How to tell a witch?
November 3, 2009 6:17 PM   Subscribe

After going to the library and conducting some research, you decide there's no two ways about it: Your next-door neighbor is a witch!

What were the signs that tipped you off?

(Please Note:

1. Assume the witch is female.
2. I'm interested in silly stereotypical nonsense that is an insulting caricature of actual practices AND things that would indicate a practicing witch in real life. Regional or country variants would be of interest. Any place or moment in history will do.
3. Any wording in this question that was offensive to practicing witches was entirely unintentional.
4. It's for something I'm writing.)
posted by Number Used Once to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
i seem to recall a test applied in Salem which went something like : throw her in the river. if she drowns, she was not a witch. oops. if she does not drown, she is a witch and therefore pulled out of the river and stoned to death.

which seems like sort of a cruelly efficient way of deciding to get rid of someone you don't like.
posted by radiosilents at 6:26 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

At some point in February 1692, likely between the time when the afflictions began but before specific names were mentioned, a neighbor of Rev. Parris, Mary Sibly (aunt of the afflicted Mary Walcott), instructed John Indian, one of the minister's slaves, to make a witch cake, using traditional English white magic to discover the identity of the witch who was afflicting the girls. The cake, made from rye meal and urine from the afflicted girls, was fed to a dog.

According to English folk understanding of how witches accomplished affliction, when the dog ate the cake, the witch herself would be hurt because invisible particles she had sent to afflict the girls remained in the girls' urine, and her cries of pain when the dog ate the cake would identify her as the witch. This superstition was based on the Cartesian "Doctrine of Effluvia", which posited that witches afflicted by the use of "venomous and malignant particles, that were ejected from the eye", according to the October 8, 1692 letter of Thomas Brattle, a contemporary critic of the trials.


more wackiness here :
posted by radiosilents at 6:28 PM on November 3, 2009

The words "witch" and "witchcraft" and "sorcery" have been used to translate a large number of practices and beliefs into English. When you say regional variations, do you mean world-wide, or are you primarily interested in the European-based stuff?
posted by carmen at 6:36 PM on November 3, 2009

Roald Dahl's The Witches is an essential manual on the signs of a witch and the extent of their powers. From wikipedia: to recognize a witch: witches have no hair, and must therefore wear wigs directly on their naked scalps, resulting in a condition they call "wig-rash"; witches have thin, curved, clawlike fingernails that they must disguise with gloves; witches have no toes; a witch's spit is bright blue, leaving a pale bluish film on their teeth; and a witch has unusual pupils in which one may see "fire and ice dancing" in the center.
posted by muddgirl at 6:38 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: When you say regional variations, do you mean world-wide

Yes, worldwide. I tend to think in terms of Europe by default, but Asia, Africa, and Elsewhere would be of interest.
posted by Number Used Once at 6:39 PM on November 3, 2009

For the stereotypes, see Wicked Witch at TV Tropes. If you're interested in stereotypes of non-wicked witches as well, you may want to also look at Cute Witch and Hot Witch.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:40 PM on November 3, 2009

Obviously, if she turns you into a newt, you can be certain that she's a witch.

In the Bible, if she has been seen raising dead spirits for conversation, she's definitely a witch. See 1 Samuel 28.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:41 PM on November 3, 2009

Well my neighbor is so lovely to look at that this is not the first thing you think, but then there was that episode I observed fron my backyard deck with the tower of exhausted pop cans and the candles and salt shaker and language I've never heard before, and the cat that poops in everybody's garden was hit by a car.
Then in the neighborhood grocery I saw her arguing with the guy in produce, and the next thing you know I see the EMT's pull up and wheel the guy out on a stretcher, and he was bleeding from (somewhere in the crotch?) ?
And, while not un-lovely, there is that wart-like thing (I'm sure it's just a mole) on her nose.
posted by bebrave! at 6:41 PM on November 3, 2009

Witchcraft in Western & Central Africa might be worth exploring. Here are a few examples I've heard about recently:
1. A man is convinced his penis is shrinking (or that it has disappeared entirely). Ergo, witchcraft, caused either directly by a woman he's either spurned or had sex with, or by a witch doctor hired by her.
2. Child witches. I know it's not exactly what you're asking, but there seems to be a link between higher numbers of children being abandoned/abused because they are suspected witches, and general disease and disaster, and especially starvation or threat of starvation. One instance I've heard is that when a starving child hangs onto life longer than expected, he or she is suspected of being a witch.
3. Witch smellers. I think this is southern African. If something bad happened, they were the people in a tribe who could smell out who was the witch that had caused the bad thing to happen. they would touch you during a ceremony that everyone attended, and you'd be dragged off and killed.

