Wikimedia commons, Thompkins H. Matteson, painter
In the 17th century, the presence of witches reached incredible attention with accusations and executions of people accused of witchcraft. The fear caused by these trials and executions spurred many people to become the accuser rather than become the accused. The snowball effect this caused culminated in a mass hysteria in Europe and the colonies. Today, it is speculated that many of the people who were accused and ultimately executed for witchcraft were innocent.
Witchcraft has long been a part of our world's history. Fear of witches eventually progressed into the mass hysteria that led to a period known as the Burning Times in Europe and the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. Methods of execution for the crime of witchcraft were mainly burning at the stake and hanging. Torture was often used to gain a confession from the accused. In many cases, the "Malleus Maleficarum" was used in the 17th-century witch-hunts to help magistrates identify, interrogate and condemn people accused of witchcraft, despite the book being banned by the Catholic church in 1490.
In 1641, English law made witchcraft a capital crime. In 1682, Temperance Lloyd was executed, the last person to be executed for witchcraft in England. The executions didn't end there, however. The hysteria moved to a new location in the New World colonies. In 1692, witchcraft accusations reached feverish heights in Salem.
The effects of witchcraft in the 17th century and the fear and hysteria it caused may never be completely known. It is estimated that from 1500 to 1660, Europe executed between 50,000 to 80,000 suspected witches. During the Salem trials alone, 19 people were hanged and one was pressed to death, while a total of 140 people were accused. In 1957, Massachusetts formally apologised for the trials that took place in Salem.
Witches have often been depicted as haggard old women with green skin and scraggly hair. One might wonder where this misconception came from. Consider the fact that the people who were accused of witchcraft spent a long period of time incarcerated in less than ideal conditions. These conditions would take a toll on their overall health, making them appear much older than they actually were. By the time they were released or brought to the gallows, it is very possible that their appearance closely resembled the old green woman with matted hair that has long been associated with witches.
Today, witches and witchcraft are more accepted within our society, although misconceptions and fears are still present. Wicca, a modern day practice of witchcraft, is now recognised and accepted as a religion. To be a witch today is to be a healer and a child of the earth. Formal accusations of witchcraft have become a thing of the past. Depiction of witches has also made some advances. Today, the old, haggard witch is less prevalent, often being balanced or outdone by images of "the good witch."
- Wikimedia commons, Thompkins H. Matteson, painter