It hasn’t always been as easy to be a witch as it is today. Today, you can walk into a Barnes & Noble and see a whole section of books dedicated to witchcraft and magick—not even off in a tucked away corner, in the middle of the store. As you’re wondering if you should spend your hard earned money on a paperback copy of How to Hex Your Ex (you really shouldn’t), or getting your house decked out for Halloween, you’d do well to remember that not so very long ago women accused of doing groovy things we take for granted today were straight up lit on fire.
Every western country has its fair share of savage history towards witches, and a new study and interactive map created by Edinburgh University illuminates the history of witch persecution in Scotland. Using data provided by the university’s school of history, Edinburgh University students show the locations where these “witches” lived and where they were executed. The map also gives names and any known personal information about the witches, such as occupation, age, and social class. Check it out for yourself here.
While all of the European nations included witch-burning near the top of their lists of favorite national pastimes, Scotland was particularly zealous. Close to 4,000 accused witches were put on trial in Scotland between the the 16th and 18th centuries, four to five times the cases in nearby European countries. Up to two thirds of them were executed.
When we hear stories of mass persecution from the past, it’s easy to forget that these were real people with real stories. One of the women featured on the map, Agnes Sampsoune, was employed as a healer and midwife, mostly to those of lower social standing but sometimes to the upper class as well. She was one of 70 people investigated during the North Berwick Witch Trials, a particularly brutal string of trials. She was accused of raising storms to sink the boat of King James VI and his new wife, Anne of Denmark on trips to Scandinavia. After being subjected to “pain most grievous,” she gave up the names of 59 other women and admitted to, among other most foul crimes, taking a boat to meet the devil at sea, and baptizing a cat.
It was a strange paranoia borne of specific cultural zeitgeists of the time. But that time really wasn’t so long ago. The North Berwick Witch Trials were in 1590 and, to channel Joe Rogan, people live to 100. That’s just over four people ago. Edinburgh University’s Julian Goodare compiled the database this map is based on and wrote the book The European Witch Trials. In that book he draws a comparison between witch trials and modern paranoia:
“Nowadays we have a wider range of cultural fears, such as fears of aliens, paedophiles or terrorists. Some of these fears are encouraged by politicians, or by commercial popular culture… [for example] belief in abduction by aliens is the modern cultural form of a sleep disorder that shaped some accusations of witchcraft and witches’ own confessions.”
While that last sentence may or may not be true—I would replace “is the modern…” with “may be the modern…”— it is true that people have been thinking their neighbors are out to get them since we first had neighbors. While that paranoia may have morphed in the west, in other parts of the world women are still being imprisoned and executed for practicing witchcraft. In the US you can drop $14.99 on a trade paperback full of love spells for the millennial witch, but it really is important to remember that, up until very recently, that trade paperback could get you killed.