Elite Conceptions of Witchcraft

A woman accused of witchcraft burning at the stake. Woodcut illustration from a mid-19th century textbook.

For centuries, European societies have been consumed by a panic over alleged witches within their midst. Witchcraft was a practice/craft believed to be common among witches in which harm was bestowed upon others. Witches were perceived to be instruments of evil who brought pain and suffering into their victims’ lives. For the residents of Scotland, they provided a tangible yet fascinating explanation for the often mystifying and painful twists evident in life.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, there existed a prevalent belief that wicked spirits existed in the form of witches and these individuals were practitioners of magic, servants of the devil. This article will examine elite views of witchcraft and its dominating effect on Scottish society.

Make-up of Witches

Historical accounts have indicated that many of the witches in society were women. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, although many of the witches were women the term “witch” could apply equally to both men and women. Past cases however showed that women ended up in court more likely than men. From the point of view of the Scottish in which the common people resided on farms and in small villages, these women tended to be social outcasts, individuals who did not fit into society.

Based upon the witch trials that occurred in Scotland, “of those women whose marital status was recorded, the majority were married…” (Brewster, 3) However, for those who were unrecorded and proclaimed witches their marital status remained unknown. (Brewster, 3) Various historians however have claimed that witches were women whose life patterns varied from their neighbors whose role was committed to her family.

Considered dubious and distrustful, this woman was guileless, not unassuming or gentle. She was a woman who was deemed embittered, incensed or who disturbed the synchronization of daily life. Accusations by others centered on this cluster of people and society at large regarded these women as angry outsiders worthy of condemnation.

Elite Views

The elite conception of witchcraft incorporated those of the highly educated class. Witchcraft was viewed as the manipulation of supernatural forces through a casting of spells and invoking of spirits. Historian Brian Levack, identifies two components “…as the central themes in elite ideas about witchcraft: the demonic pact and the large meetings of witches referred to as Sabbaths or sabbats.” (Witch-hunts and Popular Culture, 2007)

In exchange for allegiance of one’s soul, the Devil granted wishes and gave witches their source of power through magic. King James became fascinated by the concept and provided evidence of a Satanic pact as published in his book Daemonlogie.

“…for they say, that the Witches ar servantes onelie, and slaues to the Devil; but the Necromanciers are his maisters and commanders.” (King James I, Daemonologie, 147)

This pact denounced the Christian faith as the witches swore allegiance to Satan by “…the oath to the Devil and the kissing of his backside…”, ideas prevalent in the elite conception of witchcraft. (Witch-hunts and Popular Culture, 3-77). Levack’s notion of the pact concurred with King James’ belief in a declaration made to Satan. As for the sabbat, this concept was not published in Daemonologie. This ceremony became known during the witch-hunts as an assembly of heretics, witches who rebelled from the canons of the Church. Some doubted that such sinful activities actually took place however this element expanded upon Levack’s belief that such meetings occurred for the purposes of composing diabolical affairs.

Another elite concept, the devil’s mark, was an indication that the Devil permanently marked the bodies of his followers to guarantee their pledge of obedience and service to him. These marks were given by the Devil, kept in hidden places and provided evidence that these individuals were indeed witches. However this elite concept was not always consistent as indicated in Witch-hunts and Popular Culture.

In the case of the proposed witch, Gielles Duncane, “a search of her body revealed ‘the Devil’s mark’..” however in the cases of witches Ewapheme Meealrean and Barbara Naper, “…there is no mention made of a pact with the Devil, a Devil’s mark or attendance at a Sabbath.” (Witch-hunts and Popular Culture, 2007). Although such inconsistencies were seen in such trials, the elite idea provided vindication for identifying and persecuting witches since “…finding such marks was the best proof of a witch and was in itself sufficient to justify torture.” (Wiccan Historian, 1)

Another stereotype of witchcraft indicated in Daemonologie was the concept of charms. Charms also known as chants were verbal phrases or magical words that could either cause or ward off diseases. Charges involving charming occurred “…over and over again in accusations of witchcraft produced against women and men during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were clearly common throughout the whole of Lowland Scotland.” (King James, 203) James I also gave indications to charming in Daemonologie.

“I call first in generall, all that which is called vulgarly the vertue of wordes, herbe, and stone: which is used by unlawful charmes, without naturall causes. As likewise all kinde of practicques, freites, or other like extraordinaries actiones, which cannot abide the true touche of naturall reason.” (King James I, Daemonologie, 149)

This concept was also consistent within the popular culture in which the known trial of Isobel Gowdie, a proclaimed witch, admitted to its usage.

Overall, the purpose of James I writing Daoemonologie was to explain his experiences involving witchcraft. His work provided a source for the study of elite views of witchcraft and became an effective tool in reinforcing already prevailing beliefs inherent in Scottish society.


  1. Brewster, Kaye. “The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.” October 14, 2005.
  2. King James I. Daemonologie. Magic and Occult Powers in Sixteenth Century Scotland.
  3. Wiccan Historian. “The Devil’s Mark.” March 15, 2002.
  4. Wikkipedia. “Isobell Gowdie.” March 24, 2007.
  5. Levack, Brian. Witch-hunts and Popular Culture. London: Longman, June 16, 2007.