25 Famous Witches in History from Ancient to Modern Times
How we define the word witch is truly on an individual basis. Since the dawn of time, there have been witches. And there will continue to be until humans no longer exist. A witch, in my honest opinion, is someone who is magical in nature. They seek wisdom, see beauty in everything, and practice the art of magic in one way or another. In this article, we explore some of the more famous witches in history including legendary witches, accused witches in the Medieval Period, and modern witches. Let’s meet them!
25 Famous Witches in History
1. Isobel Gowdie
Perhaps my favorite famous witch in history is the Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie. Her story takes place in seventeenth century Scotland, where she was accused and (supposedly) willingly confessed to being a witch. There’s much speculation on whether Isobel was simply psychotic, whether she was forced or coerced into confessing, or whether her confessions were real. Emma Wilby, a scholar on witchcraft, dedicated an entire book to analyzing Isobel’s confessions. She theorizes Isobel Gowdie was a woman who practiced a form of shamanism carried on from past centuries. Moreover, Gowdie’s life and confessions are much more complex than just one theory could explain. Gowdie had a way of speaking that seems almost bard-like. If indeed she confessed willingly and these were her true confessions, she was a talented woman.
2. Morgan Le Fay
Morgan le Fay’s existence is most likely one of legend and ranges from her being an evil nemesis to a helpful priestess of Avalon. While Morgan le Fay’s existence cannot be proven, those who believe in the Arthurian legend believe in her power. Some Arthurian stories denounce her allegiance to her brother, twisting her into a vengeful witch who wants to destroy her brother’s kingdom. However, other legends say she aided King Arthur in his dying hour by taking him to Avalon. We will never know the real story, or if it truly happened, but modern witches believe in Morgan Le Fay—and that she was, indeed, a famous witch in history who might have once been a goddess.
Aradia was a famous witch in history whose story starts in Italy. She is the main character in Aradia, The Gospel of the Witches, a book written by Charles Leland in the 19th century. The book’s authenticity is debated yet helped fuel the resurgence of witchcraft in the 20th century. Charles Leland claimed he was given the information by a woman named Maddelena, and it was in this book that Aradia was created. According to the book, Aradia was the daughter of the goddess Diana and Lucifer. Aradia was a goddess incarnated on earth (similar to a messiah or Christ). Her followers were a group of witches that had survived since the 12th century. They used witchcraft to fend off the Church and keep their ways alive.
4. Marie Laveau
The most famous Voodoo queen of all time is Marie Laveau. Marie was born a free black woman in New Orleans in the mid-1700’s and became the most well-known voodoo priestess in Louisiana and arguably the world. Everyone came to Marie Laveau for cures and advice. Marie attended mass religiously yet she was also a priestess of Voodoo and practiced the magical arts. All classes of New Orleans society called on Marie Laveau for magical spells. Marie Laveau, a famous witch in history, lived well into her nineties. Her grave in New Orleans’ Saint Louis Cemetery #1 gets more visitors on Halloween than Elvis Presley’s. This famous witch may have been a voodoo queen, but she was also a wise woman and knew her craft well.
5. The Witch of Endor
Back in Biblical times, perhaps the most famous witch in ancient history is The Witch of Endor. We hear of her in the book of 1 Samuel in the 28th chapter. Apparently, King Saul calls on her to raise the prophet Samuel’s spirit from the dead to advise him in battle. Saul was having a particularly difficult time defeating the Philistines and all attempts to summon Samuel’s spirit through other means failed. Some accounts say God brought Samuel’s spirit to Saul, while others claim it was in fact the Witch of Endor.
6. Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was the second wife of the infamous King Henry VIII of England in the sixteenth century. Scholars say Anne Boleyn was not a witch, but that depends on your definition. She engaged in mystical practices and supposedly employed magical advisers. Throughout her years as a Queen of England, Anne Boleyn became an educated, extremely intelligent woman of power. Despite the rumors and accusations of treason, adultery, incest, and witchcraft, which led to her beheading, Anne is known as one of the most influential queens and witches in history.
