From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
According to witch-hunters during the height of the witch trials, the witches' mark or devil's mark indicated that an individual was a witch. The beliefs about the mark differ depending on the trial location and the accusation made against the witch. Evidence of the witches' mark is found earliest in the 16th century, and reached its peak in 1645, then essentially disappeared by 1700. The Witch or Devil's mark was believed to be the permanent marking of the Devil on his initiates to seal their obedience and service to him. He created the mark by raking his claw across their flesh, or by making a blue or red brand using a hot iron. Sometimes, the mark was believed to have been left by the Devil licking the individual leaving a death skull pattern in the skin. The Devil was thought to mark the individual at the end of nocturnal initiation rites. The witches' teat was a raised bump somewhere on a witch's body. It is often depicted as having a wart-like appearance.
A witches' mark should not be confused with a witch mark, which is a symbol or pattern scratched into the fabric of a building to keep witches out.
Pagan tattoos theory
As far as the historical study of the witches' mark goes, historians are split into different camps. The first camp, sometimes called "Murray-ists", supports British anthropologist Margaret Murray's theory of the witches' mark. Historical discussion of the witches' mark began after the publication of Murray's books on the subject; Witchcult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches in the early 20th century. Her writings argue strongly that Devil's marks were in actuality tattoos that identified members of an organized pagan religion that she believed flourished in the Middle Ages. After the publication of her work, the historical community became divided between Murrayist and non-Murrayist scholars; "When the Witchcult in Western Europe appeared in 1921, it broke this deadlock; yes, said Murray, witches had indeed been up to something of which society disapproved, but it was in no way supernatural; they were merely members of an underground movement secretly keeping pagan rituals alive in Christian Europe." fMurray's work became widely accepted and she was considered an expert in witchcraft studies after its publication. Murray is also credited with the renewed interest in neo-pagan religions, and later, Wicca, which occurred after the publications of her books. However, today her controversial ideas have been largely rejected by scientists and academics due to the lack of any evidence.
From a feminist perspective
Another camp believes that the witches' or warlocks' (male witch) mark is a gendered aspect of the witch-hunts. In Anne Barstow's book, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts, the witches' mark is viewed from a feminist perspective. Barstow sees the witch hunts of Europe as an attempt to control women, and the witches' mark as an excuse to control women's bodies through violence and sadism. The searching of women's bodies for the witches' mark gives insight into the reality of a woman's position during this time: "when 'a personable and good-like woman' was defended by one of the local gentry the pricker argued that, having been accused, she must be tried anyway". Barstow views the violent and sexual nature of the witches' mark examinations in the witch trials to be further evidence that the witch-hunts were, in fact, "women-hunts".
Fear of maternal power theory
English Literature professor Deborah Willis, who writes from a feminist perspective, asserts that the witch-hunts resulted from a societal fear of maternal power. Willis argues that the people of early modern Europe all had similar fears about malevolent motherly nurturing, and that the witches' teat is a manifestation of that fear. Willis asserts that the witches' teat is a perversion of the female power to nourish and strengthen young.
Lyme disease theory
The witch's mark also factors into the theory proposed by M.M. Drymon that Lyme disease is a diagnosis for both witches and witch affliction, finding that many of the afflicted and accused in Salem and elsewhere lived in areas that were tick-risky, had a variety of red marks and rashes that looked like bite marks on their skin, and suffered from neurological and arthritic symptoms. The appearance of the witches' mark in Europe is only noted after Columbian contact with the New World in 1492 and may be the result of the transfer of a virulent form of borrelia infection from America into Europe, especially in areas under the control of the Spanish Empire, including parts of the Rhine River Valley that are now in Germany. This topic is the subject of a recent work in the study of witchcraft. This theory is an expansion of the idea first proposed by Laurie Winn Carlson that the bewitched in Salem suffered from encephalitis. f Lyme disease is probably the only form of mild or acute encephalitis that is accompanied by a round red mark or bull's eye rash on the skin, which can appear after tick attachment.