Common Accusations of Witchcraft

For today’s blog post I would like to take a look at some of the causes of witchcraft accusations in history.   There are many reasons that women (and some men) have been accused of witchcraft throughout the centuries.   

 In the common era witchcraft is understood to be a part of nature based religious practices (and known to be neither good nor bad).   As with anything else it depends on the person practicing, and their intent.   However, for many centuries witchcraft was seen as evil, and something that came through a pact with the devil.   People who were accused were most often women.     This is unsurprising in a patriarchal society, and is a sad fact of the world for a very long time.    Here in America we remember the Salem Witch Trials most often, although there were some earlier trials in the colonies.    Salem was the last true witch hysteria America suffered, and it was one of the worst witch panics in history.

Earlier witch-hunts included the Inquisition, and James I’s witch-hunt (which I posted about yesterday).   The hysteria in Europe ultimately spread to the New World, and led to the colonial witch-hunts.    I need to point out a common misconception about the Salem witch-hunts.    No people were burned at the stake in Salem!   This happened in the earlier hunts, especially in Europe (James I often both garroted and burned convicted witches).   In Salem 19 people were hanged and Giles Corey was pressed to death!

The assumption that witches were burned in Salem is often the fault of film, a prime example for me is the amazing film I Married a Witch.   While I love the film, it does have the female lead as a witch burned in Salem (who then returned to the modern day circa the 1940s to wreak havoc).    I have to put my annoyance at the historical inaccuracy on hold for this sweet film that helped lead the way to Bewitched!    All that being said, I did feel the need to point out the historical truth in Salem.   Thankfully modern Salem has embraced witches with open arms, and that is beauty coming out of tragedy!

Now onto the topic at hand.    People accused of witchcraft were often outsiders.    Woman who had money, power, or land  that made men in charge fearful were often prime targets.   Wise-women and healers were forever having fingers pointed at them.    It is truly unfortunate because even if they were practicing witchcraft, they were using magic to help people, not to do harm!   Men accused were often those who either had a criminal history (and attachment to accused women) or those stood up for women in their lives who had been accused.

Common things looked for in witchcraft accusations included a witches’ mark.    This mark could be a third nipple, a mole, or a beauty mark and it was said to be placed on the woman by the devil.   Another common thing looked for would be a familiar, a special pet kept by the witch to help in her magic.   This was most often believed to be a cat, especially a black cat.   Though birds like crows, and toads were also common pets that inquisitors searched for as reasons to accuse people of witchcraft.    Finally I will mention a knowledge of plant lore, as a common thing looked for in the accused, as it could be used for healing, or more darkly for poisoning.   These factors made witch-hunters fearful, and could send innocents to their graves!

I feel it is important to remember these dark truths of history, in an effort not to repeat them.    I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about historical witch hysteria.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is the Elizabeth Montgomery (as Samantha Stephens in Bewitched) statue in Salem, MA.   I found the image on

Further Reading/Watching

  • The Weiser Field Guide to Witches by Judika Illes
  • The Witches by Stacy Schiff 
  • I Married a Witch (1942)
  • Bell Book and Candle (1958)
  • Bewitched (1964-1972)

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