7. Grigori Rasputin
Ever seen the movie Anastasia? It’s based on a true story about the last Czar of Russia Nicholas Romanov II and the last-surviving faily member – Princess Anastasia. In the movie – the evil antagonist, and supposed enemy to the Romanov dynasty, was a man named Grigori Rasputin. In reality, Rasputin was close to the royal family and many claimed it was his fault the Romanovs were assassinated and the dynasty fell. He was accused of black magic and witchcraft, among other awful things. Yet Rasputin claimed to be a holy man in God’s service and mystic. He will go down as one of the most famos witches in history, whether a true witch or not.
8. Alison Device
One of the most infamous accused witches in English history came from the Pendle Witch Trials in 1612 – Alison Device. Alison confessed to many counts of witchcraft including employing a familiar to hurt her enemies, charming milk into butter, and killing children. While these confessions were coerced out of Alison, the story is one of great intrigue even today. Today, there’s a statue of one of the Pendle Witches standing in Roughlee honoring those accused.
The most famous witch trials in history are the Salem Witch Trials, at least in American history. Movies, books, and TV shows have been inspired by the true witch trials of dozens of women and men in Salem, MA in the seventeenth century. The supposed witch who started it all was known as Tituba. She was a slave (some say Native American, others say African or a combination) in the Parris house and was accused of witchcraft by two young girls. Later, Tituba confessed to making “witchcakes” and to knowing magical practices of protection against evil from her time living in Barbados. No one knows exactly what happened to Tituba, she disappears from the record after the trials. People believe she was purchased as a slave by another family.
10. Gerald Gardner
Gerald Gardner is called the father of modern witchcraft because he is the founder of Wicca. His story goes that he was shown the “old ways”, that of witchcraft, by a coven in the New Forest and decided to keep the religion alive by making it public knowledge. While Gardner had his faults and is accused of misdeeds, many Wiccans and Pagans alike, are able to come out of the broom closet today, without fear of being hanged or guillotined at least partly because of Gardner.
Gardner’s Magical Beginnings
Gardner was an amateur anthropologist and archaeologist, and his interest in cultures fueled his desire to study esotericism. He claimed to have been a part of a Rosicrucian Order, and while in the order he met witches from the New Forest Coven. He was initiated into the coven in nineteen-thirty-nine. Gardner moved to London in the nineteen-forties and began discussing his unorthodox beliefs with the public. Moreover garnering much attention to the Old Religion that supposedly survived centuries of persecution.
Founder and Father of Wicca
Gardner is known as the Father of Wicca, because he was the first to talk about Wicca to the public. He founded the first tradition of Wicca known as Gardnerian Wicca. Gardner would write a few books on the topic and participate in interviews. Gardner met various individuals like Doreen Valiente, Aleister Crowley, and others.
Gardner’s Legacy (And Controversy)
Gerald Gardner died of a heart attack in nineteen-sixty-four while in transport on a ship to Lebanon. Gardner’s methods (including ritual nudity) have come into question by modern witches. But his tradition of Wicca remains strong to this day. Many Wiccans who are initiated into a true Gardnerian Wiccan coven can claim lineage back to Gerald Gardner.
11. Sybil Leek
Sybil Leek was taught witchcraft at a young age and was practicing during Gerald Gardner’s time. She’s one of the most famous witches in modern history and has written many well-known occult books, such as Diary of a Witch, Sybil Leek’s Book of Herbs, and Star Speak: Your Body Language from the Stars. Sybil claims she was taught some of her knowledge of witchcraft by Aleister Crowley and that she was supposed to be his successor, until he went down a darker path. She was a well-known psychic and kept a pet jackdaw. Sybil Leek died in the 1980’s as “Britain’s most famous witch” but was living in Florida at the time. Her book Diary of a Witch was influential to many.
12. Laurie Cabot
Laurie Cabot is the “Official Witch of Salem” and the most famous witch today, in my opinion. She is also an author and wise woman, owned her own witchcraft shop in Salem for many years, and records videos on her YouTube channel! She’s aided the police in a murder case, as well as taught college classes on the occult. Read her book Power of the Witch to get an understanding as to Cabot’s ubiquitous wisdom.
13. Scott Cunningham
Scott Cunningham preferred to call himself a Wiccan above a “witch” for personal, spiritual reasons. He’s written many books on various topics of Wicca, such as kitchen witchcraft, magical herbs, magical stones, earth power, and practicing solitary Wicca. Unfortunately, there will be no more wonderful Wiccan books published by Scott Cunningham because he passed in 1993. He continues to be one of the most famous witches in history and one of the most loved Wiccan authors in the Wiccan world today.
