Oct 22

(Please Don’t) Burn the Witch!

I joke about my cat being my “familiar,” because she’s usually sprawled across me or curled up by my side, but I’m no witch. This doesn’t stop me from suspecting that, had I been alive during the ages of witch hysteria, I would have been walking around with heart palpitations and some seriously sweaty palms.


Image via pixabay/Jo-B

Why me? Well, why anyone? I mean, we don’t really believe the roughly estimated 50,000 to 200,000 victims of historical witch hunts really were witches, do we? At least, not most of them… (Sorry, it is almost Halloween.)

In case you’re curious (or concerned), here are some things which might have put you at risk for the “witch” label:

If you were female – Aside from pockets of persecution which centered on males, the majority of witch hunt victims were women. As Christine Larner said in her book The Enemies of God, “Witchcraft was not sex-specific but it was sexrelated” (Larner, 1981). Of course, let’s not forget about the children. They certainly didn’t. Children were also accused and, in some cases, executed. Likewise, pregnant women were not immune, because their children had surely been fathered by the devil himself. Even animals fell victims to accusations–for acting on behalf of witches, of course.


[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
17th century, artist unknown
{{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

If you were a midwife or a healer – Your neighbors might have come to you for help with delivering babies or treating various ailments, but the authorities could have viewed you as a threat.

If your child was born with birth defects (or you had been)  Rather than demonstrating support and care for individuals facing challenges, accusers sometimes viewed their physical differences as evidence of dealings with dark forces.

If you suffered from infertility – This had the potential to put you at risk in two ways: one, it left you without many family members upon which to depend, especially in your elderly years; two, if your infertility was followed by a successful pregnancy, it could be believed the event was brought about by a union with the devil.


By Unknown. Published in A New History of Witchcraft by Brooks and Alexander 2007 page 69. Public Domain httpsen.wikipedia.orgwindex.phpcurid28048132.jpg
This file is in the public domain because its copyright has expired in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of no more than the life of the author plus 100 years.

If you had a mole somewhere on your body – This was surely a sign you’d been consorting with demons.

If you suffered from mental illness – Age-related illnesses, such as dementia, could also put you at risk.

If you were an outcast of any sort  Being known for such things as general crankiness or inadequate church attendance could leave you susceptible.

If you were otherwise vulnerable  The poor, elderly, ill, and those similarly dependent upon outside assistance were relatively defenseless, especially if they had few family connections to protect them.

If you were related to someone who had been accused of practicing witchcraft  Keep it all in the family, you might say. If your family member was at risk, you were likely to be, too.

If you were on bad terms with your neighbor  Beware, especially if your neighbor suffered any inexplicable misfortunes–a sudden illness or injury, a crop failure, farm animals that had gone missing, etc.


By Baker Joseph E. ca. 1837 1914 artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.jpg
{{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

If you engaged in questionable business practices  Such as owning a bar, especially one which dared to operate on Sundays.

If you had quarreled with those in power (even if you were pious and respected) – Old vendettas die hard and, in some cases, persist until an execution sentence is served.

If you were openly critical of witch persecutions – Those who were brave enough to speak out against the unfair and inhumane treatment of the accused were sometimes rewarded by being named as witches themselves.

If you confessed–under prolonged torture–to practicing witchcraft – This was common, and understandable, considering the cruel treatment of accused witches, but it didn’t buy you immunity. Often a confession was followed by an execution.

If you lived in a time and place where insecurities were playing with people’s fears  Someone must be blamed to ease tensions, right?by-martin-le-france-1410-1461-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commons

By Martin Le France 1410-1461 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.jpg
{{PD-1923}} – published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Origins: Witch hunts are practically as old as humanity. It’s difficult to determine specific statistics, but there is definite evidence pointing back at least as far as ancient Rome. In Europe, witch hunters had their heyday during The Early Modern period, from about 1450 to 1750. As persecutions began dying down there, they gained ground in the colonies. Most Americans are familiar with the Salem witch trials (1692-1693), but a similar witch hunt had begun in Connecticut over forty years earlier (1647-1697). Though it seems difficult to believe, witch hunting has never been extinguished; it persists into contemporary times, in such places as Papua New Guinea, Ghana, and parts of India and Eastern Europe.

What would provoke seemingly civil people into embarking on a witch hunt? In one word: fear. Fear feeds hatred, and both lead to ugliness, including mass hysteria.

More specifically, issues like lower levels of trust or antisocial times set the stage for hysteria. These can be caused by regional tensions, including financial strains, illness epidemics, social problems, a widespread lack of education, etc.

pixabay-fotofan1Image via pixabay/fotofan1

What halts the witch hunt mentality? Again, one word can probably suffice: knowledge. Knowledge leads to tolerance and understanding, which leads to empathy and a focus on human rights.

In Europe, The Enlightenment–with its emphasis on reason and humanitarianism–effectively stamped out the witch hunts. In America, the end was ushered in by simpler means: someone had the gall to accuse the governor’s wife of practicing witchcraft and that brought a quick end to the trials.

If there’s a central lesson to be learned from such tragedies, I’d say noted Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross nailed it: (*Note: I recently discovered this quote through Kristen Lamb’s ultra-informative blog, Warrior Writers.)

There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.

Personally, I think I would have been vulnerable for a few, pretty basic reasons: I’m female. I love natural healing and, although I consider myself to be very spiritual, I’m not overly religious. I’m not wealthy or powerful. I would have had a really hard time biting my tongue about the ridiculous accusations, unfair trials, and horrendous treatments central to the witch hunts. Also, in some ways, I’m a bit of a square peg. I’m not a follower, but I have no real interest in being a leader, either. I’ve always had friends, but I never expect to be the center of a social group. There have been times when being “quirky” has had its drawbacks; regardless, I wouldn’t change it. I like to go my own way, but at times, that can be a dangerous path to take.

What about you? Would you have been vulnerable? Maybe you would have been safe … at least until you weren’t.


By Immanuel Giel Own work Public Domain httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid11114673.jpg


Pavlac, Brian A. “Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented,” Prof. Pavlac’s Women’s History Resource Site. (2 May 2012). URL: <http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witcherrors.html> (October 2016).


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  1. Wow – this list of all the things that could go wrong or that would cause suspicion of a woman during that time is intense. Even birth defects, such a horrible thing for the mother to go through anyway, would get her accused of witchcraft. What a time. Have you seen the 2016 movie The Witch? I thought it was amazing–taking all these 17th century Puritan fears (though in the movie’s case, Calvinist) and making them literal.

    1. I agree, it is intense. So hard to believe that things like this ever happened (and still do). I haven’t seen the movie, but I saw a clip when I was researching this and it looked great. Now that you’ve recommended it, I’ll have to watch!

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