Toil and Trouble: A History of the Witch

Eli Dolliver investigates one of the most powerful myths in human history, and its enduring consequences.

With the leaves tumbling down and Halloween right around the corner, there’s one thing on our minds: the supernatural. Ghosties, goblins, ghouls, and witches. Witchcraft has been popularised in mainstream media: Hocus Pocus, Harry Potter, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Charmed. But the history of witchcraft is much darker. How much do we really know about witches? And is any of it true?

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Witch hunts can largely be attributed to attempts at social control, religious hysteria, and fear of female power and sexuality. Classic examples of such hunts include The Salem and Pendle Witch Trials. The belief was that these women consorted with the devil, but in reality witches were usually just scapegoats for social ills, targeted because they were weak or antisocial. Older women were particular favourites, because they were marginal, dependent, often undefended members of the community, and aroused feelings of both hostility and guilt.

But many myths about witches are also based in fact. Modern historians agree, to cite one clear example, that reports of the practice of witchcraft in 16th Century Scotland have a basis in organized pagan fertility cults, which held midnight orgies, and believed they had sold their souls to the devil. According to one authority,

‘the witchcult in Scotland was derived in part from ancient heathen practice in which devotees worshipped an incarnate god that appeared before them and in which the ritual consisted largely of fertility rites. The witches of Lothian confessed that they met in a congregation at North Berwick where the Devil came to them in the likeness of a man with a blackened or masked face or wearing the skin of an animal [..] there was dancing, singing and drinking at their meetings and that the Devil used them carnally.’

There were New England legends of a Black Man who haunted the forest around Puritan settlements and recruited witches by having them sign their names in his book in their own blood. This too may be rooted in historical fact. The local leader of a coven was known as the Devil or the Black Man (appearing with a blackened face or a black mask); and in some places, to guarantee secrecy, initiation into the cult involved an agreement or covenant reached by signing a document or book. Members of the cult met at intervals for night-time ceremonies which may not have been as extensive or orgiastic as is alleged in the surviving records, but which were certainly un-Christian.

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The myth that witches can fly may be traced to a hallucinogenic ‘flying ointment’, used in the practice of European witchcraft from at least the Early Modern period, when detailed recipes for its preparation were first recorded. Extremely toxic if ingested, the ointment, made from foxglove to accelerate the pulse, aconite to numb feet and hands, and belladonna, cowbane or hemlock to confuse the senses, would induce visions and sensations alike to flying when rubbed on the skin. This ointment was based on animal or human fat, and according to myth, this fat was harvested by witches from the bodies of buried unbaptised babies.

Similarly, the notion that witches can cast spells and potions comes from the fact that many falsely accused ‘witches’ had a herbal and pharmaceutical knowledge, much of which the community relied upon, but would be used to convict them if their customers turned against them.

Supernatural witchcraft seems to us very much a thing of the past, but in many parts of the world a belief in sorcery is not only universal, but extremely dangerous. To this day witches are hunted, largely in Sub Saharan Africa, but also in India, Papua New Guinea, and the Amazon, and the body-counts far exceed those of early-modern witch-hunting. Tanzania has seen some of the most intense witch-hunts, with an estimated 20,000 people, mostly elderly women, killed in the past 20 years. On the 21st of May 2008 in Kenya a mob had burnt at least 11 people accused of witchcraft to death, and there are a rising number of cases of people being buried alive.

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In Ghana, there are a total of eight sanctuaries for the victims of witch hunts, the largest having 450 inmates, and being featured in the 2004 documentary, Witches in Exile. While all sanctuaries allegedly offer protection for outcasts, at least five are dominated by an earth-priest, and serve as sites for traditional exorcisms, that involve a chicken-ordeal to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused person and a concoction to cleanse the supposed witchcraft-power.

Witchcraft or sorcery remains a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia, although the precise nature of the crime is undefined. On 12 December 2011, Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar was beheaded in Al Jawf Province after being convicted of practicing witchcraft and sorcery. In June of 2015, militants of the Salafi jihadist extremist group ISIL beheaded two women with their husbands on accusations of sorcery and using “magic for medicine” in Deir ez-Zor province of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

But what drives the myth of witchcraft? Why has it captured public imagination all over the world? Witchcraft is immediately associated with women. Occult power was supposedly a womanly trait, because women were weaker and more susceptible to the devil. Witchcraft is tied up therefore in both the allure and the threat of female power. Powerful women, and women in control of their sexuality, are a perpetual threat to the patriarchy. It is no coincidence that witch hunts prevail in places and times where patriarchy reigns supreme.  

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Historically, witchcraft very closely involves female sexuality- a witches Sabbat is famously marked by orgies, with witches claiming to have been ‘used carnally’ by the devil. Some sources have claimed that the aforementioned psychedelic ‘flying ointment’ would best be absorbed through mucous membranes, and that the traditional image of a female witch astride a broomstick implies the application of flying ointment to the vagina. One account given by the maid of Anne Kyteler, a famous witch from Kilkenny, ‘riding’ her broomstick, is overtly sexual:

”in rifleing the closet of the ladie [Alice Kyteler], they found a pipe of oyntement, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed”

As in most European countries, women in Italy were more likely suspected of witchcraft than men. Women were considered dangerous due to their supposed sexual instability and due to the powers of their menstrual blood. In the 16th century, Italy had a high portion of witchcraft trials involving love magic. The country had a large number of unmarried people due to men marrying later in their lives during this time. This left many women on a desperate quest for marriage leaving them vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft whether they took part in it or not. Up until 1630, most women accused of witchcraft were prostitutes, who were considered experts in love and therefore would know how to make love potions and cast love related spells.

Accusations of witchcraft are also used to repress women’s economic and political potential. Women accused of witchcraft are targeted because they don’t comply with conventional gender roles, and are therefore subversive to the power and the authority of the patriarchy. Becoming king in 1603, James I propagated fear of witchcraft in Britain to inspire fright of female communities and large gatherings of women, because he thought they threatened his political power. In the Salem witch trials, 19 women were accused because of their domestic success, making money from cooking, brewing etc. In other words, encroaching on the male world of commerce and business.  

Nowadays, witch hunts are driven by pure misogyny. One Ghanian priest in Witches in Exile explains simply: “women are wicked… you women are no good… you are wicked because you are women”.

In India, where a 2010 estimate places the number of women killed for witchcraft between 150 and 200 per year, or a total of 2,500 in the period of 1995 to 2009, labelling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores, or to punish her for turning down sexual advances.

Witchcraft is also a religion in its own right, called Wicca, within the bracket of paganism. Historically and mythically, a witches meeting, or Sabbat, involves assembly by foot, beast, or flight, a banquet, dancing and cavorting, and sexual intercourse. Modern Wicca celebrate eight Sabbats in the pagan Wheel of the Year: the solstices and equinoxes, known as the “quarter days”, and the four midpoints between, known as the “cross quarter days”. These celebrations usually involve communal gathering outdoors, with offerings of food, drink, and gifts being burned in ritual propitiation and veneration (cavorting optional).

Modern Pagan practice strongly avoids sacrificing animals in favour of grains, herbs, milk, wines, incense, and baked goods. The next Sabbat this year is Samhain, falling on the 1st of November, or at midnight on Halloween. It is a festival of darkness, and the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. Many Pagans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who are departed. The tradition of dressing up for Halloween came from the belief that the dead who came back to settle scores would not be able to recognise us in disguise. So get your costumes on, because that veil is getting thinner….