The Wonderful World of Witchcraft an exploration of magic, past and present

January 20, 2017

Profile of a Witch

Have you ever thought to yourself, "Maybe if I just try hard enough, I can make this remote come to me without moving"... or maybe you've been in the middle of a Harry Potter marathon, wishing you could just say "Accio popcorn!" and have the best bowl of movie-theatre buttered bliss right in your lap in a matter of seconds? Sadly, I am not Hermione Granger, and if I want to eat popcorn or change the channel, I have to get up and do it myself... or is that a bad thing?

I may not have Hermione's signature smarts and curly locks, Sabrina's witty cat, or the Sanderson Sisters'... well, everything about them. These are the characteristics that we associate with some of the most popular witches in our lives today. But how did we get these stereotypes? Let us take a look back on the profile of a witch through history to find out.

For entertainment purposes, I have provided you a song to listen to while you read.

List five things you think of when you think of a witch. The five probably include an older woman wearing a tall pointy black hat, with a large nose, green or pale skin, long ratty hair, and a broomstick to fly on, just to name a few. Your witch probably looks a little something like this...

Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz)

If you imagine this, you aren't crazy! Throughout history, we have a recurring theme of the type of person, generally a woman, who would have been accused as a witch. This typical idea of a witch, save for the green skin and flying broom, is not a far cry from the stereotype we see today, but isn't quite the pattern that followed accused witches throughout the 14th-17th centuries.

Before we understand the profile of the average witch, it is important to understand how to define a witch at all. In 14th century Europe, the word "witch" was linked to the root word of "wise", meaning most of the witches had a special knowledge of herbs, and were learned practitioners of the magical arts. Witches during this time were also non-gendered... that's right folks, men could be witches too!! In fact, in Iceland, 92% of all accused witches were men, and the stereotypical "witch" today has very masculine inclinations.

Cunningfolk, or people with special knowledge of herbs and magic, and witches, were seen as beneficial and prized members of their community, but only if the magic was working. When the magic stopped working is when the whole thing backfired, and accusations began.

1. OLD AGE: Since it took time to learn about all of the herbs and magic, the cunningfolk and witches were generally older members of the community. This is where we get the stereotypical elderly witch! You don't just learn about magic and healing overnight, it takes a lifetime, so they are generally age 40-50, and most women would be post-menopausal.

2. WOMEN: The stereotype that witches are women also comes from the fact that they could not escape their society as easily as men could. If something went wrong with the healing herbs and magic, the men would flee and never be accused, but the women could not do so. This led to women making up the staggering statistic of 75% of the accused in Europe, and 80% in America.

3. WIDOWS AND HATED PEOPLE: Often, accused women are unmarried or widowed, with no male protection to vouch for their innocence in the case that the woman is accused. This happens to women no matter their socioeconomic status, targeting the poor to rid society of them, and targeting the rich who had no male heirs. Also, because they were unmarried and either very rich or very poor, those accused were often disliked and suspected by the community as being evil. This was further fueled if the accused were particularly outspoken (as elderly people so often are).

Left to Right: Ron, Harry, and Hermione (Harry Potter); Ursula, Evil Queen, Queen Narissa, Madam Mim, Maleficent, Yzma (Disney Witches); Hilda, Sabrina, Zelda, Salem (Sabrina the Teenage Witch)

In the 14th-17th centuries, women were seen and treated as a "necessary evil", meaning women were necessary, but not to be trusted because they cause the downfall of man. Women were believed to be more able to commune with the Devil, due to monthly menstruation, and had easy access to many powerful resources for spells, such as blood, semen, babies, milk, and more.

The Mental Floss article above, 17 Signs that You'd Qualify as a Witch in 1692, explores more of the absurd qualifications of being a witch, as well as confirms some of my points, and is a good resource to begin further research on the topic of witch hunting in Europe and America!

And so I urge you, dear reader, to dive in and learn more about the Wonderful World of Witchcraft, through reading articles, books, and blogs. I also urge you to abandon your stereotypical idea of witches that you see in the media, because they are often not in line with the true profile of a witch.

And finally... I urge you to pop a bowl of popcorn, and relax with friends for a Harry Potter marathon.

