Witches, then and now

Witchcraft involves the use of magic or supernatural powers to harm others. In medieval and early modern Europe, where the term originated, those accused of witchcraft were usually women who were believed to have attacked their own community and often to be in communion with evil beings. Witchcraft powers were acquired by inheritance or initiation; and witchcraft could be thwarted by defensive magic, persuasion, intimidation, or physical punishment of the alleged witch. Most were women over the age of 40, widowed or living alone, and in many cases, there are signs indicating a possible mental disorder.

16th-century Swiss representation of Sabbath gathering from the chronicles of Johann Jakob Wick. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Between 1450 and 1750 more than 200,000 people were accused of witchcraft in Europe and at least 100,000 were executed. Of these, 80-85% were women. The peak of this witch-hunt took place in the mid-17th century in what is now Germany, Switzerland, Scotland and France 1. In Spain, despite the bad international reputation of the Spanish Inquisition, it was much lower: 23 witch trials per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 980 in Switzerland. Even so, documents are preserved where several women were accused, tortured, condemned and executed for alleged witchcraft.

The mental state of witches has been studied by psychologists and psychiatrists. For many, these cases represented an increase in mental health problems in the 16th and 17th centuries. The accused were often hysterical or schizophrenic, but were called witches because of a theological interpretation of aberrant behavior. Some of those women who were labeled melancholic probably had menopause or senile dementia, but many of them had nothing. Women who lived alone and seemed to have supernatural powers could on the one hand have some protection from powerful neighbors; on the other hand, if any kind of unexplained misfortune appeared, they could be accused of being behind it and scapegoated by the entire population.

The pressures of the Protestant Reformation eliminated the Catholic priest as a perpetrator of counter-magic and the Protestants’ insistence on self-help removed the incentive for charity to neighbors and made the poor the targets of accusations as the sense of guilt turned to hatred of the indigent. Obsessions frequently included hallucinatory mental illnesses (particularly with demonic content), mental disorders with bizarre, unusual and antisocial behavior, states of extreme restlessness, vomiting up strange things, predicting the future, «speaking foreign languages» that the subjects had not learned, etc. Thus, little by little, the idea that the obsessed should receive a somatic treatment (as well as magical and liturgical) that would free them from the black bile took hold. Some mentally ill people were summoned to court and tried as sorcerers and witches, while in other cases psychomedical treatment was initiated.

The peasants never developed massive witch hunts on their own and this only occurred when there were authorities who were convinced that these covens existed, as well as night flights to attend them. Historians who have analyzed the case indicate that there is no evidence that such covens existed, and no evidence that witches associated or gathered anywhere.

Beliefs about nocturnal flights, changes of appearance, cannibal feasts and the like were common among Europeans of the time, so they came up frequently when the accused were tortured. On the other hand, anti-Christian activities linked to covens were part of the interrogation manuals provided by religious hierarchies. Only someone sufficiently versed in Christian doctrine could describe sacrileges in such precise and offensive terms.

Flying Wtiches by F. Goya. Museo Nacional del Prado

References to flying are common. In other trials there are references to the use of ointments on the witch’s body or the use of various objects, a broom handle, a butter paddle or some kind of animal. These images have led to think about the use of atropine or scopolamine or some other hallucinogenic substance involved in these visions. The current study of some of these substances, taken orally or absorbed through the skin, can generate sensations of flying or sexual pleasure (1). The authorities were convinced that these practices were a challenge to Christianity, and so thousands of women were put on trial.

Things gradually changed. Witches were tried in secular courts, and these courts allowed children and women to testify for the first time. The law itself made women responsible for their actions, whereas up to that time men were often tried for the activities of their wives or daughters. Infanticides, abortions, adulteries and other crimes of women were singled out for special prosecution. Also admitted was «spectral evidence» in which the acts were committed by the spirit of the accused who could be in a remote location, so that being seen in a place far from the crime did not serve as an alibi. Torture caused the number of names mentioned in the interrogations to multiply. In some villages, only a few women remained after the trials. Eventually, after reaching a peak in the mid-17th century, the number of cases tried and executions began to decline.

