Think of a witch. You’re likely picturing an old woman, gnarled and stooped with a hooked nose and stringy unkempt hair. Maybe she’s wearing a black robe, a pointy hat. Maybe she’s flying on a broomstick. Does she have a black cat? A cauldron where she mixes up deadly potions? An ancient book of spells she uses to curse people? This witch you’re picturing is evil. She cavorts with the devil and uses black magic to hurt people. She’s no hero. She’s a villian. Now ask yourself, where did this character come from? This witch? Because this cackling hag you’re picturing, she doesn’t exist. That’s not to say witches aren’t real. They’ve always been real. But did you know, they aren’t villainous conjurors of evil spirits, they’re actually healers and caretakers, counselors and therapists, grandmothers tending to the sick, midwives easing babies into the world? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. Welcome to Spooktober! All month long I’ll be bringing you spooky history and I think you’re really going to love what I have planned. This week we’re talking about witches. This story took on a life of its own as I researched it and planned it and I think it will surprise you just as much as it surprised me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this one it’s how horrifically easy it is for people in positions of power to twist and manipulate reality to meet their own selfish needs. Because that’s what happened here. It’s why you pictured the evil, haggard crone in the intro and it’s why any mention of witches is often associated with devil worship and demonic possession. It’s why there have been at least 6 official book burnings of the Harry Potter series in the US since its release 26 years ago. And it’s the reason why up to 80,000 innocent people, mostly women, were murdered between 1400 and 1782.
So, when you look at it that way. Witches aren’t a silly Halloween costume or the subject of a dark comedy, a midcentury house wife twitching her nose, a green faced villain melting in a bucket of water. Witches are a big deal, historically. A cautionary tale that many don’t fully understand.
So let’s go back to the beginning. Where did the concept of a witch come from? The earliest known existence of what we might even halfway call a witch comes from the ancient Middle East, the cradle of civilization. But they weren’t called witches, they were called “Wise Women.” They practiced sacred rituals, they delivered babies, and treated infertility problems. They were healers and caretakers. They were revered and respected pillars of society and their advice and rituals were highly sought after. They weren’t evil, at all. They were peaceful, nurturing, healing, motherly beings. At first. But that clearly changed. So what happened?
A few things happened. First, the bible was written, starting with the book of Genesis around 1400 BC which was written by Moses but he’s, of course, writing about things that happened long before his time. So these are stories that were told orally for many many years until Moses wrote them down and then of course they’ve been edited and redacted quite heavily in the 3,400 years since, we’ll touch on that later. In the book of Genesis we have the creation story - Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. If you’re familiar with that story, you know that Eve succumbs to temptation, eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They get kicked out of the garden and it all goes downhill from there. Why did Eve eat the fruit? Well because the devil, disguised as a snake, told her to. Satan tricked her into it. So what we have here is a very male centered view of creation that becomes the foundation of multiple major religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity. A creation in which a woman is tempted by the devil into committing an evil act - the original sin. So you can see how this idea takes root.
Witches are then mentioned outright in the bible in the book of Samuel which is believed to have been written around 800 BC. King Saul seeks out the Witch of Endor to summon the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit to help him defeat the Philistine army. She does this, she summons Samuel who then prophesies the death of Saul and his sons. According to the scripture, the next day Saul’s sons die in battle and Saul commits suicide.
But early on, that’s about it, just the whisper of the idea taking root. Wise women, healers, midwives, herbalists are still practicing, still helping people and are mostly left alone. Until the 1400s when Europe loses its mind and starts burning tens of thousands of innocent people as witches. So let's look at what’s happening in Europe around this time. They are in the midst of a period of climate change often referred to as the “mini ice age.” Temperatures dropped, crop failure became a regular thing, and there was a lot of competition for resources. Famine and disease were widespread. There was a lot death and a lot of mental health issues stemming from untreated grief over the loss of loved ones in really horrific and hard to understand ways. There was a lot of political unrest and a lot of religious upheaval. All of these together are a recipe for mass hysteria to take hold. Please refer back to episode 8 if you want to know more about mass hysteria.
The death, disease, famine, climate change were happening all across Europe but the witch hunts and trials and executions are not as evenly spread. For example, more than 40% of Europeans executed for witchcraft were in Germany. That’s almost half. But then in Spain, Portugal, and Italy we see very few, only a handful of people being accused. So what’s the variable? It seems to be religion. More specifically, religious competition.
Up until around 1500, Catholicism reigned supreme. They had a monopoly on religion in Europe. The Catholic church maintained this monopoly by labeling anyone who proposed an alternate religion as a heretic and then either forcing them to convert or killing them. We see this in the inquisition and the crusades. And it worked for a long time.
Then, we have the protestant reformation. This started with a German monk named Martin Luther who basically called the Catholic church out for its exploitative practices. Now, normally they would just label him a heretic, have him executed, and just carry on dominating as the religion of Europe. That’s where the political unrest comes in. Spain and Italy have very strong centralized power at this time. Their monarchs reign supreme alongside the pope in Rome. They are partners, they are Catholic countries, through and through. In Germany, no. There is no real central power. Germany doesn’t exist yet actually. The land we now call Germany is part of the Holy Roman Empire which Voltaire famously described as quote “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire,” so the name is a bit misleading. There’s no strong, centralized power, it’s just a bunch of little city states loosely tied together and so some of them start backing Martin Luther and the protestant reformation is born. Now in England, in England there is a strong centralized power which has historically been allied with the Catholic church but enter Henry VIII who decides to break ties with Catholicism and establish his own protestant church, not because he agrees with Martin Luther, just because he wants to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. Please refer back to episode 19 for more on that.
So for the first time really since the rise of Christianity, we have religious competition between the Catholic church and the protestant reformers, especially in the Holy Roman Empire - Germany. They have to up their game in order to attract more people to their respective faith. How do they do that? They start offering a new service: protection against Satan and the evil witches who seek to harm others with his power. Like, come join our church, we’ll protect you from the witches. We know how to spot a witch. We’ll round them all up and kill them. We’ll keep you safe from their demonic powers.
But how did midwives delivering babies get twisted into haggard old women who flew on brooms? Many of the witch stereotypes we still think of today originated in 1420 when a group of Catholic friars were sent to the Swiss Alps to combat heresy. They’re roaming around preaching to the heretical folks of the Holy Roman Empire and as they do, they’re taking in the fears of these people, the superstitions. Because you see, when you’ve lost your 6th baby in a row and you don’t understand science, you start to wonder if maybe, just maybe the midwife has something to do with it. If she can use her powers to heal, to usher in new life, surely she can use them to harm, to usher it right back out again. The friars relay these fears and superstitions back to the Catholic church which documents them. Many of these transformed into what we think of as a witch today: the image of the haggard old woman, eating children, riding on broomsticks that were coated in a lotion made of baby fat to make them fly… yeah, dancing naked, and having orgies with the devil. All of these came from the Catholic friars.
Then in 1486 a book was published by two German Dominicans called Malleus Maleficarum which in English roughly translates to “The Hammer of Witches.” And this book is what really launched the witch hunt craze to new heights. This is what made killing witches go the 15th century version of viral. German Dominicans. So these were Catholic dudes in the heartland of the protestant reformation. They have every reason to want to start a witchhunt craze, and then swoop in as the heroes to save the day. This book was basically a guide on how to identify, hunt, and interrogate witches and it was used extensively by catholics and protestants alike to try to flush out the witches living among them. Now, remember they aren’t just trying to make the world a better place, rid it of evil forces. They are competing with one another.
