches that come back from the dead were hung during the outbreaks which is surprisingly accurate considering everyone thinks witches were burned here, and they also feed on young children which is not a newly occurring belief about witches, it was believed in the 1600’s too. Not to mention the black cat named Salem. The witches in Hocus Pocus also stick with the stereotype of old and quite ugly.
These movies are entertaining of course, but they do romanticize the whole life of a “witch.” Witchcraft and specifically Salem’s history have been made laughable and we can all get a kick out of what a radical belief system the Puritans of Salem Village had. But when you look at our culture and society today, at how carefree we’ve become, it’s not fair to forget how inherently violent and judgmental we still are as well. It’s easy for us to make movies about the 1690’s and how crazy “those people” were because it takes us away from how stinking crazy we are now. Those Puritans from over 300 years ago cannot defend themselves, but by golly we can sure defend ourselves by ignoring our circumstances that in a lot of ways parallel how the outbreaks of Salem took hold in the first place. I think in a lot of instances, Salem still fascinates us today because it’s a story of judgment, betrayal, and segregation that is not our own.