How Cold Weather May Cause Witch Hunts

“Nothing burns like the cold.” —George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

In A Nutshell

Women have been executed as witches for centuries, and they still are today in some parts of the world. From Europe to Africa to the Americas, major witch hunts have a surprising catalyst in common: cold weather. Witches have long been thought to control the weather, and it’s been put forth that prolonged cold spells, along with the corresponding illness and crop failure, are major catalysts that have made people turn to the idea of witchcraft.

The Whole Bushel

It’s estimated that well over one million people have been executed for the crime of witchcraft, with widespread, large-scale witch hunts taking place throughout the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. The reasons behind these large-scale witch hunts, like those that plagued Europe in the Middle Ages and Salem in the early days of the United States, can be attributed to a number of different immediate causes: for Salem, the hysteria of a handful of young girls; in the Middle Ages, a conflict between the burgeoning church and old pagan ways.

And witch hunts are still going on into the present day. Hundreds of women are killed in Africa every year on suspicion of witchcraft.

So what’s causing it?

One theory, first put forth by a Harvard PhD student named Emily Oster, is surprisingly simple: the weather.

Witches have long been accused of being able to control the weather, for good or for bad. Looking back at history’s large-scale witch hunts, there’s a common denominator in many of them.

The largest period in history of witch hunts occurred in Europe from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the 18th. During this time, belief in witches was governed by a document called the Malleus Malleficarum, which outlined just what they were supposedly capable of. Among the list was the ability to conjure up storms, control lightning and, perhaps most importantly, destroy crops in the field.

During the time period that coincided with the resurgence of witch hunts in Europe, there was also a major shift in climate, thought to be due to a combination of a lull in the activity on the surface of the Sun and volcanic activity that was recorded in South America. Colder temperatures not only meant crop failure, but also the presence of phenomena unlike any that living souls had ever seen. Rivers and canals froze, ice formed in oceans and lakes, and crops died.

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It’s the same cold spell that made life miserable in pre-witchcraft Salem. Documents dating from the winter of the witch hunt years tell of a miserable, cold, hungry Salem, full of, no doubt, residents looking to make sense of why they were suffering.

Crop success and yield are also dependent on the weather; significant changes in the climate will severely impact crops. And as witches were also thought to be able to kill crops where they grew, this, too, could have had a large-scale impact on the psyche of those looking for a reason for their starving families.

Most women who are accused of witchcraft fall into the category of elderly, widowed women (while young women, girls, and even men were accused of being witches, these were in the minority). That may be partly because they seem to fit the description of what we think of as being typical witches, but also because they were the least productive and most expendable people during times of famine and extreme hardship. It’s been suggested that, even possibly on a subliminal level, these people were seen as another mouth to feed, and perhaps that accusing them of witchcraft would appease the greater forces along with lessening the burden on a town.

And even today, in areas where witch hunts still happen, it’s been shown to depend greatly on weather. In some parts of Africa, periods where there are executions of so-called witches usually happen around periods of drought or flood. And, it’s still usually an elderly woman who pays the price for weather phenomena beyond anyone’s control.

Show Me The Proof

Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe
LiveScience: Did Cold Weather Cause the Salem Witch Trials?
Case Study: The European Witch-Hunts, c. 1450-1750