Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide

Want to write magic that lines up with historical practices, or at least takes a little inspiration from it? Itching to build up your own old fashioned magical setting after a certain writer let you down? Or are you perhaps looking for ideas for some supernatural horror?

Then this is the place to begin!

In this article I'm going to introduce you to concepts, practices, and general history of magic and witchcraft in Europe - which is quite possibly way more complicated than you ever imagined!

First uploaded: November 5, 2020. Last revision: April 20, 2021.

Table of Contents

First, understand the worldview.

To really capture the spirit of old-time magic and mysticism, one must first understand how the world was perceived and understood by those who lived in the past. Many scientific discoveries that are fundamental to our own understanding of the world today had yet to be discovered. For a long time, the concept of cells, germs, and chemical reactions simply didn't exist.

Sure, people understood that certain substances reacted in certain ways when you mixed and/or heated them, and they knew that certain herbs could treat certain illnesses, but they had no way of understanding the underlying chemical mechanisms. It wasn't until the 18th century that chemical reactions began to be understood.

People definitely knew that diseases were often contagious, and they knew that certain plants and minerals were effective in treating or preventing them. However, it wouldn't be until the 17th century that cells and microorganisms were demonstrated to exist.

And of course, Medieval Europe was largely Christianized by way of the Catholic Church. However, this often didn't impact people's beliefs or worldview in the ways people often imagine. While the Catholic Church didn't exactly approve of beliefs and practices they took for pagan superstition (if not outright demonolatry), they were generally somewhat more concerned with whether the peasants were showing up to church every Sunday and paid their tithes than in keeping them perfectly orthodox. And so in practice, people were often permitted to practice their folk traditions provided they were sufficiently Christianized. So rather than invoke the gods they worshiped before Christianity, they might invoke the Holy Trinity or the Virgin Mary. And of course, it was entirely possible for members of the clergy to believe in fairies and such as much as anyone else in their communities.

Many people tend to imagine the Middle Ages as a world where pro-magic pagans clashed with anti-magic Christians. In reality, it was by and large a world where many of the ideas and principles we classify as magic today were considered fundamental facts of nature by pretty much everyone. The real point of contention was whether people were loyal to state-approved religious institutions, or being led astray by false doctrines, or even worshiping or colluding with malefic spirits. In the Middle Ages, relatively few people were put on trial for witchcraft, and those who were found guilty were rarely given severe punishment.

Now, a couple of things to make clear before we proceed: First, Wicca did not exist yet. There were no secret cults of wand-waving witches worshiping the Lord and the Lady. Wicca was created in the mid-20th century and was heavily based on ceremonial traditions such as Hermeticism, which is closer to Gnosticism and Christianity than any actual indigenous European religion. (While Hermeticism itself dates back to Late Antiquity, it wouldn't be popular in Europe until the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, and even then was largely practiced by the relatively privileged, not the common folk.)

Secondly, it's important to acknowledge that most folk magic practitioners wouldn't have been called "witches." The term "witch" often referred specifically to practitioners of malefic magic, while those who practiced beneficial magic might be called cunning folk, wise folk, or something else. Additionally, "witch" is an English word, and wouldn't have been used in non-English speaking regions. Therefore, it's important to research the particular terminology used in the specific time and place you plan to write about.

Okay, so what did pre-modern people believe? How did they understand the workings of the universe?

First of all, pre-modern people didn't distinguish between magical and mundane like we do today. They distinguished between sacred and secular, clean and unclean, holy and unholy. Exactly what was which depended a lot on culture. It was commonly accepted that one ought to be in a reasonably "clean" state before engaging in any magical or spiritual endeavours. Cleansing oneself might involve bathing, fasting, or sexual abstinence; or other culturally-recognized forms of ablution or abstinence.

People (especially the common folk) had a lot of animistic beliefs. They believed that life was sustained through the presence of life force, which they believed was contained in one's blood. They believed that most things had a soul, or spiritual essence, and that the spiritual essences of different things were naturally friendly (sympathetic) or hostile (antipathic) toward each other. Ergo, strong-smelling herbs could drive out disease-causing spirits due to their natural antipathy, while bees were drawn to flowers because of their natural sympathy. One might create a charm to ward off snakes out of the bones of a rooster based on the perceived natural antipathy between snakes and roosters (as chickens will eat small snakes, even venomous ones). Conversely, one might create a charm to attract stray dogs by using a big beef bone.

Some things were also believed to have natural dominion or power over other things. Because God was considered to have dominion over all things, commanding demons to leave in God's name would force them out. The lion, being the king of beasts, supposedly held the power to frighten away just about any animal.