Just a few off the top of my head... Being a witch isn't always bad, btw, in various African cultures. Even being accused as a child witch sometimes has the result of saving a child's life, as the child may be saved from starvation or disease by coming under the care of a witch doctor for a time, after being shunned by parents who lack the resources to take care of the child.
posted by lesli212 at 6:45 PM on November 3, 2009

I found out my witch through science.

I drew up a calendar, cross-referencing my next-door neighbour's holidays and work trips with measured growth and flowering in my pot plants, vegetable garden, and front lawn.

Controlling for seasonal variation and weather patterns, there was a strong match between periods of high growth and my neighbour's absence, and I concluded that there was a correlation between the neighbour's presence and crops failing.

My hypothesis that my neighbour was actively having a negative effect on plant life in her immediate vicinity, through some kind of magic, was not well received either by the 000 emergency operators or by the young Constable when I reported it. I will write to my Member of Parliament to encourage the Police to employ official Inquisitors with experience in detecting and preventing witchcraft.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:47 PM on November 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I was a kid I attended a seance. At one point the woman running the seance said that the next message would only be understood by people who were ready to understand it, or some such. She then proceeded to say something I could clearly perceive was well-formed English but which I couldn't understand at all. If your neighbor could do that, you would be on good grounds deciding that she was a witch.
posted by alms at 6:48 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

You see her singing and dancing (naked?) around a bubbling cauldron at midnight during a full moon? While carrying a broomstick? With a black cat singing along?

Those are the stereotypical, cartoon-ish things that come to my mind.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:03 PM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: The Malleus Malificarum is one of the seminal European texts on witches. It would probably be of interest to you.

Another thing, which isn't obvious to the casual observer but was often used in an investigation to "prove" someone was a witch was the presence of a witch's teat -- often a hemorrhoid or some other sore, mark, mole etc. that was thought to be where the devil kissed/bit her or where she fed her demon familiars her blood.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:13 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

A long time ago, I met a girl who claimed to be a witch. She was 14 and having sex with my boyfriend's 24 year old friend, who planned on going back to be with his girlfriend, who'd had a baby to another man who looked just like him. She was going to prevent this by grinding up his fingernails and feeding them back to him in a cup of tea. I don't know if he drank tea at all, or if he couldn't get hold of his fingernails, but he went back to the old girlfriend. On the other hand, things didn't run all that smoothly for them - she was a bank teller, and some child had scribbled a hold up note on the back of one of the withdrawal slips at the bank, and replaced them for a regular customer to use. When the old girlfriend was dealing with a customer, she turned over the withdrawal slip to write the combination of notes she was giving out and was confronted with a note that said "this is a hold up" give me all your money. Also, my boyfriend and I had sex in their spare room and (yech) he was not careful about disposing of the condom, which she found and blamed on her guy (the one who was sleeping with the 14 year old). The last time I saw the 14 year old, she was applying for Social Security (where I worked!) because her step-father had thrown her out of home for calling the vet to her horse without his permission. When she was filling in the claim form, she told me her last job was working in a massage parlour. I thought it'd be a good idea to get a social worker to handle that claim. So, you know, either she's a witch, or I was just really gullible. And when you consider that my brother had me convinced that footballers protected their genitalia by shaving their pubic region, pushing their testes back up into the pelvic cavity, and taping over (the reason for the shaving, duh), and that worcestershire sauce was made out of crushed black ants (though in my defense I had actually tasted green ants, and there was some similarity), I think the truth is, that I was just really gullible. No thank you, I have enough bridges. All of the above is a true story.
posted by b33j at 7:18 PM on November 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

If you want hokey, teeny-YAL '70's-era ideas of witchcraft, you can't go wrong with Lois Duncan's Summer of Fear and/or Midnight Offerings.
posted by oflinkey at 7:20 PM on November 3, 2009

I highly recommend this book as a reference. She can unlock doors with a strand of hair.

posted by Madamina at 7:35 PM on November 3, 2009

Fiasco da Gama's answer is great.
posted by rokusan at 7:38 PM on November 3, 2009

Best answer: She came into your house and patted your kid/pet on the head and praised it, after that they never thrived.

She came into the house when you were baking and you refused her a loaf - all your bread failed to rise. Same principle for brewing or making butter, or any organic process which could go wrong.

You annoyed her, she cursed you for some reason, the curse worked.

She spoke enviously of your beautiful garden/ fine crop/fine domestic animal - next thing the garden/crop withered, the animal died.

She had an argument with a local fisherman or sailor, she got down on her knees, lifted her hands up to heaven and swore 'May neither sea nor salt water bear you and may the crabs tear your flesh on the sea bottom'. The intended victim drowns next voyage.

You spot her covertly selling bags to sea captains - those sea captains always have favourable winds.

Sea captains who annoy her get caught in terrible storms and their boats sunk.

