A spell-binding history of witches

From the malevolent crones of the ancient world through the child-eating monsters of Victorian fairy-tales to the teen idols of the 1990s, Owen Davies chronicles humanity's long obsession with the purveyors of sorcery...

An engraving from Ulrich Molitor’s ‘On witches and female soothsayers’, depicting witches bringing down the rain. Germany, 15th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The first civilisations: Noxious ghosts and evil eyes

Humanity has lived in fear of witches’ baleful power for at least 4,000 years

“She has given me to drink her life-depriving potion. She has bathed me in her deadly dirty water. She has rubbed me with her destructive evil oil.” Fear of the baleful power of witchcraft has, it seems, haunted humanity for thousands of years – as this incantation written by a resident of Mesopotamia proves.

Anti-witchcraft texts found among the cuneiform clay tablets of this ancient civilisation depicted witches as mostly malevolent women, who practised harmful magic. Witches, we’re told, made images of their victims and then twisted the limbs to cause pain. They were also accused of burying these figures in graves in an act of magic that wedded the victim to a corpse. As a result, people were wary of accepting food and drink from suspected witches in case they transmitted evil spells.

The ancient peoples of the eastern Mediterranean were also terrified by noxious ghosts that, on the command of vengeful witches, inflicted illnesses on the living. In a bid to combat this menace, exorcist-priests deployed incantations designed to dispel malevolent spirits.

Such fears fed into ancient Egyptian and Jewish ideas about witchery, and it was during the rise of these two peoples that the concept of women possessing the ‘evil eye’ came to prominence. The evil eye spread plague and leprosy, warned various Jewish texts, and the Old Testament counselled its readers: “Eat not the bread of him that has an evil eye.”

By now, the boundary between witches and female prophets and diviners had also became blurred, a fact that would have terrible consequences for thousands of women down the centuries.

Greece and Rome: Turning men into swine

Classical epics were filled with tales of vengeful hags casting diabolical spells on former lovers

Beware the abandoned wife. Such was the advice contained within ancient Greek epic tales, which routinely regaled their readers with stories of vengeful women using evil potions to metamorphise their former husbands into animals. The most famous representation was the goddess-witch Circe, who turned men into swine with her magic wand or staff.

By the time the Romans had become the dominant force in ancient Europe, the image of the witch had changed again. Now, she was predominately old and ugly, like the witches Canidia and Sagana described by the first-century BC poet Horace. These figures have, perhaps, done more than any other to forge the modern stereotype of the witch in the western imagination.

The Roman witch could also be a sexual predator, a lustful and jealous older woman using magic to make younger men fall in love with her. In one story a witch turns a man into a beaver for sleeping with another woman.

The witch in Roman literature has a predilection for corpses and necromantic divination. In Lucan’s Pharsalia, the witch Erictho scours graveyards and funeral pyres looking for body parts, plunging “her hands into the eyes, delighting to dig out the congealed orbs, while she gnaws the pale fingernails of a desiccated hand”. In some stories, the wrathful witches have cosmic powers, drawing down storms and invoking infernal deities.

Ancient China: The noble art of sorcery

Chinese aristocrats used witch-hunts to silence their enemies

Death was the penalty for those who ‘confused’ the people with witchcraft in early China. Such accusations were often wrapped up in aristocratic and dynastic struggles – particularly when the succession to the imperial throne was at stake.

In AD 102, the childless consort of the emperor died in prison after being denounced as a witch. Then, in AD 165, the consort of the Emperor Huan was ordered to kill herself for offences including witchcraft.

What crimes were these noble witches accused of committing? We’ll probably never know, but a witch hunt instigated in 91 BC in the city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) offers some clues. On the instructions of the ageing Emperor Wudi, who feared his long illness was the work of witchcraft, foreign shamans were brought in to search imperial properties for dolls used in harmful magic. Suspects were arrested for summoning evil spirits and uttering malicious nocturnal prayers. Among those found guilty was Crown Prince Liu Ju, whose rooms were apparently found to contain wooden carvings of his victims. Liu Ju would hang himself in the turmoil that followed.

From the ancient to medieval eras, Chinese witches were also thought to practise harmful gu magic. This was associated with vipers, and saw the witches accused of bewitching water and contaminating food and drink.

Medieval Europe: The rise of the satanic conspirator

The medieval church was convinced that witches were in league with the devil

By the 14th century, the European witch had become a devilish heretic, hell-bent on undermining Christianity. A series of ecclesiastical investigations suggested that there were increasing numbers of mostly male magicians and sorcerers acting collectively, and using magic books to conjure up demons.

Female conspirators were also incriminated. Dame Alice Kyteler, of Kilkenny, was a high profile example. In the 1320s she was accused of gathering with others to worship demons and make sacrifices to them at crossroads, in order to kill several husbands and inherit their wealth.

While medieval concerns about witchery centred on the political intrigues that regularly swirled through aristocratic courts, more lowly magical practitioners began to appear in accusations. These were often clergymen who could read textbooks of magic, which were causing increasing concern.