Spiritual essence was considered transferable or contagious. Just as putting clothing into a cedar chest would make the clothes smell like cedar, and just as standing close to a sick person could result in catching the illness, one might gain the ability to easily escape trouble by carrying around a rabbit's foot. Or one might gain the ability to easily multiply their fortune because rabbits, well, breed like rabbits. A folk remedy for a wart might involve pricking the wart and letting it bleed onto a piece of bread, then burying the bread; as the bread rotted away, the wart was supposed to rot away as well. This principle is also how vampiric creatures were supposed to work; they drained life force from living things to feed and sustain themselves. Personal items were believed to have their owners' essence in them and were considered thus linked to their owners; therefore, if someone fell seriously ill, a knife they often carried with them might begin to rust; conversely, keeping the knife clean might prevent a sick person from coming to worse harm.

The image of a thing was also believed to contain the spiritual essence of the actual thing. If you wanted to make yourself brave like a lion but had no lion parts to spare, you might create and wear a pendant in the shape of a lion. And for this same reason, a plant with heart-shaped leaves might be considered appropriate for treating heart ailments. In medical context, this concept was known as the Doctrine of Signatures.

There was also a kind of "like cures like" or "hair of the dog that bit ya" logic. In this line of reasoning, holy water that a snake had been rinsed in might be able to cure snakebite, or a bitter drink might be able to cure a bitter stomach.

Physicians of the day also believed in humorism. Each of the four humors were connected to the four elements: yellow bile with fire, black bile with earth, phlegm with water, and blood with air. Poor health was believed to be caused by having one's humors out of balance. Therefore, if a patient was believed to be lacking in yellow bile, they might be instructed to eat food with a fiery nature. In the late Medieval period, astrology was considered important in medicine.

People, particularly the rural folk, also believed in land spirits and in plant spirits. They believed that spirits could be angered if one treated them with cruelty or disrespect. They believed in demons that could torment and angels that could protect.

People believed in creatures such as trolls, dragons, elves, brownies, vampires, werewolves, dwarves, imps, nixies, and suchlike, though the exact details of what they believed about such creatures varied from region to region. For example, the Irish pooka was generally a playful prankster, while the German nixie was seen as more hostile toward humans, and horrible fathers besides. Fairy beings were sometimes seen as helpful as well; many folk magic practitioners worked with fairies as familiar spirits, as demonstrated by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits.

You must not take any belief or assumption you have about any folkloric creature for granted; there's a good chance that it's based on a fiction trope originating in the early modern period at the earliest. Many tropes originate in Hollywood, or as backlash against perceived Hollywood sanitization. While it's true that old folklore generally isn't as bright and sparkly as Disney's interpretations, it's rarely as grim and gruesome as Eric Kripke would have it, either.

As mentioned earlier, the Catholic Church wasn't excessively concerned with making sure the peasants had perfectly orthodox beliefs. Consequentially, many people's conception of the universe blended Christian elements with a pre-Christian worldview. As Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits demonstrates, some people were apparently unclear on the distinction between demons and fairies, and angels and fairies. Their reckoning of the hereafter might blend pre-Christian traditions of a placid underground afterlife with Hell or Lake of Fire. (And goodness knows how many fairy tales depict the Devil (and possibly his grandmother) living in a cave much as one might expect to see an ogre or troll.) Conversely, these subterranean afterlives might be imagined as pleasant, with angels mingling among fairies.

European Christians also came up with ways to explain the existence of fairy beings within a Christian cosmology. In Ireland, the sidhe were sometimes explained as fallen angels. In Germany, a legend explained dwarves as the descendants of children cursed by Jesus when their mother hid them in the cellar. (Naturally, exactly how people reckoned the nature of their local fairy creatures depended on the time and region.)

Ancient Greeks adopted astrology from the Babylonians, and from there it was introduced into Europe. Astrology was practiced throughout the Middle Ages, particularly so in the late Middle Ages when Christian Europe began paying more attention to the writings of Islamic scholars.

In Hermetic thinking, things got their magical properties from the constellations and planets themselves. In The Philosophy of Natural Magic, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa describes how astrology affects the properties of things and how they receive their virtues from the planets. (Quick note for anyone who wants to read Agrippa's work: he was an elitist snob with antisemitic views. Bear that in mind whenever he talks as if he has ultimate authority and/or whenever he kisses up to Plato, who also had a lot of terrible political opinions that very likely influenced the kind of metaphysical ideas he perceived as good and sensible. Like, Platonic ideals are basically just reality prescriptivism, which is entirely absurd and borderline fascist.)

