Witches and the Supernatural

By: Micah Highfill

I. The History of Witches

Witch (noun) - a person, now especially a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic, especially black magic or the art; sorceress.
This is the current definition of witch found in the dictionary. However, if you look at the history of witches, you will find that this definition falls short of accurately describing the term. How people see a witch and the practical nature of being a witch has changed dramatically over the centuries.

Witchcraft embodies many different religious practices that vary over time and place.

The Stone Age - Witches had the obligation to the men to perform rites to help bring about good crops, herds, hunting, and fishing. They used medicine and magic to ensure many children were born to the tribe to make it strong. Men were in charge of hunting and gathering so women naturally became the ones who stayed home and took on the role as the witch. Witches were helpful and important members of the tribe.

829 - Witchcraft is ruled punishable by death by the Synod of Paris.

924 - 940 - The Anglo-Saxons of Britain enact the Atheistan Laws, which makes witchcraft punishable by death in Britain.

1484 - The Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII condemns witchcraft bringing about an assault of witches with accusations and executions overseen by the Catholic Church.

1486 - The Catholic Inquisition in Germany creates a guide to identifying and punishing witches, known as The Malleus Maleficardum.

1500 - 1650 - The Catholic and Protestant churches feel threatened by witchcraft. Unlike before when they believed witchcraft had no lasting effect, they now believe that witchcraft can effect the lives of all those around them with serious repercussions. A witch-craze sweeps across Europe.

1540 - Four women in Wittenberg, Germany are accused of being witches and burned.

1542 - Witchcraft becomes a felony punishable by death in England.

1563 - The English law goes further to state that any activities involving the use of evil spirits will be punished as capital crimes. Johann Weyer of Germany writes a book attacking witchcraft titled Dr. Praestigius Daemonum.

1604 - The English law now includes any use of magic as a capital crime.

1692 - The Salem Witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts takes the life of nearly thirty people both men and women. Nineteen were hanged, 1 was pressed to death by stones, 4 died in prison under harsh conditions, and many more were tortured and imprisoned as accused witches.

1736 - While magic and the use of evil spirits remains a punishable crime in Great Britain, new laws state that witches do not have these powers and cannot do harm to others and therefore, is not considered a crime.

1782 - The legal execution of an accused witch in Switzerland occurs. This is thought to be the last legal execution although over 200 years later people still lose their life for being a witch.

1921 - Witchcraft is reintroduced as a history, mythology, and nature-based religion known as Wicca through books such as The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches (1931) by Margaret Murray. Robert Grave's book The White Goddess (1946), places much importance on the goddess as the center of true spirituality.

1940s - Wicca spreads through Great Britain to the United States and then the rest of Europe.

1951 - Great Britain introduces The Fraudulent Mediums Act making the practicing of witchcraft legal. Those practicing as Wiccans are now able to publicly support and practice their beliefs.

1954 - Gerald Gardner a self-proclaimed witch, writes the manual on witchcraft in his book Witchcraft Today. He gives history as well as an inside guide to being a witch.

1959 - The Book of Shadows becomes the principal text for witchcraft in Great Britain.

1975 - The Complete Art of Witchcraft by Sybel Leek becomes the neopagan witches guide. A national organization is formed in California, known as the Covenant of the Goddess, as an organization for witches

1979 - The Spiral Dance by Starhawk, AKA Miriam Simos, sets forth a feminist movement in Wicca that focuses on goddess worship.

1985 - The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans is founded and provides leadership training to Wiccans. The group mostly consists of women.

1997 - A witch-craze is stirred up in Russia during an economically and politically unstable time and one woman is accused of witchcraft and killed.

II. The Witch-craze

So how did a seemingly harmless practice of witchcraft become such a negative or evil thing? Monotheistic religions in the western world have been blamed for the negative connotation that became attached to the witch. Witches were believed to be evil and using dark magic to cause harm to others. Curses and bewitchings could be invoked by simply wishing them.

A. The Salem Witch Trials

Rolf Muller's photograpgh of the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts via Wikimedia Commons
Rolf Muller's photograpgh of the Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts via Wikimedia Commons

In 1692, a small village outside of Salem, Massachusetts created a history that is now infamously known as the Salem Witch Trials. There is more to the story than the girls that suffered from affliction and the accused that lost their lives in this story. This story is really about oppression, desire for power, and religious fear.

The story begins with several young girls passing the day away in a puritan-centered village, playing an innocent enough game of telling each others fortunes. Today, that would seem harmless and imaginative, but in 1692 it was forbidden and thought to be devilish. Sometime after being caught playing such sinful games, two of the girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (the villages pastor's daughter and neice), began having "fits" that caused their bodies to twist and contort as well as violently shake. They cried out in pain and muttered inappropriate and volatile comments. Two more girls, Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, began suffering "fits" shortly after the first two girls afflictions began. The pastor, Samuel Parris, and his good friend, Thomas Putnam, father to an afflicted girl, proclaimed that it must be a witch that was causing the girls afflictions. The girls were pressured to give names of the witches causing the harm and initially named three women. The pastors Caribbean slave, Tituba, was a likely candidate. She spent the days caring for the pastor's daughter and his neice and was probably aware of their fortune-telling games. She did not share in the families Puritan beliefs and therefore presented quite a threat. The other two women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, were of low social stature. Sarah Good was known as a beggar, and Sarah Osborne was known for marrying her servant.

