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A witch-hunt is a search for people believed to be witches, individuals allegedly possessing supernatural powers that can damage others. In modern English, the phrase also refers to the searching out and deliberate harassment of those (such as political opponents) with unpopular views. Although belief in witchcraft occurs all over the world, in Europe the history of witch-hunting is usually limited to the early modern period, the "classical period of witch-hunting", when thousands of people were accused of practising witchcraft and executed as a result of fear, panic and organised persecution. The North-American witch-trials of Salem, Massachussetts, at the end of the 17th century took place on a lesser scale, but these trials were triggered by the same mechanics of fear and mass hysteria.

In the modern sense, when the term witch-hunt is used to describe the persecution of individuals or groups accused of crimes against society, the social dynamic that is created has been termed moral panic. The best known example of it is probably the McCarthyist search for communists during the Cold War. Other contemporary witch-hunts occur in many African societies, where the fear of witches causes periodic witch-hunts during which specialist witch-finders identify suspects, who often end up being lynched.

Witch-hunts in Europe

In early modern Europe (1500-1800), two different concepts of witchcraft existed alongside each other: the popular belief in witches and the intellectual concept of witchcraft that involved Satan and nocturnal meetings called Sabbaths.

Popular belief in witches

The illiterate part of the population believed in witchcraft and belief in witches was part of their life. They were convinced that witches were able to harm others with their evil powers and blamed all kinds of human mischiefs on 'witches'. When an animal died or when a neighbour got sick, when crops had withered or when there was a dry season and shortage of water, they went searching for the alleged cause of these misfortunes. Usually they blamed a lonely eccentric or someone they considered an outsider. Women who had no family were by definition outsiders. Those among them who by nature or as a consequence of physical disability or a peculiar lifestyle lived in isolation from the rest of the community, ran an even greater risk of being suspected of possessing 'dark powers'.

The stereotype of the witch, as it was seen by the witch hunters

In the 15th century, this straightforward popular concept of witchcraft was radically changed by an intellectual elite. Both the secular and the clerical authorities linked a number of other elements to the practice of maleficium. Witches were from then on considered a pagan sect of devil worshippers and a threat to the Christian Church. This new diabolical stereotype of the witch was totally made up, it was a fantasy, based on nothing but an irrational fear and, according to some scholars, fueled by the will of the church to destroy the last roots of paganism. The book Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches (1485-1486) written by two Dominican inquisitors Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer was a kind of handbook for the witch hunters and explained how witches could be identified and tortured to make them confess. From this and other numerous documents and descriptions of witch hunts of that period the following picture of the witch emerges:

  • A witch was a human being, usually a woman but sometimes a man or child, bound to the devil by a pact or contract and thus had become his servant. A typical witch would be an elderly woman despised by her neighbours, living alone.
  • The devil appeared to her in the guise of a man. In exchange for money, or by frightening her, he made her promise to obey him.
  • A witch was able to do maleficium, causing harm to others by occult powers. She could sicken the cattle, make men impotent, kill people, produce hail storms and rains that destroyed grain fields and much more.
  • Witches were accused of cannibalism. It was said that they killed and ate babies because it would give them supernatural power, and that they also made lethal ointments of this meat.
  • At regular intervals, witches gathered to perform blasphemous rituals. At first these meetings were known as Synagogues, later as a Sabbaths, a reference to the Jewish Sabbath.
  • Larger Sabbats occurred three or four times a year and on these occasions witches from all over the country came to the meetings.
  • Sabbaths were held at night and ended in the morning. They often took place at cemeteries, crossroads, cellars, caves, or at the foot of the gallows.
  • To cover the great distances to the place of the Sabbath, witches flew. They used flying ointment they rubbed all over their bodies. Then they flew out the window of their bedroom, flying by themselves or seated on the back of a demonic ram, goat, pig or a black horse. Sticks, shovels, brooms and other common household implements were sometimes used for the same purpose.
  • During the Sabbath, the devil sat on an ebony throne, not in the shape of a man but as a monstrous hybrid being half man, half goat: a horrible black man with huge horns, blazing eyes, the beard and feet of a goat, who was often depicted with bird claws instead of hands.
  • This ritual on the Witches Sabbath, the worship of the devil, was anti-Christian. The witches had to kneel down and call the devil their "Lord". The whole ritual was a parody of the Christian liturgy, like kissing the devil in three places - left foot, genitals and anus - was a parody of the Eucharist.
  • After the ceremony, the Sabbath ended in an orgy, where a meal was served with revolting substances like rotten fish, rotten meat and meat from babies. The witches formed a circle around one witch who had been placed in the middle (with a candle in her anus) and then danced around her to the sound of drums, trumpets and flutes. Slowly, the dance became more ecstatic and degenerated into acts of sodomy and incest where everything was allowed. The devil himself copulated with every woman, man and child.
  • When the devil sent his subjects home, he also ordered them to do as much maleficium as possible against their Christian neighbours.

