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UT News

Witch trials

In the spirit of Halloween, the Office of Public Affairs is reintroducing some of its spookiest stories.

Original run date: Oct. 25, 2004
By Michelle Bryant

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In the spirit of Halloween, the Office of Public Affairs is reintroducing some of its spookiest stories.

Original run date: Oct. 25, 2004
By Michelle Bryant

Witches are filling the airwaves. Whether it’s old episodes of Samantha Stevens on “Bewitched,” Glenda the Good Witch on “The Wizard of Oz” or the Halliwell sisters fighting evil on “Charmed,” these new age witches are portrayed as beautiful, magical and strong.

But what about the wicked witch squealing ‘I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog Toto too,’ with her scary green face, flying on her broomstick, with a legion of flying monkeys at her command? Does she have historical roots or is she purely imagination?

As scholars like Brian Levack have discovered through studying witch-hunts, it didn’t matter if you were a good witch or a bad witchand it actually didn’t matter if you were a witch at all, being accused could make it so.

“The witch was usually not a foreigner or stranger to her community,” Levack said. “The great majority of the witches were older and poorer than average, unmarried or widowed, someone who did not adhere to the traditional behavior standards of her community or of her sex, or someone who physically looked different.”

Levack, a professor of history, researches the witch-hunts in Europe and in colonial America between 1450 and 1750. Witch-hunts were taking place as far east as Russia, as far south as Spain and Portugal and as far north as Scandinavia. During this time, more than 100,000 peoplemostly womenwere prosecuted by secular and church courts across Europe for allegedly practicing witchcraft. About half of these individuals were executed. On the European continent and in Scotland the form of execution was usually burning at the stake, while in England and the North American colonies it was hanging. The nature of the crime could also determine the mode of execution. Other punishments included banishment and imprisonment.

“When early modern Europeans used the word witchcraft, they were almost always referring to the practice of black magic, the performance of harmful deeds by means of some sort of supernatural or occult power,” Levack said. “This type of magic would include the killing of a person by piercing a doll made in his image, inflicting sickness on a child by reciting a spell, bringing down hail on crops by burning enchanted substances, starting a fire by leaving a hexed sword in a room and causing impotence in a bridegroom by tying knots in a piece of leather and leaving it in his proximity.

“If your child takes sick or a fire devastates your village, if there’s a shipwreck, famine, a hailstorm, or a crop failure, the tendency of the time was to look for a personal explanation and that of course would be the witch,” he said. “People weren’t ready to say it was chance or fate. They were reluctant to say it was divine justice because of the implications of self-indictment. You can’t do anything about it if it’s fate, you can’t do anything about it if it’s God’s will, but you can prosecute and execute the witch.”

When King James VI of Scotland and his new bride Anne of Denmark, along with their entourage, traveled across the North Sea to return to Scotland in the spring of 1590, they faced a storm. One of the ships carrying the couple’s wedding gifts capsized. Naturally, the only reasonable explanation for the loss was witchcraft. The storm was seen as an assassination attempt and a major witch-hunt ensued. A group of alleged witches were found and prosecuted. It was believed that the witches had evoked the storm by throwing cats into the North Sea.

Continue reading about the witch-hunts in Europe and colonial America

Watch a video of professors reading their favorite spooky passages.