Once you understand these principles, the sense behind most folk charms readily becomes apparent. Nothing about them is random or whimsical, but crafted according to a certain understanding of the universe. When an old charm says you can make a dog stay at home by scraping the corners of a table with a knife, putting the scrapings onto a piece of bread, and feeding the bread to the dog, the idea is that you are binding the dog to you and your home. When a protective spell calls for red string, it's because the color red is associated with vitality and strength (think blood and Thor's red hair!). When instructions tell you to cut your divining rod on a Wednesday, it's because Wednesday is associated with the planet Mercury, which magically pertains to communication and divination.

Know who practiced, and who practiced what.

Today there's a common perception that most practitioners of folk magic were women, but historically this was not the case. Generally, both men and women practiced magic. However, women often were considered more likely to fall for Satan's wiles. Consequentially, a disproportionate number of women were tried and executed for witchcraft, and the myth that witches were all or mostly women was born.

Hermeticism, which grew popular in the late Middle Ages, was practiced by relatively wealthy men, who were generally not tried for witchcraft, nor generally censored. (Even during the height of the witch trials (1580-1650), no small number of occult books were published.)

In the 14th century, The Sworn Book of Honorius (Liber Juratus Honorii in Latin) and The Key of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis in Latin) were available. In the 16th century, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa published his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (De Occulta Philosophia libri III in Latin). The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses appeared in the 18th-19th century. These and similar texts frequently appropriated no small amount of Jewish mystical tradition and were chock full of Orientalism (EG, falsely claiming that their information came from Egypt), which the modern reader should always be critically aware of.

This is not to say that no one was persecuted for these practices; according to Richard Kieckhefer's Magic in the Middle Ages, quite a few members of the clergy were put on trial for practicing necromancy, IE, conjuring demons.

Such books did occasionally came into the hands of the common folk, particularly as printed books became more widely available. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, for example, is now part of folk traditions such as braucherei and hoodoo.

The purpose of folk magic has remained largely consistent throughout the years: solving problems and making life easier. Common purposes for folk magic included treating the maladies of people and livestock, warding off malefic spirits and malicious magics, keeping thieves away or finding lost items, securing good favor with people, rousing or cooling physical passions, and staying safe on journeys. Generally, people didn't have any particularly fantastical expectations from magic, but were more concerned with addressing fairly mundane problems.

Know how it was done.

The fundamental principles of folk magic have remained fairly consistent for generations; in fact, they can be found all over the world, which suggests paleolithic origins. Yet at the same time, folk magic has always adapted to fit its time and place. (Again, for most of human history, people didn't distinguish between magical and mundane the way we do today, so they didn't share our sentiment that things were hostile to magic simply because they were new or "scientific" in nature.)

Folk practitioners carefully passed their traditions on to the next generation, and they improvised with what was available. They practiced magic rooted in ancient tradition while devising new charms to meet contemporary needs.

(Naturally, the following will pertain to how these principles were applied in Europe in particular; keep in mind that people in other places would have applied them in somewhat different ways.)

Practitioners often kept their charms and remedies secret so they wouldn't lose their business. Even when they weren't selling their services for money (and keep in mind, most peasants didn't have money, anyway), they might still receive goods from their clients. And while keeping a personal grimoire (EG, a Book of Shadows) is common practice these days, not everyone would have been able to do so, nor would have felt it necessary. (Worth noting, many modern-day folk practitioners don't write down their charms or methods, let alone talk about them publicly, as it's considered a sacred and personal business.)

But that said, a lot made it into books, such as these Old English metrical charms and these Old English charms. One can compare these with folk charms found in The Long Lost Friend, or with these old folk remedies. If you can get your hands on it, Gotfrid Storms's Anglo-Saxon Charms contains dozens of charms and spells dating back to the Middle Ages. Richard Kieckhefer's Magic in the Middle Ages contains a lot of in-depth info, and is fairly easy to get. You can also download volumes I, II, and III of Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England from Google Books for free.

(A warning: many old spells and charms contain antisemitic content in their incantations, or are otherwise racist in nature.)

One very important thing to remember, folk practitioners would have worked in a focused, even prayerful state of mind. Although an entire formal ritual wouldn't be necessary for most things, people were still invoking divine forces, or at least forces that merited some amount respect under the circumstances. Accordingly, many spells and charms were accompanied by an appropriate prayer.

Other spells didn't use a prayer per se, but invoked a story that was thematically or symbolically appropriate for the magic's intended effect. The Merseberg charms are a good example of this.

Spells or charms might involve a symbolic act of some kind (remember the whole sympathy thing). For example, it was believed that one could summon the wind by whistling.

