Throughout this page, I will explore the history of witchcraft around the world and expose facts and history unknown to the average human and witch novice.
Now, witches weren't created in a cauldron and magic spells weren't found at the local library. But, it seems that in every culture since the beginning of time, there was some form of supernatural power thought to have preformed magic. The word witch was derived from the root word wise and was used to describe practitioners of magic. Witches, of course, were called different names in different cultures just as all other kinds of people. There were brujas and brujos in Spanish speaking countries as well as hexenmeisters and hexes in German speaking countries. Whether one was a brujo, a hexenmeister, or a wicca, they were all one in the same category we refer to as a cunningfolk. These were people with special knowledge of herbs and magic, and once their magic worked, they became prized amongst others. But, of course, with nothing else to blame for downfall, they were also at fault if their magic did not work. Of course, at this time, it was impossible to think of anything like disease, darkness, lack of resources, or isolation being the cause for anything that went wrong. Sheer numbers showed that mostly females were accused of being these witches. This was a time when women were seen as a necessary evil. The Catholic church saw women as the downfall of man and a sinful being. They could communicate with the devil more easily than man and were tending to an insatiable canal lust of sexual temptation. For these reasons, 75% or those accused of witchcraft in Europe were women and 80% in America. These women were around the age of 40-50 and were single or widowed with no male protection. Often, they were disliked by the community for years because it was easier to accuse someone of being a witch to get rid of them then to be their neighbor. At a time when women were supposed to be deferential, those accused were outspoken, part of the reason they were so disliked by their neighbors. If one was incredibly poor and consistently knocking on the door for food, rather than annoying, they were a witch. If one was extremely poor and had no male heirs, then instead of lonely, they were considered a witch. Now, because of course there was no sexism, males could also be considered witches. They were often related to a female suspect or part of a mass panic in which case almost everyone was considered a witch. These men were usually undertakers or hangmen with access to people and parts that would no longer be missed. They performed a different kind of magic though, and were charged differently for their crimes. Instead of creating love potions, for example, they were thought to hurt the crops of neighbors or increase the output of their own. They could heal sick livestock and more often than not, used their magic for good.
There were actually four kinds of magic that people were capable of practicing at the time. Divination was a sort of magic that allowed for one to see into the future or find a lost item. How nice it would be to never lose a phone or set of car keys. There was magic used for healing and magic used for destroying. When one was destroying with magic, they would use a poppet, a later version of the voodoo doll. Finally, since one could practice any of these forms of magic, one would also need to able to reverse the spell with counter magic. The hair, blood, or urine of the intended victim of reversal would need to be gathered and burned in order to reverse the spell that was placed upon them. This witch that had had their urine, blood, or hair burned would then openly display a burn that could of course not be caused by an open flame used for every day cooking activities. These sorts of magic were cultural knowledge and anyone could learn or practice.
Periods of Magical Concept
The concept of magic; however, did change throughout three separate periods in Medieval Europe. The Conversion Phase began in 300 CE and ended around 1100 CE and marked a time when people were beginning to adopt Christian beliefs but also had held a lifelong belief in magic. When the organization of the church began though, anything pagan soon became considered bad. In the 12th century, we enter the Renaissance Phase that began to define magic differently. Jewish and Arabic texts were studied and a more scientific view took place. High and low magic were separated by educated and uneducated practitioners while white and black magic were separated by good and evil practitioners. The church now recognized magic as demonic association with heresy instead or just paganism. The final phase began around 1350 and is referred to as the Late Middle Ages phase. All magic and witches associated with it were considered part of a demonic cult. This magic was more highly prosecuted by the church and was now double charged by as a heretical and criminal offense. The absolute penalty was death and all magic was now punishable. And so began the evolution of witch trials…
Ancient Belief in Witchcraft
Perhaps my favorite story about witchcraft thus far is from Apuleius's The Golden Ass. This story was based on a Greek Tale thought to have been written around 115 CE. Now although my retelling of this story is short, it still shows how witches were thought of as dangerous even then. A Character named Thelyphyron is skeptical of the power that witches carry while traveling though Greece. While on his travels, he runs out of gold and must resort to odd jobs to find money. He hears a man making an announcement that an important man in the town has passed away and that someone is to be hired to watch over his corpse for the night. Thelyphyron thinks this idea is insane and is quite eager to make money off of such a mundane task. "What is the meaning of this? Are the corpses of Larissa in the habit of running away?" The man making the announcement quiets his foolishness quickly with the answer that witches appear in many forms at night to tear at the faces of the diseased to make their potions. If the watchman of the body fails at his job, bits of his face are taken to replace those taken from the corpse. Still skeptical, Thelyphyron accepts the job and is thanked by the wife for watching her beloved husband. He makes it through the night without a fright until a weasel happens upon his room. This weasel startles him, but he scares it off without confrontation. Moments later however, he succumbs to a deep sleep until he is alerted awake by his name in the morning. He is thrilled to wake up and find the corpse in tact and that he will be paid. While walking back through the town he hears accusation that the wife has poisoned her husband and that he was in fact murdered by her. The townsman calls upon a man to wake the deceased to settle the manner of death being that the man was of utter importance. When his apparition appears, the townspeople believe it is trickery, so the man tells a story that only someone with him at his death would have known. He says that when his corpse was being watched, a witch in the form of a weasel entered his room and cast a sleep spell upon his watcher. The witch then called his name trying to cast magical demands. But, he shared the name Thelyphydon with his watcher so they woke him instead. They took the watcher's nose and ears and fitted him with wax so that he would not notice when he woke. After hearing this tale, Thelyphydon felt his face and his nose and ears promptly fell off.
