A Dark and Stormy Bite: A not-so-brief history of witches cooking and eating children

Frank Zappa stirring ingredients in a kitchen, wearing sunglasses and black witch hat
“Double, double, toil, and trouble.” — Frank Zappa (not a witch)
Photo: Lynn Goldsmith (Getty Images), Graphic: Karl Gustafson (Getty Images)

Welcome, foolish mortals, to the home of cadaverous casseroles, exsanguinous eats, and snack-related sagas so strange and frightening they may well transport you to a realm unknown. Welcome, readers, to A Dark and Stormy Bite, a monthly column that dives deep into a teeth-chattering culinary dimension of utterly ghoulish proportions. Basically, if it involves food and goes bump in the night, we’ll cover it here. Do you have a favorite haunted restaurant or cursed recipe? Email lstone@thetakeout.com—and beware.

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Abandon all hope, ye testosterone-ridden swine, because March is Women’s History Month. In honor of the occasion, I’m ensconced in my tower-like apartment building, dressed in a high-necked Victorian nightgown, staring out of my office window in an attempt to frighten passersby with my chillingly empowered disposition. Moments ago, a dog walker screamed up at me, “Are you a ghost?!” to which I replied, “No, I’m a WOMAN.”

Women’s History Month is all about shattering societal expectations. It’s about taking life by the horns and proclaiming, “I’m a dame, you hear? A dame!” It’s about doing your thing in a world that wants to hold you back. That’s why I’ve decided to explore the realm of the original #SHE-EO: the witch who eats children.

“Ah, yes, the child-eating witch,” you say. “Like in ‘Hansel And Gretel,’ right?” Well, yeah. But it turns out that cannibalistic enchantresses haunted townsfolk long before the Brothers Grimm learned how to spell. Stories like “Hansel And Gretel,” movies like Hocus Pocus in which Bette Midler plays a soul-sucking witch with the world’s tiniest mouth—all of this modern lore has roots dating back to the High Middle Ages. To find out more, I hopped on my Trader Joe’s cinnamon-scented broomstick and plunged into the history of lady necromancers. Who’s hungry?

First, a quick refresher on the High Middle Ages: it wasn’t a great time for northern Europe. The Crusades technically concluded around 1204 with the sacking of Constantinople, but there were constant wars, several years of famine, and finally, the first wave of the Black Death, which arrived from Central Asia in 1347. The upheaval caused people to cling to arcane spirituality, looking for a scapegoat to explain their miserable existence. Thus came the persecution of heretics, free-thinkers who were accused of all manner of indecencies. Historian Michael D. Barbezat addresses these accusations in his 2016 paper in the Journal Of The History Of Sexuality, “Bodies of Spirit and Bodies of Flesh: The Significance of the Sexual Practices Attributed to Heretics from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century.” Barbezat explains that heretical persecution involved perhaps the most widespread accusations of infanticide and cannibalism in the West at that time.

We can also link cannibalism mania to a vast period of food insecurity and, interestingly enough, climate change. First, we should look to the windigo, also written as wendigo or weendigo, a supernatural being in the spiritual traditions of Algonquian-speaking First Nations in North America. Windigos are known for their insatiable appetite for human flesh—and, as the podcast BackStory reports, existing as a windigo is a punishment for taboo activities, “such as engaging in cannibalism due to starvation.” Once again, women can do anything—even taking the form of a clawed beast that terrorizes the northeastern seaboard.

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It’s also important to point out that the story of “Hansel And Gretel” as we know it—girl and boy get lost in woods, witch enslaves girl and fattens up boy, boy and girl shove witch into oven and escape—has roots in the Baltic regions during the Great Famine of 1314. Historic UK reports that, during this time, volcanic activity in southeast Asia and New Zealand created a period of prolonged climate change. That, in turn, led to crop failures and mass starvation, which resulted in some truly harrowing lore. In his book The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, William Rosen recounts an Estonian tale from 1315 that claims “mothers were fed their children.” Finally, the website All That’s Interesting cites an Irish historian who wrote that people “were so destroyed by hunger that they extracted bodies of the dead from cemeteries and dug out the flesh from the skulls and ate it, and women ate their children out of hunger.” It’s easy to see how “Hansel And Gretel,” a tale about abandonment, fear, survival, and scary ladies, could have sprouted from seeds planted during this period. Spiritual and moral hysteria, famine, and mass tragedy? Time to bring in the witches, y’all.