January 27, 2017

Witchcraft across the World

Evil witches; Good witch; Glinda and Elphaba (Wicked)

We all know the stigma attached to the word "witch". I explored it in my post from last week, we all have an idea of the typical witch, and I'm willing to bet most of us (most females, anyway) have dressed as a witch for Halloween once or twice (or 5 times...not naming any names)

Why do we tie witches to the negative ideas in our minds, though? Perhaps these came from various countries of origin, as so many of our ideas do? If you think that, you are absolutely correct.

In this post, we will be exploring witches from three of these many different origins: Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia. These countries hold many similarities, but also some major differences. All three were the perfect storm to foster the growth witchcraft.


First, why Germany? In the late 16th century, 75% of all European witchcraft accusations occur in Germany (particularly West and South Germany), France, Switzerland, and other low countries, which holds 50% of the European population!

Germany had judicial autonomy, brought about by the political weakness of the Holy Roman Empire. This means small German courts had great power and governance, with no policing of the courts (no system of checks and balances here!), and unchecked witch hunting was on the rise. Each time there was a change in leadership, there was a change of religion, for each prince was determining the religion of the land. Each religion had differing viewpoints on witchcraft, which led to a constant stream of persecution.

This all changed in 1579, with the establishment of the Jesuit college, which establishes a true definition of witchcraft, and increases the trial numbers. With this, persecution increases, and fear spreads throughout Germany. Fast forward to the reign of Bishop Johann Georg II, and his invention of the Hexenhaus, or witch prison. Hexenhaus held 40 prisoners at a time, plus all torture equipment needed to gain confessions.

Witch being tortured for confessions; Hanging of witches

With witch hunting going unchecked, so were the methods of having these witches be accused and how they gained confession. Unlimited torture was legal and very widespread, and torture protocol was often broken, killing pregnant women and more. In addition, the Germans would not kill you until you confess your guilt, and confession was not legitimate unless you confessed while being subjected to torture.

Lying-in-Maids, women who were hired for 6-8 weeks after the birth of a child, were often accused of witchcraft because new mothers were jealous of the bond between baby and maid, so they were accused of poisoning soup to kill the mother, or of poisoning the baby for spells.


When you think of witchcraft in Spain, you probably think of the Spanish Inquisition, right? Well you're right to think that! But did you know that the original intent of the Inquisition was to target Muslims and Jews? Pope Sixtus IV used it to purge Spain of non-Christians who may owe money to Isabel and Ferdinand. Grand Inquisitors were hired, and Isabel and Ferdinand hired Spain's first Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada. Torquemada was a strong believer in torture, and called all "conversos" (people who had converted from a former religion to Christianity) heretics, because "in their hearts, they are still sinners"

Auto da Fé

The Spanish Auto da Fé, or "Act of Faith" used everything from public shaming to burning at the stake to condemn and punish convicted witches. 125,000 people were tried as heretics during the Inquisition, and anyone arrested was believed guilty until proven innocent. The accused wore a dark yellow penitential tunic, known as a San Benito (pictured below). It depicted images of devils, burning victims, and more. If you confessed and repented at the Auto da Fé, your San Benito would be turned inside out, known as a Fuego Resuelto, and you would be choked before being burned at the stake. If you were especially defiant, you were made to wear a Coroza, which was a 3 ft. tall "dunce cap" of sorts, with the same images as the San Benito.

San Benito and small Coroza


When talking about Scandinavian Trolldómr (magic), we will be focusing on Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland), as well as Iceland (which is not technically Scandinavian, but geographically nearby and relevant.) In Scandinavia, around 5,000 witches were accused, and 1,700-2,000 were convicted of practicing witchcraft.

In Trolldómr, men and women were equally able to perform magic, which could be used for good or bad. Spoken word was believed to have tremendous power, and once you said something, it could never be taken back. Because of the belief that magic was connected to public speech, men were accused and convicted much more than women, which is different than every other country we have examined thus far.

The common uses of Trolldómr was for luck, love, divination, fylgjur, and/or shapeshifting. Fylgjur was the belief that an individual or a family had a guardian spirit connected to them, usually by an animal who reflected your inner qualities.

The penalty for Trolldómr was to be heard before the Ping, or leading group of male elders. The Godi, or head of the Ping, was a hereditary position. If The Ping would decide your punishment, and could choose between exile or fines. However, if the Ping allowed the victim's family to decide, punishment would usually be either stoning or drowning of the accused.