Witchcraft in Germany
One would be surprised to learn that the European country yielding the most witch executions is actually Germany. Germany was a country of small political units that had judicial autonomy. This meant that there were many small areas with courts that held large amounts of power over them. In 1556, we begin to see a huge shift towards the execution of witches when German princes determined the religions of these areas. More witchcraft became heresy and more heresy meant more persecution. In 1579, the Jesuit College increased trials because they brought with them an established definition of witchcraft, fear, and the procedures of prosecution. New churches were being established and those churches required land. It was not coincidence that when a church condemned an entire village of people as heretical practicers of witchcraft that they acquired the subsequent land.
German Bishops Bring Terror Upon Witches
Bishop Johann Gotfried von Auschausen had 300 witches burned for their crimes. He was one of three bishops who oversaw the worst period of witch prosecution in Germany. In 1617 alone, 102 witches were burned at the stake under his discretion. Bishop Johann Georg II had 600 witches burned as well as built a special prison for witches. Hexenhaus was built to hold up to 40 prisoners at a time and held many forms of torture equipment. At this prison, he even had a pregnant women executed against protocol. Bishop Phillip Adolf executed the most witches at 900. Some were as young as 7 years old when they were accused by him for having intercourse with the devil.
Torture was a method widely used and necessary to condemn witches in Germany. Confession of witchcraft was not seen as legitimate unless it was made under torture. This confession also had to include the names of others practicing witchcraft before the torture could be stopped. It was no wonder that Germany had the most people executed for witchcraft in Europe with approximately 3182 people from the years 1562-1584 alone. Jailers were only allowed 3 methods of torture per new profession of guilt however this rule was regularly broken. Jailers maintained a "good cop bad cop" relationship with the accused, as they were their torturers as well as their nurses. These devices of torture were never to include the drawing of blood, and if blood was drawn, the torture session was to cease for the day. Day 1 of torture consisted of being taken to the area of torture, stripped, given a tour of all the devices, and a whipping. Day 2 brought about two German methods of torture. One form, strappado, was hanging by one's hands from behind the back to dislocate upper limbs. This was followed by squasation, when ankle weights were added to the previous method, therefore breaking more body parts. These torture methods were thought of as medicine in Germany. They believed they were freeing witches from a horrible sin so that they could die with greater peace.
Those accused in Germany were mostly older women with the occupation of a lying-in-maid. Motherhood was a dominating theme in Germany and mothers were often not fond of their lying-in-maids. These were women that would live in the house to take care of mother and infant after the mother had given birth. For 6-8 weeks, mothers would watch lying-in-maids take care of their children, and often times the child would become so close the mother would grow jealous. If something were to happen to their child in this period of time, accusations were brought upon lying-in-maids. Older widows were also victims of accusation because they were seen as ruining younger men sexually.
Witchcraft in Spain
Men and women alike practiced witchcraft in Spain. Those searching to cure illness, find Spanish treasure, and enchant to find love were accused of witchcraft. During the Spanish inquisition, churches looked for witchcraft as another form of heresy and a way of gaining land and assets. Masculine magic was derived from those studying astrology, esoteric books, and the Kabbalah. Men's punishment was generally less severe and they were usually thought of as improperly using Catholic prayer. Women's magic consisted of "love magic" - magic that involved finding a suitor or keeping a husband. This was a period of time in Spain where more women existed than men, and there were not enough husbands to go around. Single women were usually doomed for the convent and even then, they could not move up in rank. Nunneries were more enjoyable for the high class citizen, and low class females were often accused of trying to get a man to fall in love with them. The church sought out these heretical witches because they were misusing saints and denying men free will.
In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV authorized the inquisition to target Jews and Muslims. Soon, the inquisition grew even more powerful than Pope Sixtus IV had thought it could Tomas de Torquemada was hired by Isabelle and Ferdinand as the grand inquisitor. He was a strong believer in torture and a zealous witch hunter who wanted all heretics removed. Under Torquemada, even converts of the Catholic religion were not safe. He believed that deep down inside, they had not converted to Catholicism and were still susceptible to punishment or removal. Around 125,000 Jews were tried by under his power for heresy. Pope Sixtus IV soon dies and in 1484, he was seceded by Pope Innocent, a lover of the inquisition. He gathered many resources - enough to seek out Jews that had fled and bring them back to Spain to stand trial.
Spanish Torture Methods
Although Spain's torture methods were not as brutal as Germany's, they still yielded similar consequences. Spanish citizens accused of witchcraft were guilty until proven innocent, and all of the accused heeded punishment. Early confession was ideal in Spanish society, and if one was smart enough to do so, they merely spent the remainder of their life in prison. The church employed their torturers to remove blood from their own hands; however, they did allow a priest to stand in on tortures to take confession. Pulleys and racks were common methods of torture utilized by the Spanish and they were keen on flame to singe the accused. Flogging was considered a minor punishment (although I'm sure not by the victim of said flogging). To make a simple punishment more severe, torturers would dip the ends of their whips in tar to generate confession. To ensure a peaceful stay for the accused, victims being tortured were brought to a room lined with quilts to muffle their screams. All confessions were recorded and confession was not legitimate unless it was under torture. On the more polite side, sessions of torture could only last for one hour and doctors were brought in in case of accidental fainting. Tomas de Torquemada was keen on torture methods, and under his inquisition, between 4,000 and 8,000 Jews were burned alive.
