The history of witchcraft is complex, and often raises more questions than it answers. Where did witches come from? And did they always arrive on broomsticks? We asked Professor Diane Purkiss to take us inside the minds of ordinary people and intellectuals in medieval and early modern England to reveal how the figure of the witch was born.

Travel with us from the pre-Christian world to the burial mounds of the English landscape, where an underworld of elves, demons and familiars came alive in the popular imagination. Out of these murky beginnings, we discover how the witch became the subject of the chilling persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Painting showing Circe transforming men into animals
A scene from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ in a 1550 painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi, showing Circe transforming men into animals
© DeAgostini/Getty Images

Diane, you’re an expert in witchcraft beliefs and their representation in popular culture. How far back does the belief in witches go?

Most people think that witches are a Christian invention. But the idea of the witch who flies in the night and draws power from dark cosmic forces to work her ill will on others pre-dates Christianity, probably by many centuries. 

In Homer’s Odyssey (c.800 BC), Circe – who turns men into animals – is described as a witch, and Plutarch refers to witchcraft in his treatise On Superstition (c.AD 100). Illicit magic features heavily in Roman law statutes, some of which are passed down to the Christian world. However, many of those early laws were really laws against sorcery, which unlike witchcraft can be beneficial, and which requires special skills, tools and words.

Archaeologists have found hundreds of ancient Greek curse tablets, which the Greeks called katares, ‘curses that bind tight’, and they appear to have invented them, with a great number focused on sporting competitions or legal contests. The inscribed tablets were left in graves, wells or fountains, where the dead could better work their magic.

A medieval woodcut depicting 'Frau Perchta'
A woodcut depicting Frau Perchta, based on a 1486 manuscript of ‘Flowers of Virtue’ by the Austrian poet Hans Vintler

How did the figure of the witch emerge?

In later centuries, constant attempts to defeat heresy brought to light a number of figures who were difficult to reconcile with Christianity. Such figures were typically created without reference to witchcraft at all, but led to the creation of the figure of the heretic witch.

One such figure was peculiar to the western Alps. She was the female embodiment of winter, a female figure often called Bertha or Perchta or Befuna. She punished social disobedience and rewarded ‘goodness’. She was always portrayed as an old hag, because she represented cold and winter. It did not take long for intellectuals to note her resemblance to the witches with whom they were familiar from classical literature.

Slowly, and in bits and pieces, the idea of the witch emerged. Very broadly speaking, a witch is a person who employs magical entities, which may include powers she carries within her body, to harm other people. She doesn’t have to be female. She certainly doesn’t have to have a hat and a broomstick. She has to be marred, lopsided. She has to be like the dead: hard, infertile – and she has to hate. The dead hate the living and the witch hates as they do. There is no particular moment when this popular idea is formulated.

Photograph of Ballowall Barrow in evening light
Ancient burial places such Ballowall Barrow in Cornwall were once cloaked in superstition. These Bronze Age tombs were thought to be home to dwarf mining spirits known as the knockers, whom witches might offer as good luck charms to unhappy clients

What did witchcraft mean to early Christians in Britain?

To understand this, we’ll have to go on a journey.

Imagine you’re standing on a hillside. You look at the lumps in the grass. You are probably wondering what they are, or what they used to be. A panel nearby says that they are prehistoric burial mounds.

Now I’m going to put you in a time machine and take you back 400 years.

You are still standing on the hillside above the site, looking at the lumps in the grass and wondering. But now, you are a member of the society that flourished in this area for centuries. You have heard many stories about these lumps in the grass. You have seen some members of your village community coming here often, and you have wondered why: are they searching for herbs to augment their porridge, or are they here for other, more sinister reasons?

Among the girls in the village, it’s whispered that if you come to this place at midnight on All Hallows Eve, you can see the dead rise and ride along the road to the market cross. They can’t pass the cross, and they stop there. It’s unlucky to see them, but if you catch the eye of one of the riders, you might be able to win supernatural powers of healing and prophecy that will make your fortune.

The stone interior of West Kennet Long Barrow in Avebury, Wiltshire
The interior of West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire, a Neolithic grave that was used for almost 1,000 years

What’s in the earth below the humps of stone? Do you imagine a realm of the dead?

The vicar in the village tells you that the dead that remain in the earth are those condemned to hell. Some people say that the dead riders are wreathed in flames, and their saddles are red-hot iron. Those people say that if you do get any power from the riders, it’s the power of hell and devils.

But other, older people think differently. They think that the dead that remain in the earth are not demons but elves. Under the lumps of rock is a beautiful if sunless land where the elves banquet and dance and entertain their favourite mortals. However, the elves are still dangerous, especially if crossed.

The dead yearn for the lives they enjoyed, which means they may want to take back from the living. They remain where they were buried. Separation of self and body, or soul and body, may take months or years, and may never happen at all to those who are destined to damnation. So the places where pagans buried their dead are especially fraught. The pagan dead are like nuclear waste. You can bury them, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone. Anyone willing to feed them – on blood – can hope to put them to work in a series of worrying deals. This is where the familiar of the witch begins to take shape: like the dead, fed on blood, and like the dead, malevolent.

A witch feeding her familiars from a xxxx pamphlet
A woodcut from a 1579 pamphlet showing a witch feeding her familiars
© Courtesy of the British Library

Familiars are a really persistent image even today, especially black cats. How did this idea develop?

