historical witches
20 Historical Witches You Should Know About - historical witches

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Throughout history, the term ‘witch' has conjured images of mysterious women with supernatural powers who cast spells and brew potions. The fear of witchcraft led to witch hunts and trials spanning several centuries, particularly from the 15th to the 18th century. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe alone, with a majority being women accused of various transgressions or misfortunes in their communities.

In the late 16th century, Agnes Waterhouse became one of the first women to be executed for witchcraft in England. Her trial set a precedent, and it marked the beginning of a widespread witch panic that would consume Europe for the next century. The common thread binding the accused was typically their marginal social status and the suspicion of their neighbors. Accusations ranged from cursing livestock, affecting the weather, to dealing with the devil himself.

In the small town of Salem, Massachusetts, during 1692, a series of hearings and prosecutions created one of the most infamous witch trials in history. Bridget Bishop, the first person executed during the Salem witch trials, is a name often remembered in the discussion of historical witches. Fear and paranoia swept through Salem, leading to the deaths of twenty individuals and the imprisonment of many more.

To the north, in Sweden, the town of Torsåker witnessed one of the largest witch trials in Scandinavia, where 71 people were beheaded and burned in a single day in 1675. This event remains one of the most harrowing examples of mass-execution for witchcraft and underscores the deadly seriousness of these accusations at that time.

On the other hand, not all infamous witches met tragic ends. The likes of “Mother Shipton” (Ursula Southeil), a reputed prophetess in 16th-century England, became a legendary figure for her purported prophetic powers and is remembered through folklore and historical accounts.

Interestingly, among the sea of accusations, some individuals used the fear of witchcraft to their favor. La Voisin, a French fortune-teller and purported witch of the 17th century, catered to the aristocracy of Paris, offering love potions and occult services, which eventually led to her execution when her activities came to light during the Affair of the Poisons.

Many of the individuals who tangled with witchcraft allegations were often healers or midwives, such as the famous Alice Kyteler, Ireland's first condemned witch of the 14th century. Reputed for her herbal knowledge, Kyteler was accused of using her skills for maleficium, or harmful magic.

Witch trials were not limited to Europe. In colonial America, Grace Sherwood, known as the “Witch of Pungo,” was tried and convicted of witchcraft in Virginia in 1706. Reflecting the global reach of witchcraft accusations, in South Africa, Krotoa, also known as Eva, was an interpreter and mediator between the Dutch settlers and the Khoi people and was later accused of witchcraft for her influential position.

In more recent history, the Western world's conception of witches began to shift. Figures like Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente emerged as leading figures in the Wicca religion, a modern-day celebration of pre-Christian traditions and practices, which has been frequently associated with modern witchcraft.

Today, the tragic stories of historical “witches” serve as cautionary tales of intolerance and injustice. Each name, from Agnes Sampson in Scotland to the numerous unnamed women and men who faced persecution, is a testament to a time of hysteria and fear. These accounts now inform modern discourse on human rights and the treatment of the other – those who diverge from societal norms. As we reflect on these individuals, their legacy not only shapes historical narratives but continues to inspire popular culture, legal discourse, and the ongoing re-evaluation of historical justice.

1. **Circe** – In Greek mythology, Circe is typically portrayed as a powerful enchantress and is considered one of the earliest historical witches in literature. She is most famous for her role in Homer's “Odyssey,” where she transforms Odysseus's men into swine.

2. **Morgan le Fay** – A pivotal figure in the Arthurian legends, Morgan le Fay is often depicted as a complex sorceress with the ability to change shape and wield formidable magical powers. Her story has evolved through centuries of literature.

3. **Joan of Arc** – Though not a witch in the traditional sense, Joan of Arc was accused of witchcraft and heresy, which ultimately led to her execution by burning at the stake in 1431. Her visions and military successes challenged the prevailing beliefs of her time.

4. **Mother Shipton** – Ursula Southeil, known as Mother Shipton, was an English prophetess and alleged witch of the 16th century. She is reputed to have predicted future events and her story has become part of English folklore.

5. **Agnes Waterhouse** – In 1566, Agnes Waterhouse became one of the first women to be executed for witchcraft in England. Her trial records provide a view into the early modern witch trials.

6. **Merga Bien** – A wealthy German widow and one of the prominent victims of the Fulda witch trials, Merga was burned at the stake in 1603 during one of the largest witch hunts in history.

7. **Angéle de la Barthe** – Dubious historical records suggest Angéle, a woman from Toulouse, France, was tried and executed for witchcraft in 1275, potentially making her one of the first to suffer this fate in post-medieval Europe.

8. **Bridget Bishop** – The first person to be executed during the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692, Bridget Bishop's trial set a precedent for the hysteria that would lead to the death of many others.

9. **Marie Laveau** – As a famous Voodoo practitioner in the 19th century, Marie Laveau wielded considerable influence in New Orleans. She is acknowledged for her knowledge of medicinal herbs and for working magic.

10. **La Voisin** – Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, was a French fortune teller and poisoner involved in the Affair of the Poisons which scandalized the French court in the late 17th century.

11. **Tamsin Blight** – A Cornish “cunning woman,” Tamsin (also known as Tammy) Blight, was known for her knowledge of herbal remedies and for combating witchcraft in the early 19th century.

12. **Alice Kyteler** – The first woman accused of witchcraft in Ireland in 1324, Alice Kyteler narrowly escaped execution and fled the country, while her servant was flogged and burned at the stake.

