CLOSE
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

10 Weird Facts About Witches

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

The practice of witchcraft is deeply rooted in history, and has—excuse the joke—conjured up some very interesting myths. Here are a few facts.

1. Most witches weren't burned at the stake.

Getty Images

The common image of a witch’s execution shows a large group of hysteric people surrounding the guilty person on a burning pyre—but immolation was not the primary means of execution used for those accused of witchcraft. During the Salem Witch Trials, no one was burned to death; all of the accused that pled their cases and were found guilty during the Trials in 1692 were hanged. In fact, no one found guilty of witchcraft was ever executed by burning in the American colonies—immolation wasn't permissible by English law. But one person was pressed to death by large stones: Giles Corey, a man who refused to plead guilty or not guilty for charges of witchcraft during the Trials. The court found Corey guilty despite staying mute by using the French legal precedent of “peine forte et dure.” Corey is the only person in US history to be pressed to death by court order.

2. Witch hunts didn't specifically target women.

Getty Images

Historically-rooted misogyny led many to believe that women were somehow more susceptible to the dark arts or temptation by the Devil, and therefore more likely to be witches. For instance, the Laws of Alfred, written by King of Wessex Alfred the Great in AD 893, specified witchcraft as an expressly female activity. But men practiced, too, and were called many different names, including a wizard, a warlock, or a sorcerer.   

Countless women and men were indiscriminately persecuted for witchcraft throughout history. During the Trier Witch Trials in Germany, which lasted from 1581 to 1593, a total of 368 people were executed—and many of the victims were leading male figures of the cities and surrounding villages, including judges, councilors, priests, and deans of colleges. In the Würzburg Witch Trial, which stretched from 1626 to 1631, 157 men, women, and children were burned at the stake for such random reasons as allegedly humming songs with the Devil to being a vagrant unable to give an explanation as to why they were passing through the town of Würzburg.

3. Not all Witches were Bad.

VCDQ

Even though we’ve got that common image of an evil witch—a warty old woman dressed all in black, riding a broomstick, with a pointy hat—anybody familiar with The Wizard of Oz knows that there can be good witches too! Glinda the good witch was a representation of the benevolent half of witchcraft, known as white magic. Historically, practitioners of white magic were known as white witches, and they were more folk healers than devious people out for double, double toil and trouble. However, writer C.S. Lewis reversed the notion for The Chronicles of Narnia saga, making one of the main antagonists the icy and evil White Witch.

4. People could be convicted of witchcraft without any solid evidence.

Wikimedia Commons

During the Salem Witch Trials, most of the legally-recognized evidence used against those accused of witchcraft amounted to spectral evidence, or “witness testimony that the accused person's spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person's physical body was at another location,” which was accepted “on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray.” Other evidence used against them were so-called “Witch’s Marks” on their skin that allegedly proved they had made pacts with the devil. Contemporary research suggests these marks were possibly small ordinary lesions or supernumerary nipples.

5. We don't know where the word "witch" came from.

All the etymology geeks out there may or may not be surprised to know that the word “witch” is of indeterminate origin. The closest and most obvious possible origin is the Old English word wicce, which means “female sorceress,” and is the basic linguistic root for the modern day pagan religion, Wicca. Another more specific possibility is a split meaning coming from the Old English wigle, meaning “divination” and wih, meaning “idol,” both coming from the Proto-Germanic word wikkjaz, which means “necromancer,” or “one who wakes the dead.”

6. People wrote entire books dedicated to witch hunting.

Wikimedia Commons

In the 15th century, witchcraft was of grave concern to a lot of people, and major pieces of literature were written about witches. The most famous was the Malleus Maleficarum, a legal and theological document that became the de facto handbook on how to deal with witches and witchcraft, and spurred the nascent hysteria caused by witch-hunting in Europe that would last well into the 18th century. The book was written by two clergyman of the Dominican Order—Jakob Sprenger, the dean of the University of Cologne, and Heinrich Kramer, a theology professor at the University of Salzburg—and used Exodus 22:18, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live,” as its basis to detect and persecute any and all witches.

Even people as important as kings got in on the action. James I of England’s 1597 book, Daemonologiewas a treatise that threw his support behind the importance of the practice of witch hunting. James himself even presided over the 1590 North Berwick Witch Trials when he believed a devious Earl plotted to overthrow the then-King of Scotland with the help of a coven. 

7. A Pope Once Confirmed that Witches Exist.

Wikimedia Commons

The Catholic Church saw witchcraft as a threat to all of its followers. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull titled “Summis desiderantes affectibus” (“Desiring with supreme ardor”) that recognized the existence of witches, saying, “many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female,” and that they “afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that, moreover, they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith they received in holy baptism; and that, at the instigation of the enemy of mankind, they do not fear to commit and perpetrate many other abominable offences and crimes, at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes.” The papal bull effectively gave Kramer and Sprenger—the writers of the Malleus Maleficarum—the God-given authority to begin their Inquisition.

8. Laws About Witchcraft were in place in the mid-20th Century.

Technically, England’s Witchcraft Act of 1735 was still official and on the books until 1951, when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. The language of the original Act wasn’t about persecuting witches per se, but rather made it illegal for people to claim that others were witches. Yet being legally convicted meant that you purported to have the powers of a witch—and in fact, a woman named Jane Rebecca Yorke was found guilty in 1944 under the law, though she was convicted mostly because she was defrauding people with bogus séances.

9. Witches probably didn't wear pointy hats.

The origin of the association of the broad-brimmed, pointy hat with witches is murky at best. One school of thought is that it is based on the peaked cap Jews were required to wear after a 1215 decree by Pope Innocent III. Rampant anti-Semitism soon caused folks to associate heretics, pagans, and demons with wearers of the so-called Judenhat. In the early 1700s, the image was co-opted by artists who immortalized the image in paintings of the old hag in the witch’s hat we know today.

10. Witches really did "fly" on broomsticks, in a way.

Thinkstock

The origins of the broom as a witch's preferred mode of transportation is ... pretty weird. People who practiced witchcraft experimented with herbs and potions in rituals that may have used the mandrake plant. Mandrake contains scopolamine and atropine, two alkaloids that cause feelings of euphoria in low doses and hallucinations in higher doses.

The rituals—performed in the nude—called for the participants to rub an herbal ointment containing the mandrake on their foreheads, wrists, hands, and feet as well as on a staff that they would “ride.” The friction of the ointment-coated staff on the witches', uh, lady parts would absorb the ointment into their system and cause a floating sensation—and their description of that feeling is what perpetuated the symbol of the witch flying on a broomstick.

arrow
History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
arrow
History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios