A very famous and popular theme in the Middle Ages were the witches and their persecution. Here you can learn more about the term "witch" and what it is all about. And even if the wedding of the witch hunt was in the early modern times, the drama began in the Middle Ages; witches often met with cruel fates.

The representation of a witch sitting upside down on a flying goat. Thereby naked putti with wings, which seem to serve the witch.
"The Witch" by Albrecht Durer, at: http://commons.wikimedia.org


What is a witch?

Generally referred to as witches women who are powerful of sorcery. They are considered to be personally chosen by Lucifer and endowed with these powers. They can bring both salvation and calamity, but they are more negatively afflicted because of their close relationship to the devil. This view was mainly spread during the witch hunt in the Middle Ages.

Also Fortune tellers, who are in contact with spirits are called witches. They can see into the future and bring about superhuman things. They are said to be able to brew potions, cast spells and formulas, and ride a broom.

It is also said that the Devil usually chooses red-haired women, because this is the color of fire. According to legends and eyewitness accounts, the witches celebrate their worship of the devil by singing loudly and dancing wildly in the middle of the night – preferably under a full moon.

Witches are considered very close to nature. They draw their power from the treasures of nature; therefore exist Magic potions always from many plants and herbs. Another common characteristic among the avoidant witches was that many of them, maybe even most of them, read and write could. This was rarely the case in the Middle Ages, especially with women.

But there were not only women, who were said to have these superhuman powers. Men were also accused of sorcery. These were then called sorcerers or warlocks.

The term "witch

Where the term witch comes from cannot be clearly proven. There are different theories and derivations. So it is said for example once that it could be roots from the West Germanic area. The old english word "haegtesse" stood for example for a ghostly being.

But there are also old high german terms, that come into question. "Hagzissa" and "hagazussa" for example. From this, one might derive the first part "hag," which means "fence" or "hedge". The second part "zissa" resp. "zussa" could come from the Germanic-Norwegian word "tysja", meaning elf or spirit. Accordingly, the word witch would be something like "spirit sitting on or in a hedge" mean.

And from this explanation came a second derivation, by Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, which is based, among other things, on the book "Magic mania, inquisition and witch trial in the Middle Ages" by Joseph Hansen. She argues that the word hag, does not mean the hedge itself, but much more a fence, with single slats. witch is said to have strutted on it and to have seen ridden on the slats its. The term "witch" means therefore also in the broadest sense something like "fence rider". Hence also later the generally spread thought that witches can ride on a broom.

A further derivation theory retains the word "hag" nevertheless as hedge. It should be a sign that witches are very close to nature and quasi one with nature. According to this, it would not be a ghost sitting in or on a hedge, but much more a Spirit that is one with the hedge – as a metaphorical representation.

The English word "witch", on the other hand, derives the term in a completely different way. The focus is less on nature and spirit, but much more on the function of seeing, fortune telling and knowledge.

Characteristics of a witch

As already mentioned above, witches usually had red hair, which was associated with the devil. They also had mostly light skin, which one justified in such a way that they were active mostly at night, with full moon. Also Freckles and warts were often identifying marks for witches at that time. Furthermore, witches were often associated with animals. Among them, of course, first of all deterrent creatures like spiders and lizards. But also dark mysterious animals, like black cats, which also play an important role in superstition, and also black birds, like z. B. Raven. And then there was also Owls, which, just like witches, are supposed to be nocturnal.

Where does the belief in witches come from?

The belief in witches is superstition that exists on several continents. In African areas, the witchcraft or. the magic mostly known as voodoo. In Europe, depending on the country and culture, there are different approaches. The Celts, who offer the most models for demonic legends, speak for example of good and bad fairies. Here, on the other hand, elves are not anthropomorphized and are regarded more as good, mystical creatures. Here they are considered as legends and the belief in them is not very widespread. It is different with the evil counterpart, the witches.

One can assume that the Belief in witches goes back to very old views. If one could speak oracles and see (clairvoyantly), was skilled in natural healing, one was considered occult, which was equivalent to esoteric, paranormal, mystical, or supersensory. And these characteristics were abnormal and therefore unacceptable.

In addition, healing, casting spells and fortune telling were pagan doctrines which Christianization were forbidden and suppressed in the Middle Ages. They were considered demonic, which was probably decisive for the belief in witches and their Persecution later was.

A another reason for persecution was, under certain circumstances, the fact that women who were called witches were often very educated. They could very often read and write. This made them quite respected in the beginning, but this also changed with times of Christianization. The image of women became generally worse, which even the church justified with biblical support. And if they were also educated women, then they must have made a pact with the devil. Already in the Bible, in the Old Testament, sorcery and capital punishment were close together. Thus served above all the statement "The enchantress you shall not let live" from 2. Genesis 22:17 as justification for the persecution of witches at the time, which usually, almost always, ended in the death penalty.

The last reason that might have led to the belief in witches was the ignorance of the people then. At that time, people did not know much about medicine, but even then there were many diseases that changed a person’s mind. If people were ill at that time and thus confused or hallucinated, then this was not recognized as a disease at that time. If a person was crazy, no matter for what reason, then he was considered bewitched. Often it was only simple illnesses and fever attacks, which could be easily cured – mostly by herbal potions or the like. This was also a clear sign of witchcraft at that time.

  • Daxelmuller, Prof. Dr. Christoph: What is What Wizards, Witches and Magic, vol. 97, Tessloff Verlag, Nuremberg 2003, p. 5 – 12
  • Basse, Michael: From the Reform Councils to the Eve of the Reformation, Evang. Verl.-Anst., Leipzig 2008, p. 188 – 189
  • Ruhl, Martina: The phenomenon of witch hunts: illustrated by the case of Barbara C. from Friedberg, Lit Verlag, Munster 1990, pp. 4 – 12
  • Dillinger, Johannes: Witches and Magic (Historical Introduction), Campus Verlag, Frankfurt 2007, S. 7 – 24
  • Behringer, Wolfgang: Witches and Witch Trials in Germany, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag (dtv), Munich 2006, S. 11 – 71
  • Schwerhoff, Gerd: The Inquisition: Persecution of Heretics in the Middle Ages and Modern Times, Beck, Munich 2009, S. 110 – 120

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