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Fear, conspiracy, gender: The long legacy of witch trials

Witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts.   (Lithograph by George H. Walker. Undated)
Witch trial in Salem, Massachusetts. (Lithograph by George H. Walker. Undated)

Secret spells. Magic potions.

The world of witchcraft has a powerful cultural hold and a dark history. What do centuries of witch trials teach us?

Today, On Point: Fear, conspiracy, gender — and the long legacy of witch trials.


Marion Gibson, professor of renaissance and magical literature at the University of Exeter. She’s written eight books on the subject of witches. Her most recent is “Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials.”

Leo Igwe, director of Advocacy for Alleged Witches, an organization that works to defend the rights of alleged witches in African countries.

Also Featured

Shawn Engel, self-described “professional witch.” Offers tarot reading through her business Witchy Wisdoms. Author of several books including “The Power of Hex: Spells, Incantations, Rituals” and “Cosmopolitan’s Love Spells: Rituals and Incantations for Getting the Relationship You Want.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Magic potions, ancient rituals, secret spells. The world of witchcraft has a powerful cultural hold.

OLIVIA GRAVES: Okay so, Frankie and I are doing protection charms for each other.

FRANKIE CASTANEA: I didn’t bring most of my herbal allies because I’m like, I can just raid your kitchen.


CASTANEA: Literally Italian folk magic is like red bag —

CHAKRABARTI: That’s YouTuber Olivia Graves, AKA the Witch of Wonderlust. Her YouTube channel has 438,000 subscribers, and on the channel, she teaches how to make a talisman for safe travels and banish bad energy from your apartment. Among other things. You heard her there with Frankie Castanea.

A self-described Italian American folk witch, and here’s Shawn Engel, who also describes herself as a professional witch and reads tarot cards among other things.

SHAWN ENGEL: I do live readings for people at large events, large scale events. I also do online readings. I’ve done a lot within the witchcraft community and provide different spells and services to people that need it.

CHAKRABARTI: We’ll hear more from Engel later in the show. She and Olivia Graves are among the growing number of people embracing witchcraft as an empowering practice in their daily lives. It’s hard to know exactly how many self-described witches there are, since it’s not a tracked religious category, but around 800,000 Americans identified as Wiccan in a 2019 survey from Brandeis University.

But not all witches consider themselves Wiccans. Of course, witchcraft also has a long and often dark history. For centuries, people have been persecuted, tried, convicted, and killed after simply being accused of being witches. And in some parts of the world, like The Gambia, India and Nigeria, that still happens today, David Umem lives in Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state, where he works to rescue and protect children being accused of witches and wizards.

DAVID UNEM: It is alleged that you can be the reason for anything, cancer, plane crash, HIV and AIDS. Name them, you are the course of all of those things. So they look for a victim or a scapegoat to link to this problem.

CHAKRABARTI: What can witch trials throughout the centuries and in present-day, show us about fear, conspiracy, gender, and power?

Marion Gibson joins us now. She’s a professor of Renaissance and magical literature at the University of Exeter. She’s written eight books on the subject of witches, and her most recent is “Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials,” and she joins us from Plymouth in the United Kingdom.

Professor Gibson, welcome to On Point.

MARION GIBSON: Hello Meghna. Thank you for inviting me.

CHAKRABARTI: So actually, first of all, just coming off of what David Umem there said about the current day targeting of people in Nigeria, and the accusing them of being witches. What do you think is one of the major constant threads that ties what’s happening today in certain places with very ancient or even millennia old accusations of witchcraft?

GIBSON: I think they’re all linked by the human desire to persecute other humans, which is a depressing thing to think about, isn’t it? But when you look back over the last 700, 800 years of human history, you find over and over again that the witch is a figure who is marginalized for some reason, who is picked on for some reason.

And that can be to do with gender or ethnicity or relative levels of poverty, or it can be to do with somebody just being disliked by their community. You see it over and over again, and I was really interested to explore that. And it’s really interesting to hear people talk about it happening to them today, because this is absolutely not just something for the history books.

CHAKRABARTI: Later in the show, we’re going to actually hear from another Nigerian who’s working to save children who are being accused of witchcraft. So we’re going to return to the present day. But Marion, first of all, I note that your new book is “A History in 13 Trials,” I’m going to presume that the number was deliberately chosen.

GIBSON: Yes, it was, yes it’s a witchy number, isn’t it?


GIBSON: So it seemed like the right one.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, good. I just wanted to double check that I wasn’t just projecting some sort of presumption there, but so let’s go back to one of the trials that you talk about in your book. It’s actually one that takes place in the early 17th century.

So 1620, in what is now Norway, but was then called Finnmark. So tell us about this person and this trial.

GIBSON: That’s right. So I thought this was a really interesting trial for people to hear about. You often hear about trials in England, in America and indeed in contemporary Africa and around the world.

