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Why did people once believe in witches?

17th Jun 2021
Why did people once believe in witches?

Written by Mercat Tours Storyteller Simon Bendle

“The good old days” is not a phrase you’re likely to hear too often on our underground ghost tours. We deal in darkness – today’s ghosts and yesterday’s gore. And it doesn’t get much darker than the murderous 16th and 17th centuries, when hundreds of so-called witches were burned on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill.

They were killed because the King James Bible said they must be:

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22.18).

But what exactly was witchcraft? And why did so many people fear it? 

Black and White Magic

It’s difficult to comprehend now, but people once believed in two very distinct types of witches: white and black. White witches were folk healers who did good work through magic. They used herbs and rituals to cure sick people and spoke blessings over farm animals to protect them. White witches were valued members of a community. Not least because they also offered protection against those who had crossed to the dark side. Black witches were something different entirely: they were to be feared. Black witches performed harmful sorcery against others. They made pacts with the Devil. They had “familiars” – or demonic imps – which took the form of cats, ferrets, cockerels, and frogs.

The Devil, A Real and Present Danger

Mad as it sounds now, people really believed this stuff.

Life back then was nasty, brutish and short. Folk were poor, uneducated, and vulnerable to disease. Magic and sorcery offered a way to understand and deal with the unfathomable hardships and misfortunes that plagued people’s lives. If your crops were destroyed by hailstones, perhaps a malevolent witch was targeting you? If your children sickened and died, maybe the old lady who watched over them while you worked in the field was a sorceress?

In medieval and early modern Scotland, everyone – from the king to the kitchen maid - believed in magic. Everyone believed in the Devil, too. He was real. He might appear to tempt you at any time, just as he had tempted Jesus in the desert.

So don’t come expecting “the good old days” on our ghost tours. If they ever existed, it certainly wasn’t when the witch-burners were in town.

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