Spooky Science: The Science of Witches

The Science and History of Witches

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

What has the Incredible Jeff conjured up in this episode of The Science of Witches, foolish Muggle? Solemnly swear that you are up to no good, and perhaps all will be revealed in this magical episode as we delve into the continuation of the Spooky Science series.

A photo of the painting Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse in 1886.
A photo of the painting Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse in 1886.

Witches and witchcraft have little correlation, if any, with science. However, between the 14th and 18th centuries, science was questioning whether or not there was any truth behind stories of witchcraft. Blessed be, that science prevailed and determined that correlation is not causation.

The term “witch” is much cause for debate.

Around the 14th century, a few factors aligned that changed the perception on who was considered a witch. Christianity took hold of the Middle Ages and along with the Reformation, tried to paint worshippers of the Pagan religion (or any religion that wasn’t Christianity), as evil. Celebrating in black masses, practicing evil magic, and aligning them with the devil — all of this was fake, but was the propaganda during that time.

During this same time, the Black Plague was ravaging Europe, and many were dying from this “mysterious disease.” Healers, again, were bearing the brunt of the blame.

Even respected plague doctors of the time, such as Nostradamus, couldn’t shake the negative allegations of heresy that were made against him. Nostradamus’ treatments for battling the plague included removal of corpses and drinking clean water, which were considered progressive methods at that time.

All branches and forms of witchcraft delve into the scientific method and trial and error. In addition, all forms of witchcraft rely on energy and intention use, which are specific and play into the “Laws of Attraction” of the universe — thus the general idea of magic. Many ideas surrounding witchcraft talk about energy and vibration – both the physical rate and the spiritual rate. The belief is that the molecules from both sides can meld together to increase the witch’s overall energy, much in the same way that atoms actually react on a molecular level.

Women and men can both be witches. The common misconception is that a man is a “warlock," but that term dates back to the earliest witch hunts and denotes someone who would betray witches.

Tools of the craft are necessary to cast an understanding of witchcraft and the parallels of science and medicine.

The Athame, or ceremonial knife, is an important tool for use in magic. Predominately, it is used to draw the edges of the sacred circle.

A black and white photo of witches flying on broomsticks
Photo source: History.com

Chalices, or ceremonial cups, are vessels to drink wine or other potions from.

Cauldrons and brooms are most ironically linked to witches. Cauldrons used to be found in everyone’s home and were used for renowned potions and tinctures. Cauldrons were also used to burn incense, which cleansed the space and intention of what is being performed.

Brooms were used in cleansing lingering energies, and not for riding, as Halloween pop culture has led people to believe. When used in conjunction with sage and incense,  these items helped sanitize the space. All are very akin to running a clean laboratory.

The most iconic image of a witch’s appearance is the crone, bent over a cauldron and brewing up a mysterious concoction. This image is taken from scene 4 of “MacBeth” where the witches recite:

“Double Double toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble." 

This scene gave way to what many people perceived healers to be “brewing up,” during this time.

In the 1500s and the height of the European witch hunting craze, healers were being prosecuted for developing “magical salves” or “flying ointments.” Spanish physician, Andrés Laguna, found a salve in the home of an elderly couple that were suspected of witchcraft. The account reads:

“… a jar half-filled with a certain green unguent … with which they were anointing themselves … was composed of herbs … which are hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.”

Most of these plants are highly poisonous, but some contain hyposine which was used as a local anesthetic by Native Americans. In larger doses, hyposine can cause hallucinations. Thus, the reason healers were creating salves from these plants. When administered as topically, it minimizes the risk of poisonings and overdoses.

Hemlock is very poisonous in large doses and is considered to be the plant that killed Socrates.

Deadly Nightshade or Atropa belladonna’s foliage and berries are extremely toxic. This plant was used in herbal remedies at that time. In the 19th century, Chemists isolated atropine, a muscle relaxant, that was later used to calm patients during surgery before modern day anesthesia. This is also the antidote for nerve gas poisoning.   

A black and white portrait that portrays a witch in a courthouse in Salem, MassachusettsiPhoto: A painting of the Salem Witch Trials

Mandrake was used similarly as a precursor to anesthesia. Juice from the human resembling root could be extracted and used to treat rheumatoid pain.

Henbane, also called “stinking nightshade,” induces hallucinations and seeds have been found at Viking burial sites. It is thought to have been ingested by warriors before battle to induce berserker states. 

Witches from the 1400s to 1600s were actually practicing medical practitioners, as doctors were very scarce. Willow bark, garlic and many other herbal remedies pre-date modern medicine, however their compounds are still used widely today.

Healer or conjurer, witches have been around for centuries. Unfortunately, the persecution and violence towards those branded as witches, resulted in the witch trials of Europe and Salem, Massachusetts.

There is a belief that ergot poisoning might have been a contributing factor in Salem where 200 were accused and 20 were executed due to widespread fear and panic of the times. Swimming tests, dunking stools, reciting Bible scriptures verbatim in a courtroom, witch marks, witch cakes, knowledge of spells and remedies and stone crushing were all corrupted versions of the scientific methods used to promote guilt and conviction.

Believe it or not, we all have a little magic inside us. Use it wisely.

Watch the full science segment below, and tune into Fueled by Death Show every Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST on Facebook Live to learn more about different scientific topics.