Chapter 8. Witchcraft

Reginald Scot, 1584

The Discovery of Witchcraft; wherein the lewd dealing of witches and witchmongers is notably detected, the knavery of conjurers, the impiety of enchanters, the folly of soothsayers, the infidelities of atheists, the pestilent practices of the pythonists, the curiosity of figure-casters, the vanity of dreamers, the beggarly art of alchemists, the abomination of idolatry, the horrible art of poisoning, the virtue and power of natural magic, and all the conveyances of legerdemain and juggling are deciphered: and many other things opened, which have long lain hidden, howbeit very necessary to be known. For Scot, a good Christian, witches were sinful imposters who pretended to have magical powers. Witches are the devil’s instruments, not the other way around, so they shouldn’t “be injuriously dealt with or put to death for another’s offense.”


In MacBeth, three witches with their familiars— cat, toad, and harpy—brew a prophesy that Shakespeare had the genius to make true. Beth and her friends Jill and Nancy in Kankakee share tea but command no evil spirits, only spirits that say, “Don’t mess with me.”


Some believed that a person could accumulate the knowledge and practice of sacred and profane mysteries gradually, starting, as many did, with collecting and concocting herbal remedies. Of the three kinds of witches, only one could hurt and not help. The witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” who would eat our young protagonists, is a witch of this third kind. Such a witch might be capable also of raising lightning and thunder, of procuring barrenness in woman and beast, of causing horses to buck off their riders, and of casting children from their mothers into waters. Some thought an evil witch had the power to instill in any heart inordinate love or hate, to manifest things that were lost or were yet to come, to alter the minds of those who would judge them, and to cause terror in those who would catch them. A witch could perform her evil acts without sensible means inwardly or outwardly applied, could rob any man of his courage or vigor, could kill either man or beast with an evil look, and could walk from place to place invisibly. Some said that a witch could fly in the air, pass in and out of auger holes, dance with devils, dry up springs, pull down the moon and stars, bring souls from their graves, and send needles into the livers of whomever they choose. But those who believed such nonsense, those who attributed to a witch such powers, were themselves more guilty of impiety and had more faith in the efficacy of the devil than many of the people whom they accused.