Belief in the power of witches, and the persecution of witches by church authorities, was widespread throughout Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The engraving reproduced at the bottom of this page is of a public hanging of witches. It comes from Sir George Mackenzie’s Law and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal, Edinburgh, 1678.



Witches were thought to be in league with the Devil, who was their master. The Devil, or Satan as he is sometimes called, is believed to roam the world looking for human souls to tempt into Hell. He is the supreme spirit of evil, the enemy of all that is good and holy. According to Christian tradition the Devil is a fallen angel, Lucifer, who was driven out of heaven. The Devil has supernatural powers which he uses to ensnare the souls of men. The Devil has many names and appears in many forms. He has an army of minor devils, demons and hobgoblins to help him. His evil task is to drag as many human souls as possible down into Hell. The Puritans believed in, and feared, the Devil and all his works, as did many Christians at the time. Some people still believe that there exists a power of positive evil, and that the Devil is a personification of this evil.


Witches were believed to have certain powers given to them by their master, the Devil. It was believed that they could make themselves invisible, or change themselves and others into animals, birds or other creatures, and that they could fly. They could, supposedly, create charms and cast spells; cause sickness and death to people or animals simply by looking at them (giving them the evil-eye), or by sticking pins or needles into an image of the victim. It is easy to see how, in a society with few scientific answers to the problems of sickness and death, these might be attributed to malicious supernatural agencies. Europe was often ravaged by plagues, wars and crop failures. These were often attributed to Divine wrath, a punishment for their wickedness. More local disturbances were likely to be blamed on witchcraft, and a hunt started for witches.


The Christian churches pursued and persecuted supposed witches. A common test for a person accused of being a witch was pricking with a needle. All witches were supposed to have somewhere on their bodies a mark, made by the Devil, that was insensitive to pain. If such a mark was found it was regarded as proof of witchcraft. Other marks also were looked for as proof, things like warts, extra nipples, extra fingers or toes which were supposedly used to suckle familiars - creatures of the Devil who helped the witch. Other proofs of witchcraft were the inability to weep, and the ability to float on water. The water test involved throwing the accused into a river or pond. If they sank (and possibly drowned) they were innocent; if they stayed afloat they were guilty. The tests for witchcraft were cruel, and so were the punishments if found guilty. Witches were often hung or burnt at the stake.


The witchcraft trials in Salem were remarkable mainly for the numbers involved. Before the witchcraft hysteria was over the girls had pointed the finger at hundreds of supposed witches, not only in Salem but in places as far apart as Andover and Charlestown. They even accused people they did not know. By October 1692 doubts had set in about the validity of the girls' testimony. In December 1692 Governor Phips appointed a new session of the Superior Court of Judicature to clear the jails, and issued a general pardon to all persons still under suspicion. By this time, however, nineteen people had been hanged, one pressed to death under a pile of rocks for refusing to speak at his trial, and at least two more people had died in prison, bringing the number of deaths to twenty-two.



This engraving showing the demonic hordes of Hell catching the souls of sinners, is attributed to Albrecht Durer. From Warning vor der falschen lieb dieser werit, printed by Peter Wagner, Nuremberg, 1495.