What this early modern stereotype of the witch makes clear is that witches were regarded in the minds of the witch persecutors as a group that met regularly to put the Christian doctrine to shame. Although witches practiced maleficium individually, they were considered to be a sect of devil worshippers. Many of those elements had been borrowed from earlier sources in mythology and folklore. By tracing back the origins of these beliefs, we get a better understanding of how this strange stereotype came about and how the views and policy of the Christian church towards magic and witchcraft changed in the late medieval period.

Prelude in Antiquity

From classical Greek and Roman literature many descriptions of women and evil creatures using harmful magic have come to us. Circe, although being of divine origin, was often regarded as a witch and Medea was also described as malevolent. She acted as a priestess of Hecate and was in contact with the dark forces of the underworld. Like Circe, she later became the archetype of the witch, in medieval and early modern Europe. In ancient Greece and Rome, each association with Hecate was considered a sign of witchcraft. Interestingly enough, in the early history of Greece, there was a special group of ritual experts, the goetes, visionaries who acted as mediators between the living and the dead. They specialized in funeral rituals and summoned Hecate as the goddess of the underworld. Gradually, however, they expanded their domain and began to earn the reputation that they worked with spirits and daimones[1] who assisted them in their magical practices. So, while they initially fulfilled a valuable social function, due to their declining reputation they gradually became to be regarded as evil figures. The name for their practices, goeteia, is often translated as "witchcraft". Some other terryfying descriptions from classical literature are Horace's Canidia, wandering in cemeteries, taking organs from dead bodies to prepare magical potions, and Eritho from the Roman poet Marcus Annaeus Lucan. Eritho was portrayed as a cruel, sinister, half demonic being robbing corpses, making plants wither and poisoning the air by her mere presence. In his Phasalia Lucan describes how she dragged a dead soldier from the battlefield into the woods where she brought him back to life to receive messages from the underworld from his dead lips. Stories like these give some insight in who was thought to be a witch in ancient Greece and Rome. While the evil in these literary representations often was embodied in female figures this was not entirely correct. Non-literary sources such as curses, often inscribed into lead tablets, and other evidence shows that there were as many men as women practicing magic.

A being in the Greco-Roman religion appearing as the personification of evil is the strix (Latin for 'scream owl'), a female, vampire-like creature that flew out at night and chased children to suck their blood. The lamia is another night creature that hunted the children of other women. These beings are not identical to human witches, but seem to be related. Eventually the words strix and lamia got the significance of 'witch' in the Mediterranean region. Descriptions as these also point to the recurrent association of women with the night and with dark forces, an erotic threat embodied in female monsters.

