The world of black magic, sorcery, witchcraft and wizardry has always terrified yet attracted people. The word ‘witch’ conjures up an image of an evil woman cloaked in black in our heads but the witches of history adopt quite a different aesthetic (though a lot of modern iterations showcase a stunning, pale, gothic woman in a tight black dress as a witch, à la Eva Green). Plenty of the women in this list have been branded as witches. However, their stories and practices played a role in shaping the modern world and have arguably altered our perception of the obscure world of paganism. Armed with the guidance of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches), the so called ‘witch hunters’ ruthlessly persecuted Natural healers and midwives during the middle ages for almost two centuries. A lot of these unfortunate women were burned alive at the stake. Here are
The 16 most famous witches in history.
Morgan Le Fay
Steeped deep in the legends of Old Britain during the reign of the legendary King Arthur, Morgan Le Fay has garnered a reputation as a scheming and malevolent witch eager to rid the country of their leader and take over for herself. Training under the magical wizard Merlin, Morgan Le Fay’s allegiance against Arthur often leads her to the side of the dreaded Mordred against the kingdom of Camelot. Morgan’s story however does often leave her resolving her differences with Arthur after he is fatally wounded and leading him to the heavenly world of Avalon.
Arguably the most important and influential queen in history, Anne Boleyn’s power and control over King Henry VIII would eventually lead to a constitutional, social and religious crisis with consequences that would rock the country for hundreds of years afterwards. Since having such incredible power tends to attract very powerful enemies from both within and outside, Anne Boleyn also had her fair share. Facing accusations of high treason against the country, Boleyn’s fate was sealed when accusations of witchcraft were brought against her. It was said that she had six fingers on her left hand and could be heard uttering spells set to doom the country. Whether these allegations of witchcraft have any foundation or not remains unfounded, but what cannot be disputed is the affect that they have had on Boleyn’s legacy.
Italian Goddess or witch? The story of Aradia is constantly surrounded by intense heated discussion and has sparked revived interest in the world of paganism. This legendary woman supposedly lived in the fourteenth century and the debate over her life has continued to mould and shape the culture of not only Italian folklore, but has inspired some of the most distinctive works of fiction ever composed on the topic.
As far the field of voodoo is concerned, nobody trumps the popularity and legend of the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. She lived in New Orleans during the 18th century. During her time in the Big Easy, Marie Laveau quickly established a reputation that would lead hundreds of people from across the country to her front door, hoping to be cured of their ailments. Speculation and gossip were rife in her time and she still conjures up plenty of conversation today. Marie Laveau’s grave is one of the most visited sites in America during Halloween.
Seen by many as being the father of modern Wicca religions and overall paganism in the twentieth century, very few individuals in history pioneered pagan arts like Gerald Gardner. With an extensive background in exotic and native arts and traditions, Gardner’s supposed integration into the world of witchcraft was years in the making and instantly sparked conversation and intrigue when he returned to his native home of Great Britain. Gardner would spend the remainder of his days running his museum showcasing all things curious and magical on the Isle of Man and continuing to write extensively on the reality of paganism.
Sybil Leek is highly renowned in the world of witchcraft for being a highly skilled witch and a very powerful psychic. During her peak years, Sybil Leek was known to the outside world as being ‘Britain’s most famous witch’ in the mid to late twentieth century. With a family that had a rich history partaking in some of the most infamous witch hunts during the 1500s -1700s, there was plenty of talk surrounding Leek’s link to the pagan world from the moment she began to indulge in a supposed ‘eccentric life’. Developing an increasingly global level of fame, Leek took to the United States where she would give extensive interviews and stories on her witchcraft, psychic abilities and love for astrology.
Granted the title of the official ‘witch of Salem’ in response to her great work with special needs children, Laurie Cabot’s legacy has helped to ensure that witchcraft still has a place within modern society. Easily one of the most well known witches in the world, Laurie Cabot’s career is long and fairly impressive when you take into account the sheer amount of obstacles stacked in her path. Opening one of the very first shops dedicated to witchcraft, Cabot’s relationship with the media has given a burst of popularity to the world of paganism that she advocates for.
One of the most extensive and covered authors in the pagan world of witchcraft and Wicca, Silver RavenWolf is a writer who has arguably shed more light on the ins and outs of contemporary paganism than anyone else has. Attempting to normalise the practices of those who follow the Wicca religion, Silver is perhaps the stella example of just how pagan practices can link in with things such as careerism.
Paranoia surrounding the pagan world reached its peak at the turn of the 1600s and following a treacherous storm that hit King James I’ ship on its way back to Scotland, an inquest was carried in North Berwick to root out those who were believed to be involved in witchcraft. Agnes Sampson was a renowned and famous healer in the region at the time and was the biggest prize of the seventy or so women hunted out by the inquest. Despite her innocence, she was coerced into a confession during the inquisition and was brutally burned alive at the stake.
