The story of WITCHES
WOMAN'S WEEKLY|October 26, 2021
This Halloween, we take a look at those with supposed magical powers from yesteryear
ANDREW SHAW

Many of those dressing up as witches and ghouls for Halloween know little of the real history of witches. We see modern incarnations in culture as harmless, like Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch children’s books, and the trainee witches from the Harry Potter series, bungling broomstick classes, with cute familiars. We are much like the medieval Christian church, which believed witchcraft didn’t exist, and was just pagan superstition and nonsense. However, at around the time of the Reformation, elements within the church suddenly began obsessing about people being in league with the Devil, and mass trials of supposed witches began in Europe. Women in particular – sometimes intuitive and wise women such as midwives and herbalists, but mostly those who were old, single and perhaps a bit grumpy – were horribly persecuted for over 150 years, from the end of the 15th century.

Agnes Sampson North Berwick

Although never as widespread in Britain as it was on the continent, the centre for witch-hunting in the UK was Scotland. In 1590, Agnes Sampson was a respected healer in her community on the east coast of the country. But when King James VI (circled) was sailing home from Oslo and a storm blew up, he believed it was the work of witches trying to kill him. He set up witch trials in North Berwick and around 70 people (mostly women) were accused, one of whom was Agnes, who was tortured into confessing using witchcraft, and executed.

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