Auto de Fe
Auto de Fe epitomized pomp and circumstance for witch punishment. This gathering held on Sundays was quite a big deal in Spain and involved the parading and embarrassing of accused witches on trial. It was here that over 125,000 people were tried by the inquisition under the label of heretic. Everyone was to show up to this ordeal, and if one did not, they were suspected of witchcraft themselves. Victims were placed in scaffolds wearing yellow tunics known as san benitos symbolic of shame in this country. Yellow candles were lit, ropes were brought in, and stakes were displayed for the accused. Once the accused were placed on these stakes, priests asked for their confessions. If said accuser were to deny the practice of witchcraft, they were singed first and then lit on fire. If said accuser were to confirm their practice of witchcraft, they were kindly asked to turn their tunic inside out, strangled, and then set on fire. Problematic victims wore pointed hats similar to the dunce known as corozas, and then lit on fire. Of course, the church never set a victim on fire. They simply paid people to do this.
Witchcraft in Scandinavia
In Scandinavia, the witch is viewed quite differently from the rest of the world. Here, 5,000 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and their punishments were not nearly as severe. Now, their population was also smaller than most of the other countries examined, and of the 5,000 accused, 1700 to 2000 were executed. This means that the ratio of accused to population was high, but less severe punishment kept witchcraft from being a mass craze. Magic here was referred to as Trolldomr and both men and women could practice it. The spoken word in Scandinavia held great power, so once something was said, it could not be undone. Men spoke more publicly than women of the time, so they were more often accused then women. However, when women were accused, it was seen as doubly wrong by society wince they most likely practiced magic in secrecy.
Scandinavians were large believers in good and bad luck, and when something went wrong, it was often blamed on trolldomr. It was also used for love and divination like we see in other countries. Unique to Scandinavia though, is the fylgjur. Fylgjur is a guardian spirit animal connected to a person or family. Each person or family had certain characteristics that were embodied by the fylgjur. Scandinavians believed they could shape shift and that when one did, their soul took the form of an animal. When in animal form, the human body was left inner and vulnerable, so this form of magic was quite dangerous for the body. Penalties of trolldomr were usually only used when there was a fatality. If someone believed this death was due to trolldomr, the male head of the household could bring accusations to the ping - a group of leading elders in the community. Punishment from the ping often included fines or exiling of the accused, but sometimes the ping left punishment in the hands of the deceased's family. In this case, one could be subject to stoning or drowning.
Denmark was the first Scandinavian country to have a witch trial. The Lutheran church arrived and began to convert people, but needed to find and prosecute witches to do so. Even Catholics were seen as potential witches here. Some of the laws we see in Denmark differ greatly from witch hunting in previously discussed countries. For example, in 1547, the government said that testimony of someone convicted of sorcery could not be used to convict another person of sorcery. Torture was only utilized after someone had been sentenced to death for practicing sorcery. However, in 1617, a royal ordinance was given defining witchcraft as diabolical. Now, if someone was convicted, they could be burned and even cunning folk were exiled. Since the decree of this royal ordinance, the church handled witchcraft as a problem. 2000 people were tried of witchcraft, and 1000 of the accused were executed.
In Norway, 1400 people were accused with only about a quarter of them executed. This is approximately the same ratio as Denmark, but their rules for condemnation differ slightly. Two witnesses were required for conviction and torture was only allowed after sentence. Due to the pressing for conviction, torture was often used illegally to gain confession. Norway's witches were characterized with the addition of flying as a common ability because of course they had to fly to the northern part of the country to meet in secrecy. Due to the closeness to water, crimes of witchcraft against ships were seen more when there were shipwrecks or bad storms at sea. Witches still took the forms of animals since shapeshifting was a cultural belief. Even though the Lutherans have settles in to Norway, several of their clergy members were charged for destroying holy relics. Wives of the accused men were targeted if they could not be accused directly.
Sweden's citizens were accused of witchcraft beginning in the 1580's. Approximately 500 were accused and 300 were executed for their crimes. Again, their laws differed slightly from other Scandinavian countries. In 1593, the first witchcraft law was put in place requiring six witnesses for capital conviction. This was much higher than the two in Norway, so we see far less accused. Torture was still allowed here, and capital offense could be sentenced to those accused of killing other people or cattle. Everything else was considered punishable by a fine. From 1668-1676, we see a large panic where 200 people were killed because children claimed to be taken against their will to a witches' sabbat.
Finland began seeing witchcraft accusations in 1640 when Isaac Rothovius becomes bishop. He looked to eliminate sorcery, but only fatal malefic was susceptible to capital offense. Between 1640 and 1699, there were 710 people accused of witchcraft and 115 executed. Most of the accused and executed were men at around 60 and 65%. If one was not convicted on a capital offense, they were flogged or fined. At the peak of accusation in Finland (1675-1676), there were 157 people accused and 40 executed. These people were found to have the Devil's mark - typically abnormal markings found on body. Ostrobothnia and Ahvenanmaa were the two major cities of execution in Finland.
