Witches in Myth

“Witches never existed, except in people’s minds. All there was in the olden days was women and some men who believed in herbal cures and in folklore and in the wish to fly. Witches? We’re all witches in one way or another. Witches was the invention of mankind, son. We’re all witches beneath the skin.” – Ian Rankin, The Flood

IMG_4555 Exeter  Mural by Andrew Alleway

At the time of the witch trials, how could you identify a witch? Some say they were old hags who changed shapes and murdered children. Others say they were maidens who danced in a field to praise the devil. Many of these legends can be heard on the Exeter Red Coat Guided Tours, but to truly understand the persecution of the witch trials, you must first understand how society targeted and identified “witches” through myth.

Ritual and Religion

Witches were said to gather in the woods to perform spells and get their power from the Devil. This idea traces back to the importance of nature in pagan rituals and the early Christian church’s anxieties about such rituals.

Because of its isolation and unusual landscape, Dartmoor has a rich history with these forms of myth. Rocks are riddled with naturally occurring basins (pictured below) that people believed witches would use for ritual sacrifice. Other cracks in rocks were thought to be forms of their sacred writing. Townspeople also found charcoal the center of rock circles and believed these to be ritual sites. Legend had it that Bowerman’s Nose (pictured to the right) was one of these ceremonial sites. Because the stack of rocks look like the silhouette of a face, many believed the rocks to be a victim turned to stone by the witches’ magic.

With the wars of religion, many saw outsiders to the church as threats to the predominantly Christian society. Because of their more pagan rituals, witches were seen as such outsiders and were hunted to eliminate the perceived threat to the church. However, because it was thought that witches worshipped Satan, they would not be able to say the Lord’s Prayer (and would instead recite it backwards). This recitation became both a way to ward off a witch and to identify one.




Bowerman's Nose in Dartmoor

Children and Sacrifice

Legend has it witches need to rub ointment on their stomachs to enchant their broomsticks. Witches made this ointment from the ashes of newly-buried infants. However, if there were not enough of these corpses, witches were thought to abduct young boys and boil them in a soup to make the ointment. This myth not only situates the woman’s power into her womb but perverts this power to make it dangerous toward children and the future of society. Furthermore, this myth targeted women who did not fit into their society either because they did not or could not have children.

There is an Exeter legend that in 1313, 13 boys went missing from the Blue Coat School. Townspeople suspected Addie Crumb, a spinster, and banished her. When they searched her house, they found 13 shallow graves that had blue shirts mingled with bones. She had boiled the boys to make her broomstick fly. Even though the Blue Coats School was not founded until 1553 and there are no records of an Addie Crumb in Exeter, people still say that you can still see her shadows on the city walls and use this myth as a way to keep kids from running off (Exeter Red Coat Society Members). 


Tolmen near Scorhill Circle, said to be used as a witch's basin

Scapegoating and Targeting

People often used witchcraft to explain natural occurrences that they did not understand. These explanation also became an easy way to blame innocent people of witchcraft, because people who muttered under their breath could be accused of starting a storm. People who lived on their own could often be accused of shapeshifting or casting curses, because they had no one to confirm their whereabouts.

Protection and Superstition

Even though witches occupy an immense power in the world of myth, there were a few simple ways to thwart a witch. Rosemary and silver warded off witches. To reverse a spell, you just needed to draw a witch’s blood (Whitworth). You could also say “Boggle Boggle Boo, God Bless You” to render a witch powerless, because witches feared the God’s blessing (Exeter Red Coat Society Members).

Today’s Witches

There are still witches living in Devon today. While researching for this article, I met a very kind one who spoke of the Bideford witches as well as the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. The meaning of the word “witch” has drastically changed since the times of the witch trials. Though these witches do not conform to traditional myths, many of them are part of the religion of witchcraft, which today, revolves very much around natural magic. When thinking of the myths surrounding witchcraft and the meaning of the word, it is important to consider these modern witches and be considerate of their beliefs.


Text © Emily Daluga, Photos © Alex Kirshy and Megan Otto



Exeter Red Coat Society Members. “Special Halloween Tour.” Exeter Red Coat Society. Exeter Cathedral, Exeter, UK. 29 Oct. 2015. Guided Tour.

“School Records.” Devon County Council. Devon County Council, n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

Whitworth, Belinda. A Glimpse of Dartmoor: Folklore. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press, 1992. Print.


Bowerman's Nose, Dartmoor