The Alleged Powers of Witches

Many supposed influences and capabilities of witches were imaginary and depended largely on the powers of superstitious suggestion. The mere notion that a witch had cast a spell on someone or was sticking pins in a waxen image of that person possibly resulted in illness and even death. Witches were charged with causing injury to others, ranging from minor afflictions to poisoning and murder. A murder charge was made for the witch’s practice of sticking pins in waxen images of victims and slowly melting these over a candle flame.

The concept of witches’ sabbaths, their pact with the devil, their bestial rites, anointing themselves with oils from murdered infants’ bodies, and nefarious ideas propagated about witches and witchcraft all evolved as accusing allegations instituted by the Inquisition and documented in the Malleus Maleficarum. Inquisitors and bounty witch-hunters were convinced that blasphemous horrors formed the basis of all witchcraft, and none of them ever imagined they could be wrong in their assumptions. All information about witches’ powers and their activities came from the infamous witch trials. Such information, extracted under the most unimaginable tortures, simply reflected what people believed to be true about witchcraft. 

Every witch was assumed to be a servant of the devil. In this respect, the practitioners of witchcraft differed from warlocks, sorcerers, and other black magic conjurers thought to be traditionally educated and presumed to have learned to master the devil. Witchcraft therefore presupposed the reality of the devil and all subordinates in the form of demons, imps, incubi, and succubi, and the possibility of a physical relationship with these powerful forces. The belief in the devil’s power to assume human or animal form, so pronounced during the days of witchcraft prosecutions, was responsible for the widespread acceptance of accounts of intercourse occurring between the devil and humans. At various witchcraft trials, such powers of metamorphosis were affirmed, admitted, and accepted by judges, prosecutors, and defendants alike.

In return for serving the Evil One, it was believed that witches received certain powers such as the ability to cure or inflict illness, to transfer illness from one person to another, to cause impotence and sterility in humans and barrenness in livestock, to sour milk, to raise storms, cause drought, cause crop failure, and to cause many other disasters. Any uncommon sickness of man, beast, and crops was attributed to their demoniacal practices. 

It was generally believed that a witch could see spirits, and by her supernatural gaze, could enchant and bewitch people through a single glance. A witch could arouse love with love potions or destroy it with spells and charms. It was also believed that she could revive the dead, animate inanimate objects, conjure up spirits, transform herself into certain animals, make herself invisible with certain ointments, and fly through the air. 

Flying has always been attributed to supernatural beings – both good and evil – and the belief in a witch’s power to travel through the air was widespread and persistent. In seventeenth-century records of witchcraft trials, the words ‘not guilty, no flying’ appeared several times. So-called flying ointments, allegedly used by the accused by rubbing them on the skin, were referred to in witch trials. Such ointments usually consisted of a mixture of toxic plants such as belladonna, hemlock, and wolf’s bane,76 now known to cause symptoms of dizziness and even delirium accompanied by a feeling of falling through the air. Rubbing such a potent potion into the skin was just as effective as swallowing it. Many of those convicted of being witches actually believed that they could fly through the air. The blood of bats was believed to be a main ingredient in the purported flying ointments – the association obvious in that the blood of a flying night creature undoubtedly let a witch acquire the same abilities. 

During the Middle Ages, witches were thought to travel through the air on various flying objects, including animals, shovels, eggshells, forked sticks, or broomsticks, without any visible support. The whole question of witches flying was thrashed out in an English court of law towards the end of the eighteenth century. Lord Mansfield, the judge, delivered the judgment that he knew of no English law prohibiting flying and, for him, anyone so inclined was free to do so. Interestingly enough, all reports of English witches flying stopped immediately from the moment British law sanctioned it.


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