Witch Burials

The idea of witches and magic has struck fears into the hearts of many throughout the centuries. From ostracizing accused witches to killing them, it should come as no surprise that the death of an alleged witch would also be treated in very specific, cautionary ways.

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You may be familiar with specific practices for burying vampires to make sure they didn’t rise from the grave again...but did you know witch burials were often treated with the same caution? Oftentimes, people would go to great lengths to make sure the witches that died or the ones they killed themselves would not return to terrify the town or avenge their death.

A common practice of making sure vampires stayed dead was forcing a brick or stone into their mouths.It was believed that if you plugged up a vampire’s mouth they would not be able to escape the grave and hunt. Interestingly enough there was a tomb uncovered from the 16th century in Venice. The pit was largely filled with plague victims, but one of the corpses stood out. It was the body of a woman believed to be around 40-50 who appears to have been purposefully killed (and perhaps not a plague victim at all) and had a huge brick forced into her mouth. The witch angle came out because during this time period and especially during plague years any woman living past middle age was believed to have made a deal with the devil to live longer and cheat death.

Also similar to vampire burials witch burials usually involved some...nails. While stakes through the heart weren’t as common it wasn’t unusual for a witch to be nailed to the bottoms of their coffins to make sure they didn’t hop up and get on their brooms. Nails, like with vampires, were often found in their jawbones or mouths so they would not be able to speak the spells necessary to free them from their graves.

Since witches were more often than not viewed as scourges on their communities they were sometimes treated similarly to criminals upon their deaths. Centuries ago it was believed that a person must be buried face-up, gazing towards the heavens, in order for their soul to escape their body, particularly through the mouth. However, witches and criminals were often buried facedown which would force the soul to remain inside the body. It was believed a witch, especially if the witch was murdered, would use her soul to bring ruin and terror to the community that condemned her. By burying a witch face down, she could only grow closer to hell.

One of my favorite witch burial/archaeological discovery stories is the tale of Lilias Adie. Lilias of Torryburn was a poor woman that confessed to having sex with the devil and being a witch. During her imprisonment, she passed away before she could be tried, sentenced, and burned, as was custom. Because her body would not be burned like many of the other witches in the area at the time, it was believed the best way to safely dispose of her body would be to dig a hole in the sticky, unrelenting mud of the Fife coast right between the mark of high and low tide. For extra precaution, they also laid a heavy, flat stone over her body.

The BBC notes, “After they buried her, the good folk of Torryburn must have breathed a contented sigh of relief like scientists entombing nuclear waste. They had made Lilias safe for the centuries, or so they believed.” However, in the 19th-century witches were seen as powerful talismans and people who had pieces of these alleged witches were believed to have great power. So, her grave was discovered, dug up, and bits of her were sold all over. In fact, her skull even traveled to St Andrews University Museum.

These people were seen as so powerful that even in death the people surrounding them spent a huge amount of time, energy, and perhaps even money ensuring they would never return for them. But, was this done out of true fear...or out of guilt that these people had done something truly heinous to a potentially innocent victim? Perhaps it is a mix of both. As archaeologists continue to find strange and unusual burials we may be able to learn more about how these people may have felt and reacted to the death of a witch.


This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. It is from Johnson, Helen Kendrik (Ed.): “World’s Best Music”' (1900).