History books are littered with accounts of people practising witchcraft, an act often seen as heresy and ending in a death sentence. But who are the real witches in history? From healers and clairvoyants to enigmatic leaders and scandalous personalities, here’s our list of famous witches throughout history.
1486 – 1535
Agrippa was a German-born occult alchemist, astrologer, writer and magician. Having studied Theology, Agrippa later became the spy to the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. This earned him a place at the University of Paris where he established a secret society of devotees to magic and occult practices. Because of his later works on the occult and his efforts to defend witches, he often fell target to inquisitors.
Southeil’s (aka Mother Shipton) unfortunate bodily deformities, including twisted legs, sunken cheeks and large head made her look like the stereotypical depiction of a witch. She was allegedly clairvoyant, being able to predict future events, similar to the likes of Nostradamus. She made predictions about her villagers, the court of King Henry VIII and even such distant concepts as the Internet, stating that in the future ‘around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye’
Believed to be the inspiration behind JK Rowling’s Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, John Dee evoked ancient alchemy to understand science in the Elizabethan England. This was at a time when science was only emerging, so it was no walk in the park. Dee had to lie and deceive, pretending to be an orthodox follower of the Christian faith.
The French sorceress who became known by the nickname La Voisin started out in the practices of face-reading and chiromancy in an attempt to retrieve her husband’s lost fortune. She gradually became more involved in witchcraft, creating love powders and potions that contained chilling ingredients like ‘the teeth of moles’ and ‘human blood’. She accumulated tremendous wealth by selling her services to the ladies of Paris. After a poisoning scandal involving King Louis XIV, La Voisin was burnt at the stake.
Joan Wytte (meaning ‘white’) was seer and a healer with clairvoyant abilities. She used to heal ill people by taking strips from their clothing and tying them to a tree deemed holy. As the cloth rotted, she believed that the disease to disappear. Wytte was imprisoned at Bodmin Jail for her ill temper that got her into fights, where she later died, aged 38.
Known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Laveau performed acts of magic throughout her life. During some of her ceremonies, participants would become possessed by Voodoo spirits. She also saved men from being hanged by dispensing her potions and she was able to heal the sick. She had fifteen children and was a well-known hairdresser before she became the Voodoo Queen, combining Voodoo rituals with Christian traditions, such as holy water, incense and statues of the saints.
The self-aggrandizing Cambridge scholar and founder of the religion Thelema, Crowley was always one to defy social conventions and norms. Referring to himself with apocalyptic titles, such as “the Great Beast 666”, Crowley engaged in dangerous acts throughout his life, including sex magic, mountaineering and raunchy poetry. Often penniless, he travelled the world, writing books on Magick and founding new orders.
His initiation at the New Forest Coven in Mill House by a group claiming to be witches, proved to be a turning point for Gardner, often regarded as the ‘Father of Wicca’. He gathered the material that was already available and made it more public, spreading Gardnerian Wicca to United States and beyond. However, the historical reliability of some of his ideas remains questionable.
Born as Violet Mary Firth, she used her family motto “Deo, non Fortuna” (by God, not by chance) as her pen name to become Dion Fortune. The founder of “Society of the Inner Light”, Dion was a respected author, occultist and psychiatrist, often employing the theories of Freud and Jung in her work. Feeling that their theories lacked something, she engaged in ceremonial magick and studies of the occult. She wrote vast numbers of novels and nonfiction, and remained unconcerned with publicity throughout her life.
Farrar had a buoyant life, having been married seven times. Both his fiction and nonfiction books dealt with the themes of occult and witchcraft. He was very influential in the development of Wicca in England and Ireland. During World War II, he was in the military and he experienced something that had a tremendous impact on him – he was one of the first British officers to enter the Auschwitz concentration camp. After that, he returned to England to work as a journalist, and was only introduced to Wicca in 1969 with the screening of the film “Legend of the Witches”, after which he became initiated into the Alexandrian Wiccan movement.
One of the most well-known modern witches, Cabot has penned several books on witchcraft and raised the movement’s profile across the United States. Throughout her life, she has done a lot of work with children with special needs and worked extensively to defend the civil rights of witches. She was declared the ‘Official Witch of Salem’ and has her own code of ethics, containing thirteen principles that are applicable to modern witches everywhere.
Buckland has had a long love-affair with the occult, having practiced it for 50 years and written on the subject for 30, publishing more than sixty books. He has lectured and led workshops all over the United States, having played a major role in introducing Wiccan practices there. He was initiated into the Wiccan religion by Gardner’s high priestess Lady Olwen.
Starhawk is one of the most influential people in modern earth-based spirituality. Born Miriam Simos, she has since published twelve books as Starhawk. One of them The Spiral Dance inspired the Goddess movement. She is also an activist, exploring theories behind feminist Neopaganism and eco-feminism.
One of the most read Wiccan authors, Cunningham had a great deal of influence on making Wicca a solitary practice. Throughout his life, Cunningham wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction. Thanks to his simple and easy-to-read writing style, Cunnigham became increasingly popular. His book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner has had 400,000 copies sold.
Born Jenine E. Trayer, Silver RavenWolf writes and lectures extensively on Wicca, authoring a number of books on New Age, Magic and Witchcraft that have been translated into a number of different languages. She is a member of the Serpent Stone Family, and leads the Black Forest Circle and Seminary.