Artwork By Sergei Ganz & Sebastian Farje
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We have all seen witches on TV in various forms; as helpless teenagers who develop consciousness about their powers throughout puberty, 11-year-olds who get a letter from the coolest wizardry school, or as the ugly creatures riding broomsticks and chanting gibberish around a fire in the woods. But what are they really like? What do they really do? How has their image changed throughout the years?
It isn’t exactly clear when exactly witches were first discovered, but one of the first records is in the Bible’s Book of Samuel. It tells the story of King Saul who sought the witch of Endor to defeat the Philistine army by summoning the dead spirit of Samuel. The witch agreed to help King Saul but prophesized his death, which was proven to be true the next day.
In the mid-1400s, witch hysteria in Europe began. Witches were tortured to confess to their “wicked behaviors”, which led to numerous witch hunts in numerous villages. These “witch hunters” would target women (specifically single women or widows) and accuse them of using “spells” to kill men. The doomed women were either hung or burnt at the stake. In 1486, two popular German-Dominicans wrote a book called ‘’Malleus Maleficarum’’ which elevated the already existing obsession with witches. The book was seen as a guide on how to recognize, hunt, and interrogate witches. It defined witchcraft as heresy rather quickly becoming a tool used to justify the Christians who hunted the “witches” living around them. Around 80,000 suspected witches were killed between the years 1500 and 1600, of which about 80% were women accused of being filled with lust and of being in cahoots with the devil.
As witch-hunting decreased in Europe, it increased in the New World. During this time, the New World was facing a smallpox epidemic, festering a widespread tension that was taken out on witches. The most popular witch trials happened in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692.
It began when two young girls of ages 9 and 11 began suffering from uncontrolled screaming and body contortions. More girls began developing stronger symptoms and three women were accused of witchcraft. One of the women (Tituba) confessed to being a witch and called out others for using black magic. This led to the mass execution of potential witches; twelve women and six men were hung.
Now let’s look at Virginia in 1703. Grace Sherwood was accused of having killed her neighbor’s pigs and hexed their cotton. After more allegations came out, she ended up on trial and was forced to complete a test where she would be thrown into a body of water with her arms and legs bound together. If she sank, she was innocent, and if she floated she was guilty. Of course, she didn’t sink and was therefore convicted as a witch, consequently spending eight years in prison.
In today’s Western world, “modern witches” continue to face old, toxic stereotypes and are judged for being evil and working with the devil. However, what they actually practice is called Wicca, which is an official religion in Canada and the USA. It consists of living a peaceful and balanced life close to nature and humanity.
The spells witches cast nowadays usually consist of protecting other people or themselves from any harm. It is not unlikely that some witches in the past have used spells and curses to cause other people harm, but as time progressed, many of them began to use it as a method of protection or for healing rituals.
As of today, the term “witch” is used for people who are spiritual and, for instance, use tarot cards to predict futures. Most of us have embraced them as people living among us and many seek them out to have their cards pulled and fortune told. But in South Africa, the Middle East, South America, and some communities in Europe and North America, witch hunts are still relevant.
What do you think? Are witches real? Or just a commonly used term for people with abilities other humans don’t have?