What is a Witch?

Although the fear of witches was widespread, there was no single definition of what constituted witchcraft. Personal misfortunes, such as crop failures or a death in the family, were attributed to magical interference. Influenced by folkloric beliefs, individuals looked to blame community members who acted strangely or with whom they had quarreled. All too often they focused attention on older women living alone. By the late 15th century, the village witch became linked with what theologians called the demonic witch. Both Catholics and Protestants believed witches committed heresy by making a pact with the devil and renouncing God.

In return, they gained powers and obligations. Witches brewed magical potions in mighty cauldrons, shape-shifted into various animal forms, raised storms that destroyed harvests, and performed all sorts of malevolent acts, or malefices. Witches flew at night to large gatherings, called Sabbats. Sabbats involved obscene initiations that included infanticide, elaborate feasts, lewd dancing, devil worshipping, and sexual relations with incubi (male demons) or succubi (female demons). Witches kept animal companions, called familiars, such as toads, rats, cats, dogs, and birds, who inflicted harm at their master’s bidding.

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