According to economics reporter Gwynn Guilford in a QZ article called “Germany Was Once the Witch-Burning Capital of the World. Here’s Why,” quote “When it comes to winning people to your side, after all, there’s no better method than stoking fears about an outside threat—and then assuring them that you, and you alone, offer the best protection.” end quote. So it worked in the favor of both churches to conjure up the evil presence of witches, a presence they had the power to destroy, to protect the people from the devil. It was a marketing strategy to draw more followers to their particular brand of Christianity. And they used this book “The Hammer of Witches” like a second bible in this pursuit to overcome evil. It actually sold more copies than any book for 100 years, second only to the bible itself.
If you look at a map of where witch hunts and trials and executions took place, it aligns almost perfectly with areas experiencing the most competition between the Catholic and Protestant churches and they take place during the times this competition was the most fierce. So the churches created the concept of the witch. They invented it.
But they couldn’t accuse just anyone. Oh no, that would never fly. They singled out the most vulnerable and powerless people in society - women. Mostly single or widowed women who didn’t have the protection of a man to stand up for them. They were also usually older women because of the roles they played in the family - caring for children, tending to the sick, cooking. If any harm came to the family, they were the number one suspect. Which is so freaking messed up I can’t even wrap my head around it. Basically any woman and even some men seen as undesirable were persecuted during witch hunts. And it began to be used strategically, accusing someone of witchcraft just to get rid of them. If a woman stood in the way of your inheritance, a male would be heir simply had to call her a witch, have her executed, and then swoop in to collect the money.
Because once you were accused of witchcraft, there was very little you could do to clear your name. Let’s say you're an old German widow with a lot of experience in childbirth. Your neighbors call on you to help them deliver their babies. But this time, something goes wrong. The mother dies in childbirth, which was, after all, an extremely common occurrence. The father is grief stricken. He doesn’t understand. She’s delivered 5 babies before this one. What happened? Now he’s left with all these children, a new baby, and no wife. What’s a man to do? He begins to suspect the old woman. Did she curse his wife? Maybe she was jealous. Maybe she wants to harm his children. Is she working for the devil? What else could explain such a horrible tragedy. Everyone is talking about witches after all, and then there’s that book, and the church is behind it so it must all be true. He goes to the church “the old widow,” he tells them “the one who delivers babies, she killed my wife. I think she’s a witch.”
So what happens next? You’re hauled in for questioning, interrogation which often involves sleep deprivation and torture. All of this is outlined in the book which you can read if you want, it’s all online. I’ll link it in the description. It’s not very easy to read but if you’re up for a challenge go for it. The interrogator refuses to make eye contact with you. He’s been warned that you may use your power to force him to feel compassion towards you. He keeps his eyes downcast as he screams questions at you “ are you a witch?” he asks, “did you conjure the devil to help you kill that woman?” No, you reply over and over, no, no no. You are a good Christian woman after all, you want nothing to do with the devil. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He forces your fingers into a rusty iron device and clamps it down, screws it tight until it feels your skin will burst, your bones crush to dust. You scream out in pain. He asks you again “are you a witch? Did you conjure the devil to help you kill that woman?” No no no. “Confess,” he snarls as he presses hot iron to your shins. “Confess and it will all be over.” After days of this torture you finally relent “I did it,” you confess “I conjured the devil to kill that woman, now please stop.” But he doesn’t stop. “Who helped you do it?” he asks “there are others like you. Give me their names and the pain will stop.”
You can see how this type of torture induced, forced confession caused a domino effect of accusations and arrests, trials and executions. I’ll name my neighbors. What name do you want to hear? Anything to make the pain stop.
If they couldn’t force a confession, there were other ways to spot a witch as well. Witch hunters looked for the “devil’s mark,” a physical blemish like a mole, wart, or flea bite. If none were found, they would prick the skin with a knife or needle. These blessed instruments were believed to reveal the devil’s mark by causing an allergic reaction. But you know, if you poke someone with a knife, witch or no witch, chances are there’s going to be some redness and swelling. It’s going to leave a mark.
If you had a cat, you were really screwed. It was thought that witches used an animal called a witch’s familiar, usually a cat, to communicate with the devil. Which is convenient since most people had cats as they kept the mouse and rat population down.
