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I kick off the new year with a matter close to anyone who’s ever flirted with fantasy writing: witches. I mean, what’s fantasy without witchcraft? Probably a rather boring Medieval existence, that’s what.

Of course, there’s a big difference between fantasy and reality. Witchcraft has been a topic for discussion since forever and witches have been surrounded by countless myths through the centuries.

This guest post by John Dickinson, a writer from SuperiorPapers, discusses the myth and reality of witches.

The Real Witches

Witch | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Witches were traditionally pictured as ugly hags with warts on their faces, a pointy hat with a wide brim, stirring a huge cauldron with a green liquid or cackling through the sky. However, modern pop culture has portrayed them as a kind, nose-twitching suburban housewife; an awkward teenager learning to control her powers, and a trio of charmed sisters battling the forces of evil.

A similar confusion seems to surround their punishment. We believe that witches were burnt for their sin of practicing witchcraft. But this, along with other myths, was an unusual punishment that probably became popular because of Jean d’Arc.

Here are some more interesting facts about witches I hope you will find at least as interesting as I did!

1. Historical Witches

One of the earliest records of a witch is in the Old Testament (book of 1 Samuel), thought to be written between 931 B.C. and 721 B.C. It tells the story of King Saul seeking the Witch of Endor to summon the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit to help him defeat the Philistine army.

The Old Testament condemns witchcraft in no unclear terms: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). As for the Witch of Endor, she roused Samuel, who then prophesied the death of Saul and his sons. The next day, according to the Bible, Saul’s sons died in battle, and Saul committed suicide.

Christians are also forbidden to use witchcraft or ask witches for help: the Christian way is prayer; not witchcraft, which is seen as asking demons for help.

2. There Are Only Bad Witches

There is a negative connotation around witches.  Both in books and movies, witches are often portrayed as being evil and practicing black magic.

More recently, books and movies such as the Harry Potter series, have focused on white magic. White magic manipulates nature’s forces to perform acts of kindness. Both of them, however, fall under the umbrella of witchcraft.

3. The First Prosecution was in 1428

History is full of trials against people suspected of practicing witchcraft. The 1428 Valais prosecution is the first recorded event of this kind. The recordings of this event are very interesting, as Johanna, a contributor to a US essay writing service explains.

People thought that those accused of witchcraft made a pact with the devil, so they tortured them to make them confess. While some of them died without confessing, others said that they killed and ate their own children, proving that you can get someone to confess pretty much to anything if you torture them enough.

While some of the condemned might have had an interest in the occult, most were probably natural healers or so-called “wise women” whose choice of profession was misunderstood.

4. The Evidence

As you might expect, back then no solid evidence was necessary when accusing someone of witchcraft. In some cases, the only evidence necessary was unusual marks on the body. If someone had made a pact with the devil, the theory went, that person would have had a mark on their body. Researchers suspect some marks might have been birthmarks, minor lesions, or supernumerary nipples.

5. Witches Were Burnt

Most people know the myth that the penalty for witchcraft was burning at the stake. However, historically, there were hardly any cases like this. Not even during the notorious Salem Witch Trials were people found guilty burnt at a stake—they were hung or stoned to death.

The most famous witch burned at stake was Jean D’Arc, a French girl fighting the English. Interestingly enough, an inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Callixtus III In 1456 examined the original 1430 trial, debunked the charges against her, pronounced her innocent, and declared her a martyr. In 1803 she was declared a national symbol of France and she was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. Joan of Arc is considered one of the nine secondary patron saints of France.

6. Books About Witch-Hunting

Witchcraft was a major problem that many kings and queens were looking to eradicate, probably because it was far easier to blame witches for, say, natural phenomena such as droughts than to admit state shortcomings in the handling of food production. “I wish I could help more but, you know, witches,” was all too tempting an excuse for useless rulers.

Several famous people have written books about witch-hunting. Among these books are Daemonologie, written by James I of England and published in 1597, and Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on witchcraft written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, two respected German Dominicans in 1486. The book, usually translated as “The Hammer of Witches,” was essentially a guide on how to identify, hunt and interrogate witches. It helped spark witch hysteria, leading to up to 80,000 suspected witches to be put to death—most in Germany.

Merga Bien was a girl accused of practicing witchcraft during the 15th-century Fulda witch trials in Germany that resulted in the death of 250 people. Merga was forced to confess the killing of her husband and their children. Moreover, she was forced to admit that her unborn child is the child of demons. She is among the few people burnt at a stake.

7. Easter Witches in Sweden

While witches are popular during Halloween in the US, Sweden celebrates them during Easter. Children dress in old clothes, usually too big for them, and go from door to door looking for treats.

The tradition is said to come from an old belief that witches would fly to a German mountain the Thursday before Easter to cavort with demons. On their way back, Swedes would light fires to scare them away, a practice honored today by the bonfires and fireworks across the land in the days leading up to Sunday.

8. The Biggest Witches’ Event

Speaking of Halloween, there is a Guinness World Record of the biggest event, where 1,602 people participated dressed in witches. It happened in Spain, in 2013.

9. Wicca and Witchcraft

Wicca was introduced to the public during the fifties and started slowly to gain momentum. Some believe that the origins of Wicca are based on a pagan bible or witchcraft manuals. Others claim that those who founded it were involved in witch trials.

However, Wiccans avoid evil at all costs. Their motto is “harm none,” and they strive to live a peaceful, tolerant, and balanced life in tune with nature and humanity. Their spells and incantations are often derived from their Book of Shadows, a 20th-century collection of wisdom and witchcraft, and can be compared to the act of prayer in other religions. A modern-day witchcraft potion is more likely to be an herbal remedy for the flu instead of a hex to harm someone.

10. Torture Mechanisms for Witches

People thought that witches are saying spells to call the devil or just make evil things. So, they thought about how they could make them stop. The Witch’s bridle is a well-known torture instrument for witches. The device was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head, thus preventing them from speaking while publically humiliating them. They were forced to wear them all day on their heads.

11. Witches Don’t Fly on Broomsticks

We often see photos or illustrations with witches flying on broomsticks but this is not entirely true. Witches are said to use brooms to cast away evil spirits—but everyone had brooms back then. It’s like saying that modern witches use vacuums as part of their religion.

As for flying, some theorize that the ointments and potions witches were creating might have had some hallucinogenic plants at their core. These may have led some to believe they were capable of flying, leading to this modern-day legend.

Conclusion

Witches are popular in the West during Halloween. But elsewhere in the world they often face persecution and death. Several men and women suspected of using witchcraft have been beaten and killed in Papua New Guinea since 2010, including a young mother who was burned alive. Similar episodes of violence against people accused of being witches have occurred in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and even in immigrant communities in Europe and the US.