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This painting by Thompkins H. Matteson is called Examination of a Witch
Punishing Witches, an illustration in the Laienspiegel (1508)

A witch is a person who practices witchcraft. The stereotypical witches are commonly portrayed as wicked old women who have wrinkled skin, pimples, and pointy hats. They wear clothes that are black or purple. They also have warts on their noses and sometimes long claw-like fingernails.

The belief in witchcraft is in many cultures worldwide. Witches have often been seen outside accepted cultures and faith. As a consequences, people often made witches feel unwanted in their societies.


In the Bible, the punishment for witchcraft is death (Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," meaning "you should not let a witch live"). "Witch" in the Bible means summoner of spirits, so it might really mean warlock.[source?]

In Europe in the early modern period, of witches (witch hunts and witchcraft trials) took place. Many Christians were scared of witches and witchcraft at that time. As a result, tens or hundreds of thousands of people were tried for witchcraft, and executed.[1] Most of them were women, though in some places the majority were men.[2][3][4] Most were hanged. Some were burned at the stake (tied to a long pole and burned alive). Especially in the early modern period, this punishment was often applied.

The Salem trials were among these trials. Gilles Corey was one of the people accused of witchcraft. Because he knew that he had done no wrong, Corey simply refused to speak. He was pressed to death.

Among those punished were people who did not live peacefully with their rulers, like Joan of Arc. Queen Anne Boleyn was accused of being a witch and was said to have had a large mole on her neck and a sixth finger, though this was likely invented by her enemies.

There were some men (for example, Johann Weyer, Friedrich Spee and Anton Praetorius) who protested against torture and against the chase of witches.

Common ideas about witches

During the early Modern Age, people developed a whole set of teachings and beliefs about witches. These beliefs were centered around the following:

  1. Witches are able to fly around on brooms, sticks, animals, demons, or using special ointments
  2. Witches meet with other witches, and with the devil on occasions called witches' sabbath.
  3. Witches have a pact with the devil
  4. Witches can use spells and black magic, also known as 'Juju' in some parts of Africa to do bad things to others

How people were identified as witches

Folk beliefs about witches told that a witch had certain things that clearly identified her as a witch. Some of these were:

  • What was called Diabolical mark. It was a mark of the devil. Most of the time, this was a mole or birthmark. If the examiner found no mark, often he would say he had found an invisible mark.
  • A pact with the devil.
  • Being denounced by another witch. This was common. Often, witches who told about other witches were punished less severely. For example, they were strangled before being burnt at the stake.
  • A relationship with other known witch(es).
  • Blasphemy
  • Taking part in Sabbaths.
  • To harm someone with sorcery.
  • To have some of the things needed to do black magic.
  • To have one or more witches in the family.
  • To be afraid during the interrogations. Most often the interrogations involved torture.
  • To not cry when tortured.
  • Another common method of test was the `Swim` test the suspected witch would have a rope tied around the waist and rocks (on ropes as well) attached to their feet. The suspected witch was then thrown into the water. If they drowned (which is more than likely) they were wrongly accused, if they floated they were a witch and a trial would be held.

The mark of the devil

People believed that witches had a pact with the devil. The diabolical mark (or mark of the devil) was a token left on the skin of the witch.

Most of the time, this was believed to be a mole or birthmark. It was said that since this was a sign of the devil, touching (or picking) it would not hurt the person. People also thought that this mark could not bleed.

This soon developed into a safe test for witchcraft. Most often, special techniques were used by those doing the test, so that the pricked spot would not bleed, or hurt. This was done using a needle like object called a bodkin. When touching the skin, the needle would go into its shaft. In that way it could not be felt, and did of course not bleed. Many innocent people were wrongfully convicted because of this test.

Modern-day understanding

In the 20th century, a new attempt has been made at understanding witchcraft. Many people say that witches were in fact wise women who were hunted down by the church (mostly for their knowledge of herbs to treat certain diseases). This has led to a new movement. Some of it is known as Wicca. Some of it is known as Shamanism. Some feminists[source?] have also spoken about it. Some of the rites have also been used as a form of protest.[source?]

Famous people accused of witchcraft

  • The Witches of Salem, Massachusetts. The trials of 1692 contributed to the title of "the Witch-city", Salem has today.
  • Elizabeth of Doberschütz, beheaded and burnt outside the gates of Stettin, on 17 December 1591.[5][6]
  • Anna Roleffes, better known as Tempel Anneke was one of the last witches to be executed in Braunschweig. She was executed 30 December 1663.[7]
  • Hester Jonas, known as The Witch of Neuss. Beheaded and burnt on Christmas Eve 1635. She was about 64 years old. The complete proceedings of the trial is still available in Neuss.
  • Catherine Monvoisin, close to Marquise the Montespan, a lover of Louis XIV. She delivered poisons, and held black masses, against payment. Burnt with some others on the Place de la Grève in Paris, in 1680.
  • Maria Holl, also known as The Witch of Nördlingen. She was one of the first women to withstand being tortured during her Witch-trial of 1593/1594. It was through her force that she rid the town of Nördlingen of the Witch-craze. Her act led to doubts quelling up about the righteousness of witch-trials. She was cleared of the accusations. She died in 1634, probably from the plague.
  • Anna Schnidenwind, one of the last women to be publicly executed for Witchcraft in Germany. Burnt after being strangled, in Endingen am Kaiserstuhl, 24 April 1751.[8]
  • Anna Göldi (or Göldin). Last witch to be executed in Europe. This happened in Glarus, Switzerland, in the summer of 1782.


  1. Brian Levack (in The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe) multiplied the number of known European witch trials by the average rate of conviction and execution, to arrive at a figure of around 60,000 deaths. Ronald Hutton (in Triumph of the Moon) argues that Levack's estimate had already been adjusted for these, and revises the figure to approximately 40,000.
  2. Gibbons, Jenny (1998) "Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt" in The Pomegranate #5, Lammas 1998.
  3. Barstow, Anne Llewellyn (1994) Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts San Francisco:Pandora. p. 23.
  4. For a book-length treatment, see Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe, Manchester University Press (2003), ISBN 0-7190-5709-4. Conversely, for repeated use of the term "warlock" to refer to a male witch. See Robert Chambers, Domestic Annals of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1861; and Sinclair, George, Satan's Invisible World Discovered, Edinburgh, 1871.
  5. Martin Wehrmann: Geschichte der Stadt Stettin, p 264, Flechsig Verlag, 1979, ISBN 3-8128-0033-0 Abstract
  6. Hans Branig, Werner Buchholz: Geschichte Pommerns, volume 22, part 1, p 158, Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Pommern, Verlag Böhlau, 1997, ISBN 3-412-07189-7 Abstract
  7. Morton, Peter, ed. (2006). The Trial of Tempel Anneke: Records of a Witchcraft Trial in Brunswick, Germany. Barbara Dähms, translator. Ontario: University of Toronto Press.
  8. Klaus Graf: Der Endinger Hexenprozess gegen Anna Trutt von 1751 (2012) online.

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