The Elizabethan Age, also known as the Golden Age, is the period of Queen Elizabeth I's rule over England. Despite the fact that the Elizabethan Age was the height of the Renaissance, a time marked by a rebirth of classic literature, art, innovations, and new ideas, people still maintained myriad superstitions including the belief in the evils of witchcraft. Those accused of witchcraft were believed to be in collusion with the devil and the source of every type of calamity.
Before Queen Elizabeth's reign in the early 1540s, laws forbid the practice of witchcraft of any kind, and during her reign, witchcraft was still considered a crime. For the first offense, the accused was punished via public humiliation when he or she was placed in the pillory: an instrument of punishment where the subject had his or her neck and hands locked within a wooden framework so that he or she could be subjected to public ridicule. However, the second offense for practicing witchcraft was far more costly, as the accused was often put to death.
The fear of the unknown and of Satan and his alleged power were at the root of Elizabethan witchcraft superstitions. Popular belief held that there were three kinds of witches: those who were harmless and who helped in various situations; those who were harmful and not at all helpful, and those who were capable of being helpful and harmful. Witches that could be both helpful and harmful were believed to be the most sinister.
Identifying a Witch: There were specific and often bizarre or ludicrous methods for identifying who was a witch during the Elizabethan era. First, it was believed that if you were to burn down an alleged witch's home and if she came forth from the abode screaming and upset, then her actions revealed that she was practicing witchcraft. Alternative superstitions pertained to a witch's physical appearance; It was believed that witches were lame, old, pale, melancholy, aged, deformed, and hideous. It was also believed that in order to become a witch, the accused would make a pact with a demon or spirit, allow the spirit to suckle their blood, and it is through this blood oath that a pact was made. The spirit that suckled the "witch" would become the witch's familiar spirit, and the witch would feed the spirit from a "teat" which could be located anywhere on the accused witch's body.
Collusion with the Devil: Witches were accused of dancing with devils, and of doing the devil's work. They were believed to be superstitious, irreverent, unholy individuals with no religion or only a partial belief in God. It was also believed that the devil had full control of the witch's mind, an issue that was entirely at the fault of the witch, since they had a lackadaisical or lazy mind and purportedly lacked the willpower or spiritual fortitude to spurn him.
Preternatural Powers: Witch's were believed to have a host of unusual powers; it was thought that they could control the minds of others; Especially judges, so that if put on trial a judge would be rendered powerless against them. Ironically, and flying directly in the face of this superstitious notion, witches were often condemned to death by the very judges they could allegedly control. Along the same lines, it was believed that witch's could cause a whole host of ailments in others, especially those that they identified as adversaries. Superstition held that witches could cause madness, bodily tremors, insensibility, and they could render someone speechless just as easily as they could cause someone to babble nonsense. It was even believed that a witch could send needles into the liver of their adversaries, or, with nothing more than a glance; the witch could cause his or her adversary to become terrified, confused, and cowardly.
Invisibility was a power attributed to accused witches as well; It was believed that they could cause horses to become so restless that they would cast their riders off their backs, or that they could steal children away from their mothers without being seen. "Black witches," according to popular superstition, were believed to eat children or to boil their fat in produce flying ointment; of particular interest to witches were un-baptized children.
Witches were allegedly capable of controlling the weather, and one superstition held that witches would assemble when the weather was calamitous. They were accused of making animals ill, causing miscarriages and birth deformities, and causing boys to be knavish or girls to be idle. Finally, people accused of witchcraft were suspected of shape shifting into donkeys, ferrets, cats, toads, horses, pigs, cows, wolves, or any animal of their choosing.