10 Weird Facts about Witches by Sean Hutchinson

by Sean Hutchinson,  October 31, 2013 – 7:30pm

The practice of witchcraft is deeply rooted in history, and has—excuse the joke—conjured up some very interesting myths. Here are a few facts.

1. MOST WITCHES WEREN’T BURNED AT THE STAKE.

The common image of a witch’s execution shows a large group of hysteric people surrounding the guilty person on a burning pyre—but immolation was not the primary means of execution used for those accused of witchcraft. During the Salem Witch Trials, no one was burned to death; all of the accused that pled their cases and were found guilty during the Trials in 1692 were hanged. In fact, no one found guilty of witchcraft was ever executed by burning in the American colonies—immolation wasn’t permissible by English law. But one person was pressed to death by large stones: Giles Corey, a man who refused to plead guilty or not guilty for charges of witchcraft during the Trials. The court found Corey guilty despite staying mute by using the French legal precedent of “peine forte et dure.” Corey is the only person in US history to be pressed to death by court order.

Martha and Giles Cory

Giles Corey, a prosperous farmer, and his wife Martha were caught in the Salem Witch trials. Giles’ punishment was death by heavy stones pressed upon his body.

2. WITCH HUNTS DIDN’T SPECIFICALLY TARGET WOMEN.

Historically-rooted misogyny led many to believe that women were somehow more susceptible to the dark arts or temptation by the Devil, and therefore more likely to be witches. For instance, the Laws of Alfred, written by King of Wessex Alfred the Great in AD 893, specified witchcraft as an expressly female activity. But men practiced, too, and were called many different names, including a wizard, a warlock, or a sorcerer.

Countless women and men were indiscriminately persecuted for witchcraft throughout history. During the Trier Witch Trials in Germany, which lasted from 1581 to 1593, a total of 368 people were executed—and many of the victims were leading male figures of the cities and surrounding villages, including judges, councilors, priests, and deans of colleges. In the Würzburg Witch Trial, which stretched from 1626 to 1631, 157 men, women, and children were burned at the stake for such random reasons as allegedly humming songs with the Devil to being a vagrant unable to give an explanation as to why they were passing through the town of Würzburg.

Glinda the Good Witch of the South

Glinda the Good Witch of the North was played by actress Billie Burke in 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.

3. NOT ALL WITCHES WERE BAD.

Even though we’ve got that common image of an evil witch—a warty old woman dressed all in black, riding a broomstick, with a pointy hat—anybody familiar with The Wizard of Oz knows that there can be good witches too! Glinda the good witch was a representation of the benevolent half of witchcraft, known as white magic. Historically, practitioners of white magic were known as white witches, and they were more folk healers than devious people out for double, double toil and trouble. However, writer C.S. Lewis reversed the notion for The Chronicles of Narnia saga, making one of the main antagonists the icy and evil White Witch.

4. PEOPLE COULD BE CONVICTED OF WITCHCRAFT WITHOUT ANY SOLID EVIDENCE.

During the Salem Witch Trials, most of the legally-recognized evidence used against those accused of witchcraft amounted to spectral evidence, or “witness testimony that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at another location,” which was accepted “on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray.” Other evidence used against them were so-called “Witch’s Marks” on their skin that allegedly proved they had made pacts with the devil. Contemporary research suggests these marks were possibly small ordinary lesions or supernumerary nipples.

5. WE DON’T KNOW WHERE THE WORD “WITCH” CAME FROM.

All the etymology geeks out there may or may not be surprised to know that the word “witch” is of indeterminate origin. The closest and most obvious possible origin is the Old English word wicce, which means “female sorceress,” and is the basic linguistic root for the modern day pagan religion, Wicca. Another more specific possibility is a split meaning coming from the Old English wigle, meaning “divination” and wih, meaning “idol,” both coming from the Proto-Germanic word wikkjaz, which means “necromancer,” or “one who wakes the dead.”

6. PEOPLE WROTE ENTIRE BOOKS DEDICATED TO WITCH HUNTING.

In the 15th century, witchcraft was of grave concern to a lot of people, and major pieces of literature were written about witches. The most famous was the Malleus Maleficarum, a legal and theological document that became the de facto handbook on how to deal with witches and witchcraft, and spurred the nascent hysteria caused by witch-hunting in Europe that would last well into the 18th century. The book was written by two clergyman of the Dominican Order—Jakob Sprenger, the dean of the University of Cologne, and Heinrich Kramer, a theology professor at the University of Salzburg—and used Exodus 22:18, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live,” as its basis to detect and persecute any and all witches.