14. Doreen Valiente
Doreen Valiente was a witch in the twentieth century who wrote The Charge of the Goddess, An ABC of Witchcraft, and Witchcraft for Tomorrow. She was responsible for writing much of Gerald Gardner’s Book of Shadows and went on to work with Robert Cochrane in the Clan of Tubal Cain for a period of time. Separate from her workings with Gardner and Cochrane, Valiente was a wise and witch of her time and passed in 1999.
The Famous Witch’s Interests Grow
As a young adult, she practiced magic with a friend and came across literature from a deceased doctor who was part of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This book intrigued her, as well as Aleister Crowley’s books on ceremonial magic. In addition, Doreen studied esoteric religions including Spiritualism. Her passion for the mysteries only grew.
Valiente Joins A Coven
In the 1950s, Doreen Valiente reached out to Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern day Wicca. He invited her to join the Bricket Wood Coven, and she eventually became High Priestess. Following her time with Gardner, Valiente joined the Coven of Atho and the Clan of Tubal Cain.
Valiente’s Literary Success
But Valiente isn’t known for the covens she joined, she is most well-known for her writing. Valiente wrote The Charge of the Goddess and The Witch’s Rune, poetic pieces included in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. Her research of the witch trials helped her write The ABCs of Witchcraft and Natural Magic. Valiente’s presence in the witchcraft community didn’t fizzle after her death, and many Wiccans and pagans honor her contribution to the movement.
15. Rosaleen Norton
Another famous witch in recent history was Rosaleen Norton. Known as the Witch of Kings Cross, Rosaleen became a spectacle in Australia with wild paintings of gods and demons. Norton started her own coven called The Goat-Fold in the mid-twentieth century. Norton was influenced by the dark side of magic. But she wasn’t a Satanist. She was a pantheist. It was difficult for people to separate her dark artwork from her religious claims. Her provocative artwork goes on display from time to time in Sydney still.
Norton’s Controversial Pagan Paintings
Norton lost jobs with various newspapers and magazines because her artwork was too lewd or provocative. She also had the police crowding her at every art exhibition, sometimes confiscating her work. Norton claimed she was a pantheist pagan who worshiped Pan, although the papers spread rumors that she was a Satanist who engaged in animal sacrifice. Norton denied the malicious claims.
The Famous Witch Norton’s Form of the Craft
Rosaleen is known as the Witch of Kings Cross, and she started her own form of witchcraft “The Goat Fold”. Despite saying she wasn’t a Satanist, it was difficult for people to ignore Norton’s interest in demons. Her artwork has gone on display a few times in Sydney since her death in 1979, and a few biographies have been written on her life.
16. Alex Sanders, Famous Witch and Founder of Alexandrian Wicca
Alex Sanders is mostly known establishing Alexandrian Wicca, an offshoot of traditional Gardnerian Wicca. He was a famous witch in the 1960s and 70s, appearing on television shows for interviews and in documentaries. Sanders claimed he was the “King of Witches” and married Maxine Sanders, much to the dismay of a few prominent Gardnerian Wiccan members including Patricia Crowther. Sanders was one of those people – you either loved him or hated him. But, being the High Priest of his own tradition, I don’t think he much cared. There’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding his life.
17. The Bell Witch
While some might argue the Bell Witch isn’t an actual witch but a poltergeist, I beg to differ. This terrifying tale started in the early eighteen hundreds in a small town in Tennessee with a family by the last name Bell. The Bell family was tormented by a disembodied voice and a spirit that could cause literal physical harm. The haunting became so famous nationwide, that even Andrew Jackson came to investigate and found it to be eerily true. But who was the Bell witch, exactly? The theory goes that a local woman felt her property was stolen by John Bell, the patriarch of the Bell family, and sought revenge by sending her astral double to torment and terrify the Bell family. Read more here.
18. The Blair Witch
Again, another legendary witch who might only be of spectral manifestation, the Blair Witch of Maryland fame. You might have also watched the movie The Blair Witch Project from the nineties and either loved it or hated it. Either way, locals in Burkittsville, MD claim the movie is based off of a real local legend. A witch supposedly lived in the woods in Burkittsville in the eighteen hundreds…a witch whose ghost still haunts the area. You can read more about the Blair Witch here.
