People have been accused of practicing witchcraft as early as Egyptian and Roman times.
Early Christians persecuted many innocent people who rejected their beliefs for sorcery; as wizards, warlocks or witches.
The first recorded victim was Hypatia, a Greek mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and philosopher in Egypt, then a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy.
Highly regarded by both classicists and Christian students, she fell out of favour when Theophilus, the archbishop, was succeeded in 412 by his nephew, Cyril, a hard line dogmatist and her fate was doomed. Incited by his sermons in the Church, Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 ADS because of sorcery and witchcraft.
At the age of 60, she was dragged from her Chariot and taken to a church called Caesareum, Hypatia was stripped, stoned with roofing tiles, torn apart, her flesh scraped from the bones with oyster shells and then burned at a spot called Cinaron.
Socrates Scholasticus (380 – 450), records in his Ecclesiastical History that this happened during Lent under the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate.
In the book of laws he compiled toward the end of the ninth century, King Alfred outlawed wiccan among the people of England, on pain of death. From its first appearance in English, the word “witch” has referred to a person not merely magical but actively abhorred by state power. (JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE)
The first full account a pact with the devil dates from 1435 in a printed book on witchcraft detailing many of their rituals as inverse parodies of the Catholic church.
In 1484 Catholic priest, Heinrich Kramer, began prosecuting alleged witches in the Tyrol region of Germany. He was one of the first to be granted a Papal Bull to do so. His book, the Hammer of the Witches was published in 1487.
When Henry VIII needed to dispose of Anne Boleyn, he accused her of sexual infidelity and witchcraft.
A fool-proof trial by ordeal for witchcraft was to tie their hands and throw them into a body of water. If they floated and survived, they were obviously bewitched and burnt at the stake. If they drowned, they were clearly innocent and so went straight to heaven.
Witchcraft was well-accepted in King James I’s time. He too, published a book on it and firmly believed he was a target.
He believed that witches had attempted to kill him on a trip to Denmark as well as his newly wed. Six Danish witches were tried and executed. When they finally arrived back in Scotland, Agnes Sampson confessed that she and a coven of witches had conspired against him. Under torture she confessed horrible crimes of using a cat to conjure evil spirits against the King and Queen and that the only thing that saved him was his strong Christian faith. Agnes was tried, convicted, garrotted and burned in a public display in the presence of the King. Witches were commonly considered to be the embodiment of evil and the audience would have been aware of the King’s reputation as a man for whom the devil had a healthy respect.
That Macbeth was probably written in the wake of the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which broadened earlier laws to include the penalty of death, as well as around the time of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament (1605), suggests that on this occasion (and for the rest of the century) the diabolic forces are to be identified specifically with the Catholic threat to Protestant England. Shakespeare appears to be criticizing tyranny, so may be pandering to the King’s beliefs in the power of witchcraft. Alternatively Shakespeare could be subtly lampooning the King’s delusional obsession with witchcraft.
Later, the pressures of war, along with the paranoia about one’s enemies, created a fertile ground for witch-hunting to flourish in England during the civil war conflicts in the 1640'’s between the king and Parliament. A young man in his twenties named Matthew Hopkins, calling himself the Witchfinder General, blazed through the east of England in strongly Puritan areas, accusing supposed witches of a pact with the devil even without evidence of maleficium. By the time he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven in 1647, he was responsible for hanging upward of three hundred women, according to some estimates more than the total of the previous century and a half – around 40 percent of all the witches ever executed in England.
The witches in Macbeth had magical powers of foretelling events much as clairvoyants, tarot cards or horoscopes claim today. Their powers were limited in that they could not kill people. Here a witch threatens the husband of a woman who refused her some chestnuts:
“I’ll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid; …
Though his bark cannot be lost,
Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d. Act 1, sc. 3 19 – 26
This is what King James claims happened to him and foreshadows what they do to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. They could not actually kill someone, but harry them and deprive them of sleep.
This is Banquo’s description of them:
What are these,
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o’th' earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you, or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. Act I Sc. 3 40 48.
They are referred to by a number of names, the most common is “weird sisters” others include; “imperfect speakers” , “instruments of darkness”, “secret, black and midnight hags”, later “filthy hags” and finally “juggling fiends who palter with us in a double sense.*
Hagridden - worried or tormented, as by a witch.
The hag in hagridden has always meant “evil spirit (in female form), ghost, woman who deals with the Devil, a witch; an ugly, repellent, malicious old woman.” The noun is very rare in Middle English (hegge appears once in the 13th century, and hagge once in the 14th) and becomes common only in the 16th century as heg, hegge. Hag is generally believed to descend from Old English hægtesse, hægtis “a fury, witch,” akin to Old High German hagazissa, German Hexe (cf. hex signs on barns, especially in Amish country), from West Germanic hagatusjōn-. Hagridden entered English in the 17th century. Dictionary.com
Due to Miller’s play The Crucible, this ancient word has lately bubbled up from the mud of time into American culture. “Witch” now resonates among two sharply different sets of people: Young, often queer women, who see the witch as an appealingly transgressive and charismatic archetype. (Witches of Eastwick, John Updike).
