Itsy Bitsy Witchy A Brief History of Witchcraft

"In the most general sense a witch is a person who possesses a supernatural, occult, or mysterious power to cause misfortune or injury to others."
Witches as depicted in modern popular culture

Witch. The word recalls to most individuals an image of a gross, old, hag that wants to brings harm upon innocent villagers and/or children and whom worship Satan as god. As depicted in modern popular culture, witches either can have a good or bad affiliation, can sing to seduce children and adults to do their bidding, and have an insatiable desire to cause mischievousness stuff. As depicted above in the quote as well as the image, a witch is not limited to the female sex. The affiliation of witches being female stems from the famous witch trials and hunts intensified by branches of the Christian religion, specifically Catholicism and Protestantism.

During the witch-hunts, which peaked during the "Burning Times" between 1550-1650, 75% in Europe and 80% in the American Colonies of the cases of those accused were women. Women where more accused of being witches because they were seen as the inferior sex, which was, "a necessary evil," seen as more able to converse with devils during menstruation, had "insatiable carnal lust" (aka-horny 24/7), and had easier access to bodily fluids and body parts, such as semen, blood, hair, and dead babies. The average woman victim of witchcraft has a certain profile. This profile has the following elements: the accused was post-menopausal, the accused was single or widowed with no male protection to vouch for them in the various courts, had years of dislike against them, were outspoken, and were either very poor (ex: beggar) or very rich (mostly when there was no male heirs). However, the other 25% in Europe and 20% in America accused of rehearsing witchcraft were men.

In Iceland alone, 92% of witchcraft accusations where men. Men would general become accused during large outbreaks, such as the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. When men were accused, it was general because: they were related to female suspects, part of a large panic, where witchcraft equaled heresy (which equaled death), "male magic" such as crop failure, and their jobs if they were against normal (ex: male dancer), traditional male jobs. Most males accused escaped death because they fled the site where accusations were brought against them.

The most common way of executing accused individuals of witchcraft was via burning at the stakes. St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), widely considered the founder of Christian theology, urged the burning of all witches because it would give them a taste of what's to come. St. Augustine was ahead of his time in complete witchcraft destruction as during his period, the Christian religion, specifically the Catholic branch, tolerated it but condemned it as pagan. Most citizens during the conversion period (300-1100 C.E.), would practice both Christianity and "witchcraft" because most where confused by Christian theology. During the evolution of church stance on witchcraft, during the 12th century Renaissance, there was "good magic" (white; ex: Astronomy) and "bad magic" (black: harmful); traditionally, white magic was performed by highly-educated men while black magic was practiced by women and lower-educated men.

Coming full circle, the church during the late middle ages (starting around 1350 C.E.), using St. Augustine's ideology, condemned all magic as bad and as a collective institution of demonic carriers that was too damn humans to the fiery pits of hell. Venturing back to execution, while burning at the stake was the most common way of dispatching the sentences, hanging was the preferred way of executing on the British islands and the American colonies. With that being said, there is a unique case.

The witchcraft trails of Collette du Mont, Marie Becquet, and Isabel Becquet in Guernsey in 1617 resulted them in being hung (English practice) then have their bodies burned after death (French practice). The reasoning behind burning witches at the stake, other than giving them a taste of what's to come, was to "boil their magic," it was believed that witch magic was in a witch's blood. However, despite the preferred methods of executing witches being presented, 75% of witch accusations were dismissed. The only exception to this is Germany, which executed most of the accused because they had tortured a confession out of them. The idea of witches in modern day popular culture is a warped analysis of the past, and needs to be corrected. Witches aren't just female, not everyone died by fire, and not everyone suffered by magic, good or bad.

January 27, 2017


Witches burning at the Auto de Fe
Billy Butcherson: Go to hell! Winifred Sanderson: Oh! I've been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely. --Hocus Pocus (1993)

Burn the Witch! This fanatic cry has echoed into modern popular culture in regards to how evil witches, such as witches on the third season of American Horror Story, should meet their end. Despite this being the popular way of dispatching witches, it was not the only way to kill or torture said accused. In an analysis of countries, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland) need to be compared to present a greater idea of witchy torture.

Germany, by far the highest accused-to-execution rate of all countries during the witch-hunt craze of the 15th and 16th century, had a unique way of perpetrating witches. Said accused would be captured by the German authorities and placed into a witch holding cell that also housed a torture facticity, called a Hexenhaus. On the first day of residency in this jail, the accused would be stripped of all clothes and given a “tour-de-torture” of the location and told what each instrument of torture would do to the body. Some of these devices are pictured below.

German torture devices: Thumb Screws (Top Left), Rack (Top Right), and Squassation (bottom)

Germans believed the only way that someone could be absolved of witchcraft is that if they admitted to it during torture; if the accused did it at any other time, it was considered false. It is because of this reason, unlimited torture to extract confession, that the number was so high in Germany of those burned at the stake. A German inquisitor, Phillip Adolf, alone burned 900 witches, including seven-year-old children.

Spain has a unique case behind how they dealt with witch burnings. For starters, those accused of witchcraft is nearly hard to discernment from those of those that just committed heresy. During this period, the “little known” Spanish Inquisition was occurring, and all those convicted to heresy after struggling was burned at the stake. Notice after struggling was mentioned. Unlike Germany, accused individuals could confess to their sin before being tortured and they might either receive jail for life or public ridicule, such as floggings.

Spain is also unique in that those accused would all be executed or face public ridicule all on the same day, called the Auto de Fe. This event would usually occur on Sundays and everyone was required to attend these public gatherings. The individuals slated for execution would be led to the pyre wearing a san benito, which was a yellow, tunic-like garment that had devils dancing and victims being burned alive on it.

