Today, witches form a part of our modern popular culture and appear in some of our favourite films, books and TV shows. Their power gives them a mystique and intrigue that is ever-fascinating but society did not always view witches in this way and the history of the word is far darker than many of us would imagine.
One of the earliest records of a witch can be found in the Bible in the book of 1 Samuel, believed to have been written between 931BC and 721BC. It tells the story of the Witch of Endor who was brought to King Saul to summon the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit and help him defeat the Philistine army. The witch roused Samuel, who then prophesied the death of Saul and his sons. The next day, according to the Bible, Saul’s sons died in battle, and Saul committed suicide. Not exactly the best start for witches in terms of their public image…
Later mentions of witches in the Bible urged believers to stay away from, and even kill, those who practised sorcery. However, it was not until the 16th century that these biblical warnings would be used by Protestants and Catholics alike to justify the brutal murder of up to 80,000 people in Europe (mostly women) accused of witchcraft between 1550 and 1650. In 1486 “Malleus Maleficarum” which translates into “The Hammer of Witches” was published. Written by German Dominican Heinrich Kramer, the book essentially provided a handbook for the identification of witches and was a valuable tool for religious zealots in search of heathens to persecute.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the witch mania that started in Europe began to spread into the New World. One of the most infamous examples of a coordinated and sustained witch hunt can be found in colonial Massachusetts in America and is widely known as the Salem Witch trials. These trials saw more than 200 people accused between February 1692 and May 1693, 20 of whom were executed. As with the murders in Europe, the majority of the condemned were women who were already viewed as being inherently sinful, cursed from the moment Eve bit into the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Consistently, the persecution of witches seems to have stemmed from fear and an inability to explain the suffering that afflicted many across the world. Witches were used as a scapegoat, they allowed ordinary citizens to place blame and provided them with an element of control. After all, if they knew how to spot a witch they could avoid them or report them to the authorities and, in doing so, believed they were protecting themselves and their families.
Over time as modern science began to explain many of the things witches had historically been blamed for and as western societies grew more secular, witches lost their veneer of evil and became more of a novelty than something to be feared. We are now quite happy to read books like Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” or “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness and, while we may still be slightly spooked by talk of covens and spells, we are far from the days of drowning, burning or hanging people based on nothing more than rumour and suspicion.
It is a sign of progress that witches are no longer attacked as they were in the past but a bitter legacy remains. The word witch can still be thrown at women, particularly those in positions of authority, as an insult and modern day depictions of witches are often unflattering – think green, old hag on a broomstick with a mole and a hooked nose. It’s important we never forget the dark and deeply misogynistic place the word comes from. In her novel the Witches of Blackbrook, Tish Thawer writes: “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn”. To honour the generations of young women who paid the ultimate price for the fear and mania of their communities, let us make sure no one ever dares to try and destroy us in the same way again.
Written by Rachel Matthews