Witches, in the context of folklore and their overlapping fears, were human individuals who practiced magical arts, nature-arts, or non-standard, holistic medicines, and were perceived to be malevolent forces, in a pact with Satan, or hungry child-eaters. Witches could be named as responsible for fertility issues with crops or pregnancy, bringers of ill-weather or drought, summoners of plague and pestilence, the cause of infidelity or personality changes, and so on. If there was a problem that could not immediately be identified by natural means, or was not convenient to attribute to natural means that may implicate well-perceived, high-ranking individual, a witch was an easy factor to blame.
For the purposes of this study, it is as important to look at the folkloric context of what witches were supposed to be as it is to examine the unfortunate repercussions of these beliefs in effect against innocent individuals.
Witches were not inherently one race, one social class, one gender, one group, one appearance, or one age, amongst other discriminations.
Witches could be male or female, intersex, transitional, or transgender in appearance and social constructs. Accused witches included young, healthy, viable men and women and the extremely elderly, and documentation also relates the execution of children three years of age or younger. Accused witches from American trials included Native American and Black slave and servants brought from the West Indies, the surrounding area in New England, or Africa, as well as immigrants from the influx of dominantly English settlers. Accused witches included some very rich widows and some very poor social outcasts. In short, there was no definitive visual or social hallmark that signified a witch. Anyone could become a witch, or secretly be a witch, according to villager fears.
The Witch Trials were not fictional.
Although it seems fanciful to think that we could put our fellow humans on presumptive trials with no evidence other than another’s word as truth, for such incredible ‘crimes’, a spree of witch trials occurred through Europe and into the young American settlements. These trials could be a few months apart, or a few decades apart, and the witch ‘craze’ endured for several centuries, receding with advancements in science and medicine, legal overhauls throughout Europe, and more pressing matters for attention.
Time and experience has dulled our capacity to appreciate these less certain ages, and time has given us the opportunity to mock or poke fun at these mistakes. The Salem Witch Trials are now the subject of Scooby Doo television specials, or dialogue about the metaphorical similarities in the McCarthy-era anti-Communist trials. And for every major network Halloween TV-movie that assumes fact the inherent witchiness of Salem and it’s massive fictional community of witches, we distance ourselves further from the reality of what occurred.
Accused witches didn’t necessarily have to have power.
Many witch trials took an accusation of ‘dancing with the Devil’ or seeing or signing a name name in the Devil’s book as evidence enough of betrayal. An accused witch did not have to actually act out against their community or be accused of having powers and familiars at their disposal to be lumped in with other accused troublemakers. A perceived alliance with Satan was the only factor necessary to execute an accused witch. Many accused witches were people who had no realised power in their community: they were homeless or transient, depended on the charity of their community members, were weak, ill, or elderly, struggled with mental illnesses, spoke different languages, or languished in impoverished lower social classes.
Literary and accused witches were not mutants, superheroes, or psychics.
Unlike the common tropes of a familial or genetic predisposition for special powers we see in our media today, the literary and historical ‘witches’ of yesteryear were not naturally superior to their fellow man. Often, the tenets of witchcraft could be explained with systems similar to apprenticeship of a trade, or priesthood. Accused witches were said to be given power by Satan. They were not naturally special, different, or set apart from anyone else, and nor, for that matter, was any of that necessary to be offered Satan’s influence, according to surviving documents.
There are rare fairy-tale cases of extremely high-level witches and wizards having non-human origin: hatched from an egg, stone struck by lightning, etc, and these appear to have originated from pre-Christian myths.