Iceland was unique in their belief that male magic was transferred from father to son. They thought of runes, as forms of witchcraft or proof of devilish undertaking. In Iceland, 120 people were accused and tried while 22 were killed. Of those killed, only one was female.
Witchcraft in Russia
Witches in Russia were known as veduns (males) and ved'mas (females). Their magic was broad and could be in the form of dream reading, fortune telling, spell casting, weather manipulation, and herb usage. Both males and witches could practice these forms of magic and often this magic was used to mysteriously injure someone. Damage or injury to someone or something us known as porcha (similar definition to maleficium). The first record of a Russian witchcraft trial took place in 1024 in Suzdal where an elder was blamed for food shortages and then executed. Here in Russia, witches were executed via burning. It was popular to practice "swimming" the witch to find one guilty if accused. Witchcraft was prosecuted under the jurisdiction of the church and the punishment if found guilty was death until the 13th century when Laroslav the Wise changed the penalty from death to fine.
Trials in Russia
Witchcraft Trials in Russia could be initiated in 3 ways: If one was apprehended in the act of witchcraft, if a request of investigation was given (inquest), or if one was under torture or incriminated. The military governor (voevoda) had case jurisdiction, no lawyers were present, and most accused showed up voluntarily. Torture was often used in the form of lashing (khouting) in sets of 30-40 at a time. During periods of torture, questioning was administered without stop. In Russia; however, spectral evidence was not accepted and confession was warranted. Porcha was labeled in 6 categories: taking life, maming, causing illness, depriving of reason, impitence, and crop failure.
16th Century Russia
Witchcraft accusations in 16th century Russia were often started by a Tsar. In 1547, Ivan IV had the throne. During his rule, Moscow experienced a series of fire damages and unrest among the people. His advisor started a rumor that Ivan's grandmother was responsible for the fires and following this accusation, a mob killed several of his family members. The Moscow Church's fear of witchcraft increased so much so that Ivan had to ask how to help. In 1552, an act was proclaimed stating that sorcerers, fortune tellers, and astrologers would be prosecuted under civil and ecclesiastical law. This was the first witchcraft law in the books naming types of magic and its practitioners. The Tsar has jursdiction to listen to these cases. Following this time period was the "Time of Troubles". This period marked a time of political unrest. The Romanov's were accused of witchcraft and exiled and the new oath that elites take renounces witchcraft.
17th Century Russia
We see a peak in witchcraft trials in the 17th century. During this period, 99 people were brought to trial and 10 of them were burned at the stake. There is no socioeconomic pattern for the accused anymore. In 1632, Michael Romanov's first wife died of supposed witchcraft and he orders authorities to forbid the buying of Lithuanian hops punishable by death. He is convinced there is lots of witchcraft going on and even investigates his own court. Tsar Aleksei is also concerned that his wife was poisoned by witches and in 1653, he enacts a law condemning activities like roots, potions, fortune telling manuals, divining dice, and written spells. Fear spread throughout Russia so much that the Moscow Academy decided that even their teachers and students would be burned at the stake if they were found guilty of witchcraft.
18th Century Russia
In the 18th century, Peter I issued a military statute in 1716 stating that witchcraft and cults were punishable by death. Following his rule, Catherine II brought a big change to the outlook of witchcraft in Russia. She viewed witchcraft as fraud and that current punishments were too severe. Courts were told to handle all witchcraft cases as fraud or popular superstition under the Sovestnye Sudy (Courts of Conscience). These courts heard cases of popular superstition, juvenile offenders, and the criminally insane.
Scare vs. Craze
Russia shared a different religious attitude that venerated nature and the elements. They view nature as good and bad not malevolent. Witchcraft was a secular crime and not a heretical one. We do not see demonic sorcery involved in witch accusations. Their dual religious beliefs highlighted the idea that paganism and Christianity could coexist peacefully.
Witchcraft in Italy
The Venetian Inquisition was responsible for handling witchcraft in Italy. They deferred their cases to the Holy Office at the highest level, but most cases started at local tribunals. Here, an ordinary bishop, an inquisitor, and a papal nuncio (next in line to bishop) heard cases. Protestants, those distributing banned books, divorce supporters, those ignoring religious fasts, and "other heretics" were on the initial list to be investigated by the inquisition. Soon all Protestants could have charges brought on them for magic an from 1586 to 1630, twice as many people were accused of magic. In Italy, they believed that divination, love magic, and maleficio could be practiced.
No Guilty Verdicts
Italy saw very few accusations result in an actual guilty verdicts. In 100 trials for maleficio, not a single defendant was convicted for witchcraft. In some cases, the Holy Office intervened and charged the defendant with something else, but rarely for witchcraft. Their inquisition was cautious and methodical because the Holy Office got rid of heresy. Local tribunals were often unsure how to proceed and wanted to keep cases from the Holy Office because there was no outright devil worship. A doctor was also called to testify whether an illness was natural or supernatural (stregheria); however, most doctors did not deal with the supernatural. With this lack of evidence and lack of faith renunciation, it was difficult to get trials to proceed. Often times, rational explanations were looked for and people were warned against unfounded rumors. It was not believed that evil was powerful enough to make impossible things happen.
Fairies were forms of witches also known as "the ladies from outside". Fairies were often poor women who took part in fairy festivities. Cunningfolk learned their craft from these fairies. From 1519 to 1651, the Holy Office recorded 65 people accused of witchcraft. The women differed to the fairy cult where there was no bad magic practiced. They claimed to not understand why what they were doing was wrong and that if something did go wrong they could undo their mistake. The Holy Office did not know what to do with these fairies and they decided to just disappear.