You catch her baptising a cat.

You catch her baptising a cat and throwing it into the sea - next thing there's a huge storm

She claims to be able to take illness from one person and to give it another. Person X gets unexpectedly better of an illness, you suddenly fall ill of the same thing. You know person X called her in.

She offers you a healing potion, after taking it you get violently ill.

Having fallen ill, you go to ask her to restore your health. She refuses. You scratch her 'above the breath' drawing blood eg. on the forehead. Your illness is instantly cured.

She claims she gets powers and knowledge from a fairy or famous dead person who died violently. She speaks of going into the fairy hills and fetching elf-shot to kill people and animals with - tiny neolithic arrow heads turn up unexpectedly.

You spot whirlwinds coming and going from her premises - that's how the fairies travel.

She knows a lot of charms - and you figure she can hurt as well as heal.

You know her mother was famous as a witch.

She promises cures from healing stones - you're sure stones have those powers naturally. You think she could also use those stones to hurt people.

You catch her burying someone wrapped in an ox-hide in a pretend grave for a divination.

You're lying ill, she comes in and swings a bag over you - you suddenly get very ill and start having fits.

You're lying ill in a fever, suddenly she appears in your bedroom and strokes your privy parts.

You're lying ill in a fever, suddenly she appears and sits on your chest/ a large animal appears and sits on your chest

Your horse starts whinnying and panicking as though someone is riding it hard in the stable - but when you rush in there's no-one there only an exhausted horse that looks like it's been ridden for miles.

You have fits every time she looks at you.

You find her roasting a wax image or clay image in human form over the fire.

You're followed by an animal like a crow or a hare or a dog. You chase it into her house. Suddenly it disappears and she is there.

You shoot the animal. Only a silver sixpence works as a bullet - when you next see her she's injured in the same place,

You set dogs on the hare - when you next see her she has marks in the same places the dogs nipped the hare.

You see her in the churchyard digging up body parts.

You're determined to get to the bottom of this. You and some helpers keep her awake for as long as ten days tills she confesses that she had sex with the devil and denied her baptism and gave herself over to him.

You're determined to get to the bottom of this. You keep plunging a long brass pin into her and telling her to find it until she can't. Voila - the devil's mark!

You find her LJ where she posts about how great sex is with the devil, and what she did at the Sabbath last week. Also her Beelzebub/Jesus slash fiction.

She tweets about how big and cold the Devil's member is - cold like spring well water.

Her Facebook info says Relationship Status:Covenanted with Satan, Interested In: Incubi

OK, I made those last three up! :-)
posted by Flitcraft at 7:45 PM on November 3, 2009 [9 favorites]

She has a bumper sticker that says "MY OTHER CAR IS A BROOM"
posted by longsleeves at 8:28 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

What were the signs that tipped you off?

1. She works as a midwife. (This threatens my own medical practice, but that has nothing to do with it, I swear!)

2. I've been eating a lot of bad rye bread lately.

3. WOMEN FRIGHTEN ME. I feel a desperate need to kill what I cannot control. Ditto, cats.
posted by ErikaB at 9:40 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

She weighs the same as a duck.
posted by hip_plumber at 10:57 PM on November 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

When I tell my husband Abner about something she has done, he does not believe me.
posted by yomimono at 1:09 AM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Other bumper stickers: 'BLESSED BE' 'GODDESS BLESS' 'STEVIE NICKS'
posted by mattholomew at 2:27 AM on November 4, 2009

Looks at your sheep or goat or cow and it dies or stops producing milk.
Looks at you and you become impotent.
Looks at you and then you don't get pregnant.
Tells the future by way of astrology, numerology, casting lots, etc.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:46 AM on November 4, 2009

She is made of wood.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:49 AM on November 4, 2009

She says to you, 'I'm a witch.'
posted by box at 7:07 AM on November 4, 2009

c.f. The Pogues' "How Come"

How come when your local clergy calls
He tells me that you shouldn't wear black
What kind of bread are you gonna bake
With that hemlock in your spice rack?


posted by Limiter at 8:46 AM on November 4, 2009

I'm sorry I have to: Don't forget apparently very small rocks float:

