Halloween History of Witches
One of the more enduring symbols of Halloween, horror and folklore is that of the Witch. Ugly and evil, they are shown flying on their broomsticks, or stirring their cauldrons.
Witches were not always thought of as evil or ugly. In ancient times, witches could be healers or wise women of the community. But as Christianity spread, they were often condemned because their power supposedly came from somewhere other than God.
Later, accusations of witchcraft often were used as a way to keep talented, intelligent women from threatening the male supremacy of the day. They also could be used to make people toe the line with regard to community standards. Anyone who was thought of as different or rebellious could be accused. Thus men were often accused as much as women.
The focus of witchcraft on medieval women can be seen in what have becomes the symbols of witchcraft: the broom, the cauldron (pot) and the cat. All of these are associated with the household and women’s work. Not surprisingly, these have also become strong symbols in modern Halloween and horror literature.
Witches were thought of as ugly because evil is ugly.
While witch hunts are thought of as a medieval phenomenon, the height of the atrocities actually occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries. In fact, it was not until 1320 that the Church officially declared witchcraft as a heresy.
While there is no definitive answer as to the number of people tried for witchcraft, it seems safe to say that tens of thousands - perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands were accused.
Following the advice in the witch hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum - The Hammer of Witches - witch hunters used a variety of tests to try the accused. Believing that a witch wouldn’t bleed when cut, they employed a variety of instruments to test this theory. (Though of course, the instruments often were blunt).
Birthmarks were often seen as the mark of the Devil. In a voyeuristic show, hunters would strip their victims before the crowd to inspect for the Devil’s marks.
Another test - often shown in medieval woodcuts, involved dunking - or worse, throwing - women into a pond or well. If they floated , it was thought that they had been rejected by the water of baptism and thus were witches. If they sunk, it indicated that they were innocent. Of course, this could also involve drowning, but at least they were innocent and their soul was saved.
Confession under torture was another favorite. Using a variety of grisly devices, the witch hunter would try to extract a confession. Although torture was sometimes held in secret, it often was a public spectacle, providing entertainment for the masses.
The key to all of this was that the accusation alone often was enough to make you guilty.
A person found guilty of witchcraft often was executed for their crimes - although apparently, a confession (and under torture, who wouldn’t confess?) could result in a chance at rehabilitation. A reformed “witch” could be sent to a monastery or convent.
In the popular imagination, however, the proper way of disposing of a witch is by burning at the stake. This is no doubt bolstered by the fate of Joan of Arc.
While many were burned at the stake, other methods of execution also were employed. Hanging seems to have been a preferred method, and images of witch hangings can be seen in period engravings. Others were beheaded, stoned, broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered and so on. In the famous Salem Witch Trials, one man was “pressed” to death, by placing him under a board and then piling rocks on top until he was crushed.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In the incident, the accusations of three young girls against their neighbors touched off a series of charges and counter charges that eventually resulted in hundreds of people being accused and held for witchcraft.
The accusations grew quickly because of the chain reaction nature of the investigations. Once a person was accused of witchcraft, one way to avoid further harassment and punishment was to confess, ask for absolution, and then turn over the names of the other witches in their Coven. Since there was no Coven, the newly accused would protest their innocence. But eventually, they, too would see that confession and accusation was the way out.
Twenty eventually were executed. The hysteria ended when the Governor was convinced by Increase Mather that “spectral evidence” should not be accepted in the trials. Without this, the prosecution’s cases fell apart.
There have been a number of attempts to explain the Salem hysteria, but the one that seems most likely involves disputes between two different factions in the town of Salem.
Since then, the term “Witch Hunt” has been used to refer to any chain reaction of unfounded accusations. It may have first been used in this sense by George Orwell.
The most famous were the anti-communist investigations of the 1950s, which culminated in the McCarthy Hearings of 1954. Arthur Miller’s play, The Cruicible, ostensibly about the Salem Witchcraft trials, was symbolically a criticism of these investigations.
Copyright 2005 by John Retzer. All Rights Reserved.