Witchcraft in England and Scotland
Witchcraft in the British Isles was much more restrained and mild than that of other countries. The height of English trials was around 1640 - late as compared to many of the other countries we have analyzed. In Scotland, we see two separate time periods resulting in witch panics. One began in 1590 and ended in 1592, while the other was from 1661 to 1662. Both panics ran for a short period of time and were at later dates than most countries panics. In the British Isles, we see approximately 5000 trials with 2000 executions.
These trials were milder due partly to their late concept of witchcraft. In England and Scotland, we have an absence of inquisitors looking to remove witchcraft as heresy. There is no interference from the Catholic Church and England and Scotland are not nearly as worried about heresy as countries with church interference.
Their ideas about witchcraft also differ slightly from that of other countries. They do not believe that witches can fly or perform orgies and cannibalistic activities. Here, they thought of the sabbath of witches as a simple dining with the devil. This meant that the sabbath was far less malicious in intent; therefore, sabbath was not as harshly punished.
Torture in the British Isles was used much more sparingly. By law, the privy council had to authorize the use of torture. In addition to authorization, torture could only be used if matters of the state were involved. For example, in the case of Russia, if the Tsar believed that someone was using witchcraft to harm him, then the witchcraft was a matter of state as well. Here in England and Scotland, matters of the state were fewer in number in regards to witchcraft, so torture was not used nearly as often.
Once one was accused of witchcraft in England or Scotland, they had the right of a trial by jury. In England, a unanimous verdict was required in order to convict. This meant that a total of 12 peers had to decide indefinitely that someone was guilty of practicing witchcraft. But, in Scotland, a majority guilty verdict was required to convict.
In 1542, a statute regarding witchcraft was passed making witchcraft a crime. In 1563, it was decided that there was a penalty for injury to a person or property by means of witchcraft. The penalties for first offense were imprisonment for a year or 4 appearances and a pillary. Second offense of injury to a person or property was much more harsh with death. Witchcraft used for treasure hunting or love included the same first offense penalties, but second time offenders were imprisoned for life and all their property was forfeited.
In 1604, it was decided that dead bodies were not to be taken from graves or used in magic. Now, the rules for penalty included death to first time offenders if their intention was malicious. If someone committed harmful witchcraft on purpose, they were sentenced to death. Even if this magic was unsuccessful, if it was done on purpose, it was still punishable as if it had been successful.
Evidence was required to convict someone of witchcraft and the guilty verdict had to be unanimous. This meath that evidence had to be prominent in the case. However, in England, they believed that witchcraft was practiced in secret. This meant that normal evidence was not readily available. In order to find secret evidence, a background investigation was conducted and child or spouse testimony was allowed.
Proof that could be sufficient for the magistrate to move a trial along would include the following: a reputation as a notorious witch, cursing a person that ended up injured, showing malice towards a person or object that had misfortune, relation by blood to someone who was a proven witch, successfully practicing counter-magic and showing a burn mark, confessing, or showing too diligent of an interest in a sick neighbor.
Sufficient proof for conviction included the following: accusation by another witch, unnatural mark on the body, two witnesses who saw the accused make a pact with the devil, entertaining of familiars, discovery of poppets, bleeding of corpse when touched by the accused, giving a gift that was followed by injury, or confession. In England, witches were hanged and not burned. This is why we see hanging in the United States.
In 1562, Mary Queen of Scots passed the first law regarding witchcraft in Scotland. She brought the ideas of continental Europe with her and they believed that witchcraft was heresy punishable by burning. However, it was King James that was responsible for the first panic in 1589. The panic began after Princess Anna was picked up in Copenhagen, Denmark. There were horrible storms at sea that made them stop in Norway where they believed that witches were responsible for storms at sea. A Danish admiral tells James that a witch was responsible for causing the storms, and from here on out, he was hypersensitive to who was involved in witchcraft. He focused on his court and in doing so, caused panics in both Norway and Scotland at the same time. 100 people were arrested and torture was authorized. Several confessed that they were fraternizing with the devil and that the devil had asked them to poison.
Following his scare, James wrote a handbook on witchcraft called Daemonologie. This book called for more intense trials and led to the future handling of witches in Scotland. Following this publication, 3 people in Scotland were executed for witchcraft for every 1 person in England. There were around 2000 trials conducted with 1600 of them occurring between the years 1620 and 1680. Local magistrates were commissioned to try accused witches without any supervision of a judge. This led to a higher conviction rate with too much local control. The clergy in Scotland had a more active roll in hands-on interrogation processes and urged prosecution by these magistrates.
Witchcraft in the Colonies - Building to Salem
When people from New England came to settle the new land, they brought with them an intriguing state of mind. This state of mind and an accumulation of events in the colonial south has contributed to the reasons that witchcraft became a problem in the 17th century. These accusations did not appear out of nowhere. The culture of the English crossing Atlantic to settle North America already had a preconceived fear of witches. With hunts in Europe spanning three countries had convicted and executed many men and women, and English settling in North America were no strangers to witchcraft.
