The Historical Origins Of The Witch

Published October 31, 2015
Updated May 11, 2020
Published October 31, 2015
Updated May 11, 2020
History of Witches Examination of a Witch

Examination of a Witch, T. H. Matteson, 1853. The work was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials. Image Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

European Witch Hunts And The Horrific Torture Of Innocent Women

By the end of the 1600s, the witch hunting hysteria in Europe reached its peak. Witch hunts spread like wildfire across Europe, the worst of which occurred in France and Germany. Würzburg, Germany was home to the worst instance of witch hunting: the magistrates of the time determined that most of the town was possessed by the Devil, and condemned hundreds to death.

Religion professor Barbara McGraw notes in a 1996 interview that there were some towns in Germany where there were no women left.

Thousands were arrested and brought to inquisitors for examination. Under an inquisitor’s brutal scrutiny, the accused were stripped and searched. Any “suspicious” wart, mole, or birthmark could be enough to receive a death sentence.

In order to execute the accused, however, they first needed to confess. Torture seemed to be the best way of inciting confession, and the Church would use instruments such as thumb and leg screws, head clamps, and the iron maiden to generate the “truth” needed to enact death.

While torturing women under examination, the Malleus Maleficarum warned the torturer not to make eye contact with her, as her “evil powers” might cause the torturer to develop feelings of compassion.

When this period ended at approximately the beginning of the 18th century, an estimated 60,000 people in Europe had been killed as witches.

The History Of Witches Across The Pond In Salem

Overseas, the most anthologized witch hunt took place in Salem, Massachusetts. The 17th century settlement had a rough beginning: decades of Indian Wars, land disputes, deep religious divisions and a tendency to look to the supernatural to explain the unknown helped set the grounds for this particularly “New World” brand of hysteria.

The witch hysteria in Salem began in 1692, in the home of a Puritan minister named Samuel Parris. Parris was deeply concerned about a game his daughter Elizabeth and niece Abigail had played, in which the two girls looked into a primitive crystal ball and saw a coffin. This vision sent them into convulsions, and within a few days nine other girls throughout the community were stricken with the same ailment.

Under the pressure of Parris, the girls then named three witches who may have cursed them: Tituba, their household slave, Sarah Good, a beggar woman, and Sarah Osborne, a widow rumored to have had an illicit affair with one of her servants. All three women were social outcasts, and thus easy targets for suspicion.

Tituba and the Children

19th century representation of “Tituba and the Children” by Alfred Fredericks. Image Source: Wikipedia

The 1692 Salem witch trials spread witch hunting hysteria to 24 outlying villages. That year, jails were crowded with more than 200 accused witches, 27 of whom were found guilty. 19 were killed.

The trials met a swift end, however, in part because supposed victims began pointing their fingers at high-ranking figures within the community. When the wife of the governor of Massachusetts was accused of witchcraft, leaders saw to it that the trials ceased immediately.

As to what spurred the girls’ confessions, Fontaine attributes them to a form of social release. The girls had been so tightly controlled in Salem, Fontaine argues, that this confession allowed the girls to receive some kind of attention.

Salem Witch Trials

The central figure in this 1876 illustration of the courtroom is usually identified as Mary Walcott. Image Source: Wikipedia

Modern-Day Witch History Harkens The Past With Wicca Religion

Hundreds of years later, the fearsome image of the witch faded, and was absorbed by a popular culture who used the witch’s violent history as costume inspiration. Others, however, used it as a means to found a new spiritual movement.

In 1921, British archaeologist Margaret Murray penned a book called The Witch Cult in Western Europe, in which she argued that witchcraft had not been an obscure occult, but a dominant religious force. Though Murray’s theories have been widely discredited since the book’s publishing, her work sparked a fascination with witches that had been dormant for three hundred years, eventually helping spawn the Wicca religion.

The religion, which is named after an Anglo Saxon term for “craft of the wise,” circles back to ancient practices that use herbs and other natural elements to promote healing, harmony, love, and wisdom, all following the tenet of “harm none.”

It remains to be seen who the world’s powerful will choose as their next witch — but as history has shown, the fearful is often the female.

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