Even people as important as kings got in on the action. James I of England’s 1597 book, Daemonologie, was a treatise that threw his support behind the importance of the practice of witch hunting. James himself even presided over the 1590 North Berwick Witch Trials when he believed a devious Earl plotted to overthrow the then-King of Scotland with the help of a coven.

7. A POPE ONCE CONFIRMED THAT WITCHES EXIST.

The Catholic Church saw witchcraft as a threat to all of its followers. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull titled “Summis desiderantes affectibus” (“Desiring with supreme ardor”) that recognized the existence of witches, saying, “many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female,” and that they “afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that, moreover, they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith they received in holy baptism; and that, at the instigation of the enemy of mankind, they do not fear to commit and perpetrate many other abominable offences and crimes, at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes.” The papal bull effectively gave Kramer and Sprenger—the writers of the Malleus Maleficarum—the God-given authority to begin their Inquisition.

8. LAWS ABOUT WITCHCRAFT WERE IN PLACE IN THE MID-20TH CENTURY.

Technically, England’s Witchcraft Act of 1735 was still official and on the books until 1951, when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. The language of the original Act wasn’t about persecuting witches per se, but rather made it illegal for people to claim that others were witches. Yet being legally convicted meant that you purported to have the powers of a witch—and in fact, a woman named Jane Rebecca Yorke was found guilty in 1944 under the law, though she was convicted mostly because she was defrauding people with bogus séances.

9. WITCHES PROBABLY DIDN’T WEAR POINTY HATS.

The origin of the association of the broad-brimmed, pointy hat with witches is murky at best. One school of thought is that it is based on the peaked cap Jews were required to wear after a 1215 decree by Pope Innocent III. Rampant anti-Semitism soon caused folks to associate heretics, pagans, and demons with wearers of the so-called Judenhat. In the early 1700s, the image was co-opted by artists who immortalized the image in paintings of the old hag in the witch’s hat we know today.

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie The Wizard of Oz

Actress Margaret Hamilton dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

10. WITCHES REALLY DID “FLY” ON BROOMSTICKS, IN A WAY.

The origins of the broom as a witch’s preferred mode of transportation is … pretty weird. People who practiced witchcraft experimented with herbs and potions in rituals that may have used the mandrake plant. Mandrake contains scopolamine and atropine, two alkaloids that cause feelings of euphoria in low doses and hallucinations in higher doses.

The rituals—performed in the nude—called for the participants to rub an herbal ointment containing the mandrake on their foreheads, wrists, hands, and feet as well as on a staff that they would “ride.” The friction of the ointment-coated staff on the witches’, uh, lady parts would absorb the ointment into their system and cause a floating sensation—and their description of that feeling is what perpetuated the symbol of the witch flying on a broomstick.

 

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Top 12 Witches in History

Bio.com rates the following as the Five Most Famous “Witches” in History:

1. Mother Shipton

Prophetess Mother Shipton

Prophetess Mother Shipton

Ursula Southeil, also known as Mother Shipton, was said to have been England’s greatest clairvoyant.  According to legend, she predicted the Spanish Armada, the Great Plague of London, the Great Fire of London and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Perhaps adding to her reputation, this “English prophetess of the 16th century” had the misfortune of being disfigured.  Locals called her “Hag Face” and claimed her father to be the Devil.  Despite some believing she was Satan’s spawn, Mother Shipton died of natural causes and is said to be buried on “unholy ground” on the outer edges of York in 1561.

2. Agnes Sampson

The Scottish midwife and healer was victim of fear and speculation around the early 1590s.  King James VI of Scotland and his queen, Anne of Denmark-Norway, launched a campaign against witches because the royals suffered a horrific sea voyage believing it was witches who cast a spell on Mother Nature, causing the horrendous storm.

She was one of 70 people accused in the North Berwick area between 1950-1592.    With Misery loving Company, .Geillis Duncan, an accused witch, named Agnes Sampson to be a witch.

According to sources, Agnes denied the charges brought against her.  However she relented after being tortured by a “witch’s bridle,” an instrument that inserted four prongs in the mouth and was attached to a wall.  She was then strangled and burned to death.

3. Merga Bien

She was a well-to-do German heiress in the 17th Century, who was childless with her first two husbands.  It was after 14 years of marriage to her third husband that she became pregnant.  Townspeople found this odd and came to the conclusion that Merga must have had sex with the Devil.   It should also be noted that shortly before becoming accused of being a witch, she had just returned to the city after arguing with one of her husband’s employers.

She was burned at the stake in the Fall of 1603.

