A Short Exploration of Witch Trials in Europe

I don’t think I have spoken about being Wiccan on this blog before so in short this is me coming out of the broom closet (it will never get old saying that).

Having said this, I never realised how ignorant I was of Witch Trials around the world till I began researching them for another project (I’m writing a series of books! … hopefully … when I can decide on how to get to my ending).

Ancient Greece

Did you know there were Witch Trials taking place in Athens as early as 4th century BCE? When looking at trials as far back as them there is little to really go on by the way of official documentation but if ever there was an era of gossip and hearsay it was Ancient Greece. Which works in our favour (because gossip is always way more fun to read!).

There is honestly so much I could write about these Trials, the insights they provide into Ancient Greek culture and society etc. but I am going to try and keep it to the main characteristics.

Drugs (pharmaka) played a prominent role in a lot of the documented and well-talked-about cases. Whilst the use and production of ‘potions’ or herbal cocktails isn’t defined as illegal, these concoctions were possibly the foundations for some of the more complicated trials (Ancient Greeks knew how to bring multiple charges).

A core belief in Ancient Greek society is that of piety be it to one’s family or one’s city (which was often seen as the extension of one’s family). Impiety through ‘magical’ means was a massive don’t, especially when it disadvantaged the men of the household/society. I forgot to mention that all Witch Trials documented were charging women (surprise surprise).

This seemed to be the only definite illegal aspect of the charges often brought into Witch Trials. A lot of the Trials were dictated by presenting a person’s character rather than how far their actions could be classed as illegal (writings never really defined what was classed as legal and several reports contradict each other in many ways). If a prosecutor at the time could tear a woman’s reputation to tatters then there seemed to be less disagreement over her guilt.


Norway has been somewhat slower in delving into its Witch Trial history when compared to many of its European neighbours. Like most of Europe, the Norwegian Witch Trials took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Whilst there are more records than in Ancient Greece (obviously) there remain discrepancies and so numbers and facts are not set in stone. An interesting fact highlighted in Knutsen (2003) is that a lot of records that were used in exploring the Trials were economic ones – executions cost a lot of money (imagine being on the stand and having a judge notify the court they couldn’t execute you cos they couldn’t afford it).

I won’t get into all the facts and figures but it was surprising that less than half of them ended in execution and acquittals were a common outcome.

As with many trials in Europe and America these Trials often featured accusations of diabolism (devil worship) and for a large part focussed mainly on women. However, there is evidence that in 1617 the number of men accused of witchcraft rose to 40% for reasons unknown to historians. Norwegian records of the trials were ambiguous with gender in many accounts, basing records on demographics or social criteria instead.


In a lot of respects Germany was similar to most European countries taking part in Witch Trials during the 16th and 17th century so I won’t bore you with repeated facts. The distinguishing feature of German Witch Trials however, was its intense focus on the prosecution of children.

In the beginning of trials (as early as 1580) children were incorporated into Witch Trials through witness statements against members of their own families and towns. A frequent tale told by the children involved was their participation in witch meetings (sabbats) which also incriminated themselves. Originally this did not cause much harm however as the trials grew in numbers the children became the centre of attention as opposed to additional evidence.

The height of the Witch Trials in Europe during the 1620s led to massive witch hunts solely aimed at finding children who were in bed with the devil (quite literally in one girl’s case) and who could give information on anyone they knew. The stereotype of old woman with familiar was long gone as hunters began to pick on more abnormal subjects such as grown men and children. Towards the 1670s and the end of the trials the children were no longer seen victims of malevolent magic but partakers in the craft.


Russia’s Witch Trials were different to those taking place in Western Europe primarily because their search focussed on certain socio-economic groups which were by chance dominated by men. As a result men were accused of witchcraft far more often than women during the period. Another difference was the most common form of punishment: banishment, as opposed to hanging or burning which was popular in the West.

For the most part the Church was content to carry out most of the hunts and the propaganda; it was not until the Time of Troubles in the late 1600s that the Tsar began to get involve and demonstrate a no-tolerance policy against witchcraft and its practioners.

Demographically the accused were almost always lower class peasants and the accusers were those just above or of near status to the accused. The number of trials never amounted to those in the West and rarely involved diabolism. Instead the trials centred on what is more commonly referred to as ‘kitchen magic’ nowadays and the motives were normally geared towards bettering one’s status or disrupting the social order which was of great importance in Russian society during the time. The focus was more on the outcome of the magic or the act itself rather than the source of its power (I feel like if Wicca had a court of any kind it would be this kind of focus it would take on … not that Wicca needs or has a court or anything).

Edinow, E. (2010) Patterns of Persecution: ‘Witchcraft’ Trials in Classical Athens. Past & Present, 208 9-35.

Kivelson, V. A. (2003) Male Witches and Gendered Categories in Seventeenth-Century Russia. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45(3) 606–631.

Knutsen, G.W. (2003) Norwegian Witchcraft Trials: A Reassessment. Continuity and Change, 108(2) 185-200.

Walinski-Kiehl, R. S. (1996). The Devil’s Children: Child Witch-Trials in Early Modern Germany. Continuity and Change, 11(2) 171-189.

I hope this was an interesting/useful blog post, I spent most of the day researching it and reading about it. If you want to read more please refer to the articles above or go online – there are some really awesome case studies out there. I think I might do more of these in the future … we’ll see.

Ruthie ~


One thought on “A Short Exploration of Witch Trials in Europe

  1. Pingback: “A Short Exploration of Witch Trials in Europe” By Ruth – Gardenlovepoet

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