Witchcraft: Fact or Fiction?

devil, wellcome trust

Belief 1: Witches were actually witches.

demonology and witchcraft no 6

This one is almost entirely a myth.

During the early modern period (1450–1750), approximately 90,000 women and men were accused of witchcraft in Europe, about half of whom were executed. The vast majority of those accused did not identify as witches, while some did come to think, after being tortured, that they may have unknowingly practised witchcraft.

A small group of people also worked as cunning people—a similar concept to a village wise man or woman. A cunning man or woman was someone people consulted to heal their illnesses, to find lost or stolen goods, or to heal bewitchment. Sometimes, cunning people could practise for decades in a village before ever coming under suspicion of witchcraft; importantly, cunning people were not automatically assumed to be witches. Witchcraft in Europe was instead associated with the Devil, from whom witches were believed to gain their powers.

We do know that some people in Europe at the time did practise harmful magic; historians and archaeologists have found many examples of dolls and animal hearts pierced with pins (see here under exhibition highlights for an example of a poppet with a stiletto through its face). These objects were used both to attack and to protect. For the most part though, those accused of witchcraft were accused because of an interpersonal conflict, not because they ever practised magic or witchcraft.

Violence against those accused of practising witchcraft elsewhere around the world today shares some of the same social dynamics as in Europe. In Papua New Guinea, for example, those accused of witchcraft do not typically identify as witches; and the latest research in the area suggests that these accusations most often stem from local grievances and jealousies.

Belief 2: Witches were women.

Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft

Yes and no!

During the period of witchcraft trials in Europe (roughly between 1450 and 1750), women were more likely to be accused of and executed for witchcraft.

But men could also be accused of practising witchcraft, and in some countries they were actually more likely than women to come under suspicion; for example, over 90% of accused witches in Iceland were male. Russia and Estonia also prosecuted more men than women for witchcraft.

However, for the most part, those accused of being witches were women. In England, women made up approximately 90% of the accused; in the largely German-speaking Holy Roman Empire, this number was 76%; in Hungary, 90%; in Switzerland, over 95%; and in parts of France, 76%. Both men and women were called ‘witches’ (not wizards!) and were often accused of performing harmful magic (maleficium). Men were sometimes accused of practising more ‘learned’ types of magic—such as conjuring demons—but women could be accused of these crimes too.

For more on why women were accused of witchcraft, see this blog post and this recent conversation. If we look around the world today, women are perhaps predominantly accused of witchcraft though there are specific pockets where this seems to not be the case.

Belief 3: Wiccan and pagan traditions continue earlier beliefs and practices.

history of witches and wizards, 3

This is a tricky one. The short answer is no, but, of course, it’s more complicated than that.

The biggest difference between those accused of witchcraft in the past and those who embrace this label today is that those in the past did not (as discussed above) identify as witches. They did not practise witchcraft; they were not part of any type of underground religion or movement.

As mentioned, some people did practise harmful magic—but beliefs about witches’ sabbaths and covens (many of which are experimented with in this exhibition)—were all in the heads of the accusers and did not reflect reality.

Modern day Wiccan and Pagan traditions are extremely vast and varied. Although they do draw on a longer tradition, most emerged during the twentieth century, not the early modern period. The artists featured in this exhibition explore the productive tension between new, often empowered concepts of the witch and much darker and more dangerous associations.

Belief 4: The belief in witchcraft ended with the rise of science.

Witches frolic

Another tricky one! The reasons why witchcraft prosecutions declined in Europe—and the specific role of modern science in this decline—are contested. But today most historians argue that legal changes and the ending of torture were more important factors than growing scepticism. For many countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the end point of witchcraft prosecutions in Europe), witchcraft still existed: people just didn’t know how to prove or disprove it in a court of law.

In fact, European witch trials actually coincided with the rise of modern science in Europe. In other words, science did not simply succeed belief in witchcraft. Many well-respected scientists took a serious interest in forms of magic, further challenging the myth that the modern West is disenchanted. As some artists in this exhibition explore, our interactions within the modern world are not un-magical.

Another point to note is that the decline in witchcraft trials did not correspond with a decline in the belief in the power of witchcraft. In fact, witchcraft belief continued in Europe until at least the late nineteenth century.

The belief that science caused the ‘end’ of witchcraft by disenchanting the European mind has had huge ramifications for how we deal with witchcraft today. It has long underpinned various efforts to end witchcraft-accusation-related violence in colonial and postcolonial contexts. For example, European missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries attempted to teach ‘heathens’ about natural laws and science as a way to ‘disenchant’ (as the missionaries saw it) their ‘superstitious’, ‘magical’ and ‘animistic’ view of the world. For an example, see this text from 1950. Health officials also attempted to stop people believing in witchcraft, arguing that if they only had a better understanding of science, then they wouldn’t believe in sorcery. Some even suggested that public autopsies should be performed on those who had died of sorcery—a way of using science to prove to people that this was not the case.