7 Crazy Historical Beliefs About Witches, Because Fearing Interesting Women Is Nothing New
What do you know about witches? If your first thought was Hocus Pocus , you don't even know the half of it. Witch folklore has been a part of the worldwide cultural landscape for thousands of years. In Japan, for instance, magical fox-tricksters dominate some legends, as do jorogumo, spiders who can change into seductive women to lure victims in. But some of the weirder historical beliefs about witchcraft, women, and magic comes from the European side of things, from the ancient Romans through to the Middle Ages, and there's something there for everybody. Salamander-babies: check. Burying small boys up to their necks: check. Lard-based invisibility potions: definitely check.
Being a witch in the pre-modern period sounds like a messy, weird-smelling business, though it's pretty obvious that most of the things that so-called "witches" got up to were entirely made up by people who were frightened of interesting women. Many people hauled up for witchcraft were women who somehow weren't "normal," whether that meant they were too old, too young, too poor, too rich, or too lucky. And, sadly, accused witches would often confess all manner of nonsense while being tortured, just to make it stop.
So take all of this with a grain of salt. Preferably boiled with urine and a roof tile. (You'll see.)
1. That They Kidnapped Boys To Get Their Livers For Love Potions
Belief in witches of various kinds has been around for thousands of years; the Greeks and Romans seemed to have a streak of worry about it, though it was frequently satirized by their poets as nonsensical and backward. Horace, a lyric Roman poet under the Emperor Augustus, made one particular "witch" famous: Canidia, who apparently buried boys alive to fatten their livers.
Horace wrote in one of his Epodes that Canidia — who was, apparently, actually one of his ex-girlfriends, a perfumer named Gratidia, and must have been really pleased by his poem — got up to some thoroughly ridiculous and revolting rites around Rome, including kidnapping a boy, burying him up to his neck, and taunting him with food to enlarge his liver. She apparently wanted his liver for a love potion, though what good it would do was anybody's guess. Horace, who would in today's world be the kind of dude to spread rumors about exes on social media, followed up with a poem where Canidia's rites got so disgusting that they made a god fart with fright. Charming.
2. That They Could Make Themselves Invisible With Lard
If only this were so simple. It's now generally well-known that the "admissions" made by medieval witches about flying through the air and having bizarre orgies were very possibly delusions, brought on by ritual application of hallucinogenic substances like ergot fungus and belladonna to the body. (They rubbed them on brooms to absorb the substance through their genitalia, apparently. No, really.) But there were other applications that were supposed to provide services beyond flying and getting high on mountain-tops.
In The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, Rosemary Guiley describes an ointment for invisibility: vervain leaves steeped in lard and then rubbed all over the body. Sticky. (She also mentions one theorist's idea that witches wore these sticky substances to slip out of the hands of anybody who tried to apprehend them. Clever?)
3. That They Were Women Who Died From Neglect & Returned To Eat Flesh
This one actually still holds sway in the folklore of various parts of East Asia and India. The notion of a churel, a kind of witch-ghost that comes back from the dead to eat the flesh of the living, is the kind of story you use to terrify your small children, and it's been part of regional legend for centuries. (There's a horror film about them currently looking for funding on Kickstarter; if that's not a sign of modernity I don't know what is.) And it's not something you want to come across in a dark alley.
Churels are frankly kind of brilliant. They're allegedly the returned forms of women who died as a result of neglect or maltreatment by their families, and want revenge. Apparently, they'd seduce their male relatives in disguise and drain their sperm as well as their blood, if they felt like it.
4. That They Could Curse People With Knots Tied To Feathers
We know about this idea concerning witches' handy abilities with a piece of string and some leftover bird bits from something called the Salic Law, the ancient Frankish legal code that was put together at around 500 AD. Witchcraft is addressed in it, and one of the particular things to be wary of, apparently, is something called a "witches' knot". It was basically a length of cord or rope with mystical knots in it, some of which had black bird feathers inserted into them. Sounds desperately unhygienic and like a waste of good rope, but the Franks weren't kidding. It was thought to be responsible for illnesses, curses, death, and bad weather if the knots weren't found and undone in the proper fashion.
5. That They Could Be Thwarted Using Salt & Pee
Salt has been regarded as a protective substance against witches since the Middle Ages, and perhaps earlier — the affinity between salt-hatred and the Devil is probably where the ritual of tossing it over the shoulder if you spilt any at the dinner table came from. But if you wanted to really cause a medieval European witch some issues, you needed a ladder, a salt-pouch, and a full bladder.
Allegedly, if a spell had been put on you by a witch (and they had a wide variety up their sleeves, according to the Malleus Maleficarum: using cock's testicles to cause impotence, kidnapping penises, and stealing milk from cows, amongst other difficulties), you could break it by stealing one of their roof-tiles and "cooking" it in salt and urine over a fire. If nothing else, they'd get rained on.
6. That They Had Sex With The Devil & Had Salamander-Babies
The idea that witches had regular sex with the Devil (women's uncontrollable sexuality being hugely dangerous and evil, obviously) only turned up for the first time in medieval European beliefs, but what supposedly happened after the liaisons would give serious pause to even the most dedicated witch. In 1663, a famous witch trial went down in Brunswick in Germany that entered the annals as one of the weirdest and most disgusting of them all. It concerned Tempel Anneke, otherwise known as Anna Roleffes, a poor but literate widow accused of Devil-worship and causing mischief.
Tempel Anneke admitted to certain bits of "white magic," like charms to help crops grow, and nothing else, but under torture she changed her tune. Suddenly she said that she'd made a pact with the Devil, cursed people, and done various other witchy things; but the real shocker of a confession came when she said she'd gotten pregnant by the Devil, and given birth to a bunch of salamanders. You have to give the woman credit for being inventive under pressure. Unfortunately for her, the story was a bit too credible, and she was executed. Poor motherless salamanders.
7. That Women Were Natural Witches Because They Were Horrible, Carnal Liars
This particular belief, and several of the others that dominated medieval European ideas about witchcraft, came from the thoroughly entertaining (if really disturbing) book Malleus Maleficarum , or The Hammer Of Witches, published in Germany in 1486 as a guide to aspiring witch-hunters. It's the origin of a lot of commonplace beliefs about witches of the time, like the idea of a "devil's mark" (a mole that looked unusual or didn't bleed), but it also gets specific about what really sets up women to be witches.
Women, according to the (male) writers, have "slippery tongues," are "defective" because of their creation from Adam's rib, are overpoweringly carnal by nature, waver in their Christian faith, lie all the time, are way too impressionable, and can't understand philosophy. Hence why they're so vulnerable to becoming witches and harming men. It wouldn't be that men keep telling them they're stupid and weak. Of course not.