CROWD: A witch! A witch! A witch! We've got a witch! A witch!
VILLAGER #1: We have found a witch, might we burn her?
CROWD: Burn her! Burn!
BEDEMIR: How do you know she is a witch?
VILLAGER #2: She looks like one.
BEDEMIR: Bring her forward.
WITCH: I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch.
BEDEMIR: But you are dressed as one.
WITCH: They dressed me up like this.
CROWD: No, we didn't... no.
WITCH: And this isn't my nose, it's a false one.
VILLAGER #1: Well, we did do the nose.
BEDEMIR: The nose?
VILLAGER #1: And the hat -- but she is a witch!
CROWD: Burn her! Witch! Witch! Burn her!
BEDEMIR: Did you dress her up like this?
CROWD: No, no... no ... yes. Yes, yes, a bit, a bit.
VILLAGER #1: She has got a wart.
BEDEMIR: What makes you think she is a witch?
VILLAGER #3: Well, she turned me into a newt.
BEDEMIR: A newt?
VILLAGER #3: I got better.
VILLAGER #2: Burn her anyway!
CROWD: Burn! Burn her!
BEDEMIR: Quiet, quiet. Quiet! There are ways of telling whether
she is a witch.
CROWD: Are there? What are they?
BEDEMIR: Tell me, what do you do with witches?
VILLAGER #2: Burn!
CROWD: Burn, burn them up!
BEDEMIR: And what do you burn apart from witches?
VILLAGER #1: More witches!
VILLAGER #2: Wood!
BEDEMIR: So, why do witches burn?
VILLAGER #3: B--... 'cause they're made of wood...?
CROWD: Oh yeah, yeah...
BEDEMIR: So, how do we tell whether she is made of wood?
VILLAGER #1: Build a bridge out of her.
BEDEMIR: Aah, but can you not also build bridges out of stone?
VILLAGER #2: Oh, yeah.
BEDEMIR: Does wood sink in water?
VILLAGER #1: No, no.
VILLAGER #2: It floats! It floats!
VILLAGER #1: Throw her into the pond!
CROWD: The pond!
BEDEMIR: What also floats in water?
VILLAGER #1: Bread!
VILLAGER #2: Apples!
VILLAGER #3: Very small rocks!
VILLAGER #1: Cider!
VILLAGER #2: Great gravy!
VILLAGER #1: Cherries!
VILLAGER #3: Churches -- churches!
VILLAGER #2: Lead -- lead!
ARTHUR: A duck.
CROWD: Oooh.
BEDEMIR: Exactly! So, logically...,
VILLAGER #1: If... she.. weighs the same as a duck, she's made of wood.
BEDEMIR: And therefore--?
VILLAGER #1: A witch!
CROWD: A witch!
BEDEMIR: We shall use my larger scales!
BEDEMIR: Right, remove the supports!
CROWD: A witch! A witch!
WITCH: It's a fair cop.
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! [yelling]
posted by TheBones at 8:49 AM on November 4, 2009

She has lovely red hair (all witches have red hair according to one witch finders manual)

She has beautiful black hair...

She has a black cat (obviously)

She's never home during the three nights of the full moon.

There are strange herbs in her garden. There are hanging plants on her porch that are growing in strange patterns on her porch.

No one goes to her house - except by the back path, and only at night, and only when they think no one can see them (to pay for spells of course). Or suddenly there are many people at her house, and you can hear them chanting in a strange language - usually around the time of the new/full moon.

She utters odd things that strangely come true (be careful of the man in a blue hat).

She wears a lot of black (very stereotypical).

Odd smells come from her house.

Animals wander into her yard, but never come out.

All of these are stereotypical, but can be explained by mundane things... I hope that's what you're looking for.
posted by patheral at 10:49 AM on November 4, 2009

Okay, real-life examples:
(a) Wears a lot of jewelry/bling. Not of the tres expensive variety, but of the got it at a craft fair variety. Probably has at least one pentacle on. Is easily distracted by shiny objects.
(b) Likes tie-dye.
(c) Loves researching stuff. Especially obscure historical stuff.
(d) Tends to have really, really inexplicably weird computer problems happening all the time.
(e) Goes to Renaissance faires, is probably an SCA person.
(f) Also likes buying candles. Or fairy merchandise. Or dragon merchandise. Or swords or big ass knives.
(g) Has at least tried LARPing or D&D or WoW or similar.
(h) Isn't all that into using deodorant or razors (not everyone, but there's people)
(i) Has tons of hippie bumper stickers on the car, especially "Coexist."
(j) Lives in Northern California
(k) Has been spotted wearing robes in public, esp. night, when it is not Halloween or RenFaire day.
(l) Does tarot readings for mundane friends when bored.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:56 AM on November 4, 2009

Oh, more:
(m) Probably has long hair. ESPECIALLY if you are a dude witch. And throw in a lot of facial hair on top of that.
(n) Is more likely to be polyamorous/sexually flexible than your average folks on the street.
(o) Tend to say weird things in public, whether they are intending to be weird or not.
(p) Some have the more ... interesting... piercings and tats. Keep an eye out for dragon, moon, crescent moon, pentacle, etc. tats.
(q) May be vegetarian/vegan, and/or is really into growing food.
(r) Reads a lot of fantasy books.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:59 AM on November 4, 2009

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