WITCH-HUNTING THEN AND NOW

Appropriate to this time of year, books about Witchcraft were once among the most popular, when the printing press was in its infancy, before 1500, when books were known as ‘incunabula’ coming from ‘cuna’, the Latin word for cradle.

The image above comes from the first illustrated book to be printed on Witchcraft, Ulrich Molitor’s De Lamiis of 1489. The three women are witches, although granted they are a far cry from the Sanderson Sisters. There’s also some distance between this opening image and the title of the work, where the word for ‘Witch’ refers to Lamia, the mythological Queen of Libya who turned into a demon with an insatiable hunger for children. For instance It doesn’t even come close to other depictions of that creature:

This one comes from Topsell’s translation of Gesner’s Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, which includes as many fantastical creatures as it does cats, goats, and wolves.

So the point of the image of the three women, iconic in its time since the book was popular enough to reach half a dozen editions before 1500, is that any woman could be a witch. None of the lore was dropped of course – witches were still identified by what children were devoured, what men poisoned, how many thunder storms cooked up, crops destroyed, and how many times they had slept with the devil – only rather than portray pure evil as a wet hot scaly mess, the power of this widely circulated book is that the face it gave to the name was, well, a few grannies sitting around a table having a cup of tea. Maybe one of them is a housewife. Each of them could be anyone.

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