I’m writing about the origins of classic horror monsters like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, but for me, they are mostly creatures of fiction. Strangely, when it comes to witches, it’s not the same. Some people really believe in witchcraft and a lot of women were killed after being accused of practicing it. With that in mind, it’s harder to put the witches next to the other frightening supernatural beings. So, let’s take a look at the history of witches to discover…
Who was the First Witch?
At first, I thought that there will be a simple answer to this question, but the concept of witches and witchcraft has a long and complex history that spans across cultures and civilizations. The first witch’s exact beginnings are difficult to pin down, however, there are historical and mythological connections to magical beliefs and behaviors in prehistoric communities.
Witchcraft and magic doctrines were once entwined with spiritual and religious rituals. There were people who were thought to have supernatural talents and capabilities in prehistoric societies like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. These people could be feared and accused of using dangerous magic, yet they were frequently venerated as healers, oracles, and wise ladies.
It was in Ancient Greece that one of the earliest cases of witch persecution took place. A Christian mob killed Hypatia, a scholar, and philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the fourth century C.E., after accusing her of practicing witchcraft. Her tragic fate illustrates the ways in which those who dared to question established religious or social conventions were occasionally singled out for witchcraft accusations.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian theology and witchcraft beliefs became even more connected, and the notion that witches made pacts with the Devil became more prevalent. Pope Innocent VIII published a papal bull denouncing witchcraft in the 15th century, which sparked the infamous witch hunts that swept over Europe.
Are You Familiar with The “Evils” of Witchcraft?
In fact, if the origins of witchcraft as a belief system and practice predate written records and vary across cultures, as monotheistic religions like Christianity gained prominence, magical practices were increasingly viewed as heretical and associated with evil.
That’s why, during the High Middle Ages (1300-1500), beliefs in witchcraft began to merge with the Christian concept of Satan, leading to the widespread fear of witches as diabolical agents. The publication of the “Malleus Maleficarum” (The Hammer of Witches) in 1486 further fueled the witch hunts and trials in Europe. This text provided a framework for identifying, prosecuting, and punishing witches, mostly targeting women.
Witch hunts were not centralized events but rather regional phenomena influenced by local politics, religious tensions, and social fears. In France, which experienced numerous witch trials, the decentralized political structure contributed to a scarcity of primary sources documenting these trials. The lack of centralized control allowed localized witch hunts to flourish.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, witch hunts and trials increased, especially during times of religious upheaval like the Protestant Reformation. As the Protestant movement challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, the number of witchcraft accusations decreased. However, in regions where religious tensions were high, accusations of witchcraft persisted as a means to target religious dissenters and perceived threats to the established order.
Contrary to popular belief, witches were hung for the crime of witchcraft in English-speaking nations like England and its American colonies, not burned at the stake. Henry VIII signed the first Witchcraft Act into law in 1542, making any form of contract witchcraft or spirit summoning a grave offense punishable by the death penalty.
In 1590, during the reign of King James VI of Scotland (he became James I of England in 1603), the North Berwick witch trials took place. These trials were a crucial development in Scotland’s history of witch hunts, as the king personally participated in the investigation because he thought witches were trying to assassinate him. In 1597, he even penned a thesis on demons and witchcraft called “Daemonologie.”
What are the Famous Trials for Witchcraft?
Of course, Salem, Massachusetts, saw one of the most notorious and well-reported series of witch trials in 1692–a series of hearings and trials of people suspected of witchcraft that resulted in 20 people being executed. Mass panic, false allegations, and the use of spectral evidence were common during the trials, which resulted in the unfair imprisonment of innocent people.
Witch hunts were often practiced in the American colonies before the Salem Witch Trials. In Connecticut, witchcraft was elevated to a capital offense in 1642. Approximately thirty people were accused of witchcraft during the Hartford Witch Panic, which lasted from 1647 to 1670, leading to eleven executions.
People considered to be social outcasts, such as women of color, poor women, widows, and anyone who did not adhere to Puritanical norms, were the subject of witch hunts. Witchcraft accusations were frequently used to oppress and control underprivileged groups–particularly women as you may have noted.
And What About The Witch Trials of Today?
The phrase “witch hunt” has come to symbolize different instances of unfair persecution or obsessive investigation in modern times. It has also been used to describe episodes of widespread hysteria and moral panic, such as the Senator Joseph McCarthy-led Red Scare in the 1950s in the United States.
Witch hunts are still common in many parts of the world, particularly in places where superstition, ignorance, and societal conflicts are prevalent, despite the fact that the historical witch hunts in Europe have largely diminished. These contemporary witch hunts frequently target the weak, such as women in Africa who are accused of practicing “witchcraft” or oppressed tribes in Papua New Guinea and India.
So, yes, witches are more real than fiction in the sense that so many people were killed for being accused of being one. Yet, nowadays, we tend to think of witches as fictional creatures you’ll find in horror movies (or romantic comedies!).