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People have been accused of practicing witchcraft as early as Egyptian and Roman times. 

Early Christians persecuted many innocent people who rejected their beliefs for sorcery; as wizards, warlocks or witches.    

The first recorded victim was Hypatia, a Greek mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and philosopher in Egypt, then a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. She was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD. 

In the book of laws he compiled toward the end of the ninth century, King Alfred outlawed wiccan among the people of England, on pain of death. From its first appearance in English, the word “witch” has referred to a person not merely magical but actively abhorred by state power. (JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE)

The first full account a pact with the devil dates from 1435 in a printed book on witchcraft detailing many of their rituals as inverse parodies of the Catholic church.

In 1484 Catholic priest, Heinrich Kramer, began prosecuting alleged witches in the Tyrol region of Germany. He was one of the first to be granted a Papal Bull to do so.  His book, the Hammer of the Witches was published in 1487.

When Henry VIII needed to dispose of Anne Boleyn, he accused her of sexual infidelity and witchcraft.

A fool-proof trial by ordeal for witchcraft was to tie their hands and throw them into a body of water.  If they floated and survived, they were obviously bewitched and burnt at the stake.  If they drowned, they were clearly innocent and so went straight to heaven.

Witchcraft was well-accepted in King James I’s time. He too, published a book on it and firmly believed he was a target.

He believed that witches had attempted to kill him on a trip to Denmark as well as his newly wed.  Six Danish witches were tried and executed. When they finally arrived back in Scotland, Agnes Sampson confessed that she and a coven of witches had conspired against him.  Under torture she confessed horrible crimes of using a cat to conjure evil spirits against the King and Queen and that the only thing that saved him was his strong Christian faith.  Agnes was tried, convicted, garrotted and burned in a public display in the presence of the King.  Witches were commonly considered to be the embodiment of evil and the audience would have been aware of the King’s reputation as a man for whom the devil had a healthy respect.

That Macbeth was probably written in the wake of the Witchcraft Act of 1604, which broadened earlier laws to include the penalty of death, as well as around the time of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament (1605), suggests that on this occasion (and for the rest of the century) the diabolic forces are to be identified specifically with the Catholic threat to Protestant England.  Shakespeare appears to be criticizing tyranny, so may be pandering to the King's beliefs in the power of witchcraft.

The pressures of war, along with the paranoia about one's enemies, created a fertile ground for witch-hunting to flourish in England during the civil war conflicts in the 1640''s between the king and Parliament. A young man in his twenties named Matthew Hopkins, calling himself the Witchfinder General, blazed through the east of England in strongly Puritan areas, accusing supposed witches of a pact with the devil even without evidence of maleficium. By the time he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven in 1647, he was responsible for hanging upward of three hundred women, according to some estimates more than the total of the previous century and a half -- around 40 percent of all the witches ever executed in England.

The witches in Macbeth had magical powers of foretelling events much as clairvoyants, tarot cards or horoscopes claim today.  Their powers were limited in that they could not kill people. Here a witch threatens the husband of a woman who refused her some chestnuts:

“I’ll drain him dry as hay:

Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his pent-house lid;

Though his bark cannot be lost,

Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d.      Act 1, sc. 3  19 – 26        

This is what King James claims happened to him and foreshadows what they do to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  They could not actually kill someone, but harry them and deprive them of sleep.

This is Banquo’s description of them:

                                     What are these,

    So withered and so wild in their attire,

    That look not like th' inhabitants o'th' earth,

    And yet are on't? Live you, or are you aught

    That man may question? You seem to understand me

    By each at once her choppy finger laying

    Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,

    And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

    That you are so.    Act I Sc. 3  40 48.    

They are referred to by a number of names, the most common is “weird sisters” others include;  “imperfect speakers” , “instruments of darkness”,  “secret, black and midnight hags”, later “filthy hags” and finally “juggling fiends who palter with us in a double sense.

Due to Miller’s play The Crucible, this ancient word has lately bubbled up from the mud of time into American culture. “Witch” now resonates among two sharply different sets of people: Young, often queer women, who see the witch as an appealingly transgressive and charismatic archetype. (Witches of Eastwick, John Updike).  

President Donald Trump,  repeatedly describes his critics as the perpetrators of a “witch hunt.”  JOSEPHINE LIVINGSTONE

Last witch hanged  - The Telegraph - London

Europe's last executed witch, beheaded in 1782, after she confessed under torture to conversing with the devil and poisoning the daughter of the house, was finally exonerated and her name cleared in 2008.

Campaigners claim she was the victim of a conspiracy between the Swiss eastern town's judicial and Protestant church authorities.

Anna Goeldi was employed by the family of a rich married politician, who after having an affair with her, denounced her for witchcraft claiming she made his daughter spit pins and suffer convulsions.

She insisted on her innocence but confessed after being strung up by her thumbs with stones tied to her feet.

The case was brought to light through a book by local journalist Walter Hauser, who claimed Goeldi's employer had used his influence to convict her after she threatened to make their relationship public.

She was executed even though the law at the time did not impose the death penalty for nonlethal poisoning, it added.

Goeldi's torture and execution was even more incomprehensible as it happened in the Age of Enlightenment when "those who made the judgment regarded themselves as educated people," the government said in a statement.

"In spite of that they tortured an innocent person and had her executed, although it was known to them that the alleged crime was neither doable nor possible and that there was no legal basis for their verdict."

Anna Goeldi has a museum named after her.  The name of the accuser in not worthy of noting.

Salem Massachusetts dedicated a sizable rectangular vacant block of land next to its cemetery.  Around the edges sit 19 solitary substantial rocks, each with a simple plague naming the victims with brief notes.  The names of the authorities are not worth noting.

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