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Black cats, left-handedness and other signs of ‘witchcraft’

In Harry Potter, Muggles have a complex relationship with wizarding kind, those that know they even exist anyway. But in our own history, we also have fascinating superstitions when it came to spotting witchcraft.

Salem memorial MACUSA crop
The Salem memorial, found in the lobby of MACUSA

Historically, magic has always raised eyebrows and superstitions, and to this day, we’ll always hesitate for a moment if we walk under a ladder, or if a black cat crosses our path. (Either that, or we’ll waste ten minutes petting it.)

Thanks to Harry Potter, we now have more positive connotations of magical folk, but it didn’t always used to be that way. Particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, witches were seen as a deadly threat to society, which sparked hundreds of years of witch hunts, burnings and more across Europe and America. But how do you even spot a witch? Well, in ye olden days we had a few ideas about that too.

Being left-handed

Because using your left hand is far less common than using your right, people leapt to the idea that left-handed people must obviously be magical beings from another world. Being a leftie has been linked with witchcraft for centuries, and in more morbid circles is called ‘a mark of the devil’. Surely left-handed scissors aren’t that bad.

Superstitions have always followed the direction of ‘left’ – such as the left side of the bed being considered the wrong side to get out of, or passing a drink with your left hand being bad luck. Even the Latin word ‘sinistra’, which roughly translates to ‘sinister’ (nothing to do with Professor Sinistra, we hope), originally meant ‘left’, and eventually it became a common misconception that left-handed folk were, indeed, big bad witches.

Black cats

It’s hard not to think of a witch without thinking of a pointy hat, a broomstick and, of course, a black cat. The cat association takes us back to Celtic mythology, where a fairy known as the Cat Sith took the form of a black feline. Cats’ fantastical reputation preceded them, and the Pilgrims were big believers that they were bad news too. In the realm of Harry Potter, Hermione has a bit of nasty luck with the creatures too, when some Polyjuice Potion transformed her into a black cat instead of Millicent Bulstrode. Poor black cats. We just think they’re just misunderstood.

Illustration of Argus Filch's shrewd cat Mrs Norris
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Being a woman

Although men were accused of witchcraft too, if you dared to be a woman, it was far more likely you’d be burned at the stake. Sorry ladies. Witchcraft has always been more associated with female folk, which goes all the way back to Biblical times when Eve bit the serpent’s forbidden apple. A patriarchal society in early modern Europe didn’t help, and many theorists believe women were targeted to create a negative female stereotype, with trials being held to assert men’s masculinity.

Your milk always spoils

You may just be really bad at looking after your milk, OR you might be a whopping great witch. Apparently, those two things are interchangeable. In the 1486 book The Malleus Maleficarum, the extent of witches’ powers are discussed, such as causing diseases, blighting crops, flying etc, but also the very specific power of turning milk sour. So even with all the magic in the universe, you still couldn’t have a good cup of tea? Forget it, then.

Having a birthmark

Freckles, blemishes, birthmarks and scars were considered to be other signs of infernal witchery. That explains Harry Potter's lightning bolt then. Instead of assuming they were simply quirks of human skin, witch-hunters during the 1600s took these sort of things to be ‘witch marks’, made upon a person in cahoots with the devil. Charming.

Harry showing his scar to Ron on the Hogwarts Express
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Having a bad reputation

As you can imagine, if someone bore a grudge against you during the days of the Salem Witch Trials, you can bet you’d be accused of witchcraft by the end of the week. One such sad case was the tale of Sarah Good, a widow who was mired in debt, and thus became a homeless beggar. The people of Salem were quick to turn on her, and accused her of muttering incantations when she was asking for money. She was, in the end, one of the first three people at that time to be found guilty of witchcraft.

Nowadays, thanks to Harry Potter, we'd love to be a witch.