But this is a trial in Northern Norway, the Finnmark region. And the first person to be accused is also quite surprising. She’s an indigenous woman. So the people who live around the Arctic Circle, including in North America. Here, they’re referred to as the Sámi People. And this woman was some kind of diviner, perhaps somebody who believed she had power to foresee the future and she knew things that other people didn’t know. And onto her was projected all this fear about this supposed magical knowledge.

But also, I think a lot of racialized fear, a lot of concern about what are these Sámi people up to. So people come up from Southern Europe, they move through Norway and Sweden, and they encounter the indigenous people there. And one of the first things they think is these people have a real mastery of this landscape.

They are different from us. They look different from us.

CHAKRABARTI: They were right about that.

GIBSON: Yeah. They were.

CHAKRABARTI: The Europeans didn’t have that mastery at that time, so.

GIBSON: No, they didn’t. And they brought with them Christian assumptions about the way that the world worked, which actually weren’t that helpful in that environment.

It was not a sympathetic environment. It was not about to deliver to them crops and resources and minerals and all the stuff that they wanted. And I think out of that, grew a fear of the indigenous people. So this woman was accused of witchcraft.

CHAKRABARTI: And what happened to her? I’m afraid it’s not a very happy story.

Some of the ones in the book are quite happy, people escape from their trials in all sorts of inventive ways. But this one, I’m afraid she was thrown into the Sea of Northern Norway, which, you know, must have been a horrible experience in itself. Terribly cold, terribly frightening. It’s quite possible that she couldn’t swim, but she floated on the water and that was a classic test that people applied to witches.

If you floated, they thought that you were guilty of witchcraft. If you sank, they would try to pull you out. But of course, many people didn’t survive that ordeal. So she was judged to be ready to be trying for witchcraft, and she was found guilty and a lot of other women in her community were found guilty alongside of her.

And I’m afraid she was burned as a witch.

CHAKRABARTI: This early example involves a woman. Historically, even as far back as you’ve been able to research, in terms of the persecution of alleged witches, has it been predominantly against women?

GIBSON: Yes, I’m afraid it has, and it’s really clear too.

So the centuries of the mass witch trials are basically the 15th to the 18th century. And in all of the jurisdictions that historians have studied, taken all together in that time, about 75% of the people who were accused and prosecuted are women. So it’s a really a big preponderance.

And in some cases, you find it’s up to 90% or even 100%.

CHAKRABARTI: And why is that?

GIBSON: I think it’s all sorts of reasons. I think people associate, as in the story I was just telling, I think people associate magic with having certain kinds of special knowledge, specialized knowledge, perhaps not available to the people who regard themselves as otherwise dominant in that society.

If you’ve got knowledge of processes of childbirth, or certain kinds of medicine or women’s health, all of those kinds of things might attract suspicion to you. But also, I think there is a fear of women themselves of their bodies, of their sexuality. And if you live, again, in a very patriarchal, male-dominated society where women don’t have access to becoming church ministers, they don’t have access to education, they don’t have access to large parts of the legal system.

All of the judges, all of the juries are male. It seems quite likely that group would be regarded as a secondary group, as a sort of outer group. And if they don’t have the sort of secular, everyday practical power that you would hope that they would’ve done, but they didn’t. Maybe people start to suspect they have other kinds of power.

That they’re rebellious. They’re subversive, and that they’re turning to the devil or they’re turning to magical powers, ill-defined as those might be, to get the power that’s been denied to them. Those seem to me to be the key factors.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you know, so I also wonder, I think there’s a line of feminist thinking that says in terms of power and the projection of male power onto female power, that part of it may be due to the fact that women are the ones who can carry and give birth to new life, right?

And that is a power that men will never have. They’re never going to give birth to children. And that sort of capacity to create life, along with, as you were saying, existential challenges and perhaps being on the fringes of society, that there’s something fundamental to femaleness that perhaps men in power had found threatening.

GIBSON: I think that’s quite fair. And when you look at the level of medical knowledge that people would’ve had in the 15th to 18th centuries, it must have seemed very mysterious to them, this process of conception and birth. And I’m not sure that they could completely compute it, and I think it may have seemed threatening to them.

It is quite noticeable that a lot of the people who are accused are involved in medical practice in some way. It’s something historians are struggle with. They’ve not always wanted to talk about this. But I think it is worth talking about, because when you really dig into the cases, as I do in the book, you see quite often people are saying, “Oh, I made an ointment for my neighbor.”

Or, “Oh, I was a midwife for my neighbor.” Or “I fell out with my neighbor because she wouldn’t let me be a midwife for her.” And I think those things are really important, as you say.

CHAKRABARTI: In some of the cases that you look at, does this also clash, you hinted at it regarding the case of the Sámi woman, but does it clash also with Christianity?

Because, you know, the idea that if God is supposed to be the one that heals, and yet we have this woman here who has some sort of not deeper knowledge of nature, that could be witchery.

GIBSON: Yes, I think so. And some of the healers used Christian prayers as part of their practice. The irony is they thought of themselves as being good Christians, and I’m sure they were in many cases, but they used prayers that were really only supposed to be accessible to male clergy.

And that seemed threatening at the time.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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