A large number of settlers in New England were Puritans. They had an interesting view of the world around them where natural and supernatural forces played a large roll. The world was an enchanted place with no accidents or coincidences. Each and every occurrence was willed by God and many activities carried supernatural significance. Predestination was a large belief among Puritans and misfortune or mysterious illness carried a divine message. If something went wrong it was "God's punishment" for their sins. They attended church and prayed regularly and the scripture taught that witches were a real entity that needed to be hunted and punished.
However, on both sides of the Atlantic, Christian roots believed in the use of folk magic. This magic was used for the benefit of its users and occult forces could strengthen their knowledge and control over their lives. In a time when the colonists had little control over any circumstances in their lives, many did not believe it was harmful to use folk magic. This idea strongly contradicted Puritan theology which placed supernatural power strictly in the hands of God.
Colonists believed that when they turned to magic that they were not entirely rejecting their religion or God. They needed help in many ways, and by turning to magic as a supernatural force, they were turning to a source that seemed helpful under the circumstances. Some colonists believed they could use all the help that they could get.
Many of those that stood trial in Salem were cunning folk. However, the accused were thought to have used their magic to "afflict and destroy". Women were primarily accused, and many believe that these women were accused to eliminate those in the town that were "disorderly and dangerous".
The Dominion of New England brought new worry to settlers. James the II was made King of England and he was friendly with Catholics due to his wife. However, Puritans and Catholics were not quite as friendly and this upset King James II. In 1685, Massachusetts lost their charter and Edmond Andros was appointed new governor. Andros grew upset that there were no Anglican churches in New England, so he imposed a new tax on the Puritans living here to have an Anglican church built. The Puritans did not want a Church of England. Of course, they believed that God was punishing them until in 1688 James was removed from the throne and Andros was sent away.
New England as a whole had undergone a series of events detrimental to the community. These crises were military, political, and religious. Indian raids threatened the town after three Wampanoag Indians were executed by settlers in an ordeal that Indians believed they should have handled. Chief Metacomet (also known as King Phillip) led a raid that killed many settlers and left many children orphaned and inflicted with post traumatic stress. This raid almost destroyed the colony, emotionally and physically. A decade passed, and another wave of Indian attacks struck when they partnered with the French. England and France were at war and once again New England suffered raids, increased anxiety, and intensified panic. It was often described by accusers and confessors alike that the Devil appeared to them in the form of an Indian.
Salem Witch Trials: Bridget Bishop
From: The Salem Witch Hunt by Richard Godbeer
Bridget Bishop was a uniques case in the fact that she was accused of witchcraft twice. Her first accusation followed the death of her husband, Thomas Oliver, in 1679. Perhaps this accusation was not so surprising since the profile of an accused witch commonly includes those that are widowed since they no longer commanded authority of a husband. Being a widow gave women a power that was unusual, even peculiar, in the Puritan mind. This power made it possible for a woman to own her own land and in Puritan culture this was a right in the hands of males. Nevertheless, she was acquitted and moved on in Salem Town with her husband Edward Oliver.
Personality traits of Bridget Bishop also made her a likely target of accusation among a Puritan community in 1692. Self-confidence was a quality that women did not quite flaunt in this bunch. Women were to dress plainly, do chores, and stay in the home until they reached a marrying age when they could now also dress plainly, do chores, and stay in the home. Bridget Bishop broke the societal norm when she wore her self-confidence in ornate garments outside her home. In fact, women displaying signs of attractiveness at all was disturbing in the community. This provoked males to be far more imaginative than was welcomed, making Bridget and Eve-like figure to the Puritan's.
Bridget was victim to unreasonable pieces of evidence like the ones listed above, however, she becomes one of the only ones accused to have concrete evidence in her case as well. Poppets were said to be found at the Bishop household. These poppets were clear evidence to accusers of her use of image magic against enemies. When they were found in her cellar, they were said to have pins sticking out of them as if they had been used. Even the town clothes maker said that she brought lace and fabric in to dye that were far too small for personal use - so she must have been dressing the dolls.
Following her new and second accusation, Bridget was examined by the town. On April 19, 1692, she claimed that she was innocent and that she has not done witchcraft. However, Mercy Lewis and Ann Putnam verbally accuse her of harming them to her face and say that she tried to make them sign the Devil's book. Five afflicted people accuse her, and they then go on to increase their accusation to murder. The afflicted people greatly influence her examination since they appear to be tortured and Bridget Bishop is taken away.
Other accusers against Bridget seem to come out of the woodworks. Tales of money disappearing out of pockets after being paid for work, appearances in or on top of beds by her specter, attempts to get children to sign the Devil's book, cursing livestock, killing children, and the finding of witches teats all pile up against Bridget and conceal her fate on June 10, 1692.
Salem Witch Trials: Sarah Good
Sarah Good was one of the first to be accused in Salem. Sarah began her life with a wealthy family, but when her father died and her mother remarried, this man never handed over Sarah's share of the estate. Her first husband died, leaving her a widow shortly after they were married, and Sarah accumulated his debts. These events left her extremely poor, and she became a homeless beggar in the community.
She was not one to hold back her feelings, and she voiced her opionon of her misfortune regularly in the community. She was known as a bitter and resentful woman, and to the Puritan's, this meant that she had not accepted God's will. Everything in their lives was part of a predestination, and lashing out against determined fate was not an act taken kindly. Women in particular were expected to not be outspoken, and Good would frequently curse her neighbors. All of these characteristics did not help her case when it came time to ask townspeople if Sarah Good was in fact a witch.
