A witch-hunt was traditionally a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, which could lead to a witchcraft trial involving the accused person.

Early modern Europe[]

Over the centuries, there were extensive efforts to root out the supposed influence of Satan by various measures aimed at the people that were accused of being servants of Satan. To a lesser degree, animals were also targeted for prosecution.

The most important form of evidence in many of the witch trials was attained by "ordeal". These efforts included torture of the most horrific nature including hot pincers, the thumbscrew, and many other such methods. Torture methods varied by region and the person carrying out the ordeal.

Common forms of execution included burning, hanging and drowning. Historically, the majority of such trials have been conducted within "Christian/European/American cultures; they were justified in those contexts with reference to the Bible's prescription: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (Exodus 22:18)

The measures employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever practiced in the Western world. In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:

"The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practicing the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them."

"The Burning Times"[]

"The Burning Times" is an English term referring to the time of the Great European Witch hunts (1450-1750). Its first recorded use is by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s and was probably created by him according to Ronald Hutton (344). Gardner used the phrase in reference to his claim that Wicca was an ancient persecuted religion, relying in turn heavily on the work of Margaret Murray. Gardner believed Wiccans should remember their forebears who were burned by the Church. In fact, witches in England were never burnt, but were hanged; burning of heretics and witches was practiced on the European continent. Modern historians agree the witch hunts had nothing to do with persecuting a pagan cult, but is the result of an interplay of a series of complex historical and societal factors. The actual religion of those killed in the witch hunts, if they had any, was Christianity of some kind. Keith Thomas 514-7, Hutton passim

The term was adopted by various American feminist historians and popularized in the 1970s for all historical persecution of witches and pagans, often citing a figure of nine million casualties, drawn from nineteenth century campaigner for women's rights, Matilda Joslyn Gage. They also referred to it as the Women's Holocaust (see Hutton chapter 18 for his exploration of their ideas). Modern historians have shown that the victims of the witch hunt were not always female, though they were in the majority and misogyny was an important part of the forces behind it. In Iceland, for example, 80% of those accused were men. Generally accepted figures amongst historians today range from Levack at around 60,000 to Hutton at around 40,000.

A reasonably accurate listing of those killed can be found at while discussion of the phenomenon of the "burning times" as an article of belief can be found at and

See also[]

  • European witchcraft
  • Flying ointment
  • Malleus Maleficarum


  • Klaits, Joseph — Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (1985)

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