Long before a teenage Sabrina summoned spells and Hermione Granger perfected Polyjuice potions, witches were seen in a more sinister way — and they weren’t green, covered in warts, riding brooms with cats, or wearing pointy hats.
To get the real story — one a bit more wicked than you would expect — Nebraska Today’s Annie Albin sat down with Carole Levin, Willa Cather Professor of History, who created and teaches a witch-specific course, “Saints, Witches and Madwomen,” at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Villagers and Queens
Levin’s passion for witches bubbled forth during her earliest college days.
“When I was this undergraduate interested in witchcraft, even finding out about it was really difficult to get picked up a European history textbook,” Levin said. “There would be nothing in the index about witches or witchcraft.”
While the lack of historical coverage of witches was notable, Levin noticed it added to the overall lack of subject matter for one important topic — women. Her classes and textbooks contained little to no information about the visionary women that made their mark on the world in its formative centuries. Ignited and inspired, she went in search of that missing information — and hasn’t stopped since.
Today, Levin specializes in studying women in late-medieval and renaissance/early modern periods in Europe. She’s written countless books and articles on the subject, with a particular emphasis on the life of Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth was the daughter of England’s King Henry. Historically, Henry is known for igniting the Protestant Reformation due to his desire to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, with whom had no living sons, in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. When Boleyn also did not produce a son and subsequent heir to the throne, Henry turned the public against her in what would be one of the most notable accusations of witchcraft in medieval times.
“Henry actually said, ‘I was seduced into the marriage by witchcraft,’” Levin said.
Accused of by her husband and targeted by members of society, Boleyn was taken to trial on the accusation of affairs with five men. She would later be executed for treason and adultery.
While Boleyn wasn’t officially declared a witch, the postulation that surrounded her trial added to the mounting public fear of necromancers.
Sorcery accusations were hurled at women of all ages, classes and creeds — from villagers to queens — and Boleyn was only beginning.
Plague, war and corruption
Levin notes that the height of witchcraft accusations occurred from the mid-15th century to the mid-17th century. In these eras, people weren’t on the hunt for witches hexing newts or riding brooms — they were looking for scapegoats for problems.
During this span, the plague known as the Black Death brought despair; endemic crept relentlessly across Europe; and the Catholic church faced corruption and reformation.
“I think there was a sense that you know, when things are kind of frightening and things are kind of breaking down a bit — blaming someone is the easiest way,” Levin said.
Poor, unattached women became the target for witchcraft accusations. Whether they actually performed magic is unclear.
“Some women…and some men too…might try to do magic because they have no power, and that’s kind of a last resort for the powerless,” Levin said. “I think some who were accused of being witches actually did try to perform magic. I think many did not.”
Accusers looked for signs of “witches” amongst peers through non-substantial markers of evidence. Rather than supporting the existence of witchcraft, the so-called evidence highlighted desperation to find someone to blame problems and misfortunes upon. Supposed tell-tale signs of witchcraft included the notion of “mischief following anger” — meaning if poor luck or illness fell upon someone after having an unfriendly encounter with a woman, she had likely laid a curse upon them. Other signs included the witch’s mark, which bore no discernible difference between that of a birth mark. There was also the “use” of familiars, which were animals like cats, dogs and even flies that did the bidding of a witch.
Those who were accused of being witches also faced tests. The tests ranged from reciting the Lord’s Prayer perfectly to partaking in the water test. That infamous and tortuous test included the accused being thrown into bodies of water, often with their limbs tied. If they floated to the top, they were declared a witch. If they did not resurface, they were posthumously declared not guilty.
The proof of purported witchcraft culminated in the most egregious evidence of all ¬— spectral evidence.
“Spectral evidence was the idea that if you sold yourself to the devil, he gave you the ability to send your specter out to do damage while your body remained at home,” Levin said.
This kind of evidence was key in the historical Salem witch trials. In these trials, “bewitched” children originally accused three women of being witches, which would soon spurn into dozens more based on spectral evidence.
The first three accused women were “others” within the community. One was enslaved; one was a beggar known for her aggressive nature; and one, bedridden and aging, had forgone church in the recent years. Incensed by their newfound fame and attention, the girls identified more and more “witches” from across the community — gradually climbing up the social scale as they did.
Many of those accused of witchcraft were known to dislike the town minister, who happened to be the uncle of one of the bewitched youths. Ever-convenient spectral evidence allowed the girls to accuse anyone of witchcraft without any physical manifestation of spells or hexes.
Hundreds were accused and twenty were killed for their supposed crimes in Salem. Globally, the numbers were even worse. Due to the lack of records from these eras, Levin said there is no accurate count of the amount of people who were killed. Some say it was as low as 10,000, though she estimates the number to sit at 50,000.
“For anyone to die — it’s too many,” Levin said.
So how did witches go from feared social outcasts to world-saving heroes like the sisters in “Charmed?”
After the events in Salem, notions around witchcraft began to shift. While it still wasn’t socially accepted, leaders began to look down upon the use of flimsy spectral evidence for conviction. Increase Mather, a notable clergyman of the time, wrote in his sermon Cases of Conscience, “It were better that 10 suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned.”
Witch hunts slowly lost steam. And at the same time, women began to gain more power in society. As women emerged into a world that was more accepting of them as leaders, they began to be seen as forces for good — much like male counterparts.
The sorcerer was always viewed as someone who controls magic, whereas witches were said to be controlled by magic. In transforming new identities as equals, women were given the reins to their powers.
What the world sees now as witches is drastically different than before. Protagonists like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, and Prue, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell in the “Charmed” TV series use their powers and intellect to save humanity rather than destroy it.
Even antagonists like the Wicked Witch of the West from Dorothy’s travails in “The Wizard of Oz” received glowing rewrites into the misunderstood hero known as Elphaba in “Wicked.”
“What I love about it is the magic gives these women power in a really good way,” Levin said.
Modern media’s portrayal of magic has changed how the world views witches. While once outcasts of society, a witch’s power now makes her a hero in many stories.
The history of witches may seem just like a spooky tale to some, but to Levin it holds a much deeper meaning. While she’s happy to see where witches are now, she can’t help but connect their story to modern-day issues of polarization and dehumanization.
“I think it’s so important to tell these stories, because even though you don’t have people say, ‘That’s a witch,’ the same kind of thing of somebody who is different — who is ‘other’ — being dehumanized and attacked absolutely continues to go on,” Levin said. “We have to mourn for what happened and we have to say: ‘We’re not going to be doing this anymore.’”