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.