Practitioners absolutely weren't shy about working with animal ingredients. You might hear from some modern writers that every reference to an animal ingredient actually referred to a plant part, but if you actually read through old spells and charms, it becomes very clear from context that they were using real animal parts. Agrippa even insists that wolf teeth must be taken from live wolves - yikes! (Of course, one must question how many people were actually willing to risk life and limb to pull teeth from a live wolf, and how many hunters were willing to say they did if it meant getting paid extra.)

Some charms involved perfuming or fumigating spaces or objects. This might be accomplished burning herbs, or by mixing herbs, minerals, and/or animal ingredients into animal fat, dividing the mix into grain-sized portions, and leaving them in whatever spot one wanted to perfume. (For example, one might place them in one's bedroom if the spell was supposed to make one dream of the future.)

Paper or parchment with charms written on them were believed to have power. One might carry such on one's person or place it somewhere safe inside the home. Such papers might protect their owners from harm or bring good fortune.

Poppets were used as well; practitioners might fashion small dolls out of wax, cloth, clay, or whatever was available (Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits mentions a human figure drawn onto a piece of parchment). Something pertaining to the intended target, such as a lock of their hair or their name written on a piece of paper, would be placed inside the doll. From there, the practitioner might cast healing spells to treat the target from a distance, or cast curses on it, drive sharp objects into it, hold it over fire, or some other symbolically hurtful act to cause harm to them.

Wax might also be used as a medium for writing prayers or charms on, and the occasional folk charm does call for candles. For example, Gotfried Storms's Anglo-Saxon Magic mentions a charm to find lost or stolen cattle that involves letting the wax of three candles to drip into the animals' footprints; and The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: Of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones, and Certain Beasts, Also a Book of the Marvels of the World says that if adder's skin, orpiment, beeswax, and donkey fat are made into a candle, then anyone seen in its light will appear headless. (That said, the kind of candle magic that's popular today wasn't a thing until the 20th century; to the best of my knowledge, our modern focus on candles is something of a byproduct of ceremonial magic, where candles were often used for invocation rituals.)

Eucharist bread was sometimes used. It was, after all, supposed to be the body of Christ, and therefore contained Christ's divine essence. Thus it might be used for protection, healing, or whatever else might seem appropriate to use the Body of Christ for. Such is the case in the metrical charm against a dwarf. ("Dwarf" referring to a kind of illness, perhaps one thought to be caused by dwarves.)

There was also the Sator square, which was used for general protection and good fortune. (According to Richard Kieckhefer in Magic in the Middle Ages, it could be used to ease childbirth or easily make friends.)

Numerous methods of divination existed. People have used reflective surfaces such as mirrors or bowls of water since ancient times. Bibliomancy is attested in the late Medieval period, as is dice divination. Supposedly, placing the heart and left foot of a toad over a sleeping man's mouth would force him to answer any question you asked.

Many spells and charms attempted to cure illness by transferring the illness away from the body. A charm might have a sick person blow onto a dog while the practitioner recites an appropriate prayer or incantation. Then the practitioner drives the dog away, and supposedly the sick person will recover. Similarly, Medieval physicians believed that bloodletting could allow the illness to escape the body.

In a similar fashion, a charm to get rid of warts might have the afflicted person cut or prick the wart, let the blood fall onto a piece of bread, and then bury the bread out in a field. Because the bread and the wart now had a sympathetic connection, the wart was supposed to shrink and disappear as the bread decayed. A spell of this nature might stipulate that one must not look back on the return journey, lest the discarded affliction follow one back home.

Spells intended to discard something might also involve burying an object in a liminal space, such as a crossroad; or tossing it into a river where it will be carried away. Someone who wanted to cure a rash might surreptitiously rub the rash on the clothing of a corpse, supposing that the rash would be carried to the grave with the corpse.

Someone who wished to undo a spell worked by the use of a physical (perhaps, say, a poppet used for malicious purposes) might break the object apart and toss it in a river - thereby breaking its power and carrying its remnants away to oblivion.

Witch bottles were apparently invented in the the early 16th century - in other words, during the time of the Protestant reformation and the early days of Europe's witch panic.

Tarot cards were a fairly late arrival in the divination scene; they didn't arrive in Europe until the 14th century and were intended for playing card games. These cards were based on playing cards from Islamic Egypt, which in turn ultimately trace back to China. The practice of using playing cards for divination seems to have arisen in 18th century, as did the speculation that tarot cards originated with ancient mystics.