19. Moll Dyer
Moll Dyer didn’t curse George Washington. Sorry to the sources who claim this. Moll Dyer was a woman who lived close to the Leonardtown, Maryland area in the sixteen hundreds. Her family, The Dyers, have been living there for the past four hundred years. I know because I was born and raised in Leonardtown, MD. If you want a good source on this famous local witch from history, read a book like Sister Witch by David W. Thompson. Moll was blamed for the local settlement’s harsh winter and other problems. A mob went to her home in the middle of the night, set it on fire, and drove her into the cold. She died, legend says frozen to a rock. That rock now sits preserved in the historical society in St. Mary’s County (thanks to my mom!)
20. The Fisherwife of Palermo
In the Sicilian Witch Trials, a woman of whom is called the Fisherwife of Palermo was accused of witchcraft AND of consorting with the Donas de Fuera (faeries). She shockingly confessed to going to a magical island and pledging her allegiance to the fairy folk when she was only nine years old. Her tale seemed to magical to believe and the court dismissed it as a “dream”. And so she retained her freedom.
21. Giles Corey
One of the most famous witches from the Salem Witch Trials is Giles Corey. The Salem Witch Trials is probably one of the most infamous witch trials in the world. Unfortunately, many of the people accused were completely innocent and probably didn’t practice magic of any kind. Though I have my suspicions about a few. Giles Corey, though? This guy was accused of witchcraft, then pressed to death with rocks in order for the officials to obtain a confession. Of which they never received. May he rest in peace.
22. Shirley Jackson
One of my favorite authors of all time, Shirley Jackson was rumored to have been a witch when she was still alive. Her husband even admitted that she was into mystical topics and practices, yet Shirley herself never said the words. I honestly don’t blame her. If you’ve ever read The Haunting of Hill House, or if you’ve even seen the movie or TV series based on her work, you’ll know just how magical this woman truly was. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is another one of Jackson’s magical pieces adapted to a Netflix film recently.
23. Bathsheba Sherman, The Famous Witch in the Conjuring
Are you a horror movie fan? If you’ve seen The Conjuring, you might have heard of Bathsheba Sherman. She was the witch who inspired the making of the film. In fact, the story is based off a famous haunting in Rhode Island, in which a family was tormented by the ghost of a woman they believed lived there in the late eighteen hundreds. Upon investigation, legend had it that Bathsheba was accused of hurting an innocent child then killing herself right after cursing the land she lived on. The real story is probably much less intense than this, but that’s the legend. Interestingly, the haunted Rhode Island house was up for sale not long ago!
24. Christopher Penczak, Modern Witch and Author
There are few modern witch authors who have influenced my practice like Christopher Penczak. His work is widely known through the witchcraft and pagan community, including his series the Inner Temple of Witchcraft and the Outer Temple of Witchcraft. Penczak isn’t just knowledgeable in the magical arts but also the healing arts and has written one of my favorite books on Reiki called Magick of Reiki. I highly recommend checking his work out!
25. Doreen Virtue, Controversial Witch Turned Christian
Ahhh, YEP. I’m adding her to the list. Doreen Virtue is a name that stirs up lots of debate and controversy in the modern witchcraft community. Why? Because this is a woman who claimed to be a witch and mystic for many years, sold thousands of angel oracle cards and mystical books, only to claim in recent years that her past work was the “devil’s”. This famous witch turned Christian and denounced her metaphysical work. Which truly put the community in an uproar. So, whether she’s a witch now or not, I include her here because she is and was a well-known name.
26. Stewart and Janet Farrar: Famous Witch Couple
Stewart and Janet Farrar were an English married couple who led a Wiccan coven in the late twentieth century. They are well known for their literary contributions, including A Witches Bible, The Witches’ Way, and Eight Sabbats for Witches. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, the Farrars appeared in a few interviews to answer questions about modern Wicca.
The Farrars were initiated into Alexander and Maxine Sanders’ Coven; however, in the early nineteen-seventies, the Farrars started their own coven. Stewart passed away in 2000, and Janet re-married in 2014. Janet continues to write books and lecture on Wicca in various countries along with her husband Gavin.