Once at the pyre, the victims could confess to the preacher that was present of their sins. If they did, an executioner would strangle said victim and then turn their san benito inside out (then called a fuego resuelto) as a sign that they had embraced their infractions of the Christian religion. Then, the either unconscious or dead victim’s body would be burned. However, if the accused refused to absolve their sins to the preacher at the pyre, then their face was singed with a candle and burned alive.

Scandinavia, composed of five different counties as listed above, share similarities with the two pervious countries mentioned. However, as is the case when comparing locations, Scandinavia is unique in some aspects. These aspects include: more men where accused, and executed of witchcraft then women because the spoken word was the most powerful tool of witchcraft, and men had more access to it, all featured a governing body, called a ping that determined the fates of the accused; the ping would decide, before the church took control, the punishment (exile or penalty) or submit the family of the victim of the accused to decide the fate (usually would result in death), and nearly 40% of the population accused of witchcraft. In addition, Scandinavia, despite the church fighting it, confessions of the accused could not be used to convict others, multiple witnesses had to have seen the witchcraft occur, and torture could only be administered after a guilty conviction. Also, people accused of witchcraft couldn’t accuse others of it (but could accuse them of other crimes, say murder) and Cunningfolks (a kind of medicine man) would be exiled.

Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia, all having extreme differences, all share one common thing—burning witches at the stake. Like stated at the start of this week’s blog, the most common form of dispatching witches is by fire, but in the United Kingdom and in the United States the preferred form was hanging. Either burned, hung, stoned, or any other way a stick can be altered, it cannot be denied that a lot of people was killed.

February 03, 2017

Spicy Vodka Witches

Baba Yaga, the most famous Russian Witch
"Take a toad. Obtain some of the hairs of your victim. Tie them to the left leg of the toad, and put the animal into a covered pot. As it suffers the enemy will suffer, when it dies he will die...

That’s a spicy meatball! In mother Russia, Vodka drinks you! Mama Mia! Stereotypes. These stereotypes are strongly connected to human imaging towards either Italy or Russia. Just like these invalid stereotypes, we also tend to stereotype both traditional witches and high body count thanks to both countries history of violence. However, when compared to all the other countries discussed so far, the combined number of both Italy and Russia witchcraft cases are but a mere fraction of ONE of the other European countries.

The Roman Catholic Church, housed in Rome, Italy, was the powerhouse behind both the Spanish and the Venetian Inquisition. With that blatant fact, one might think that the body count for witchcraft or heresy would be just as high in Italy as it was in Spain. However, that is defiantly not the case in Italy as there was NO successfully proven guilty of witchcraft.

The pure fact that no one died from witchcraft accusation in Italy may come as a shock, especially with the ever-looming threat of the Catholic church, but the explanation for this phenonium could possibly be linked to a combination of a few different variables. One of these variables could be that the issue was on the church’s “stomping ground.” In explanation, the church was more concerned with other countries than their own because of the threats of other religions! Other popular beliefs that there was no guilty witchcraft verdicts in Italy can be attributed to the following four things: Dominican Inquisitors where generally cautious and methodical, the jurisdiction of the local tribulations did not want to evoke the Holy office into their affairs because they did not want to lose power, there was a belief of supernatural illness (Stregheria) vs. natural illness and in the court, it had to be proven by a medical doctor if it was either one of these, and the evidence to convict a witch was based on a few things instead of just one thing.

Evidence for witchcraft in Italy usually included many household items, such as herbs and spices. However, this was not enough to convict outright someone of performing the devil’s art. Italians followed a sort of manual, entitled the Directorium Inquisitorum by Nicolau Eymeric. In this book, the art of witchcraft had to have two things to be considered legitimist. One of these was devil worshipping and the other was abusing holy sacraments. In other countries, these could be grounds enough to execute someone by hear say, but in Italy, it had to be witnessed firsthand. In an ironic twist, there was a collection of ladies, called the donna di fuora (Sicilian fairies) that were basically like Cunningfolks. What’s ironic about this is that the Catholic church states all magic is bad, yet they allow some said “magic” to occur in their home country.

As for Russia, there was a small body count. In the period of 1622-1700 C.E., 99 witches were tried; during these years, Russia saw its highest number of witchcraft cases and burnings. Of those 99 accused, 59 of them were males, 49 were females, 10 were killed, five were exiled, and three died during torture. Russia is unique in that out of all the witchcraft cases in their history, only one was linked to devil worshipping, only one case had child abduction, there was more men accused than woman, there was no children accused or the accuser, and everyone could be tried, that it had no definite economical class that it attacked.

The number of witchcraft cases in Russia was lower because, like Italy, they believed in good magic (called dvoeverie). Fowl magic in Russia, called Porcha, can be broken down to the following six categories: taking life, mamaing, causing illness, stealing reason, infertility in men, and crop failure. But, Porcha could only be proven in trial, which was sparked by accusations, torture (Ogovor), or eye witness accounts.

Looking at the history of Russia, most can conclude the most witchcraft cases emerged either during natural disasters or due to political unrest. An example of both would be the 1024 C.E. burning of elderly people in Suzdal because of famine and Tsar Ivan IV’s grandmother being accused of witchcraft, which resulted in the deaths of her and Ivan’s uncles. His grandmother was blamed for the great Moscow fire of that period (1500s). For confession during these rough times, most of those accused of witchcraft would admit to doing it after had been knoutined which is a couple of sessions of 30-40 whips per time. Deifying common beliefs, Italy and Russia were not as blood thirsty as they are imagined to be.

Created By
Cody Douell

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