In the 1540's, Denmark became the first Scandinavian country to hold a witch trial. A royal ordinance was issued in 1617, which defined witchcraft as a "diabolical complex" and ordered the burning of convicted witches, or the fining and exiling of cunningfolk.

Norway had a high number of accusations among vagrants and beggars, as well as members of the Lutheran clergy. Spells were often cast against ships, causing storms at sea, or with witches taking the form of wolves, ravens, cats, or dogs, an ideology stemming from shapeshifting.

The first accusations and executions in Sweden occurred beginning in the 1580's, though the first witchcraft law was not implemented until 1593. This law stated that there must be 6 witnesses OR a confession to convict a witch on a capital offense. Killing a person or a cow was also a capital offense, and torture was limitless, in order to gain confession.

Finland considered only fatal maleficium to be a capital offense, with all other offenses resulting only in a fine or church penance. The accused were tortured and often were found with a "devil's mark" (birthmark) on them. The main cities in Finland for witchcraft accusations were Ostrobothnia and Ahvenanmaa.

In Iceland, though not considered part of Scandinavia, witchcraft was still prevalent. It was considered to be a men's occupation, passed from father to son. Witches would often use runes for divination. In all of Iceland, 120 were tried, 10 female; 22 were killed, and only 1 was female!

As you can see, all of these countries had witch trials and witches were associated with death and the devil. This is why, today, most people have a negative connotation attached to witches and witchcraft! In movies, pop culture, even Halloween costumes, we can see how traditions from the 16th century still has an impact on our thinking today.

February 3, 2017

Trials and Torture

"The purpose of torture is not getting information. It is spreading fear." Eduardo Galeano

We are all familiar with torture and its purpose. As Eduardo Galeano stated in the quote above, torture exists to spread fear, and that is the case we see when we study witchcraft as well. In today's blog, we will be discussing the topic of torture in witchcraft, how it varied from country to country, and the laws surrounding its use. With this, we will also cover a timeline of witch trials.

During the reign of St. Augustine (354-430 CE), we see the first witch burning, in the year 382. Augustine urged the burning of not only witches, but also pagans, Jews, and heretics, because he believed that burning was a "taste of what was to come" (aka Hell).

In 1231, Konrad of Marburg became the first inquisitor in Germany. He famously uncovered what he believed to be "nests of Devil worshippers", and his motto was "we would gladly burn 100 if just one of them were guilty."

In the torture and killing of witches in the late Middle Ages (around the year 1350), witchcraft was seen as a demonic cult, and anyone had access to the knowledge it took to practice such rituals. Witchcraft was a heretical and criminal offense, and antithetical to the church, with all magic being seen as "bad magic from ritual pacts the Devil". Because of this, witches were punished more severely and often put to death on charges of heresy.

The first witch hunts in Western Europe took place in the 1450's, and the Catholic church has a list of sins witches committed, among which were kidnapping babies and stealing men's genitalia. Crimen Exceptum, a law that came about in 1500, made witchcraft a double crime, against both God and man. Children are able to testify, and unlimited torture was legal, on order to get the offender to confess. The peak time of accusal in France, Germany, and Switzerland (1550-1650) are known as the "Burning Times", and witches were punished to "appease the wrath of God", and had to be prosecuted with any scrap of evidence against them.

Burning at the stake

In the long history of witchcraft, burning witches at the stake has been the most widely used and recognized form of torture. This was because it didn't cause the church to shed blood, and the burning of the witch was believed to nullify and magic that may remain once they die. Burning of witches was seen in nearly every country and region, with the exception of England and the American colonies, where witches were hanged.

In Germany, as we have discussed in previous posts, Bishop Johann Georg II founded the hexenhaus, a prison for torturing witches. In hexenhaus, torture was unlimited and unchecked, for the sole purpose of gaining confessions. Believe it or not, torture was believed to be cathartic for the accused witches!

Strappado and Squassation, respectively.