Another way to prove someone was a witch was by binding their arms and legs and then throwing them into the water. If they sank, they weren’t a witch, but if they floated, they were definitely a witch. This came from the belief that a witch had renounced her Christian faith and basically counteracted her baptism so the water would reject her. So if you sank, you weren’t a witch, but you’d most likely drown. If you floated, which was unlikely with the amount of clothing people wore back then, you were a witch and you faced execution. It’s kind of a lose lose.
But all of this wasn’t just the churches going nuts. It was supported by the government and eventually the responsibility of trying witches passed from the church to the courts. In 1542, England passed the Witchcraft Act which made all witchcraft punishable by death - burning alive. This act was repealed 5 years later and replaced with one that only made witchcraft punishable by death if the witch intended to harm someone and it specified that the witch should be hanged, not burned.
In 1601 King James I became king of England. You know him, you should if you’ve been with me for a while. He was Elizabeth I’s successor and also the king who established Jamestown in present day Virginia which would go on to become England’s first permanent colony in the Americas. James was not a fan of witches. He gets to the throne and he’s like “we aren’t doing enough to hunt down these witches. Over 100 years of torture and murder is clearly not enough. We gotta up our game. Only punishable by death if you’re trying to hurt someone? Nope. We need way stricter laws if we’re going to take these devil women out.”
In 1604 he changes the law so that supposed witches could also be executed for conjuring spirits, even if they aren’t trying to hurt anyone. This is also when witch trials passed from the church to the courts, like I mentioned earlier.
King James also took it upon himself to rewrite the bible. You’ve probably heard of the King James Version or King James Bible. It’s the most popular version of the bible out, still. That’s cause dude decided he needed to tweak some stuff in the translation to squash some beef in the Church of England and solidify his own power. Yeah. One verse in particular was highly emphasized in this new version of the bible: Exodus 22:18 which reads “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” According to Donald J. Bretherton in an article for the Expository Times quote “Described as ‘a monarch who fancied himself as an authority on witchcraft, while at the same time being much afraid of it,’ James authorized a new translation of the Bible. Possibly to gratify the King, unqualified translations relating to sorcery and witchcraft were retained and further ones stressed. Thus prejudicial attitudes were encouraged and superstitious beliefs hardened. This was particularly true of the apparent instructions of Exodus 22:18. The Hebrew construction of the verse, and its immediate context, raise a number of questions which have not been adequately answered. Some authorities think it is an interpolation and not originally part of this group of texts.” end quote. So if you missed that, there are theories that this verse was not translated correctly or possibly that it was added in later and not even part of the original bible. It’s like a game of telephone, who’s to say? But it’s a convenient bible verse for people who want to kill witches because it just outright tells them to kill witches.
And so the madness continues, thanks to King James. Then we see sickos like Matthew Hopkins emerge, better known as the “Witch Finder General.” Hopkins was a failed English lawyer turned witch hunter. During his 3 year reign, more people were executed for witchcraft in England than during the entire last century combined. He used a 3 inch long needle to test the Devil’s Mark theory, poking it into people’s moles and warts to see if they felt any pain. If they didn’t, they were a witch. But, this needle retracted into the handle so it didn’t actually puncture the skin. No one ever felt any pain. Everyone was a witch. Because, you see, Hopkins was getting paid for finding witches. Whole towns collected tax money and then handed it over to Hopkins for his services ridding them of their local witches. So finding witches was good for business. He was also known to use the “swimming trial” I described earlier where if you floated you were a witch and if you sank you weren’t. Fun fact, according to some accounts, Matthew Hopkins actually drowned to death undergoing his own swimming trial after being accused of witchcraft himself. Which, yay justice but also is everyone taking crazy pills or what?
So here we have a centuries long witch hunt frenzy fueled by religious competition between churches, a lack of understanding of the science behind misfortune, and terrible people just straight up taking advantage of the craze to rid themselves of undesirables and better their own positions in the world.