The witch’s familiar was usually a small animal, sometimes as tiny as a housefly. The witch fed the familiar and in return, it might grudgingly act out her commands. It was, in fact, a kind of fairy known as the household brownie or hob. These creatures favour cream and have to be appeased by constant offerings of it or they can start to behave like poltergeists. It was therefore assumed that they could be put to work ruining the work of other householders.

Familiars may also be related to the Norse fylgia, or fetch – a person’s double, which can also shapeshift to animal form. The fylgia is associated with a person’s luck or fortune. To the learned in the 17th century, however, the familiar was simply a devil. Familiars are mentioned in the 1566 Chelmsford witchcraft trial where the familiar in question resembles a human being. The idea that you can separate out part of yourself, a part that may look exactly like you, and send it to work your will on the bodies of others, is central to the idea of witchcraft.

Whatever their origin, familiars come from that popular underworld of ideas and tales. In places in England, you can almost feel it underneath the soil – the weight of the past and the freight of its dead. Our ancestors could feel it too.

A witch’s mark at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire
A witch’s mark at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire

If you were a person living at that time, how would you try and defend yourself from witches?

You’ll want to defend the thresholds of your body and your house.

You have to keep to the rules. If you suspect one of your neighbours is a witch, do not ever let her have the last word in a conversation. Anything she says must be thrown back at her, before it infects you. And don’t let her give you anything, especially anything connected with food, and extra-especially food itself.

Don’t ever let her across your threshold.

Use witch marks to stop her from crossing into your house or from allowing her familiars to cross into your house. Witch marks are ancient boundary spells. One of the most common is the interwoven initial M, for the Virgin Mary, which persists long after Catholicism has been forbidden. Another is a spiral in which the roaming entity will get lost.

Title page of a 1699 edition of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, or ‘The Hammer of Witches’
The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, or ‘The Hammer of Witches’, was a treatise that promoted the execution of witches based on theological theories of demonology. Written by Heinrich Kramer, it was published in Germany in 1497
© Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection (Public Domain)

We’ve looked at the beliefs of ordinary people. How did the medieval church view witchcraft?

The 11th century saw the arrival of Scholasticism. Scholastic philosophy meant that all of created nature became an object of scrutiny from which scholastics could create a model that applied to everything. The inquisitorial eye began to fix itself on aspects of folklore that had been smiled away or incorporated into Christian worship in earlier periods.

Large monasteries over the 12th to 14th centuries became preoccupied with the moral problem of wet dreams. Was it sinful to have a wet dream? Monks reported that their nocturnal emissions were often the result of being pressed or sat on by a human female figure. Since no women were allowed into monastic dormitories, somebody suggested that the female figures might be devils capable of transforming themselves into the appearance of females in order to tempt monks into sexual sin.

Further leaps of logic concluded that demons wanted to produce offspring. So they haunted monastic dormitories to steal human seed in order to impregnate women with demon children. But who could such women be? This is when the Roman idea of the witch and her manifestation as the embodiment of winter in Alpine regions catastrophically came together to allow the first generation of demonologists to formulate an exact identity for the recipients of the seed.

Old, outcast, ugly, eccentric – the witch of the Witches’ Sabbath was born.

A 1650 drawing depicting a Witches' Sabbath, in which men and women dance surrounded by the dead
A 1650 drawing depicting the ceremony believed to be held by witches, later referred to as the Witches’ Sabbath
© Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Most people are aware of the witch trials that reached their height in the 16th and 17th centuries. How did culture shift towards this persecution?

By the 1590s, the last decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, the idea of the witch in England had crystallised as an old, very poor woman, lame or blind in one eye, and inclined to lose her temper over personal slights. Her dry, twisted and ageing body was a kind of poison, and she was believed to be able to harm people and animals simply by speaking to them or looking at them.

However, in the meantime, the law had been updated to reflect the work of continental demonologists. These thinkers rejected the idea that elderly women could do magic that flouted the will of God. They concluded it must be the Devil who had all the power, and so the witch’s familiar became demon.

An illustration from a 17th century pamphlet depicting a witch trial, in which she is naming all her familiars
A depiction of a witch trial, in which the accused names her familiars. Taken from the 1647 book ‘The Discovery of Witches’ by Matthew Hopkins, who had around 300 women executed in 1645–6
© British Library

How did the witch trials work?

As an accused witch, you could be tried in a church court, at quarter sessions (local courts), or at an assize court, where you could be condemned to death. The process, however, was similar at every level. Somebody would complain to the local justice of the peace (JP) that you had bewitched an animal, or a foodstuff, or a child. Whether or not the complaint is taken any further depends on how energetic the JP is and how much he believes in witchcraft.  

Let’s suppose that an eager JP has put together a significant number of depositions – complaints in writing from your fellow villagers – and has also interrogated you, and got a confession from you. The next stage is that all this evidence is put to a jury, who decide whether to take it to trial or not.

At the trial, those who submitted written complaints will take the stand and give their evidence aloud and under oath. You, as the accused, will also take the stand and your confession will be read aloud. If you like, you can add to it, or deny that you said bits of it, but that might just make you look inconsistent. After that, the jury will decide on your guilt.

There is no counsel for the defence. If you are found guilty, you could become one of the 30,000–60,000 people who were executed for witchcraft in the early modern era.


Diane Purkiss is Professor of English Literature at Keble College, University of Oxford.

Top image: An illustration from a 1619 pamphlet showing Anne Baker of Bottesford, Joan Willimot of Goodby and Ellen Greene of Stathern, who were all tried for witchcraft (© Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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