Witches: Evolving Perceptions

For hundreds of years, witchcraft was a serious criminal offence. A witch was defined as an individual who made a pact with the devil and in return gained sinister supernatural powers. These deviants were feared by those at all levels of society and were accused of committing the worst imaginable crimes. In short, witches were believed to be the opposite of all that was normal and good – witches didn’t grow crops, they destroyed them, witches didn’t bear children, they ate them.

Today, the Salem trials of 1692 are perhaps the most well-known series of witchcraft trials in the Western world. Though notorious, the devastating events that took place in Salem were a comparatively short episode in a much lengthier, violent history. Witch trials took place over the span of about 300 years, during what is known as the early modern period. In total, approximately 45,000 people were executed for the crime of witchcraft, about 75% of whom were women.

When considering these events, it is important to remember this is an extremely complex subject. Many different factors and events contributed to the rise and decline of witch trials. Historians have spent entire careers attempting to understand how and why witch trials began, progressed, and ultimately came to an end, each identifying different sources and factors which merit consideration.

Witch trials began in the fifteenth century, largely as a result of ongoing campaigns against magic and heresy, which combined with a growing concern about the devil’s powers. Though witch trials took place across Europe and the European colonies for centuries, there was a significant increase from about 1560-1630.

This increase was, in part, the result of a convergence of a variety of unpredictable and destructive factors such as mounting religious tensions, war, irregular weather patterns, population increases, and high levels of inflation. These factors are significant, as witches were a perfect scapegoat for any number of misfortunes; the death of a family member, a sudden storm, etc.

Once an accusation was formally lodged, panic could swell quickly if left unchecked by local authorities. Threatened by torture and guided by leading questions, innocent people confessed to a variety of stories, telling wild tales of selling their souls to the devil, flying to demonic meetings, brewing sinister poisons, eating children, and calling forth hailstorms.

While anyone could be accused of witchcraft, those who were different were the most easily blamed and typically the first accused. Suspicions often began with beggars, older or unmarried women, women who fought with their neighbors, or healers and midwives. Overtime, a stereotype of the witch as an older, aggressive, haggard woman emerged as a combination of the writings, folktales, and accusations of this era.

In the modern-day, the term “witch” encompasses an enormously diverse array of definitions and images. Despite its dark historical origins, when confronted with this word today, most envision a cartoonish green-skinned woman flying astride a broomstick or a beautiful, supernatural pop-culture heroine.

Others still, such as those who practice Neopagan religions, think of the witch as a sacred term and view this word as a spiritual designation. Though a very large and diverse movement, these individuals find the title, mythology, and legacy of the witch to be a powerful spiritual, personal, and political identity. While many in the early movement took a largely ahistorical view of the early modern witch trials, the indisputable number of women accused and executed during this period have led many to interpret the witch as powerful metaphor for the violence and repression experienced by women in contemporary society.

Though legal witch trials concluded in the eighteenth-century, the behavior that led to these devastating events is unfortunately not restricted to the early modern period. For this reason, our exhibit Witches: Evolving Perceptions presents a formula for a witch-hunt: fear + a trigger = a scapegoat.

In times of fear and uncertainty, it is often part of human nature to react by reaching for a group or person to blame. This has happened again and again in different guises throughout history, even when it is not labeled as a witch-hunt. By considering witchcraft trials through the lens of this formula, we can better comprehend these tragedies as the result of common human behavior and emotion; the desire to protect our loved ones, suspicion of those who are different, jealousy, resentment, etc. When studying witch trials, it is therefore relevant, if not essential, to consider how these events relate to our lives today.

Interested in learning more about the formula for a witch hunt? We encourage you to visit our Witch Hunt Wall Project page.