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.