The Persecution of Witches

The Truth About the Persecution of Witches

It is difficult to think of Halloween without also thinking of witches. They've become a popular media trope, appearing in everything from classical Shakespeare to the 1993 film Hocus Pocus. Witches are typically portrayed as old, unpleasant females, usually dressed in black and with a broomstick close at hand. Our modern interpretation of what a "witch" is arose from centuries of fear-mongering and Persecution, and it's easy to forget the bloodied history of this iconic Halloween symbol.

The idea of witches is one that dates back to Biblical times. The Jewish Torah declared that "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). There were no actual witches: The fear of them arose from heightened ecclesiastical panic, and as such, witches were said to be directly in league with the devil, taking orders from him or submitting to him sexually. Women were identified as witches predominantly due to the idea that one had to be unable to fight the devil's influence and women were perceived to be weaker than men. Older women, who tended to suffer from skin blemishes and warts with age, were targeted because it was believed that witches could be identified through suspicious skin lesions.

Witchcraft was also said to run in families, and the "gift" of dark magic was believed to be passed from mother to daughter. The idea of witches was further developed by the Malleus Maleficarum, a book written by two friars that declared that witches would have sex with demons, murder infants, and collect penises. Over time, the idea of "witches" was attached to various European pagan religions, such as a cult that worshiped the god Dianus and focused on fertility. The modern depiction of a witch dressed in black and wearing a pointy hat didn't appear until the 1700s. Before then, witches were depicted naked and without hats, though there were various types of pointed hats worn in Europe. The pointed hat, coupled with the dark robe that literally evoked "black" magic, became synonymous with witchcraft, and the image has persisted since.

The persecution of witches began in the mid-1400s in Europe. Those suspected of heretical behavior would be arrested and tortured until increasingly remarkable confessions were extracted. The accused would weave tales of flying on poles, causing storms, casting spells, performing bestiality, and kissing the devil's anus as a sign of loyalty. The level of persecution only rose once the 1500s arrived, fueled by the Reformation within the Catholic Church. In 1591, King James VI of Scotland even made it legal to hunt and torture accused witches after rough seas on his honeymoon were attributed to witchcraft.

Individuals observed acting oddly, raving about a fever or irrational movements, were accused of witchcraft or of being influenced by a witch nearby. Today, scientists suspect that much of this irrational behavior may have been explained by rye ergot, a kind of fungus that forms on rye (a staple of European diets at the time) and flourishes after a cold winter and wet spring. This fungus caused hallucinations and weakened the immune system, making individuals seem "possessed" and more vulnerable to otherwise benign illnesses. By 1660, about 50,000 suspected witches (80% of which were women) had been killed. Witches would be killed either by hanging or, more popularly, by being burned at the stake, usually while still alive. Burning victims alive was perceived to be a way for the clergy to help save the souls of the accused.

In 1692, witch-hunting hysteria took hold of the small Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts, in what would become one of the most horrifying stories of injustice in early America. The residents of Salem Village, a rural offshoot of the larger town of Salem, appointed the Rev. Samuel Parris as minister within their church in 1689. By 1691, his rigidity had made him so unpopular that the town actually ceased contributing to his salary. The following winter, Parris's daughter, Betty, became unusually ill, darting under furniture and convulsing in pain. Her playmates, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott, began exhibiting similar symptoms. The local doctor, unable to determine a cause, declared it to be the work of witchcraft. The girls, presenting remarkably similar stories, began quickly naming their tormentors. Their testimony, aided by that of Tituba, the Barbadian slave of Parris, set off a wave of witch trials that left 25 men and women dead, including one infant.

Unfortunately, the fear of witchcraft is one that still results in hangings and murders today. Individuals in India, Nigeria, Gambia, Nepal, the Congo, and Saudi Arabia are still accused of witchcraft and are sometimes brutally killed. Even the United States is not exempt: In 1984, owners of a preschool were accused of satanic rituals and human sacrifice by more than 350 people. There was no proof to the allegations that arose, and the victims were, fortunately, acquitted in court. The idea of a witch flying through the air is a fun one, especially on Halloween nights, and has taken its place in modern mythology alongside Frankenstein and zombies. However, it is important to remember that despite the cheerful Halloween parties and trick-or-treating costumes, the fight against superstition and intolerance is still a very real part of the world today.