Since the beginning of time, humanity has feared what is different. Certain people were called out as having “powers”. Some of these were “cunning folk” who used herbs to heal the ailments of people against the advice of learned doctors. Some were people who just didn’t fit the mold of normalcy- eyes too bright, too outspoken, too bright. These were all labeled as “witch” and in the hysteria of the medieval times were sacrificed for the supposed good of the community. However, what exactly labeled one as a witch? And no Virginia, it is not someone who is made of wood and weighs the same as a duck (if you have not seen Monty Python’s Holy Grail, shame on you and go now.)
People could be labeled witches or at least suspicious from the time of their birth. Babies born with a caul, or a membrane covering the head and face, were thought to have second sight. Babies born with teeth were said to become witches or sorcerers. In Africa, these children were left to die in the bush and in China, babies had their teeth extracted and sent to the bottom of the nearest body of water. Some superstitions even say that a baby born with teeth would be a vampire. The time of birth made a difference as well, as superstition said a baby born at midnight can see ghosts and a baby born on Sunday cannot be harmed by evil spirits.
But what about as the person grew up? Surprisingly, not all accused of witchcraft were women. There is deep seated misogyny, which lead theologians to believe women were more susceptible to temptation because of the “folly of Eve”, but there were men accused as well. During the Trier Witch Trials in Germany, many of the victims were leading male figures of the cities and surrounding villages. At the end of these trials, a total of 368 people were executed in a twelve year period, from 1581 to 1593. The association of cats, especially black ones, and witchcraft also began in medieval times. Norse legend tells of the goddess Freya having a chariot pulled by black cats that became black horses. After Christianity came to Scandinavia, Freya was outlawed as a witch and her cats sent with her. Cats fit the bill for witchcraft for other reasons as well. Then as now, cats were companions to older ladies and when they were accused of witchcraft, their pets were condemned with them as familiars. In the late medieval times, there was almost a obsession to drive cats into extinction. In France, thousand of cats were burned monthly until in the 1603s, King Louis XIII halted the executions.
The witch’s “traditional” garb is also a perversion of several different sources. One theory is the tall pointed hat was a representation of a hennin, which was the height of fashion in the 15th century. In the 15th century, this became a dunce hat worn by criminals in royal courts. Another theory link the pointed hat to a Judenhat or “horned skullcap” Jewish people were forced to wear by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. The linking of Jewish people and Satan was not new to medieval ears and by the 13th century they were associated with “unbelievers, hypocrites, heretics, pagans, and demons.” Another theory ties the pointed hat to the Quakers because the founder of the movement, George Fox, refused to remove his hat in the presence of Cromwell’s ministers. The iron caldron to mix potions came from the traditional iron cooking pot. Caldrons were also sacred in the Celtic tradition. The warts on the witch’s face was from a belief that there was a “witches’ mark” or “mark of the devil”. Witch hunters would search for warts, blemishes or birthmarks under arms, near genitals and breasts.
And finally we come to the broom. The witch was rumored to use a flying ointment rubbed on his or her body. Then they would mount the broom, with the bristles ahead of them to hold a candle, then fly around. Well, the ointment did exist and possibly contained the mandrake plant. Mandrake contains scopolamine and atropine, which are two chemicals that cause feelings of euphoria in low doses and hallucinations in higher doses. There are reports of rituals where participants rubbed the ointment on their foreheads, wrists, hands and feet as well as a staff they would mount and ride. The ointment on the staff possibly went into their…um…how to put this delicately….private areas…and possibly caused a hallucination of a floating sensation.
In modern times, the Wiccan religion has made a comeback, or possibly not a comeback but come back into the open. They celebrate Sabbats, the solar wheels of the year, and Ebats, the 13 full moons of the year. The new year is celebrated on Samhain or what is better known as Halloween.
Sources available on request