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A Witch in a Bottle

A Witch in a Bottle - origins

How did the idea of witchcraft come about?

Typical image of a witch
  • How a witch is usually shown in stories
  • The idea of 'witchcraft' has been around since ancient times. In the old days, witches were not the frightening hags in stories but ordinary men and women who were clever with herbs. They were known as 'cunning' or wise women and men. People often went to them for help if they were sick or unhappy.

    However, in the late 12th century, the Christian church began to believe that people used magic power to do evil things. In these times, before science, people looked for other reasons for bad things that happened.

    The 14th Century saw war, famine and the Black Death (a plague that killed a quarter of the people in Europe). Witches were blamed and people started to hate them.

    In 1484, the Pope said that witches had to be found, tried and executed. During the next three hundred years, many thousands of people, mainly older women, were put to death by hanging or, sometimes, burning.

    So what was their crime?

    A witch and her familars
  • A witch and her familiars
  • People believed that witches worked with the devil. They believed witches could make themselves invisible or change into animals - such as hooded crows, stoats, hares and weasels.

    It was also thought that witches could change how nature works and that they could give pain to people who upset them. They believed that witches' spirits could leave their bodies, as in the story. People often believed that they saw or felt a witch's spirit when a witch was nearby.

    Witches were usually thought to own an animal (known as a familiar). This animal gave them powers. Many cats and dogs were also put to death, especially those poor cats that had black fur!

    How did this myth originate?

    Black Monks Dunstable
  • Dunstable was ruled by a priory of Black Canons
  • It is most likely that this myth dates from the 15th century. At this time in Dunstable, a priory of Black Canons, founded by Henry I, ruled the town. They had the power of life and death; they had their own gaol in the priory and they sat as judges with the king's justices (magistrates).

    The priors ruled with great cruelty. Many people were tried for lots of crimes, including witchcraft. From these beginnings, the myth may have grown.

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