The three women were brought before the town's magistrate, John Hathorne, for examination to decide whether or not the women should be tried as witches. Witchcraft in this time was punishable by death. During the interrogations of the women, Tituba confessed to the crimes and admitted that she did not want to do the things she had done to the girls but was forced by the devil. She pleaded that she had stopped doing the work of the devil and feared God and that she was sorry. The other two women did not admit guilt but all three women were jailed. The accusations and capture of the women did not end the ordeal. Many more women and men would be accused, jailed and ultimately 19 hanged, one stoned to death, and many imprisoned and tortured.

The girls continue to be afflicted and next accuse a prominent church member, Martha Cory, as a witch. At this point, it seems that no woman is safe from being accused of witchcraft. Betty Parris is sent to Salem Town to escape the torment and once away from the other girls, her "fits" stop. Ann Putnam's mother becomes afflicted and starts suffering the same "fits" as the other girls. More people are accused of being witches, including Sarah Good's four-and-a-half year old daughter who is sent to prison were after eight months in a dungeon goes insane.

The men of the Putnam family, a very prominent family in Salem Village, made most of the accusations of witches on behalf of the afflicted. Once under examination, the accused were pressed for a confession. Their innocent words were used against them, the afflicted sat in the same room and claimed that they were hurting them during the examinations. The afflicted produced bite marks and wounds as proof of the torture the witches were subjecting them to. If, during an examination, the accused shifted in their seat, all the girls would cry out they were being hurt by the witches invisible "specters" which took the shape of the witch even wearing the same clothing but could only be seen by those being afflicted. Although no physical proof existed that any of the accused had anything to do with the events that were taking place, the girls "fits" proved to be convincing enough to all of those involved and nearly 50 people were accused and imprisoned.

How did this happen? Is there any other explanation than that of witches ordered by the devil to destroy a God-fearing village of people? The answer is yes, there is another explanation. First, we have to look at the girls and their "fits". If the girls were not suffering afflictions caused by witches then what was happening? The truth is we will never really know, but the advances in our knowledge of mental health suggest the girls most likely suffered from hysteria. Life was much different in Puritan times. Children in the village were not sent to school, most lived too far from others to play with friends regularly, and their religion saw playing as sinful instead of childlike innocence. Boys had more opportunities for "play" with hunting and fishing, but girls were expected to stay home and tend to the household. The oppression they experienced from the religious restraints and the lack of socialization and childhood could have easily led to hysteria. Some have speculated that the girls faked the entire ordeal, were led to act out by others in the village with sinister intentions, or simply did it out of boredom without intending the outcome it brought about. It is possible that the girls suffered from hysteria, but faked later symptoms in an attempt to please others by giving them what they expected. It is also possible that they were not completely aware they were faking. The pressure they must have been under and the stress of the situation must have been indescribable.

We now know the effects of interrogation on accused and it's ability to extract confessions from the innocent. Back then, though, it must have been proof of witchcraft when one of the accused would admit to being a witch. No would believe that anyone would lie and admit to something horrible unless they were truly guilty. Tituba, the Caribbean slave of Samuel Parris, was the first to make a full blown confession to the magistrate. She was a smart woman who knew that if she confessed, apologized, and convinced them she would never do it again, she stood the best chance of not being put to death. Others, like Sarah Good's four-and-a-half year old little girl, were likely convinced of their own guilt by the village people.

A deeper look into the accussed and those with the closest ties to the witch-hunt that were not personally afflicted reveals an even more terrifying truth behind the witch-craze. A large overview of the village reveals a new village deeply desiring more power and independence, and within the village are townspeople that also crave power and authority. The pastor, Samuel Parris, and his friend, Thomas Putnam along with Cotton Mather and Nicholas Noyes brought down the most fury on the accused. They may have truely believed they served God in their quest to call out all the witches and bring them to justice, but those accused showed that at least Thomas Putnam had political and social motives behind the accusations he signed his name to. Long after the witch-craze ended, Cotton Mather and Nicholas Noyes refused to admit any wrongdoing to the extremely horrific events that had occurred, and instead insisted they were the ones refusing to give in to the devil's wishes and let the witches go free. They stopped persecuting witches but never apologized or admitted any fault. It may be that they were in the beginning ignorant and in the end too proud to admit it.

III. Witches in Movies, Television, and Literature

Below are just a few examples of witches. There are many variations on how we perceive witches to come about and what powers they posess as witches, as can be seen in these examples. There are hundreds of examples of witches in movies, television, and literature each having their own spin on what being a witch is like.

The Crucible (Play, Movie)

The Wizard of Oz (Movie)

The Craft (Movie)

The Season of the Witch (Movie)

Bewitched (television series)

Charmed (television series)

Harry Potter (book series, Movies)


Blumberg, J (2007). A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials: Smithsonian Magazine. Oct. 24, 2007. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaelology/brief-salem.html

Emrys, W (1994). A Preliminary Examination of the People of the Salem Witchcraze and "The Crucible". Retrieved from

Gardner, Gerald (1954). Witchcraft Today.Citadel Press. Retrieved from http://www.hermetics.org/pdf/witchcrafttoday.pdf

Hill, F (1995). A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Doubleday Press, New York.

Leeming, D (2005). The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press, New York, p. 402.

Levinson, D (2000). The Wilson Chronology of the World's Religions. The HW Wilson Company, Bronx, New York, pp. 140, 141, 148, 231, 234, 255, 263, 276, 308, 322, 323, 340, 481, 512, 534, 539, 546, 583, 594, 606, 642.

Sagan, C (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballentine Books.