Perhaps things have not changed that much. During the early years of African colonization, suspected witches were beaten and forced to undergo a trial by ordeal to determine their guilt or innocence. Upon «affirmative» verification of witchcraft, some witches were forced to endure brutal cleansing rituals, banished from their communities, sold into slavery, or executed by strangulation 2.

Psychiatrist Margaret Field (1960) described many middle-aged and elderly women in Ghana who accused themselves of witchcraft. She made the following description 3:

In rural Ghana, involutional depression with agitation is one of the commonest and most clearly defined of mental illnesses. The majority of patients are conscientious women of good personality who have worked hard and launched a fleet of wellbrought-up children. Many of them have paid for their children’s schooling with money earned by diligent trading, market-gardening or cocoa-farming. Asked to describe the onset of their symptoms they use the phrases familiar in the admission wards of our own [British] mental hospitals. ‘‘I became useless. I couldn’t do any work but neither could I sit still and rest. At night, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was restless and I often got up and walked about.’’ Then they add, ‘‘Soon I knew that I was no good and had become a witch. I have done so much evil that I ought to be killed.’’

One study indicated that of seventeen women studied who considered themselves witches, all of them suffered from depression. These women considered themselves to be witches because they woke up one day with generalized swelling of the body or with nightmares or had seen themselves flying in their dreams, especially on horseback, or had seen themselves in the dream being chased by the village priest. Others felt they were witches because they had discomfort or troubling physical problems, such as persistent headaches, urinary incontinence, or burning sensations in the body. The logic seemed to be ”If I wasn’t a witch why do I have these discomforts and why did they haunt me in my sleep?

Mensah Adrinkrah was publishing a study in 2019 (2) on flying witches in Ghana and the accidents suffered when landing. In witchcraft lore, these are flights of evil witches heading for secret nightly assemblies or to perform diabolical acts. All reports of alleged crash landings of supposed witches garnered a great deal of media attention, while generating horror and fascination among the public. All the accused witches were middle-aged or older, ranging in age from 35 to 110. Of the 10 alleged witches, only one was male, and they were invariably of low socioeconomic status. They were described as having a dilapidated appearance, disheveled hair, being disoriented or incoherent, or giving contradictory answers to questions, all signs and symptoms associated with an altered mental state.

Ghanaian witch lore postulates that, when flying witches encounter religious activities and objects such as powerful devotional worship, group prayer, or sacred Christian props such as a large crucifix in a church, their travels are suddenly interrupted, causing them to crash to the ground. Certain local deities are also believed to have the ability to identify and extinguish the destructive powers of witches. In the article, Adrinkrah describes 10 cases of alleged witch crash landings reported in the Ghanaian media over a 12-year period. The findings show that the alleged witches were overwhelmingly women, elderly and poor, and suffered from severe psychopathological disorders. They were insulted, beaten, stripped naked, dragged through the streets and in one case, burned alive.

Outpatient counseling services for those suffering from emotional distress and minor psychiatric disorders are extremely limited in underdeveloped countries, while suicide prevention programs are non-existent. It is our world, a world in which women with Alzheimer’s, depression or senile dementia are still abused or lynched on the grounds that they are witches.


  1. Clark CW (1997) The Witchcraze in 17th Century Europe. In: A pictorial history of Psychology. (Bringmann WG, Lück HE, Miller R, Early CE, eds.). Quintessence Publ., Chicago (IL).
  2. Adinkrah M (2019) Crash-landings of flying witches in Ghana: Grand mystical feats or diagnosable psychiatric illnesses? Transcult Psychiatry 56(2):379-397.
  3. Field MJ (1960). Search for security: An ethno-psychiatric study of rural Ghana. Northwestern University Press, Evanston (IL)

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