Torture used in hexenhaus was especially brutal. The strappado, as well as it's more gruesome counterpart, the squassation, were among the feared instruments of torture. The strappado had the victim tied by their hands behind their backs, and hung from their arms, which would dislocate the arms, shoulders, wrists, and more. The squassation was almost identical to the strappado, but the victim would have heavy weights attached at the ankle, to increase the pressure of the pulling, and they were often yanked up and down, not dissimilar to a piñata.

As mentioned in my previous blog, the Spanish Auto da Fé was a public festival used to shame witches, and often burn them as punishment. In Russia, the most common form of torture was knouting, or flogging with a whip, usually dipped in tar. After you were knouted, you would be tortured with the rack, strappado, burning wedges, hot pincers, water torture, and more. The ducking stool was used because it was believed that witches were "waterproof", so if they were fully submerged and removed, they would not be wet. Often, the chairs were too heavy and women would drown before being removed from the water.

(from top left) the rack, the wheel, the ducking stool, and knouting

The use of torture in witchcraft further proves Galeano's quote that torture was used to spread fear, because I believe that governments used torture in order to scare people into behaving mores that they did to get information from the torture victim, because they had the authority to do whatever they pleased with the accused. I believe torture was truly used to make a point to the rest of their people that they were not afraid to find and prosecute witches.

february 10, 2017

Witchcraft in Russia

In my past blogs, we have touched upon 3 different countries, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia (yes... I know 'Scandinavia' is not a country... work with me here). Today, we will have a look at another country, this time Russia.


In Russia, the term "witch" referred to an individual who could mysteriously injure someone. The vedun (male witch) or ved'ma (female witch) who practiced witchcraft, known in Russian as koldovstvo or chardeistvo, would use their powers for forecasting, interpreting dreams, usage of herbal medicines, and for weather manipulation. In addition to this, they had 6 types of Porcha, which is Russian maleficium, which caused damage or injury to a person or their possessions.

Russia still burned their witches, or, as we talked about with torture last week, would take them to the ducking stool in a process they called "swimming the witch", in which they swam every single person accused of witchcraft, no matter what. Poor, unfortunate (innocent) souls.

DISCLAIMER: the photo on the left IS NOT an example of "swimming the witch", it just made me laugh much harder than it should have. For a legitimate reference, view the photo on the right.

Witchcraft fell under the jurisdiction of the church in Russia, and their nomokanon became the canonical and civil law. Nomokanon, which was in place until the early 13th century, stated that the punishment for witchcraft was death. However, Laroslav the Wise changed this law from death to the penalty of a fine of 6 grivna paid to the city.

witchcraft trials

There were 3 ways to initiate a witchcraft trial in Russia: if the voevoda (military governor) saw you practicing witchcraft, by inquest (investigation), or by ogovor (torture) and confession. The voevoda had jurisdiction over your case, and there were no lawyers, so it was up to you to defend yourself. Surprisingly enough, most of the accused showed up to trial voluntarily!

Knouting, as we talked about last week, was the main form of torture employed in Russian witchcraft trials. This was flogging with a whip, usually dipped in tar, so that it would stick and rip out pieces of flesh from your body. After you were knouted, you would be tortured with the rack, strappado, burning wedges, hot pincers, water torture, and more. The accused would also be questioned during these torture sessions.

one word: yikes

As mentioned earlier, Porcha, or Russian maleficium, fell into 6 categories: taking life (which held the largest number of accusations), maiming, causing illness (which was caused by putting grave dirt into someone's drink), depriving someone of reason, impotence, and crop failure.

Under the rule of Ivan IV (you may know him as Ivan the Terrible), an ukaz (act) was passed in 1552, which stated that all sorcerers, fortune tellers, and astrologers would be prosecuted under civil and Ecclesiastical law. This came after a great fire in Moscow that many people believed was an omen. A rumor was started that Ivan's grandmother, Anna Glinskaia, and her children practiced witchcraft and brought this about, so an angry mob killed Ivan's family.

Since some people didn't learn their lesson about threatening and harassing the Russian Royal Family, we have a time called the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), where there is much political unrest in the tsardom. Boris Godunov was terrified and accused the Romanov family of using witchcraft to remove him from the throne, which resulted in the exile of the Romanov family, as well as an oath for Russians to never use witchcraft against the Russian Royal Family.