From writers like Homer, Apuleius and Ovid we learn that magic was an important part of the Greco-Roman society and everyday life. Many charlatans, quacks, doctors and priests roamed the streets of Athens and Rome in search of a gullible paying public. The Roman state itself employed forecasters to tell the future, and that form of magic was highly valued and taken seriously. The acceptable form of magic took place during the day while the night was considered the best time for black magic. The use of magic and curses with the intent to harm was punishable by law. [2]

From the period of the Roman Empire curses and spells are known, sometimes in the form of inscribed leaden tablets, dedicated to a pagan god. A typical example is the incantation that should prevent horsemen to win a race. [3] One of the originally in Latin written curses from the Late Roman Empire ran as follows:

'I adjure you, demon, whoever you are, and I demand of you, that you have the horses of the Whites and the Greens tortured and killed and that you have their riders crushed!"[4]

Apart from this category of curses, there were criminal magical acts that involved the use of poison (Greek:pharmaka, Roman:veneficium). In the Roman world, veneficium gradually became the name for all harmful magic. Furthermore there was also the category of superstitio, by which was meant the practice of inappropriate, excessive foreign rites that could harm the stability of the Roman state and corrupt its citizens. [5]

Persecution of witches and evil magic in antiquity

In antiquity, people thought that magic really worked. The result of that belief was that in certain cases, where the use of magic was judged harmful, the authorities acted against it. So, by and large, practitioners of magic were not persecuted. In general, it was tolerated until it was used to hurt someone. The Law of The Twelve Tables [6], the first major Roman Code, even pronounced evil spells as a crime: Qui malum carmen incantassit, but usually the legislation in antiquity focused on the effect of a magic act, not the act itself. In other words: engaging in magic rituals was not prohibited. Although it was often difficult to give a correct legal analysis of what had happened, no legal action was undertaken as long as no crime was committed. It was only with the Christianization that witchcraft in itself became a crime.

A key concern, for both Greeks and Romans, was the preservation of good order and morals in society. Maintaining a good relationship with the (official) gods was of primary importance because when they were disturbed, the harmony of the state was at risk. Through rituals performed by official priests this good relationship with the gods of the pantheon was insured. In this context, magical practices that could taint people into moral corruption were considered taboo and should be addressed. So the cursing of humans and other forms of witchcraft was mainly punished because of the disruptive effect it could have on society. Starting from the 5th century BC., during Athens's Golden Age, the Greek city-states became less tolerant of other religions than the official cult, and magoi were seen as a pernicious, anti-social influence. The Greeks used the name magoi as an indication for all foreign religions, and the word goeteia to describe low forms of magic. The boundaries between what could be called religion and what was meant by magic were vague, [7], as is illustrated clearly in the literary depictions of Medea and Circe, initially half goddesses in Greek religion who later were described as witches.

The concern of the state to protect its citizens against moral corruption is also found in other legal prohibitions on undesirable practices. For instance, the idea of Sabbaths can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman festivals in honor of Dionysus/Bacchus, the Romans knew as the Bacchanalia. Dionysus was represented by a horned goat as a symbol of fertility. His admirers gathered at night in remote places in nature. There they allegedly held drink orgies with male priests led by women. These celebrations [8] in Roman times were associated with ecstatic dancing, wine drinking and sexual excesses that finally were prohibited in 186 BC. by the Roman Senate.

There were witch trials in antiquity, but on a much smaller scale than during the witch persecutions of the Early Modern Period. Lucius Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass, tells about an accusation of witchcraft that nearly killed him: (paraphrased)
In the 2nd century AD, a witch trial took place in a Roman African province. [3] The accused was the Roman citizen Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, a Latin writer and Neplatonistic philosopher who also possessed a broad knowledge of the occult. After he had married a wealthy widow, he was accused by her family of having bewitched her to get her fortune. In Roman law, magic was punished by death. Lucius, however, escaped his punishment. The successful defense (Apologia) he later wrote is one of the funniest works of antiquity we know. As from the second century AD., the period of the Roman Empire, Christian communities also became victims of similar strange accusations and insinuations. Religious practices of Christians were ridiculed and stories circulated about the worship of a god with a donkey head. Similarly to other persecutions of "pagans" and "witches" they were accused of cannibalism and eating their own children. Suetonius called the Christian religion 'a new superstition' and malicious, and Pliny spoke of 'rampant perverse superstition.' The common people enthusiastically collaborated with the authorities in prosecuting those Christians. [9] [10] Just as was the case with the laws against the Roman bacchanalia the state's main concern was to prevent possible conspirators against the state to gain influence or political power. The official Roman religion was more a nationalistic cult than an individual religious experience, and the new religion of the Christians did not fit in. The same policy had been applied when in the 2nd century BC. masses of foreigners went to Rome: no effort had been too much to control the inflow of foreign gods. The Christians themselves would later apply this pattern of persecution with almost equal charges against so-called witches.

