Sixteenth-Century Terms for Witches

From Sigrid Brauner, Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 121-124. Image right: Hans Baldung Grien, "Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath" (1510). Woodcut. Source:

Although prevalent today, Hexe was not always the most common German term for witches. It derives from the Old High German hagazussa, the name for the female spirit in Nordic mythology who straddled the fence separating the world of the gods from that of men. The term hagazussa and its derivatives in Old and Middle High German (hazesse, hazus, and hezze) have several distinct connotations, including (1) a female comedian, (2) a slovenly, promiscuous woman, and (3) a cannibalistic, night-flying female spirit. Rarely were these concepts associated with sorcery.
    Hagasuzza and its derivatives all but vanished from usage in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, only to reappear in the fifteenth century in connection with the witch hunts in Switzerland. Records from a 1419 Swiss trial show the first use of the term Hexereye for witchcraft. By the late fifteenth century, variations on the term Hexe (including Hex, Heckse, and Haxe) were used to denote the modern witch in Switzerland and neighboring German-speaking regions, such as Alsace and the area near Constance. Outside of southwestern Germany, however, the term Hexe seldom appears in witch trial records. More common are Unhulde and Zauberin, or such regional terms as Kunstfrauw and Töwersche (northern Germany), Trutte (Bavaria), and Weidlerin (eastern Germany).
    Though absent from most German witch trial records, the term Hexe found its way into many early modern legal treatises and literary texts on witchcraft. Because the first witch trials involving German speakers occurred in Switzerland and southwestern Germany, interest in witchcraft focused on records from these areas, helping to popularize the term Hexe. The term first spread across southern Germany, appearing in such works as Geiler von Kaisersberg's Emeis (1508) and Ulrich Tenglers Der neue Layenspiegel (1511), as well as in many of Hans Sachs's writings (from the 1530s on). Writers elsewhere soon picked up the term, notably Martin Luther.

Unhulde, Unhold
Unlike Hexe, the term Unhulde and its variations (including Unhold and Unhole) were in constant use from the Middle Ages on. Originally, Unhulde was the name for a malevolent spirit in Nordic mythology. With the spread of Christianity in the early Middle Ages, it came to be associated first with the pagan gods, then with the Christian devil. From the eleventh century on, it was used to describe the night-flying spirits of folk belief, both good and evil. Rarely was it associated with sorcery. In the fifteenth century, it was increasingly used as a term of invective for women, finally becoming the most common sixteenth-century German word for the female witch.

Zauberin, Zauberer
In both its Old High German (Zaubrarin) and Middle HIgh German (Zouberaerinne) forms, this term referred to a sorceress. Witchcraft and sorcery have elements in common: like a witch, a sorceress was believed to invoke spirits to perform magic, and her magic was sometimes considered harmful. But sorcery was not associated with other practices of witchcraft—such as flying at night or copulating with the devil—until the fifteenth century, when the term Zauberin and its variations (including Zaubrerin, Zeuberin, and Zwebrynne) came to signify the modern witch. The related masculine term Zauberer was sometimes applied to men accused of witchcraft, but more often it retained its older connotation of sorcerer rather than witchcraft. Only the female form of the term was permanently linked to the modern witch.

The term lamia is rooted in ancient mythology. Originally, it was the Greek name for a Libyan serpent goddess. Later, Lamia was the name of a minor figure in the Greek and Roman pantheon: a consort of Zeus, she terned into a vampire who preyed on infants after the jealous Hera murdered her children. In the early Middle Ages, the term lamia referred to the night-flying spirits of folk belief. After about 1450, lamia began to appear in technical treatises on witchcraft, where it referred exclusively to the modern witch. Some fifteenth-century writers derive the term from the completely unrelated term laniare (to lacerate), because witches, they argue, devour flesh.

Malefica, Maleficus
Malefica was the most commonly used Latin term for witch in the sixteenth century. It derives from the adjective maleficus, used in classical Latin to describe an evildoer. In the Vulgate Bible, the male plural noun malefici refers to sorcerers (Exodus 22:18 and Deuteronomy 18:10); similarly, medieval glossaries define the second declension male noun maleficus as “sorcerer.” The related term maleficium appears in legal treatises throughout the Middle Ages, where it refers to harmful sorcery.
    Until the fifteenth century, maleficum was associated only with sorcery, not with other practices of modern witchcraft. The female noun form malefica was first introduced by Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger in their Malleus maleficarum (1487) to describe the modern witch. They use the male plural form malefici for sorcerers in general, but reserve the female form malefica for the modern witch—because, they claim, many more women than men are witches.

Pythonica, Pythonissa
The term pythonica (or pythnonissa) derives from “the Pythia,” title of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi. In medieval glossaries, a pythonica is strictly a soothsayer, without any of the attributes of the modern witch. The term was associated with fortune-telling throughout the fifteenth century, but gradually acquired connotations of modern witchcraft. In the Malleus, Kramer and Sprenger use the term pythonica to refer to practitioners of magic who predate modern witchcraft. The devil speaks through a pythonica, they maintain, and performs feats of magic through her, but he does not use her to seduce men, a practice attributed in the Malleus only to the malefica, or modern witch. In the sixteenth century, however, German writers dropped the distinction between the pythonica and the malefica.

Striga, Strix, Strigimaga
In Roman folklore, the striga (derived from the Latin strix, or “screech owl”) was a birdlike female spirit of the night who was believed to render men impotent and to feed children poisonous milk. Clerical writers used the term in the Middle Ages to describe the night-flying spirits of folk belief. But as in the cases of Hexe, lamia, and Unhulde, a term originally used to describe a mythical female spirit was redefined after 1450 to apply to the modern witch.
    Though less common than other terms for witches, striga inspired several etymologies and variations that tied it to modern witchcraft. The Inquisitor Bernhard of Como (Tractatus de strigiis, 1508) derives the term from the mythological underworld river Styx—because witches, he says, are from hell—and from the Greek word strigitos (“sadness”)—because witches, through their harmful sorcery, bring sadness. The Roman Dominican Sylvester Prierias (De mirandis strigimagarum, 1521) changes the term from striga to strigimaga in order to emphasize the harmful sorcery of witches. The Italian Inquisitor Arnaldus Albertinus (Tractatus de agnoscendis assertionibus catholicis et hereticis, 1540) claims that witches are called strigae because they communicate at night by screaming like screech owls. Through such imaginative derivations and word combinations, sixteenth-century writers tailored the term striga to fit the new concept of the modern witch, adding connotations of harmful sorcery and diabolical dealings to the term while satisfying its traditional association with night-flying.

Venefica, Veneficus
The term venefica is a feminine noun form derived from the adjective veneficus, meaning “poisonous” or “magical” in classical Latin. Medieval glossaries retain these meanings in defining the venefica as a sorceress adept at the use of poison. Originally, the term was devoid of connotations of witchcraft, such as flying at night or bargaining with the devil. But the Greek Bible refers to the witch or sorcerer as pharmacous—one who deals with medications and poisons (Exodus 22:18 and Deuteronomy 18:10). Perhaps drawing on this connection, sixteenth-century legal treatises ascribe to the venefica all the characteristics of the modern witch—in addition to her special qualities as a poisoner.