#twinning Ivan IV the Terrible (left), and Boris Godunov (right)

witchcraft in the 17th century

Most of the Russian witchcraft trials took place in the 17th century, between 1622 and 1700. In this time frame, 99 were tried (59 men, 40 women), 10 were burned at the stake, 5 were exiled, and 3 died while in torture. Unlike other countries, no specific group was targeted. There were a mix of peasants, former military governors, priests, tavern keepers, and more.

In 1653, Tsar Aleksei issued a law that convicted the activities of using roots and potions, fortune telling manuals, divining dice, and written spells. If you were found using these items, then you would be burned, along with your home and all of your belongings. In 1682, Moscow Academy stated that if any students or teachers were found to be using witchcraft, they would be burned.


In 1716, Peter I issued a military statute, which stated that any and all witchcraft and occult practices were forbidden, and would result in death.

Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, had differing views on witchcraft. Rather than evil and malicious, she believed witchcraft was a crime of fraud, and had the courts handle the cases as they would a case of fraud. In 1775, she implemented sovestnye sudy, or "courts of conscience" to deal with the cases regarding popular superstition, juvenile offenders, and the criminally insane. Quite the variety there, Catherine.

Catherine II the Great, looking beautiful and jolly as ever. ~~ready for her closeup~~

Overall, you can see some similarities between Russia and the other countries we have covered, but also some major differences! One major difference was that, in Russia, there was more of a witchcraft scare, and not a craze... why was this? I chalk this up to Russian religious attitudes. There was a dvoeverie in Russia, or a dual faith, so there was no tension happening between paganism and Christianity. The intellectual rationale for witchcraft was predicated on a pantheistic concept of the universe, rather than a demonological concept.

February 24, 2017

The Puritan Mind

As we make a Transatlantic leap from the Old World to North America, it is important to understand the mindset of the Puritans and the differences in thinking between them and those of the people in Europe and England. Puritans were a group of about 200 families who came to the Massachusetts Bay from England as a branch off of the Church of England, who sought to purify and reform the religion.

Puritan couple

Based on three core beliefs, the Puritans believed in a concept of predestination, providentialism, and moral stewardship. Predestination, is the idea that one's salvation is predetermined by God before birth, and that, once determined, your fate cannot be changed. Because Puritans do not know their predestined fate, they vowed to live their lives in a way that would ready them for a possible salvation. Also linked with the idea of predestination, was the belief that everyone's soul was female gendered, keeping with the image of being the "Bride of Christ" in the marriage of your soul to Jesus.

The idea of providentialism provided a supernatural explanation for everything, stating that everything that happens is God's will. If good things happen, such as health and good crop yields, that was a reward from God for good behavior and following Him. Inversely, as a punishment for bad behavior and not following God, bad things, such as failed crops and illness, would come about. If this does happen, prayer and fasting was the key to getting back on good terms with God.

Perhaps most important, and what the communities were largely modeled after, was the idea of moral stewardship. With this ideology, everyone was their neighbors steward of morality, watching over their behavior and making sure your neighbors didn't fall into sin. Communities were built centered around a church, with the houses surrounding the church, and each family's land on the outskirts, surrounding the homes. The homes were built so that neighbors could watch over one another, because you were held responsible if your neighbor sinned.

The ultimate goal of these Puritan communities were to create a "city on a hill", or model Christian community, as originally suggested by Puritan Governor John Winthrop. In order to accomplish this, three institutions, family, church, and government, were put into place to fulfill Winthrop's vision. The family was known as a "Little Commonwealth" because it was believed that a family was a mirror of the larger community, and the key to making the "city on a hill" a success. The idea was to crush the will of children, in order to teach them discipline and the hierarchy of their community. The government system was a city or local government, where all free, white, adult men had a vote. These communities were regularly calling people into office and then revoking their office.

Church attendance was mandatory, and you were fined if you were not there. The bi-weekly services lasted for 3 hours, and had church elders that walked around and made sure people were awake and listening to the services. There were two levels of membership: full and regular membership, which each came with its own benefits. Full membership allowed members to vote in decisions such as the discipline of members who have sinned, and the hiring and firing of church officials. In order to achieve this membership, the candidate had to stand in front of the congregation and share their testimony and reasoning for wanting to become a full member, after which the full members would vote on whether they should be granted full membership or not. Regular membership was simply a member of the congregation who attended the church.