Witch hunter Balthasar von Dernbach, the prince and abbot of the spire-topped town of Fulda, had embarked on a series of witch trials upon his return from exile in 1602. The Fulda witch trials would go on to claim 250 lives, ending only after Dernbach’s death in 1605.

4. Malin Matsdotter

The Swedish widow of Finnish descent was accused of being a witch by of her own daughters.  The girls stated that Malin had abducted them and took them to a satanic sabbath.  Malin, along with Anna Simonsdotter Hack, were the last victims executed for being witches during the great Swedish witch hunt of 1668-76, often referred to as “The Great Noise.”

She was considered the only witch in Swedish history to have been burned alive.  This was unique because those accused of being witches were decapitated or hanged to death before their bodies were burned at the stake like Anna Simonsdotter Hack.   While Anna asked for forgiveness, Malin refused and maintained her innocence, refusing to shake hands with her daughters as one called for her to repent.  One witness account claimed [Malin] gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”  As she was being burned alive, Malin reportedly did not scream nor did she appear to be in pain — for the locals, it was further proof she was a witch.

Shortly after the grisly incident, one of Malin’s daughters was convicted of perjury and sentenced to death.

Examination of a Witch

Examination of a Witch in Salem

5. The Salem Witches

“Of all the witch trials in history, The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 in Massachusetts is arguably the most famous. They occurred during a time of great insecurity in Puritan colonial America: the trauma of a British-French war on American soil still lingered, there was fear of Native American retribution, smallpox had spread throughout the colonies, and longtime jealousies between neighboring towns were coming to a head.

In January 1692 two young girls began suffering from fits, uncontrollable screaming, and body contortions. A local doctor diagnosed the girls’ conditions as the work of witches, although toxicologists in recent history have offered a more palatable explanation, believing the girls were poisoned by a specific type of fungus that was found in their food supply. Symptoms of ingesting the fungus explained the girls’ responses (i.e. muscle spasms, delusions, etc).

More young women began mirroring the symptoms and by February, three women were accused of bewitching the two young girls: a Caribbean slave named Tituba, a homeless beggar named Sarah Good, and an impoverished elderly women named Sarah Osborn.

Seeing that her fate was sealed, Tituba confessed to being a witch and began accusing others of dark magic. Other women followed her lead and hysteria ensued. On June 10, the first alleged witch, Bridget Bishop, was hung at the gallows in Salem and many more died thereafter. In total over 150 men and women were implicated during this period.

By the late 1690s the trials were deemed unlawful, and a decade later financial restitution was given to those families whose loved ones had been executed or damaged by the hysteria. Still, the pain and resentment of what happened in Salem lived on for centuries to come.”

It is believed the Ergot Poisoning may have been the true cause behind the Salem Witch Trials. Behavioral Psychologist and Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York Linda Caporael believes the hallucinations, convulsions, and bizarre skin sensations may have been due to a fungus-infested crop of rye.

She concedes that mass hysteria and/or outright fakery were other contributing factors.  Caporal said, ” “At the end of June and the beginning of July, 1692, I think there was more imagination than ergot. But by that point in time three people had already been hung, and the trials had taken a path that people felt they had to stay on.”

She added, “One of the clearest examples is the young accuser who, in the late summer, said ‘wait a minute, I don’t think that there are witches after all.’ At that point, the other girls began accusing HER of being a witch, and she immediately seemed to understand what was going on and began being a vociferous accuser again.”

More Notorious Witches in History

Here’s more notorious women, accused of being witches compiled by Jenna Ivy of Weird Stuff.

Anna Koldings aka "The Devil's Mother"

Anna Koldings aka “The Devil’s Mother”

Anna Koldings

She was known by her contemporaries as “The Devil’s Mother,” was a Danish witch who was also accused of summoning storms against Queen Anne’s (pictured above) ship. She met others in the house of Karen the Weaver where they performed spells against the Queen. Witch hunts in Denmark had become popular after the country converted to Protestantism in the early 16th century and while genuine religious zeal fueled this fervor, high-ranking officials also used them for political advantage. The Danish minister of finance, who was being investigated for undersupplying the royal ships for James VI’s journey with Queen Anne across the North Sea, voiced his suspicions of Karen to shift the blame from himself. His accusations led to her arrest. During the investigation, Karen pointed out several others including Anna Koldings. Imprisoned and tortured, Anna eventually confessed and contributed the names of five others, one of which was the wife of the mayor. With twelve other women, Anna was burned at the stake in Kronborg, the elegant green-roofed castle which provided the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Bridget Bishop

Bridget Bishop

Bridget Bishop was the first person executed for witchcraft during the Salem Massachusetts witch trails in 1692.