Something I've been unable to determine when is when cord/knot magic was first used. String has been around for quite awhile, so much that a lot of myths developed around goddesses that spin and weave, and the practice of tying wind into knots certainly wasn't invented yesterday, but I don't yet know whether this practice existed before the early modern period. Witches' ladders are another one of those things that seems like they ought to be really old at first, but apparently the first one was discovered in the late 18th century in Somerset. Perhaps if anyone knows of a good source on more information about old-time cord and knot magic, they can point me to it.

Some folk practitioners worked with familiar spirits, or as many people call them today, spirit guides. Familiars might be fairies, angels, or demons; or might be reckoned as some syncretic blend of these categories - again, many laypeople were somewhat unclear on Christian cosmology and ended up blending it with pre-Christian beliefs about the afterlife and the otherworld, and some reconciled pre-Christian beliefs with Christian cosmology by declaring fairies to be a kind of fallen angel. Some people claimed to keep fairies or demons inside crystals, baskets, or bottles. Going by what's described in Cunning Folk & Familiar Spirits, it largely worked in much the same way as modern spirit work or hedge witchery.

And one last thing: There were definitely Jews and Muslims in Europe, who were practicing traditions of their own. This isn't an area I'm even remotely qualified to cover, so I recommend you find more qualified people. Ali A Olomi Tweets and hosts history podcasts on Islamic tradition. (And of course, if you don't belong to these cultures make sure you talk to someone who does before inserting it into your work.)

Tips for further research on this topic.

Magic and witchcraft is an absolutely massive, incredibly complicated topic, and it's impossible to do the half of it justice in this article. The generalities I've given might be enough to work with if you're writing straight-up fantasy, but actual historical fiction will most likely require a lot more research. So here's some tips to help you get started with that.

First, never take any historical claim from any book, blog, or podcast about practicing witchcraft at face value. Pagan and occult movements have been rife with misinformation for many years now, so it's really important to check and see where their info comes from. Key points to remember:

Keeping all this in mind will help you filter out a lot of historical misinformation and spot sketchy resources in a hurry.

Most of the books I mentioned earlier have a lot of researched historical information, or were written during relevant time periods. I recommend looking into them if you can. I'll also link to more books and articles below.

If you're aiming to write about a specific time and place, then it's important to research its particular political climate. What might have got someone executed in the late Middle Ages might have only warranted a slap on the wrist in the early Middle Ages. The Salem witch trials took place over a year, whereas the peak of Europe's witch hunting ranged from 1580-1650. And it wasn't just witches or alleged witches who faced heat in those days - as Catholics and Protestants battled for supremacy, Jews and Anabaptists faced persecution as well. Additionally, many people were accused of being werewolves.

And while there's obviously wiggle room to create your own charms and spells, it's also important to understand how people in a given time and region generally constructed them and to understand what would have been available to them. It's sometimes easy to forget that materials that are readily available to us today may not have been so in another time or place; or conversely, that they may have had easy access to something we consider uncommon.

For the reasons listed above, it's also important to consider the time and place a particular piece of information originated from. If you're trying to write something set in 10th century Scotland, you don't want your information coming from 16th century Germany. It's also important to consider how the writers may have been influenced by the political and social climates they lived in, and how that may have biased their views. There's nothing politically neutral about the way so many occult writers gush over Plato and the like.

Whether you intend to write historical fiction or just take a little inspiration from history, I hope you enjoyed this article and found it informative. If you liked it, please share it with your friends and consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks!

More onsite pages you might like:

A Brief Primer on the Four Elements
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About The Medieval Period
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Medieval Feudalism
European Dragons: What You Might Not Know About Them
Things To Know When Writing Historical Fiction & Fictional History
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Plants & Herbs

On Worldbuilding A Magical Setting
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
Tips & Ideas To Create More Believable Sword 'n Sorcery Worlds
Magical School Development Questions

More offsite resources:

Medieval necromancy, the art of controlling demons
A brief history of medieval magic
Folk magic, Witchcraft, What's The Difference?
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland
Bewitched by an Elf Dart: Fairy Archaeology, Folk Magic and Traditional Medicine in Ireland
Magic: Magic In Medieval And Renaissance Europe
10 Surprising Facts About Magic In The Middle Ages
Fairies, witchcraft and healing charms: how folk medicine and the supernatural entwined
Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections
Odd Ways People Protected Themselves From Witchcraft
Spells and charms from the Pendle witches echo down the ages
The Complete Herbal by Nicolas Culpeper
The Mirror of Alchimy by Roger Bacon
Witchcraft and Superstitious Record in the South-Western District of Scotland
Ancient legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde
Witchcraft & Second Sight in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland by Campbell
Lancashire Folk-lore by John Harland and Thomas Turner Wilkinson
The magic of jewels and charms by George Frederick Kunz

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