Witching hour as Halloween draws closer

Witch hunt: witch trials, like this one in Pendle, swept Europe during the 17th Century.

Millions of children will dress up as supernatural beings for Halloween. But in the past, fear of spirits and witches has led to conflict, torture and mass murder.

In Celtic traditions, the 31st October is the beginning of the winter, when the nights grow long and plenty is replaced by scarcity. The Christian calendar marks it as the eve of All Saint’s Day; for Wiccans, it is Samhain, when the the dead mingle with the living.

Today, these traditions and others merge to create Halloween – the spookiest festival of the year. Next week, children will dress up as ghosts, monsters and witches, carve pumpkins, and go ‘trick-or-treating’ for sweets from neighbours.

The traditions that inspired Halloween, however, were not always trivial. In fact, exactly 400 years ago, superstitious beliefs led to the deaths of ten women, in the Pendle Witch Trials.

The biggest witch hunt England has ever seen began with an everyday occurrence: Lancashire local John Law argued with a young woman named Alizon Device. Hours later, Law was seized by a fit: ‘his eyes and face’ a local man wrote, were ‘deformed, his speech not well to be understood; his thighs and legs stark lame’.

Today, doctors would recognise the symptoms as a stroke. But this was the 17th Century: Law could only conclude that Device had cast a dastardly curse upon him.

Over the following months, accusations of sorcery spread, and 20 ‘witches’ were thrown into jail. All were tried and ten were hanged, high above Pendle and overlooking Morecambe Bay. It was the first time many of them had ever seen the sea.

The tragedy was a frenzied reaction to complex circumstances. Global temperatures had dropped: communities desperately blamed the resulting failed harvests on sorcery. After the Reformation, too, Europe was full of religious distrust and unrest. All stripes of Christianity were on a paranoid quest to weed out ‘heretical’ practices like sorcery.

Pendle is by no means an isolated case: during the 16th and 17th Centuries, the mass hysteria of witch hunts gripped much of the Western world. By some estimates, 40,000 women were killed as communities imagined whole networks of witches, blaming innocent women for their misfortune and extracting confessions with torture, before burning the ‘witches’ at the stake. The episode left such a mark on European culture that the phrase 'witch-hunt' is now a byword for popular persecution of a minority: America's prosecution of supposed communists in the 1950s is one famous example.

Which is witch?

Thank goodness we no longer live in such brutal, superstitious times, many say. This Halloween, things like witchcraft and ghosts inspire fun and festivities. Foolish beliefs will never again lead to persecution and bloodshed.

But though the witch trials seem distant, others say, the traits that led to them are still familiar. Who hasn’t felt drawn to superstitious explanations, or carried away by popular fury at a news story? The trials should be a warning to modern society, not a pat on the back.

You Decide

  1. Are superstitious beliefs still powerful today?
  2. When groups of people carry out grave injustices thanks to mass hysteria or misguided beliefs, should they be considered properly guilty of their crimes?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a young woman accused of witchcraft in 17th Century Pendle. Write a diary explaining your fears and feelings.
  2. Do some research into the context of witch trials, either in the past or today. Create a display that shows the causes of the trials in an imaginative and accessible way.

Some People Say...

“Only idiots believe in witches.”

What do you think?

Q & A

No one believes in witches today!
In some communities, the belief persists. In Nigeria, Angola and the Congo, for example, failed harvests and diseases like HIV are sometimes blamed on ‘child witches’. These children are thought to harbour evil spirits called Kindoki, and Christian pastors can encourage their followers to weed out these ‘evil forces’.
That sounds ominous...
It is. Children accused of witchcraft can be ostracised from their community, tortured in an attempt to remove the so-called evil spirits, and even killed. This happens in the UK as well as overseas. In 2005 the case of Child B attracted much media attention, and in 2001 the torso of an unknown child known as ‘Adam’ was discovered in the River Thames – both cases were associated with accusations of witchcraft.

Word Watch

Wiccans
Wicca is a modern pagan religion. Many of its teachings draw on nature, and the idea of a twin god and goddess who preside over the changes of the seasons. Wiccan practice involves rituals that are designed to generate a closer understanding of nature, and often involves spells for things like healing, fertility or getting rid of negative spirits.
Stroke
A stroke is a medical emergency, which happens when the flow of blood to the brain changes – either because of a blockage or a haemorrhage. The side effects of stroke can include paralysis of one side of the body, difficulty speaking or seeing, and problems understanding things; a stroke can result in death.
Global temperatures had dropped
Over the centuries, global temperatures fluctuate. The changes are very gradual and often take hundreds of years to take effect, but they do have an impact: between the 1400s and the 1900s, records suggest the world went through a ‘mini ice age’, with global temperatures plummeting. The biggest impact was felt between 1560 and 1660 – when the witch trials peaked in Europe.
Reformation
In 1517, a German monk called Martin Luther protested against the Catholic Church, which dominated religion in Western Europe. Within a year, the whole region was divided between two factions: Catholics and Protestants. Almost two centuries of bitter conflict followed, on battlegrounds both literal and spiritual.
Mass hysteria
Mass hysteria refers to seemingly random behaviours that spread, like viruses, around a relatively isolated group of people. Incidents have included students in Tanzania seized by bouts of laughing, and French nuns who couldn’t stop meowing. Witch trials don’t fall into this category of mass hysteria, but the obsessive patterns that spread through communities bear comparisons with the phenomenon.