Also known as La Voisin (the neighbor), Catherine Monvoisin was the wife of a French jeweler, and became famous thanks to the premonitions she’s had ever since she was little. After her husband’s business went bankrupt, she extended her field of expertise from palm reading to selling love potions, poisons, and even abortion drugs. Among her clients were many noblemen, countesses, and princesses. She was arrested, together with her daughter, under the accusation of witchcraft, and was burned at the stake in 1680 at Place de Grieve, near Paris. After her death, her daughter’s declarations revealed a series of secrets at the high court, including a plot to poison the king.
Alice Kyteler was a wealthy Irish moneylender whose husbands had the nasty habit of dying too soon and leaving all their fortune to her. When her fourth husband came down with a strange sickness, his children, Alice’s step children, began to suspect something fishy. Alice Kyteler was accused of sacrificing animals in the name of Satan. She was also accused of having poisoned her husbands, and of having sacrificed animals to Satan. Her rituals were curious to begin with, using hair from the buttocks and clothes from unbaptized children. Strange items and witchcraft totems like mysterious powders were allegedly found inside her house. She was eventually tied for witchcraft in the year 1324, becoming the first woman to be tried for witchcraft in Ireland. She was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to die. However, she disappeared on the night before her execution and was never found again.
Angele De La Barthe
As far as ridiculous witchcraft allegations go, Angele de la Barthe had one of the worst ones placed on her forehead. She apparently sexual intercourse with the Devil. That affair allegedly produced a son, a sort of half-man, wolf-snake beast that fed on babies. Angele de la Barthe was a wealthy noble woman who lived between 1230 and 1275 in Toulouse, France. She was also an adept of Catharism, a Christian dualist movement deemed heretical by the Church. She was accused of witchcraft after a series of babies mysteriously disappeared in the area. She confessed her sins, after being severely tortured by the Inquisition. Angela was the first presumed a witch, and was to be executed during the Medieval Witch Hunt.
Ursula Southeil’s mother had her when she was a teenager. Co-incidentally, she had also been accused of being a witch. Ursula Southeil’s deformed appearance from birth ticked all the checkboxes of a classic witch’s appearances (back then, witches weren’t assumed to look like sexy, gothic women portrayed by Eva Green and Anjelica Huston). Ursula Southein was a deformed child, with twisted legs, large head, and sunken cheeks. Her ghastly appearance made many villagers believe her to be the daughter of the devil. Naturally, they accused her of witchcraft. She is generally remembered as Mother Shipton, and she lived sometime between 1488 and 1561 in Yorkshire. Strange things happened around her as a child, like flying objects and other sorcery. She lived as an outcast, but she also possessed a great talent. She was a clairvoyant. It seems her reputation matched that of Nostradamus, as she predicted numerous events, even in the distant future, many of which actually came true.
According to Swedish legends dating back to the 17th century, Maret Jonsdotter once used a man as a horse and rode him to the legendary meadow of Blockula, where she frequently attended witches’ Sabbaths. She also allegedly rode cows to Blockula with her sister and slaughtered the cows after reaching the dreaded meadows. She then went on to have sexual intercourse with the Devil. Or at least that’s what Maret’s little sister claims. When The Great Noise swept Sweden between 1668 and 1676, Maret Jonsdotter was the first woman to be tried for witchcraft. Maret confessed to none of the accusations, so she could not be executed according to the laws of the time. As the Malleus Maleficarum driven witch hunting craze gathered steam in Sweden, the government changed the rules that required confession.
After the mythical Morgan Le Fay, Agnes Waterhouse is definitely Britain’s most famous witch. She allegedly dealt with the Devil, cursed people, and murdered her enemies with the use of evil hexes and black magic. She owned a cat named Satan, which she sent to kill her enemies’ livestock, or even the enemies themselves. She did confess to the accusations. Popularly known as Mother Waterhouse, she suffered the misfortune of being the first woman to be accused, tried and sentenced to death for being a witch by a secular court. Usually, the witch trials were conducted by the church. She did not repent, saying that Satan had told her she would die by hanging or burning, and there wasn’t much she could do about it. However, her bravado didn’t last long. On her way to be hung, she confessed to once trying to kill a man and failing because his belief in God was too strong and protected him. She died praying for God’s forgiveness.
Merga Bien was an extremely wealthy German heiress who was accused of witchcraft during the Fulda Witch Trials between 1603 and 1606. The trials were conducted by notorious witch hunter Balthasar von Dernbach. He was also the prince and abbot of the mystical German town of Fulda.
Merga Bien allegedly murdered her second husband and her children with him, and attended Sabbaths held by Satan. Or at least that’s what she was forced to confess while being tortured in prison. She was pregnant, but that didn’t save her from execution, as the court believed she was carrying a baby fathered by the Devil. The Fulda Witch Trials led to the execution of 250 suspects over three years. Merga Bien was the first unfortunate woman to be burned alive at the stake during the Fulda Witch Trials.