Epilepsy and witchcraft: A brief history

"But there is no bodily infirmity, not even leprosy or epilepsy, which cannot be caused by witches…. For we have often found that certain people have been visited with epilepsy or the falling sickness by means of eggs which have been buried with dead bodies, especially the dead bodies of witches, together with other ceremonies of which we cannot speak, particularly when these eggs have been given to a person either in food or drink."

The Malleus Malleficarum, Part II., Question I, Chapter XI.
(Translated by the Rev. Montague Summers, 1928)

The book from which this quotation came served as a guidebook for the Inquisition for 200 years, from the late 1400s until the time of the 1692 Salem witch trials in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of accused witches (perhaps millions), mostly women, were killed. Undoubtedly some of them were charged with causing epilepsy. Nevertheless, many physicians in that era (and even much earlier) recognized that epilepsy usually was caused by processes in the person's own body. They believed that cases caused by witchcraft were the exception rather than the rule, though the general public probably saw witches and demons as having a greater role.

What has happened to the public's understanding of the role of witchcraft in epilepsy in the 300 years since Salem? Folk beliefs have persisted among some people, as shown by the story of Milan Mramuch—"Could It Be...Satan?". Those who study folk culture report that a belief in witchcraft and other magical causes of epilepsy is fairly common in some areas, mainly among people with little education. See "Folk beliefs about epilepsy: Some recent studies" for summaries of reports from various parts of the world.

Our Mission

The mission of the Epilepsy Foundation is to lead the fight to overcome the challenges of living with epilepsy and to accelerate therapies to stop seizures, find cures, and save lives.

24/7 helpline