Old Testament

There is a passage in the Bible condemning witchcraft (Exodus 22:18 - "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") It is not clear, however, if this passage meant that all sorcerers should be put to death or merely exiled because they could not be tolerated living in the Jewish community. [5] There is also the story of the Witch of Endor telling how Saul with the assistance of a medium consults the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel to ask for help against approaching Philistine attackers. [5] These seemingly contradicting examples show the multifaceted attitudes of of Hebrew scriptures toward magical practices. Another condemnation of magic in Hebrew scriptures is found in Deuteronomy 18:9-11 that warns against the practices of divination and the consulting of spirits or oracles. According to Norman D.Bailey the principle distinction they made between religion and magic was different from the modern notion: they rather differentiated between their own cultic rites and those of foreign peoples. Due to their monotheism, they perhaps made a clearer distinction between religion and magic than was the case in other antique cultures.[5]

As for the Devil, according to Norman Cohn [11]the Old Testament has little to say about him and does not even hint at a conspiracy of human beings under the Devil's command, nor does the Old Testament know anything of Satan as the great opponent of God and the supreme embodiment of evil. In the New Testament, Satan's role would be that of an adversary of Christianity and of Jesus Christ whom he would fight with his host of insubordinate angels.

Dead Sea Scrolls

The idea that the Devil (Beliar, Belial, Satan or whatever) has his servants among living men and women who acted as his collaborators was found in the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced by some unknown sect. In a document known as The War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness the sect is looking forward to a fifty years war against the Sons of Darkness who fight for Belial.[11]

Early and High Middle Ages

St. Augustine

In his works 'The City of God' and 'The Divination' Augustine of Hippo (354-430) condemned all kinds of magic as heresy regardless whether it involved the invocation of demons (necromancy) or good angels (theurgy).[3]In his opinion, both forms of magic where demonic and the practitioners of these sacrilegious rites were pagans and heretics. His characterisation of all forms of magic as demonic would later be followed by 16th and 17th century protestants who also condemned white and black witchcraft as equally wrong. He stressed the essential difference between Christian miracles, which drew on divine power, and magic, which drew on demonic forces. More than any earlier authority he developed the idea that in order to make their magic work, magicians made a pact with demons[5], a theory that would be taken up in the late middle ages by witch-hunters who said witches made a pact with the devil.

Prosecution of heretics

In spite of the fierce condemnation of witchcraft by the Bible and by early church fathers like Augustinus, in truth there seems to be little evidence of severe persecution of witches and sorcerers. The general desire of the clergy to check fanaticism is illustrated by the Council of Paderborn that took place in 785. A decree was passed in the following terms: "Whosoever, blinded by the devil and infected with pagan errors, holds another person for a witch that eats human flesh, and therefore burns her, eats her flesh, or gives it to others to eat, shall be punished with death". Some popes in the High Middle Ages acted firmly against blind prosecutions of witches. In 1080 Pope Gregory VII wrote to King Harold of Denmark forbidding witches to be put to death who were suspected of having caused storms, failure of crops or pestilence, and in 1258 Alexander IV ruled that the inquisitors should limit their intervention to those cases in which there was some clear presumption of heretical belief (manifeste haeresim saparent).[12]

It was in 1275 at Toulouse, the center of what was believed to be the Catharan infection, that the earliest instance of a witch being burned at the stake after the judicial sentence of an inquisitor took place. A woman confessed to having given birth to a monster after she had intercourse with an evil spirit. She also mentioned having nourished it with babies' flesh which she procured in her nocturnal expeditions.[12]

Altogether, it may be said that the first thirteen hundred years of the Christian era were not characterized by cruel witch hunts similar to a later age. From these earlier centuries a few individual prosecutions for witchcraft are known, and in some of these torture (permitted by the Roman civil law) apparently took place.[12]