Women in 17th century New England tried to model their life after that of the Biblical character Eve, but took a prelapsarian, or "before the fall" view of her life. Eve was believed to be the perfect companion and help meet to Adam. Help meets followed three duties in the 17th century Puritan world, being an economic, natural, and theological help.

As an economic help meet, women had small gardens for herbs used in medicines and cooking, and were responsible for all domestic production, such as cooking, cleaning, and housekeeping. A woman became a "deputy husband" if her husband was either ill or out of town, when a woman would be legally treated as a man, and assume all of her husband's responsibilities until he could return, at which time she would relinquish responsibilities and return to her help meet duties. Natural help was in reference to childbirth, where the goal of couples was to have a child about every 2 years from marriage until menopause, generally having anywhere from 8-12 children per family. Theological help meets entertained the idea that all souls were equal, yet women were still subordinate to men. Many held the belief that women could best serve God by serving man.

Keeping all of these topics in mind about the Puritans will greatly help us in understanding their reasoning and belief system moving forward into future blogs!

March 3, 2017

The Buildup to Salem

In today's blog, we will be covering the major crises that lead ultimately to the witchcraft trials at Salem, Massachusetts, such as Metacomet's War, the Dominion of New England, the War with France, and the Quakers.


Metacomet, also known by his Puritan name, King Philip, was a Wampanoag Indian chief. The Wampanoags and the Puritans had a long standing struggle between them for land, crops, resources, and more. The Puritans would leave their livestock unfenced, where they could eat the Indian's crops, leaving the Indians with nothing and no defense against the livestock. Praying Towns were communities built by Puritans where, after kidnapping Indians from their villages, the Puritans would force them to cut their hair and dress like "civilized" people, then they would force the Indians to church, in an effort to convert them to Christianity. Not only did the Indians feel enslaved in these towns, but many of then fell ill and died when exposed to the diseases of the Puritans. When 3 Wampanoag Indians assassinated Indian convert Sassoman, the Puritans brought the Indians in for trial, and had them executed on terms of Sassoman's murder. This sparked the beginning of the wide-scale violent guerrilla warfare that took place Massachusetts from 1675-1676, known as Metacomet's (or King Philip's) War.

From left: Metacomet, Puritan preaching to Indians, American Indians in boarding school

Dominion of New England

James II became the King of England in 1685, alongside his very Catholic bride, Mary of Modena. Much to the Puritan's dismay, James II was friendly to the Catholic faith, and Puritans and Catholics were quite hardcore frenemies.

two examples of frenemies: Cady Heron and Regina George (Mean Girls) and Hannah Montana and Mikayla (Hannah Montana)

James II removed the charter from all 8 New England colonies, including Massachusetts, and grouped them all into a royally-controlled dominion, known as the Dominion of New England, which lasted from 1686-1689. James sent a Royal Governor, Edmund Andros, to oversee the Dominion, who was upset to find that there were no Anglican churches (the Church of England, that the Puritans broke away from in efforts to reform their faith) anywhere in New England. In response to this, Andros holds Anglican church in the Puritan church of Boston. Additionally, he proposes a new tax, which would raise money to build an Anglican church in New England. With James II's removal from the throne in 1688, the Puritans arrested Andros and sent him back to England, in hopes of regaining their charter through the newly-reigning William and Mary.

From top left: James II, Edmund Andros, William and Mary of England

war with france // the quakers

The last of the major crises in the buildup to Salem was the war with France, and the Quakers in Massachusetts. The Nine Years War spilled over into the colonies, where the North American theatre was known as King William's War. This lasted from 1688-1691. Beginning in 1656, the Quakers began moving into Massachusetts, which disturbed the Puritans. They saw the Quakers as far too egalitarian, and they thought it odd that they had no ministers, only evangelicals to spread the faith. The Quakers were seen as the antithesis of the Puritans, and they were not welcomed warmly in Massachusetts.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, preaching in a tavern in about 1650

These 4 major crises were instrumental factors in leading up to the trials at Salem, which began in 1692. In future blogs, we will explore more into the relationship between, and differences between, Salem Town versus Salem Village.

All information taken from the lectures of Dr. Wendy Lucas, University of Central Arkansas.

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