13. **Mother Ludlam** – An English wise woman whose legend persists in Surrey folklore, Mother Ludlam was known as a white witch who loaned items to locals from her “cauldron.

14. **Katharina Henot** – A postmaster in Cologne, Katharina was tried and burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1627, but historians have since debated the true reasons behind her persecution.

15. **Isobel Gowdie** – Isobel's detailed confession during her trial in 1662 provides one of the most comprehensive insights into Scottish witchcraft beliefs during the 17th century, though it is believed she may have been tortured.

16. **Anna Göldi** – Dubbed “the last witch of Europe,” Anna Göldi was executed in Switzerland in 1782, a death that has since been recognized as a miscarriage of justice.

17. **Märet Jonsdotter** – The first woman executed for witchcraft in Sweden, Märet Jonsdotter's trial in 1676 occurred during the great Swedish witch hunt known as “The Great Noise.”

18. **Granny Boswell** – A Romani queen and wise woman of the 19th century, Granny Boswell is a cult figure in Cornish folklore, recognized for her clairvoyance and for providing charms.

19. **The Pendle Witches** – A famous group trial in 1612 involved twelve accused from the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England, resulting in ten convictions and executions.

20. **Heinrich Kramer** – While not a witch himself, this German church official was a fervent witch-hunter and author of the “Malleus Maleficarum”, a guidebook used in the prosecution of witches, which led to countless trials and executions across Europe.

To understand the impact of the persecution of individuals labeled as witches, one may look at statistics like those found in the comprehensive historical study “Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700” by scholars Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters, which states that estimates of execution numbers range from 40,000 to 60,000 people. Such figures offer a bleak reflection on the result of fear and misunderstanding throughout history.


1. Who were some of the most well-known historical witches?

Some of the most well-known historical witches include figures like Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman executed for witchcraft in England, and the infamous Pendle Witches, a group of individuals tried in one of England's most famous witch trials. Other notable names include Merga Bien, accused during the Fulda witch trials, and Tituba, the enslaved woman who was the first to be accused during the Salem witch trials.

2. Were historical witches always women?

No, not always. Although the majority of those accused were women, men were also sometimes accused and executed for witchcraft. For example, Giles Corey was pressed to death after being accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.

3. What era do most of these historical witches come from?

Many historical witches come from the Early Modern period, roughly between the 15th and 18th centuries, which was the peak of the witch hunts in Europe and North America.

4. What were common accusations against alleged witches?

Common accusations against witches included causing the illness or death of people or livestock, casting spells to influence events, making pacts with the devil, and attending gatherings known as witches' Sabbaths.

5. Was witchcraft always associated with evil?

In many historical contexts, yes, witchcraft was associated with evil and malevolence. However, in some cultures, witches were seen as wise healers or respected seers. The modern understanding of witchcraft is diverse and can include both beneficial and harmful practices.

6. How were witches punished historically?

Punishments for witchcraft varied, but they could include hanging, beheading, drowning, or being burned at the stake. Lesser punishments included public shaming, whipping, or exile.

7. Did the witch trials affect certain regions more than others?

Yes, the intensity of witch trials varied by region. For example, the Holy Roman Empire, particularly Germany, had a high number of witch trials. Scotland also held a significant number of trials, as did Essex in England and Salem in Massachusetts.

8. What was the Malleus Maleficarum, and how did it affect the witch hunts?

The Malleus Maleficarum, also known as “The Hammer of Witches,” was a treatise on witchcraft published in 1487. It is one of the most famous medieval texts regarding witchcraft and played a major role in the early witch craze in Europe by endorsing the extermination of witches and providing detailed guidelines on the prosecution of witchcraft.

9. How did the witch trials come to an end?

The witch trials gradually came to an end due to factors like changing legal standards, which required better evidence for conviction, growing skepticism about the existence of witchcraft, and concerns over the fairness of the trials. The Age of Enlightenment also contributed to the decline of the witchcraft belief system.

10. Are there any witches from these historical events recognized differently today?

Yes, modern perspectives and research have led to different interpretations of these historical figures. Some, like the victims of the Salem witch trials, have been legally exonerated or commemorated as part of local history. Others have been reclaimed in contemporary neopagan or Wiccan traditions as symbols of wisdom and resilience.


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The history of witches is a tapestry woven with tales of fear, power, and persecution. The 20 historical witches discussed embody a range of experiences from various cultures and epochs, each uniquely contributing to our understanding of witchcraft's complex narrative. From the cunning folk like Mother Shipton and Biddy Early, who aided their communities with herbal remedies and prophecies, to victims of hysteria like Bridget Bishop and Tituba during the Salem Witch Trials, these figures highlight the intertwining of folklore, fear, and female agency. Through their stories, we observe the dichotomy between reverence and revulsion elicited by those deemed to practice witchcraft, as well as the societal forces that often led to unjust accusations and tragic ends.

Analyzing the lives of these individuals underscores the significant impact of socio-political contexts on the shaping of witch identity and mythos. Figures such as Joan of Arc and Matteuccia de Francesco were caught amidst power struggles and religious reformations, exemplifying how charges of witchcraft were weaponized against women who defied societal norms. Moreover, the resilience of women like Agnes Sampson and Catherine Monvoisin reveals the agency of those accused, often in the face of insurmountable odds. As we reflect on the stories of these 20 witches, we gain insights into the broader implications of their legacies, recognizing the crucial interplay between gender, power, and superstition that has echoed throughout our history.

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