Most people have heard of the Salem Witch Trials and know that in many cultures people have been sentenced to death for heresy. But what you might not know is that this is a practice that has been committed throughout human history and across the globe - it is even still practiced in some cultures today. But who were these witches? Why were they killed? The answers to these questions may be a bit morbid, but it's also hard to deny that they're downright fascinating.
If you've looked into witch trials before, you might've learned that the majority of these cases were pure hogwash - mass hysteria, political motives, and plain old hatred have all been used as reasons for an individual to be executed as a witch. However, in some rare cases, people killed as witches really did confess proudly to their crimes, and a few even committed acts so terrible, people assumed that they had to be supernatural.
So, keep in mind that a few of these stories are a little graphic, and climb aboard your boomstick as we look at the various souls who were killed for their witchy-tendencies.
People accusing each other of witchcraft is hardly a new concept. Around the year 415 CE, there was a young woman by the name of Hypatia living in Alexandria, Egypt, who people thought was a bit unusual - unusual in the sense that she wasn't readily embracing the Christian religion and instead spent her time studying the pants off of the other mathematicians of her day. In fact, she is still known as the first female mathematician of our world, which unfortunately upset a lot of people. Peter the Lector in particular wanted to make sure that she and her pagan, math-loving ways were stopped immediately. The best means of doing so? Tell everyone she's a witch and kill her.
Unfortunately, Hypatia's death wasn't exactly quick. First, a mob dragged her from her carriage and stripped her naked at a nearby church. They then beat her with roofing tiles until she was dead, or near dead. Then, for good measure, they tore her body into pieces and burned what remained. In short, they really wanted to make sure this supposed witch was dead.
The first woman to be executed for witchcraft in England was Agnes Waterhouse, also called Mother Waterhouse. She was known for having a cat that answered to the name Satan, for possibly killing men, and for being labeled a witch when she was as young as twelve. The cat supposedly spoke to her in a dark tongue, telling her to kill children and certain people that she saw. It demanded to be fed blood and milk, and had supposedly tormented her sister with these demands as well. Waterhouse also claimed to have had relations with demons who threatened to harm her if she did not do their bidding.
Once she was convicted, she was sentenced to death. At first she stood strong and proud, acting unafraid; however, eventually she began to plead for her life, saying that she believed and trusted in God. It was not enough, and she was put to death in 1566.
Some people accused of witchcraft really were terribly nasty people. Case in point: Gilles Garnier. He was a hermit living in France up until 1573, and committed terrible crimes for which he was accused of being not just a witch, but a werewolf. When Garnier married, his new bride was not happy with the lack of food variety surrounding her husband's isolated way of life. To make up for this, Garnier began killing, butchering, and eating children. He also fed the meat of these children to his new wife to satisfy her craving for variety. He did this with at least four children.
When he was caught and put on trial, he claimed that he had come across a specter in the woods that gave him the ability to change into a wolf and do magic in order to hunt more easily. Witnesses claimed to have seen him eating the raw flesh of children in the fields, and a few even claimed to have seen him in wolf form. He was found guilty of witchcraft and lycanthropy, for which he was burned at the stake in 1573. From then on, he was known as The Werewolf of Dole.
When a village's harvest fails, it can easy to blame it on witchcraft. Unfortunately, this was what caused the demise of Stedelen, a man who lived in the late 1300s in Switzerland and happened to make a very powerful enemy one day. Peter von Greyerz, a judge during that time, firmly believed that the occult was alive and well in Switzerland. He claimed that miscarriages, crop failures, marital disputes, storms, and more could all be linked to dark magic. Specifically, Greyerz accused Stedelen of sacrificing a black rooster on the Sabbath and of placing a lizard under a doorway. You know, usual witchcrafty stuff.
The thing is that Stedelen actually admitted it - after being tortured of course. He admitted that he'd made a pact with demons, and was promptly burned at the stake. After his death, Greyerz went on searching for other members of satanic cults and continued persecuting people for years. Women were tortured, men were killed, and it all began with this one incident.