Many people have been wrongly executed for practicing witchcraft — from ancient times to the present day. But were all of the accused innocent? Malcolm Gaskill addresses this question in the following excerpt from Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction.
In 2004, workmen digging in Greenwich, near London, uncovered a sealed stone bottle that rattled and splashed when they shook it. It was sent to a laboratory where X-rays revealed metal objects wedged in the neck, suggesting that it had been buried upside down, and a scan showed it to be half filled with liquid. Chemical analysis confirmed this was human urine containing nicotine and brimstone. When the cork was removed, scientists discovered iron nails, brass pins, hair, fingernail parings, a pierced leather heart, and what they believed might be navel fluff.
What had gone through the mind of whoever buried that bottle? Without a doubt it was a magical device, dating from the first half of the 17th century; less well preserved examples have been found throughout England. But whether it was intended as protection against witchcraft of the means to reverse a spell, we’ll never know. The heart-charm suggests other possibilities: perhaps love magic, or even that the user had wished harm on someone. Sticking pins in pictures and models is part of witches’ stock-in-trade. In 1962, parishioners at Castle Rising in Norfolk discovered human effigies and a thorn-studded sheep’s heart nailed to their church door. Presumably this was not just a blasphemous insult but a specific physical attack. If so, it belonged to an ancient tradition of popular maleficium — real in intent if not in effect, but hard to recover historically because of its covert nature.
We tend to see witchcraft as a delusion, a non-existent crime, because we reject its mechanics. This is why many believe executed witches to have been innocent. Yet we still punish those who attempt crimes but fail, and a legal distinction exists between mens rea and actus reus: the thought and the deed. Surely some early modern people must have tried to kill with magic; it would be incredible if they hadn’t. Seen in context, was attempted murder by witchcraft not a crime, just as a woman devoted to Satan was an apostate even if she had never actually met him? There was a lot of magic in our ancestors’ lives, and positive forces could be turned into negatives. Plus there is an exception to the rule that maleficium is hard for historians to recover: widespread counter-magic against malefic witches. The definition of witchcraft depended not on its inherent nature but on how it was applied. In 1684, one Englishman noted the irony that folk ‘often become witches by endeavouring to defend themselves against witchcraft’.
In the ancient world, too, aggressive magic was more than just something the virtuous suspected of the wicked: it was a recognized source of personal power, albeit unlawful if used against a blameless opponent. From Mesopotamia, not only do illicit antisocial spells survive, but descriptions of official ceremonies in which images of assailing witches were burned. Excavations at Greek and Roman sites turn up curses scratched on scraps of lead known as defixiones. Some contain cloth or hair; occasionally they were buried in graves to inflict a deadening effect on victims. An example from Messina targeted ‘the evil-doer’ Valeria Arsinoe; ‘sickness and decay attack the nymphomaniac!’, read the malediction. Dolls made of lead, clay, or wax were also used. Egyptian examples can be seen in the Louvre and the British Museum, the former a trussed woman spiked with nails, the latter a torso containing a papyrus curse.
So the counter-magical laws of antiquity, like their Dark Age and medieval successors, did more than symbolically defend religious orthodoxy or swipe superstitiously at a non-existent enemy: they addressed a real crime. The Canon Episcopi, which was actually sceptical of most claims made by witches, forbade sortilegium et maleficium — not just village magic but cursing. Pre-modern rulers were responding to the plain fact that ordinary people tried to wreak havoc using magic.
Malefic magic can be studied first hand. Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-73), professor of social anthropology at Oxford, noticed the ordinariness of witchcraft among the Azande of the upper Nile; it was as uncontroversial as illness. Azande witch-beliefs included bagbudma: spiritual medicine that reversed bewitchment by attacking the witch. In the Roman spa at Bath, archaeologists found a lead curse deposited by a man whose cloak had been stolen; the Azande, too, had a spell for thieves: ‘May misfortune come upon you, thunder roar, seize you, and kill you. May a snake bite you so that you die. May death come upon you from ulcers’ — and so on. Such magic upheld positive social values. J.D. Krige described a ‘moral grading of magic’ among the Lobedu of the Transvaal, who condoned supernatural vengeance — or madabi — against witches but criminalized malicious usage. ‘The power is in itself neutral’, explained Krige, ‘it is the objective which makes it moral or immoral’. The Shona of Zimbabwe encourage sorcery against enemies while forbidding it in their ‘moral community’. In 1983, a student in Cameroon confessed to membership in a gang of night sorcerers — reminiscent of Siberian shamans or Ginzburg’s benandanti — who had symbolically eaten their teacher’s heart.
Malcolm Gaskill is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. An expert in the history of witchcraft, he has written extensively about beliefs, accusations, trials, and confessions, as well as modern Spiritualism. He is the author of three other books: Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (2000) — shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Book of the Year prize; Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches (2001); and Witchfinders: a Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (2005).