Bridget Bishop was the first women executed as a result of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Bishop was a successful and outspoken woman. She owned several taverns and was known to dress in provocative red gowns. The townspeople of Salem claimed a wide variety of accusations against her which would lead to her death. Allegedly she had bewitched five girls, poisoned a pig, and attacked men while they slept. (The last accusation was probably due to a natural condition, sleep paralysis).

Dolls were also instrumental in her denunciation. A local named Samuel Shattuck testified that she had asked him to dye lace for her which he believed she intended to use for a poppet. The poppet predated the Voodoo doll and serves a similar purpose of transferring whatever spell is inflicted on the poppet to the person it represents. Salem townsfolk John and William Bly later found poppets in Bishop’s house. Her resentful attitude throughout her trial eventually led to her prosecution, which would be followed by 71 more.

Katharina Henot

Germany’s first female postmaster, was tried for witchcraft in Cologne in 1627. In the middle of one of Cologne’s cold winters, a nun at the local convent accused Katharina of causing illness and death among the nuns and the archbishop arrested Henot based on the nun’s suspicions. During her imprisonment Henot was tortured but never confessed to anything.

Despite her brother’s attempts to prove her innocence, she was sentenced to be burned alive in May. Her exoneration was not attained until just this year. As of June 28th, 2012, the City Council of Cologne has cleared Henot’s name as well as the other victims of the Cologne witch trials because they believed the executions were the result of political conspiracies.

Karin Svensdotter

In a town located within a forested and boggy area of Sweden, Karin Svensdotter, a maid, claimed that her seven children were fathered by the King of the Faeries. This resulted in her being put on trial in 1656 for her own unbidden confession. In 17th century Sweden, consorting with fairies was a genuine crime which was usually punished the same way as sodomy or bestiality.

Prior cases involving men’s trysts with nymphs had sometimes ended in execution. However Svensdotter’s case became an early instance of compassion for the insane. Her judge had been advised by church officials that Satan had driven her mad. Instead of punishment, the judge ordered the church to pray for her. Later she affirmed that she no longer saw the fairy.

Kael Merrie

During the Roermond witch trials in the Spanish Netherlands, Kael Merrie, a Dutch woman, was accused of paralyzing a pig, preventing milk from being churned into butter, and making children sick. The Roermond witch trials, directed by Catholic Spaniards, were the largest of the Netherlands.

Kael Merrie

Kael Merrie was a victim of the Roermond Witch Trial.

The accused often came to Roermond with hopes of acquittal, but zealous mercenaries were prone to lynch or drown the freed women anyways. In early trials such as Merrie’s, the Dutch court maintained skepticism towards peasant accusations and would not use torture to extract confessions. Merrie was only banished because she pleaded innocent, but upon leaving Roermond marauding Spanish mercenaries found her and drowned her in the Maas River.

Entjen Gillis

Entjen Gellis, a Dutch midwife, confessed to killing fetuses and newborn babies during the Roermond witch trials of 1613, the deadliest year of all for witches in the Netherlands. Local magistrates raided the rural town of Straelen where they arrested Gillis and thirteen other witches. Their magic was said to have caused diseases and miscarriages and they became part of a larger trial, sparked by the sudden deaths of hundreds of newborns, elders, and animals.

As an emergency measure, the magistrates rounded up 63 witches and sentenced them all to death within a short period of time. As in earlier confessions, they claimed the devil had made them do it, but unlike Karin Svensdotter there would be no mercy for the witches of Roermond.

Märet Jonsdotter

Märet Jonsdotter was accused of attending Witches’ Sabbaths in Blockula, a mythical Swedish meadow. Jonsdotter was the first witch tried in Sweden during “The Great Noise” that swept through the country between 1668 and 1676. A local shepherd girl, Gertrud Svendsdotter, whose father had unsuccessfully courted Märet, was the first to accuse her. Getrud was not without motivation. At the time, the local priest of Älvdalen, a Swedish town that looks like it belongs to a storybook, was investigating Gertrud because her small brother alleged that she had led a parade of goats across the water like Moses.

Gertrud named Märet as the person who had taught her witchcraft and also claimed that Märet had introduced her to the devil. During the trial, Gertud’s father declared that Märet had ridden him as a horse to Blockula. Märet’s little sister asserted during questioning that she and Märet had ridden cows to Blockula where they slaughtered them and slept with the Devil. Because she would not confess, Märet could not be executed at this point in time. But the witch craze continued to spread in Sweden and laws requiring confession for execution were soon modified. When she was again accused during the Mora Witch Trials she was declared guilty. In 1672 Jonsdotter was decapitated, as was the Swedish custom, before being burned.