But by the early 15th century, theologians were increasingly focusing on lowly female witches. Women, made in the flawed image of Eve, were considered more prone to the devil’s wiles and temptations. If he was engaged in a systematic and sustained campaign to overthrow the Christian world, then it stood to reason, from this misogynistic viewpoint, that he would focus on recruiting women by offering them the power to harm those they wished to injure out of spite and envy.

15th-18th centuries: The slaughter of innocents

Tens of thousands were put to death in a wave of witch trials that swept Europe from the 15th century

In the mid-15th century, growing fears of Satan’s work – fanned by the rise of printing – ushered in the era of the witch trial. This lethal new wave of persecution provides us with masses of information about those who were accused of witchcraft. Somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were executed as witches in the period, and we know the identity of thousands of them.

A significant majority were women, but many did not fit the classical stereotype. Witches could be young and old, married and widowed, poor and wealthy. Some of them were cunning-folk, or wise-women and wise-men, who generally offered to counteract witchcraft, but who were occasionally accused of witchcraft themselves.

Although people really did seek to practise harmful magic out of revenge, spite and envy, the vast majority of those executed as witches were innocent. And while many accusations concerned the simple bewitchment of neighbours, livestock and crops, the use of torture on the continent generated lurid stories of perverted orgies and sabbats with the devil.

Judges ruthlessly interrogated the accused, under torture, in a bid to confirm their fears of a satanic conspiracy. In one trial in Colmar, now France, those under suspicion were peppered with a battery of questions, including: “What was the name of your master among the evil demons? What demons and what other humans participated at the sabbat? How was the sabbat banquet arranged?”

18th and 19th centuries: Forest-dwelling monstrosities

During the 18th century, a new breed of witches began haunting the pages of children’s fairy-tales

Fear of witchcraft didn’t fade with the end of the witch trial era – it merely changed form. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the witch of popular imagination morphed into a monstrous being that terrorised children from the pages of fairy-tales. Among the most famous were the ‘Iron-nosed Witch’ of Hungarian tradition, and the skinny, ugly crone Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore. Then there was the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel, who lures victims to her hut in the woods before eating them. These fairy-witches love to fly in a mortar, using the pestle to steer as they whizz between the trees.

Folk legends also place a strong emphasis on shape-shifting, with witches often turning into hares to enact their various mischiefs. There are many accounts of witches being shot as hares, before limping home in human form and being found bleeding in their cottages.

These witches didn’t always act alone. In fact, witches’ meetings are a common feature of 18th and 19th-century tales. These were influenced by accounts of fairy gatherings, and also the sabbat stories of diabolic worship that circulated during the witch trials. According to German legends, on Walpurgis Night, or May Eve, witches from across the country gathered to make merry on top of a mountain called the Blocksberg. People could spy on them as they flew by, as long as they stood at crossroads.

20th century: Bewitching the masses

From Gothic novels to teen dramas, the witch has become a cultural icon

From the hag-like face of the Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz to the hit 1960s series Bewitched, witches had a massive impact on western culture across the 20th century.

But this wasn’t the first time they’d got artists’ creative juices flowing. As far back as the 18th century, the witch became a figure of Gothic melodrama.

In these romantic novels, she – and it was always a she – was either portrayed as an old hag or as a beautiful young woman.

Such novels were usually set in the medieval period or during the witch trials. One popular book, The Amber Witch, by the German author Wilhelm Meinhold (1797–1851), told the story of a young female healer in the 17th century who helped her fellow villagers combat the wicked ways of witches. But when her powers ceased, she too was accused of consorting with the devil, and had to be rescued by her nobleman lover.

These contrasting images of the witch would go on to inspire numerous films and TV shows. The Wicked Witch of the West drew upon centuries of imagery, and became the model for countless Halloween masks. Then, a series of TV comedies, including Bewitched, cemented the idea of the everyday, sexy domestic witch in the public mind.

By the turn of the 21st century, a younger version of this witch – fighting evil and injustice in contemporary society, and represented in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – was thrilling millions of viewers across the world.

Modern day: From public enemies to true believers

Today, a growing number of people believe that witchcraft should be celebrated, not stigmatised

Tragically the witch hunt is far from a phenomenon of the distant past. As recently as the late 20th century, people were being murdered as witches in Europe and North America for the very same reasons they were executed 400 ago. In 1950, Carl Walters of Rogersville, Tennessee shot dead two women he believed were witches. “I was tired of being bewitched,” he told the police.

Elsewhere in the world, there are regular reports of lynchings and murders carried out by people who believe they have been placed under evil spells. As ever, the victims of such attacks are usually women. In the early 2000s, around a thousand were forced to flee to ‘witches camps’ in Ghana to avoid popular retribution.

Despite these horror stories, public attitudes to witchcraft are changing. In fact, for the very first time in history, some people are now happy to call themselves witches – and to profess their faith in Wicca, a modern pagan religious movement. Founded in Britain in the mid-20th century, Wicca draws upon pre-Christian fertility religions, and popular magical rituals of the past.

Today, there are tens of thousands of such wiccans, hedge witches and solitary witches practising magic for personal and public good. So the figure of the witch is just as relevant in the 21st century as it was in Mesopotamia thousands of year ago. And, as ever, it continues to have multiple guises.

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Owen Davies is professor of history at the University of Hertfordshire and author of The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic (OUP, 2017).