When Sarah good was examined, Mr. Hathorne, asked that all of the children look at her and tell him if she hurt them. All of them look upon her and promptly accuse her of tormenting them. She denies the accusation and actually accused Sarah Osborne of harming the children. She was spiteful in her answers to questioning and retorted authority. She was caught in many factual lies in addition to her accusers piling up. Even her own husband stated that he was afraid she was a witch or that she would soon become one. He accused her of being "an enemy to all good".
Sarah was accused of pinching and pricking, trying to get children to sign the Devil's book, not being properly clothed, torturing children, sending her specter to harm people, afflicting and killing cattle, and threatening townspeople. With many members of the community against her and a long list of suspicious characteristics, Sarah Good stood no chance in the trials of 1692 and her fate was sealed on July 19.
Why Salem is Appealing to the Modern Era
I believe that the outbreak in Salem Village so clearly fascinates people in the modern era because it is like an unsolved murder mystery. There is evidence and theories, but we cannot prove any of it to be true. Just like people are fascinated by conspiracy theories, riddles, and puzzles, people are fascinated by the witch trials in Salem Village. Getting the pieces of the puzzle together can get us close to an answer, but we will never truly know which one is right.
Different cultures and authors have interpreted the events of the outbreak in Salem Village in many different ways. Television knows that different ideas fascinate people and that the media sells because they present different and knew ideas that might add pieces of the puzzle. The most interesting part to me is that we know that this puzzle won't be solved with certainty by what we have currently as evidence to support our conclusions. People will always be looking for something that is a solid piece of conclusive evidence that we don't quite have yet.
Perhaps somewhere, there is a diary by an afflicted girl such as Mary Warren or Abigail Williams that comes right out and says what happened and why for the accusers. Modern retellings such as The Crucible romanticize the idea of the events in Salem Village to sell their ideas. If there was an affair going on, then it would perhaps be more exciting to people than an 8 year old and 11 year old girl crammed in a tiny Puritan home doing chores all day. When the Victorians highlighted Puritan ideas that they predicted to be causal to the outbreak in Salem Village, they interpreted ideas that they liked meaning that these were more so the ideas that they wanted to be the case. This says things about society in that people will believe what they want to believe and that looking for a reason to believe those ideas will always be fascinating.
Salem Village Mock Trial
Recently, our class has put on a mock trial of Salem Village 1692. This mock trial brought many new perspectives forward and I would like to share a few of them:
- That no single entity in Salem Village was responsible for the deaths of 1692.
- The system in Salem Village was set up in a way that many people simply acting as "they were told to do".
- There were many leading questions from the jury and magistrate.
- The events in Salem created a "perfect storm" and without each individual ingredient, the storm could not have taken place.
- The magistrate had little power.
- The jury and magistrate would have had personal ties to those put on trial.
Each member of our class was assigned a role as someone actually involved in the trials (jury members, magistrate, and accusers). When accusers (Samuel Paris, Dr. Griggs, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Tituba, and Abigail Williams) were placed on the stand to be questioned, it became clear that their testimonies could not have given a definitive answer to the cause of these occurrences. The questions asked by the jury were pointing and unclear, the magistrate was leading, and the arguments were biased. Members of the jury and magistrate would have come to court with a preconceived notion about what was happening in their town and they would have been closed minded to the statements unfolding before them.
We must remember that young women with no property were at the bottom of the hierarchy in Salem Village. This was a typical hierarchy for Puritan society and Salem Village held no exception in its treatment of women. They were to be models of the Puritan way of life but had no influence in the community. The young girls that were being questioned would have held no great influence in a normal situation, so without the help of the adults in the community, they would not have been able to single-handedly condemn any of the townspeople to their deaths.
When the jury and magistrate were asking questions, the questions were hugely leading. The young girls were able to simply answer yes or no to well thought out questions that created scenarios crafted by the jury. The jury described what many of the adults in the community would have looked like to the girls, and when they agreed, it made it seem as though they were seeing these people for themselves. In fact, they could have just been agreeing with the concoction that the jury had come up with.
Since Salem Village was such a small town, many of the members of the jury and magistrate had known affiliations to those that were put on trial. This would have created a personal bias before the trials even began. Some members of the community could have been friends, neighbors, enemies, or distant relatives of those that were on trial and this could have effected their views and outcomes of the trials.
After the completion of our questioning in the mock trial, the jury had to deliberate. The magistrate was unable to do so and held little power. The jury members were of different factions (guilty or not guilty verdicts) during the arguments and it was clear during their deliberation that it would have taken far longer than the three days we were given to reach a verdict. Within the three days that we were given we had many days, meals, and sleep between trials. The people in Salem Village would have had little sleep, much stress, small meals, and lived in crammed households. They would have been frustrated with each other and arguing over personal beliefs and opinions of the trials would have been grueling.
Once the frustrated jury had reached their conclusions, it was apparent that the decisions were all very close. In our class, most of the verdicts were around 6-4 guilty or not guilty. This meant that it was only two votes difference that would have saved someone's life or sent them to death.
It has become even more clear to me during the mock trial we created in class that no single person could have been responsible for the events that occurred in Salem Village. Reenacting this in person highlighted some of the ideas from the texts we have read and the lectures we have been given. Salem was in fact a "perfect storm" and many ideas contribute to the events that took place in 1692.