Late Middle Ages and Early Modern period

Until about the year 1000, the church denied the existence of witches and magicians and it was even forbidden to believe in them. At the end of the first millennium, the church changed its point of view and witches could now be punished for practicing magic and witchcraft. This meant that whoever was prosecuted could be imprisoned for a duration of 1 to 7 years. In 1226, during the war of the church against the Cathars in France and Italy, Pope Gregory X established ecclesiastic courts that became widely known as 'the Inquisition'. Their mission was to detect heretics, convert them (if possible) and if necessary punish or kill them. In 1252 Pope Innocentius III granted the inquisitors the right to torture suspects, which resulted in thousands of enforced confessions. However, it was not until 1326 that the Inquisition began to persecute witches in particular.

A new element was introduced in the stereotype of the witch that effectively justified massive persecutions: witches now were supposed to have made a pact with the devil (Satan) and accused of having copulated with him. On top of that, they were said to be guilty of atrocities such as eating children.

1346 was a disastrous year for Europe: the plague made millions of victims. In the medieval mind, witches, lepers, Jews and Muslims were to blame for this catastrophe that was to be interpreted as a punishment from God. From 1450 on, large-scale witch persecutions occurred in Europe.

In 1486, the book Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches Hammer), written by the Dominican prior Heinrich Kramer, also known as Institoris, was published. The name of the famous Dominican Father James Sprenger was on the cover. Sprenger probably had little to do with the actual writing; his famous name was rather meant to stimulate interest in the book. This influential text was used as a kind of 'manual' in hunting, interrogating and prosecuting both alleged witches and heretics during the Early Modern period.

The year 1550 marks the beginning of a period in which most witch trials, tortures and executions (including burning at the stake) occurred. In the following one hundred years, until c. 1650, between fifty and one hundred thousand alleged 'witches' were sentenced to death. Eighty percent of them were women.

The most notorious case of witch persecution and mass hysteria in colonial America took place in Salem (Massachusetts), in the summer of 1692. It started with some young girls who, after having played a game of fortune, began to behave very oddly. The people of Salem interpreted the twitching of their bodies as a case of demonic possession and witchcraft. Other girls and young women began to show the same symptoms. During an interrogation, these girls accused three women - Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne and a West Indian slave, Tituba - of having bewitched them. For some unknown reason, Tituba confessed that they had indeed made a pact with the devil. After the situation went out of control, Puritan preachers like Cotton Mather encouraged the local authorities to vigorously prosecute the 'witches'. Between June 10 and September 22, 1692, 19 people were executed by hanging and one by crushing with a stone.

The last European witch execution took place in Poland in 1792. In the previous years, France, Germany and Switzerland - the countries where the number of witches killed was the largest - already had put an end to witch trials. In the late 17th century, the prosecution of witches in England would decrease significantly as a result of the diminishing belief in witchcraft by the secular authorities. Even before the Witchcraft Act of 1736, the intellectual climate during the Enlightenment already had made it more and more difficult to have someone convicted for being a witch.

Age of Enlightenment and the end of the witch-hunts in Europe

Contemporary witch-hunts

Causes and sociology of witch-hunts


  1. In the Greek view, these 'demons' were not necessarily malevolent, as in medieval thought. They could also have good intentions with humans.
  2. Susan Greenwood, "The Encyclopedia of Magic and Witchcraft"
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Brian P Levack: ‘The Witchcraft Sourcebook’, Routledge, 2004
  4. Found in Hadrumetum in North Africa
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Michael D. Bailey: "Magic and Superstition in Europe"
  6. Leges Duodecim Tabularum
  7. Michael D. Bailey: "Historical Dictionary of Witchcraft."
  8. described by the Roman historian Titus Livius
  9. Similar accusations were made by Greeks against Jewish communities in Alexandria. Rumours there went that the Jews worshipped a god in the shape of a monkey.
  10. Norman Cohn: "Europe's Inner Demons": Chapter One: prelude in Antiquity.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Norman Cohn: "Europe's Inner Demons": Chapter Two: Changing views of the devil and his power.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Catholic Encyclopedia: 'Witchcraft'