President Donald Trump, repeatedly describes his critics as the perpetrators of a “witch hunt.” JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE
Last witch hanged - The Telegraph - London #
Europe’s last executed witch, beheaded in 1782, after she confessed under torture to conversing with the devil and poisoning the daughter of the house, was finally exonerated and her name cleared in 2008.
Campaigners claim she was the victim of a conspiracy between the Swiss eastern town’s judicial and Protestant church authorities.
Anna Goeldi was employed by the family of a rich married politician, who after having an affair with her, denounced her for witchcraft claiming she made his daughter spit pins and suffer convulsions.
She insisted on her innocence but confessed after being strung up by her thumbs with stones tied to her feet.
The case was brought to light through a book by local journalist Walter Hauser, who claimed Goeldi’s employer had used his influence to convict her after she threatened to make their relationship public.
She was executed even though the law at the time did not impose the death penalty for nonlethal poisoning, it added.
Goeldi’s torture and execution was even more incomprehensible as it happened in the Age of Enlightenment when “those who made the judgment regarded themselves as educated people,” the government said in a statement.
“In spite of that they tortured an innocent person and had her executed, although it was known to them that the alleged crime was neither doable nor possible and that there was no legal basis for their verdict.”
Anna Goeldi has a museum named after her. The name of the accuser in not worthy of noting.
Salem, Massachusetts dedicated a sizable rectangular vacant block of land next to its cemetery. Around the edges sit 19 solitary substantial rocks, each with a simple plague naming the victims with brief notes. The names of the authorities are not worth noting.
Witches’ brew #
Double, double, toil and trouble! Witches cackle as their cauldrons bubble. Spiders creep. Black cats howl. Ghosts and spirits are on the prowl.
All sorts of nasty things go in the witches’ brew. But the most important ingredient of all just might be… you!
Spooky! This classic scene of malevolent madams making a most mysterious mixture entered our cultural imagination thanks to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. One scene in the play features three wily women, referred to as the three weird sisters or the three witches in the play, chanting an ominous rhyme as they add gross and grizzly ingredients into a cauldron. The witches’ admittedly catchy rhyme is listed below (the ingredients have been bolded by us):
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Some of these ingredients, such as “eye of newt” and “toe of frog,” have become staples of witches everywhere. But what are those ingredients really referring to? The answers may just surprise you! (For the entire passage, which includes all of the ingredients we discuss, see below.)
The word weird gained popularity in large part due to Macbeth.
Ingredients and their meanings
eye of newt
Let’s start with one of the most popular (and memorable) items on the list. Surprisingly, most people agree that “eye of newt” refers to a mustard seed. Herbalists would often reference body parts when describing parts of plants. An “eye” is a seed, and mustard seeds are dark yellow, like the eyes of some newts.
fillet of a fenny snake
However, “fillet of a fenny snake” is the first item on the list—and source of much debate. It’s possible that this ingredient could be referring to a member of the Arum family, which includes plants with nicknames like jack-in-the-pulpit and Snake’s Meat, which would fit with the idea of a fillet. Some other speculated identities of this ingredient include a leech (fenny means “marshy” or “swampy,” and leeches are snakelike swamp-dwellers) or snakeroot, based on the name.
toe of frog
Most agree this warty foot refers to the bulbous buttercup. This yellow flower resembles most other buttercups but it has a fat, green, bulbous stem. The froggy connection doesn’t seem like too big of a leap (or a hop).
wool of bat
The two most commonly speculated identities of this ingredient are moss and holly leaves. Moss is a general name for clumpy plants that grow on and cover trees and rocks (like wool). Mosses, like bats, also tend to be found in dark, sunless areas. Holly trees and shrubs can be found all over the world and have wing-like leaves on which red berries grow. Holly leaves and berries are often seen during Christmastime.
tongue of dog
This ingredient refers to houndstongue, a highly toxic plant that features long, hairy stalks that can grow up to four feet tall. Clumps of purplish flowers can be found at the ends of the stems.
This snaky ingredient refers to the dogtooth violet, which isn’t technically a violet. Erythronium americanum, commonly called the trout lily, is a small plant with delicate purple or yellow flowers that is beloved by honeybees and other pollinators.
This ingredient is a source of speculation. It may be a poppy seed, knotwood, or wormwood. Poppies are sometimes referred to as “blind eyes,” and all poppies are poisonous, which would explain the “sting.” Knotwoods are bamboo-like weeds with small flowers that often invade other plants’ territory. Wormwood is a plant with white or green stems and bulbous yellow flowers. Besides having a name that fits, wormwood has been used in traditional medicines for a long time. There’s also another distinct possibility: a blindworm is a legless lizard with tiny eyes.
