If you’re new to the practice of witchcraft and spellcasting, your only interaction with witches might be from Halloween costumes or stories of the Salem witch trials. But the history of witchcraft around the world is almost as old as humanity itself, and its practitioners are often as mysterious as they are powerful.
Italian feminist scholar Silvia Federici writes that witches are “the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt”. To be a witch is to be a wise woman - witches have power on their own terms, seeing the unseen, and communing with the spiritual and natural realm freely.
From Morgan le Fay to Circe, from Europe to the United States, let’s take a look at some real witches throughout history and around the world, and see some of the many real witches who have always walked among us.
Early Records of Real Witches
One of the earliest references to witches is in the Bible itself. In book 1 of Samuel, a story is told of King Saul seeking the Witch of Endor to summon a dead prophet to help him defeat the Philistine army. Other Biblical passages reference witches, such as the often cited Exodus 22:18 which states “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.
In the Middle East, women were often the practitioners of holy rituals in ancient civilizations, and became known as wise women. These may have been some of the earliest recorded real witches. These witches delivered babies, cured illnesses, and were generally considered positive figures in society.
Then witch hysteria began sweeping through Europe during the mid-1400’s, when many women were accused of being witches and confessed, usually under torture, to dealing with the devil. This is where our stereotypical image of a witch comes from, warts and all.
The History Of The Witches Hat
The real reasons behind these witch hunts were of course multitudinous; the plague had recently decimated Europe’s population, and the Catholic church was seeking to gain more power. There was also a shift from feudalism to capitalism occurring at the time, wherein many areas previously under the “witches” domain, such as curing disease and midwifery, now shifted to becoming monetized and under the control of men.
One curious way in which this presented itself was the now famous pointed witches hat. One theory behind the history of the hat is that women in medieval Europe often brewed ale at home, and were known as “alewifes” to the townspeople. These alewives wore the tall pointed black hat we now associate with witches so that they could be seen from further away, in order to better hawk their wares.
When the production of ale moved to a more industrialized setting, the men now selling ale needed to push the women who had been selling ale all along out of business. So the association between women wearing an alewife hat and witches was created.
Of course, that’s just one of the many ways in which the image and myth we associate with witches today came into existence. The history of witches is also full of real women who practiced various healing and medicinal arts, and were at one point or another accused of being witches, for good or ill.
Famous Witches From History
1. Catherine Monvoisin
Known as “La Voisin”, Catherine Monvoisin lived in France in the mid-1600s. She practiced medicine, mixed potions and poisons, told fortunes, and worked as a midwife. She also happened to be one of the heads of the affaire des poisons, a cult who poisoned many members of the French aristocracy, and attempted to poison the king himself. She was arrested and burned publicly after being convicted of witchcraft in 1680.
2. Marie Laveau
A Voodoo priestess, Laveau lived in New Orleans from 1794 to 1881. She was always surrounded by rumors about her purported powers, including that she could see the future, and that owned a snake named Zombi. A renowned herbalist and midwife, Laveau was called the “Queen of Voodoo” in New Orleans, and people traveled from far and wide to receive her help with health, finances, or rituals for family disputes.
3. Mother Shipton
Ursula Southeil is better known as Mother Shipton, a highly regarded English prophetess from the 16th century. She was known as England’s greatest clairvoyant, and was considered to have powers that rivaled Nostradamus himself. Some adherents even claim she predicted the internet, as she stated “Around the world, thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye”. Mother Shipton died of natural causes, and luckily did not face the same persecution that many of her fellow witches did.
4. Bridget Bishop
Bridget Bishop was the first woman executed for witchcraft in the notorious Salem witch trials, after her husband and several children in town accused her of witchcraft. She was accused by more individuals than anyone else in the Salem trials, though of course, Bishop had never even seen any of her accusers until her questioning began. Bishop proclaimed her innocence all the way up until the moment of her execution, and in deathbed confessions, many of her accusers recanted, claiming that their accusations had been instigated by the Devil.
5. Mother Cornhusk
"They call it obeah," Mother Cornhusk said. "I call it healing." Born in 1916, Catherine Brizan earned the nickname “Corn Husk” for her gaunt, child-like frame. In Trinidad, it was rumored that she wielded magic like no one else, and she was sought after by many on the island looking for help with love, spells for finances, or health problems. While many in Trinidad feared her magic, Mother Cornhusk swore to never harm others, and was well known for her ability to heal those who had been unable to find cures elsewhere.
Whether she is a healer or a hag, the witch is above all else a symbol of freedom. The shadowy sigel of female power that subverts and overturns the status quo, teaching us how to tap into our own myth and magic.
The witch has been with us since the dawn of recorded history, and is with us still today. Perhaps you count yourself among the ranks of witches, whose lineage touches both the divine and the dangerous. Perhaps you are only beginning to tap into the witch inside you. Wherever you are on your journey, our line of magick oils, candles and ritual supplies can help guide you on your own unique path.