We see most of the witch hunts and executions taking place in that middle chunk of Europe - the Holy Roman Empire, Germany, Switzerland, France. We have a moderate amount in England and then much, much less, notably less in the Catholic countries along the Mediterranean - Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Also much less in Ireland which is a staunchly Catholic country as well. They don’t have the competition with the Protestant church, the threat of losing their congregations, so they don’t have reason to flex their witch killing abilities like in these other places where the two churches are battling.
And then there’s the American witch trials, most notably in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. This one is a bit of an anomaly. First of all, it's very late as far as witch hunting goes. They’re a bit behind the trend in Salem. But also, there is no Catholic church in Salem. It’s a Puritan colony. They are purely protestant there and also free to worship however they want. That was the whole reason they went there. They crossed a whole ocean for religious freedom. But, there is instability and upheaval in the church. If you listened to the mass hysteria episode, I briefly covered the Salem Witch Trials, but I’ll touch on it again because I think what’s happening in the church there is the key to understanding the tragic phenomenon that followed, just like in Europe. Over in Salem, there’s a new minister in town named Samuel Parris. He’s highly controversial and the people of Salem are divided as to whether or not to follow him. So there you go. The church is being challenged, it’s losing followers, it needs to flex a little, show off its power to crack down on evil and protect the people from Satan’s power. Interestingly, it’s Samuel Parris’ 9 year old daughter Betty who starts acting like she’s possessed by the devil, screaming, yelling, throwing things, contorting her body. Soon some of her friends join in and they throw out the names of 3 women who are afflicting them. This starts the domino effect that leads to the deaths of 25 people including a 4 year old girl and also 2 dogs. Crazy pills.
But what I find most interesting about all of the witch hunts is that, for the most part, the people they were accusing, convicting, and executing were Christians. They weren’t even trying to defy the church. Joan of Arc? If she had been a man, she would have been a prophet but as a woman, hearing voices, no, you’re a witch. They weren’t witches in Salem either, they were puritans. But don’t take that to mean that witches don’t exist. I know, I know it gets confusing, like pirates - real, mermaids - not real. Mummies - real, zombies - not real. Witches - real, but just not in the 15th century Malleus Maleficarum way. More in a throw back to the wise women of ancient times way.
Modern witches practice an often very misunderstood religion called Wicca. And I just had to know more, so I reached out to a couple of witches. Emma Louise Dyson, an Earth medicine practitioner, practicing pagan and shamanic witch, and teacher of traditional witchcraft and she was kind enough to speak with me about it.
[Interviews with Emma Louise Dyson and Ben Stimpson]
Huge, huge thank you to Emma and Ben for being willing to share with us.
I want to be clear about one thing before I end this one. I haven’t intended for this episode to be an attack on the church or Christianity. I am a born and raised Christian. It’s a beautiful religion, full of peace and light and love. What I want to highlight here is that these churches, Catholic, Protestant, whatever, these churches were run by humans and humans are naturally flawed creatures. That’s the whole point of the Garden of Eden story with the tree of the knowledge of good evil and Eve being tempted by the snake. That’s the moral of the story, we can choose, we have free will. We can choose to be good, and kind, and loving to one another or we can choose to use, and abuse, and trick each other for our own personal gain. And that is what the people in this story did. They chose to fabricate, to falsely accuse, to torture, and ultimately to kill as many as 80,000 innocent people for their own personal gain. And the scariest thing about it is that these were people that you should have been able to trust. These were godly men, holy men, men who spoke words of peace and love and forgiveness but did not practice what they preached. They accused people of being evil and yet they, themselves were the evil ones. I saw a meme recently, and yes I’m going to end with a meme. It said “the problem is, they taught us to fear the witches and not the men who burned them.”
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from The Hit the Lights Podcast “The History of Witches and Witchcraft,” History.com, Getty, Library of Congress Research Guides, QZ magazine, Polygon, bigthink.com, The Expository Times, and Historic UK. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes along with those links to find Emma Louise Dyson and Ben Stimpson.