This ingredient is thought to refer to ivy. Ivy is a general name for plants that grow up walls or trees as long green vines, often with many leaves, flowers, and berries.
The identity of this ingredient is less clear. It’s possible that it could refer to either garlic or ginger plants. Garlic is an herb related to onions that features a long stalk growing out of a white bulb located underground. Ginger is a plant with a long reedy stem and a banded, tasty root underground. Both of these smelly plants are often used in cooking.
scale of dragon
This draconic ingredient could refer to Alacosia Baginda, commonly known as the dragon scale plant. True to its name, the leaves of this plant resemble large green dragon scales. Another possible plant that fits the bill is tarragon, a leafy green herb found worldwide that is often referred to as “dragon” or is known by many dragon-themed nicknames.
tooth of wolf
This ingredient is speculated to be either wolfsbane or club moss. Wolfsbane, actually named Aconitum napellus, is a plant native to Europe that has distinct purple flowers. Its nickname comes from the fact that it is highly poisonous, and it was often used to kill feared predators, such as wolves. Club moss, also called wolf’s foot or wolf’s claw, are herbs that have many spiny leaves.
This ingredient is often assumed to be literally what it says: the parts or entire body of a mummy belonging to the witches. People used to ingest mummy powders (yes, human remains) as a medicine during the 1600s, when Macbeth was written. Spooky!
Would mummy powders be considered a placebo? Learn more about placebos … and nocebos.
maw and gulf of the ravin’d salt-sea shark
As far as we know, there is no plant that seems to match this ingredient. It’s possible that Shakespeare made up this plant nickname or it could be referring literally to the body parts of a shark. While not all sharks are predators, many of them are known for their teeth and fierce bite. It would make sense for this spooky mixture to include the terrifying teeth and throat of a shark—especially one that is “ravin’d” or ravenous.
root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark
Hemlock is an infamously poisonous plant that has clumps of white flowers growing on spotted stems. Famously, hemlock is supposedly the plant that killed the philosopher Socrates. This concoction just keeps getting worse and worse.
liver of blaspheming Jew, nose of Turk, Tartar’s lips
Suddenly, things take a strange(r) turn. As far as we know, these three ingredients don’t refer to any plants or animals. As taken literally, these three ingredients are body parts of people who (for the most part) were not Christians. Jews practice Judaism. The “Turks,” here referring to the people of the Ottoman Empire, were followers of Islam. The term Tartars was used to refer to the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, who mostly followed Islam although some practiced Orthodox Christianity.
During Shakespeare’s time, religious tension was the norm even among Christians. Shakespeare himself was publicly a follower of the Church of England, but he came from a Roman Catholic family. During Shakespeare’s time, there was constant mistrust and violence even between different Christian denominations. Needless to say, Elizabethan England would not have been at all tolerant of non-Christians. It’s possible Shakespeare is mentioning non-Christian people (who would have been seen by his Christian audiences as heathens and heretics) because they would be alien, mysterious, or scary to the people of England.
Relatedly, Shakespeare’s plays have been accused of being anti-Semitic. In the witches’ rhyme, only the Jew is described by Shakespeare as “blaspheming.” The Jews had been banished from England for hundreds of years by the time Shakespeare was writing his plays, which meant his audiences would very likely have been anti-Semitic or hostile towards Jews.
gall of goat
We have to speculate on this ingredient, and there are at least two plants with goat-based nicknames that could have gone in the pot. Hypericum perforatum, also known as St. John’s Wort or goatweed, is a plant that has yellow flowers and has been used in medicines since ancient times. Honeysuckle, sometimes called goat’s leaf, is a general name for a large family of plants that include shrubs and vines that may have flowers or fruits.
slips of yew silver’d in the moon’s eclipse
A yew is a member of a group of evergreen trees that typically have leaves with needles and red berries. As should come as no surprise by now, yew and their fruits are typically highly toxic.
finger of birth-strangled babe ditch deliver’d by a drab
Once again, we have to speculate on the identity of this rather morbid ingredient. It’s possible that this ingredient could be foxglove, which is sometimes known as “bloody fingers.” Foxglove is a tall plant that is known for its drooping, tubelike flowers. Even today, foxglove has medicinal uses. Oh, and it is highly poisonous. Because of course it is.
This ingredient refers to lady’s mantle, scientifically known as Alchemilla mollis. Lady’s mantle is a favorite plant for gardens, as it is easy to grow and features clumps of green flowers. Bucking the trend, lady’s mantle is not poisonous and it is even known to attract butterflies.
This ingredient doesn’t seem to refer to any plant that we know of. Assuming it isn’t literal, it’s thought that this ingredient may be referring to the blood of a spotted gecko. Geckos are able to regenerate parts of their bodies, which might explain why their blood (which could be the source of their power) would be added to this magical brew.