Friday, October 10, 2014

In Medieval Times; How to Become a Witch

Bubble, bubble, boil and trouble, was the line from THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH as he meets the witches. Actually, my favorite line form Macbeth is, “By the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes.” Also, a reference to my favorite Ray Bradbury novel, but I digress.
We are here to discuss witches, and witchcraft in the middle ages. This is a part of my October Halloween madness blog. So let’s get to it. I must also comment that since we are talking about a broad topic, what may be believed as true in one area, or section of Europe and in another part may not be. I do reference many witches and the laws involving the handling of them in my novel, Legend of the Mystic Knights.

In the previous blog, we discussed who were considered witches and the persecution of them. So in the medieval times, how did people think someone became a witch? The answer was the devil.
To become a witch in medieval Europe one had to make a pact with the devil, or one of his demons. This was the most important part of witchcraft; it was making the deal with the devil.  In many parts of Europe, the deal was sealed by the witch (literally) kissing the devil’s ass.
The potential witch had to desecrate the cross or other Christian relic. Since, the person had now become a witch, they had to demonstrate that the rejected God and Christ, so they had to spit or step on a cross or crucifix.
The witch would need to become part of a coven. This was important because the witch could combine their powers with others. More witches (up to 13) in a coven meant they were more of a threat to the people in a village.  This was why when a witch was arrested; they interrogated them, even with torture, to get the names of others in the coven. Sometimes the witches had a secret rendezvous called a sabbat, where they worshiped the devil.
So now we have a witch. What were the witch’s powers, and why were they perceived as a threat?
According to many legends the witch could fly. Many people believed a witch could cause issues in other communities; this meant they were able to traverse great distances in a short period of time.  To accomplish this, a witch had to be able to fly.  It was believed a witch traveled on a broomstick (where we get the iconic picture of a witch).  It was perceived that a witch rode her broomstick backwards, with the brush end up front. The broomstick was turned around in the 20th century. Men who were witches did not ride broomsticks but pitchforks or other long farm instruments. 
Having a witch flying great distances, allowed them to be accused by people in other communities, this meant during the witch-hunts a person could be accused by someone they had never met in their lives. In England, they believed a witch could not fly, and this was merely folklore.
A witch of course could put a spell on you or curse you.  There was a method to this because a witch needed to recruit others. A witch could use her powers to curse the life of someone else. By causing problems and making the victim’s life harder, the witch could step in and offer assistance by informing them that witchcraft could solve their problems.  Recruiting of others meant that a witch could not be isolated, because they needed to spread their beliefs around the community.  Witchcraft to the medieval person was considered a disease and had to be eradicated for the good of everyone else. Once a witch was caught, you had to force them to tell you who the other witches were in the community.  You cannot have a witch-hunt if there is only one witch to persecute.
A witch was a sexual deviant.  The power of the witch was seduction.  She could seduce men into unwanted affairs, and hence destroy his reputation and lead him into sin. The witch would participate in orgies, or even have intercourse with demons.
This theme of a warning against woman’s sexuality runs throughout the middle ages and past the Victorian age. Consider the theme of Braham Stoker’s Dracula.  It is more than a story of a vampire,  it is a story of the Victorian age, and it is a cautionary tale against the rights of woman.  The women in Dracula chose to be with the vampire, not the male protagonists of the story. It is the duty of the men in the story to destroy Dracula in order to protect the woman from themselves.
 Another example in Dracula is when Johnathan Harker is seduced by three female vampires who use their beauty and allure to entice him.  In today’s society this might be a man’s fantasy, but in the Victorian age, it was considered vulgar and repulsive.
The witch had familiars. A familiar, or familiar spirit, enhanced a witch’s powers. These familiars appeared as animals, but were in fact, demons or imps in disguise. These familiars would assist in the casting, or give knowledge on how to cast spells and incantations. In other instances the witch could see and hear through the animal, they would send the familiar to the local settlements so that the witch could spy on the villagers. Often these animals appeared as a toad, or a crow, but the most popular was the cat. 
I mentioned in an earlier blog that when the witch-hunts were in full stride millions of cats were also killed fearing that they were witches familiar. Unfortunately, the slaughter of the cats occurred at the same time as the plague, which was carried by fleas on rats. If the cats had not been killed, they would have assisted in the destruction of these rats, and lessen the spread of the plague.
I mentioned in my last blog about cunning folk.  These were people who had knowledge of herbs to be used as medicine. It was thought they too used familiars, but in their cases they were not demons, but fairies who wanted to help people in need. This was, until they were accused of being a witch, and then the familiar was no longer considered a kind fairy, but now was a fierce demon.
Thank you for reading my blog, next time we shall look at how to put a witch on trial and how to destroy one.  Trust me; this one is not going to be pretty.


  1. A very interesting article on the history of the belief in witches. It's sad though that so many innocent people were persecuted and executed by people thinking that they were in some pact with the devil when in fact they were just different from how society expected them to be i.e. being childless past a certain age.

    Thanks, William!


  2. I'm enjoying this series of posts. Witches get such a bad wrap, so I'm especially looking forward to the next post.

  3. When we were kids we used to dress up for Easter and imagine we were flying on our broomsticks. We would have loved reading your series on witches to fuel our imagination.

    Didn't know that it was because cats were associated with witches that they were killed. What a fatal mistake that enabled the Black Death and other plagues to become enormous lethal epidemics.

  4. These are so interesting...I'm enjoying the entire series. I know witches today:) There is such a departure from legend in these modern covens. And learning more about the history is a great way to separate fact from fiction.

  5. I think many witches accused and burned in the middle ages were scapegoats and very few had actually made a deal with the devil. But if there was any justice they would've after being accused and wreaked havoc.

    I'm enjoying this whole series.

  6. I love this series and am learning things I never knew which is great. I have read about the Salem witch trials - which really weren't trials - and I've thought how awful that was. Superstition and ignorance really are to blame for a lot of wrongful deeds.

  7. Perfect timing! My daughter just informed me yesterday that she wants to be a witch for Halloween. And her sister wants to be a fairy. It's like we've got our own little medieval village over here!

  8. This series and explanation of witches is very interesting. We all believe a lot of stuff about witches and it seems almost true.
    It is sad that many innocent people were used for creating problems and bad deeds for others.
    I think there are still people who try to destroy the peace in others life.
    Looking forward to next post.
    I hope you will also check my post.
    Thank you

  9. Interesting post William. When you said that witches would recruit and try to spread their beliefs throughout the community I couldn't help but think: who else in medieval times was focused on spreading their beliefs throughout the community?

  10. Fascinating post on beliefs about witches in medieval times. It seems as if people are always looking for someone to blame for ills or things they don't understand.

  11. Believing in witchcraft is one thing but the idea of a "witch" having a familiar to enhance their powers takes it to a whole new level. However, there are some popular video games that allow players to have familiars to assist with their spell casting. Interesting how these beliefs led to innocent women being labeled, hunted down and brutally murdered and now we have movies and video games depicting these mythical beings for entertainment.

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