Mock Trial for Mary Warren
From a first person point of view
When the trials here in Salem Village began, I was a twenty-year-old servant in the Proctor household. John and Elizabeth Proctor had publically expressed their negative opinions of the trials and accusations taking place in Salem Village. John Proctor had discovered that I participated in the accusations, but he did not discover the Devil in this town like I had. Thomas Putnam approached me after rumor of witchcraft had spread in our community. He told me that my torment was being caused by the Devil and that there were witches at work in our town who were bringing the Devil here.
At a young age, both of my parents died and I had seen evil for the first time. This situation allowed me to believe in the Devil and left me with no funds or property to claim. My belief in the Devil and lack of assets proved an advantage to Thomas Putnam. He saw my torment and told me that it was due to the Devil again. He even told me who was responsible for my visible torture. He convinced me that there were people in the town that had taken up with the Devil and that if I wanted justice against the Devil for the death of my parents then I would help him take them down. Thomas Putnam told me that he knew George Burroughs had been cooperating with the Devil in our community and that there were others with him that we needed to fight against. Thomas Putnam promised me that if I helped get the Devil out of this town, then I could get out of the Proctor household as a servant. I would finally be away from his abuse and have the chance to own real land of my own. I felt trapped in his household and felt that this was the only way I would ever have money and property. I had to fight against the Devil.
George Burroughs was the main concern of Thomas Putnam. Thomas told me that the Devil was inside him and he needed to be punished. He had seen him for himself and I told the jury during the trials that I had seen George and his conspirators when I was in prison in Salem. Goody Nurse, Goody Proctor, Goody Parker, Goody Pudeator, Abigail Soames, Goodman Proctor, Goody Dowing and others had all been there and if they were working with the Devil then they needed to be stopped. He sounded a trumpet that led to a meeting and tried to make me drink wine that was in fact blood. When I refused to drink it, he afflicted me. In this statement, I do not lie that George and his conspirators tried to make me drink wine. If he was in fact in collaboration with the Devil like I was told by Thomas that he was, then they could have been serving me blood.
When my master, John Proctor, found out about my role in the accusations, he beat me senseless. He thought that the only way I would agree to help the carry out such an evil deed was if I had taken up with the devil myself. He found out I was involved with other girls in the town and even told Samuel Sibley that “if we were left alone so we should all be Devils & witches quickly, they should rather be had to the Whipping post but I would fetch my jade Home and thresh the Devil out of her.” Samuel Sibley even took this to court when he testified which only made us look worse. But, Samuel Sibley never saw the Devil at work himself. John Proctor did not believe me because he hadn’t seen the Devil either. I could not convince him that he was real.
I had to tell the judge and jury who the witches were that were working with the Devil to keep the Devil from being able to torment our town and force the community to question their faith. I had seen the Devil in John when he beat me, but I did not outright accuse him of being a wizard or Elizabeth a witch. I accused him of deeds like pinching me, biting me, choking me, and pressing on my stomach until blood came out of my mouth. These were not lies but acts that he had actually committed when he beat me in his household. I saw him torture Mistress Pope, Mercy Lewis, and John Indian and I had to save them. He tortured me and I knew my life was at stake.
My fits and torment were real. I had seen the Devil at work before when both my parents were taken from me and I was left with nothing. I was faced with a moral dilemma between saving the lives of the witches or saving the whole town from them. I could not bear to see another member of the community hurt by the Devil. I cried out, “I am sorry for it I am sorry for it.” My religious beliefs told me that the Lord would save me and I cried out for him, “Oh lord help me, Oh, good Lord save me!” I remember crying so much that the fits once again overcame me. I distinctly remember telling the judges while crying, “I will tell, they did, they did, they did”. I had to fight against the Devil and keep him out of our community.
When I was questioned about Bridget, I knew that she had been taken with the Devil. Thomas Putnam had even told about her involvement with poppets and I was tormented by the idea that the same Devil that had taken my mother and father had been associated with Bridget Bishop. I saw her appear to me with the Devil’s book to sign and I was immediately tortured by the thought of my parents. She did in fact torture and afflict me with these thoughts.
After John Proctor thought that I had been working with the Devil, I feared for my own life in his home and sought public protection. The judges and jury knew the Devil was working here too and if they believed me, then I was safe communicating with them. After the other girls that were afflicted help them began doing the same, I quickly realized that the only way we could survive the Devil and gain help from other townspeople was to remain communicating with the court. It became safe for us to agree with the ideas that the judges presented, but I never lied. “Cooperation with the accusers proved salutary.” The torments brought on by the hands of the devil were real. However, I will not deny the roe of Thomas Putnam in telling me who in the town was bringing the Devil here to harm me. I would never falsely accuse someone. I simply told the judge and jury what was happening, I did not have the power to send anyone to their death.
Witchraft in the Modern Era
Recently, we received a task to find modern witchcraft articles in the news. By modern, I mean very recent and occurring in the last decade. I found this task incredibly interesting in the fact that many of the ideas discussed historically from countries centuries ago still appear today.
For example, many of the people that were being accused of witchcraft in the last decade held the same stereotypes that witches did centuries ago. Elderly women were a large group accused, but mostly women as a whole. One nanny in Italy was accused of witchcraft because many houses burned during the period that she was brought in to watch children. This is similar to the idea of the lying-in-maid. Nannies in particular were accused centuries ago because the mothers of children were jealous of the bond created between child an nanny.