Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Witches and Demons

Picking out your college courses can be one of the most difficult choices you make as a student — it can also be really fun.

Alma College offers a number of courses that go beyond the prerequisites and into subjects a bit more specialized and interesting. Danny Wasserman-Soler, associate professor of history at Alma, teaches one such course: Witches and Demons.

Pretty spooky, right? In this course, Danny aims to go beyond pop culture icons like “The Crucible” and “The Exorcist” and into something a little deeper: an understanding of a controversial and misunderstood 300-year period of European history, during which as many as 90,000 (!) witch trials took place.

Danny agreed to share with us three facts about witches and demons that we might not have been able to gather from movies and TV. So, gather your coven, brew up a potion and check it out!

Not just for women

If you’ve ever seen “Hocus Pocus” and had the thought that all witches were women, Danny says that’s just a stereotype. While it is true that the majority of people accused of witchcraft in Europe from the time period he studies, 1500-1800, were women, there was a substantial minority of men who were also accused. In fact, in some countries, like Iceland and Russia, men made up the majority of accused witches.

Relationship to religion

Danny breaks the idea of witchcraft down to a math problem: Bad deeds + a pact with the Devil = witchcraft. But while many of the leading religious figures in Europe, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, would preach about the Devil during this time period, Daniel said churchmen didn’t carry out the majority of witch trials. Most witch trials were carried out by civil courts – not religious courts.

Telltale signs

If you’ve ever been out and about and thought you saw a witch, but weren’t really sure if what you saw was the real deal, Danny has some suggestions. In Europe, at this time, it was believed that witches were given a special mark on the body from the Devil, as a way to show their allegiance.

Ever wonder how a person in this time period could be accused of witchcraft? Danny says it sometimes happened after someone in a community suffered from “demonic possession” — the idea that a demon took over their body and caused them to do horrible things. When thishappened, he said, the possessed person would blame their situation on someone in the community who they accused of being a witch. The next step was usually the “witch trial” commonly portrayed in books and movies, though the trials themselves looked different than what we see in books and movies.

Many of the most educated scholars of the time devoted themselves to studying witchcraft and the Devil, so witchcraft trials were sometimes surprisingly thorough and careful.

Danny Wasserman-Soler joined the faculty of Alma College in 2012. He teaches courses on European history (from Middle Ages to the Enlightenment) as well as world history and recently published a book, “Truth in Many Tongues: Religious Conversion and the Languages of the Early Spanish Empire.” 

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