In 1486, Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer published the Malleus Maleficarum, or “Witches’ Hammer.” For more than three centuries, this Inquisitor-penned book served as the go-to manual for witch hunters, which I guess was a pretty ubiquitous pastime back then? Too bad they didn’t have, like, TV. Regardless, the book sought to set forth the will of God by identifying the telltale habits of witches. These included:

  • Roasting their first-born male child (Completely fine if he deserved it)
  • Making formal pacts with the Devil (RSVPing “yes” to roller skating parties in Hell, etc.)
  • “Depriving men of their vital member” (Didn’t need it anyway)

The Malleus Maleficarum even quotes unnamed witches who explain their dastardly behavior. I found the following quote on a blog formerly run by independent publishing house I.B. Tauris:

We prey on babies, especially those not yet baptized but also those baptized. … With our ceremonies we kill them in their cribs or while they lie beside their parents, and while they are thought to have been squashed or to have died of something else, we steal them secretly from the tomb and boil them in a cauldron until all the flesh is made almost drinkable, the bones having been pulled out. From the more solid matter we make a paste suitable for our desires and arts and movements by flight, and from the more runny liquid we fill a container… Whoever drinks from this container is immediately rendered knowledgeable when a few ceremonies are added, and becomes the master of our sect.

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Using children to make a twisted mockery of communion? Yes, ma’am! Self-care!

That brings us to the 1600s, another tumultuous era that resulted in perhaps the most infamous period of witchy persecution in Western history: the Salem Witch Trials, baby. There’s actually not much information about women accused of child cannibalism during the Salem trials—but decades before Salem, women on the other side of the Atlantic were accused of slurping down Baby Soup. I’m referring to the case of the Samlesbury witches of Lancashire, England, a group of three women brought to trial after the testimony of one Grace Sowerbutts. (Go on—say Sowerbutts again.) Sowerbutts, then 14, took the stand in 1612, some 80 years before the Salem Witch Trials. She claimed that the accused women had squired her around the countryside, making her dance and “fornicate with strange black creatures.” (Sex-positive icons!) She casually added that the women had broken into a nearby house and proceeded to murder a sleeping baby by “sucking its life out through the navel.” Finally, the troublesome trio allegedly dug up the baby’s body, boiled, and roasted it, saving a few bits to mix into their signature “flying ointment,” which is, of course, ointment that makes you fly.

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As you can see, the Brothers Grimm had no shortage of inspiration by the time they started writing fairy tales in the early 1800s. They may have also pulled from Italian fairy tale ingenue Giambattista Basile, who published a little ditty entitled “Nennillo And Nennella” about two children abandoned in the woods. Finally, there’s the uncredited Romanian folk tale of “the little boy and the wicked stepmother,” which concludes with a wicked stepmother killing a little boy and forcing his sister to prepare the corpse for a family meal.

From the windigo to the strange saga of young Grace Sowerbutts (Sowerbutts!!!), the history of child-eating lore is based in a convoluted mess of apocryphal midnight whispers and clerical fear-mongering. The real question: why were witches supposedly eating children? If one believes in witchcraft, it’s certainly plausible to think that a witch could use her powers to brew up a Big Mac and/or Stouffer’s frozen macaroni platter.

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In the end, it comes down to power. Did these women actually eat children? We don’t really know. Probably not. But we do know that women accused of witchcraft represented something unacceptable: self-prioritization. Mothers are supposed to stand for safety and tradition—feeding, loving, and fortifying their children, often to their own great physical and mental detriment. But witches represent the opposite. Witches are women who take, whether or not that involves sucking the life force out of children and using it to amplify their own malefactions.

Please don’t get me wrong: this is not a “We Are The Daughters Of The Witches You Couldn’t Burn” situation. I’m not the daughter of a witch. I’m the daughter of a manicurist. I also find modern witchy culture to be a little bleh (and also rife with capitalistic rhetoric and cultural appropriation, but that’s a rant for another day). But it is interesting to dig through history to explore the many creative rationales we’ve used to perpetuate violence against women. Unless, of course, these gals were actually killing and eating kiddies. If that’s the case, I hope all the little girls out there see this and think, “That could be me.” Yes, future #girlboss: ladies is cannibals, too.

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Staff writer @ The Takeout, joke writer elsewhere. Wrangling dogs and pork shoulder in Chicago.

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