In 17th century England and New England, it was believed that a so-called “witch’s cake” had the power to reveal whether witchcraft was afflicting a person with symptoms of illness. It was made with rye flour and the urine of the afflicted person, and the cake was then fed to a dog. If the dog exhibited the same symptoms as the ill person, the presence of witchcraft was “proven.”
Well…I suspect any dog would act strangely after eating a cake made with urine.
But why a dog?
A dog was believed to be associated with the devil, and it was then supposed to point to the witches who had afflicted the victim.
In Salem Village, in the Massachusetts colony, in 1692, such a witch’s cake was key in the first accusations of witchcraft that led to court trials and executions that we already know.
Depending on whom you ask, the Salem Witch Trials were the result of fear, confusion, psychological trauma, or other (more or less) fantastic theories.
But, as the fervor was just beginning, a village reverend, Samuel Parris, blamed another culprit: cakes.
The origins of the tragic facts lay within Reverend’s own home, and story began in January 1692 (by the modern calendar) when his daughter, Elizabeth Parris, known as Betty, who was nine years old at the time, and his orphaned niece, Abigail Williams, who was 12, claimed to be suffering from fits and feelings of being attacked by an invisible force.
The father tried prayer to help them, and he also had the congregation and some other local clergy pray for the girls to cure their affliction. When prayer did not cure the illness, Reverend Parris brought in another minister, John Hale, and the local physician, William Griggs, who observed the symptoms in the girls and could find no physical cause, but they suggested that witchcraft was involved. Now, if you were to go to your doctor today and get a weird diagnosis for your kids you’d want a second opinion. The villagers felt the same way, but they didn’t have easy access to other physicians.
Instead, while the reverend and his wife were away, a neighbor of the Parris family, Mary Sibley, recommended the making of a witch’s cake to reveal whether witchcraft was involved. She gave directions to John Indian, an enslaved man serving the Parris family, to make the cake. He collected urine from the girls and then had Tituba, a woman also enslaved by the household, actually bake the witch’s cake and feed it to the dog that lived in the Parris household. (Both Tituba and John Indian were brought to Massachusetts Bay Colony from Barbados and enslaved by Reverend Parris himself.)
Of course, when the Reverend found out, he was incensed. He denounced in church the use of this magic, saying didn’t matter if it had been done with good intentions, literally calling it “going to the devil for help against the devil.”
Not only did the cake fail to change the girls’ symptoms, more people came forward with claims of being bewitched. Moreover, some of the girls now accused Tituba, who merely carried out Mary Sibley’s orders, of witchcraft (even if Mary was never accused).
To Reverend Samuel Parris, it was the cake, more so than the girls’ symptoms, that unleashed evil upon Salem.
In his sermon on March 27, 1692, he said literally that “Witchcraft was suspected, but hadn’t truly been confirmed, until Diabolical means was used by the making of a cake…since w’ch Apparitions have been plenty, & exceeding much mischief hath followed. But by this means [it seems] the Devil hath been raised amongst us, & his Rage is vehement & terrible.”
Mary repented before the congregation, but, to Reverend, the damage was done.
In any case, the girls ended up naming those they accused of witchcraft and the first were Tituba and two local girls, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne. Sarah Osbourne later died in prison, and Sarah Good was executed in July. Tituba confessed to witchcraft, so she was exempted from execution, and she later turned accuser.
What followed was a year of false accusations and hysteria that culminated in the executions of 20 innocent people.
However, despite the details of the Salem trials are well-known still today, this shade of the story has faded into obscurity.
But Mary’s story wasn’t the unique idea of a lone, misguided woman because it was a traditional folk practice in 17th-century England and its American colonies.
Although witch cake probably sounds strange to contemporary readers, believe it or not there was a theory behind it. Many pre-industrialized people believed that, because witches directed their magic towards a person’s body, the magic would also be present in the products of his body. Therefore, if someone had evil magic operating on them that magic would also be in their blood or urine, and could be passed onto anything that consumed them, like a poor dog.
Anti-witchcraft cakes were found also dating back to the 1620s, and they exist alongside other charms, such as hag stones and witch bottles, similar to the cakes, in that they also used a bewitched person’s urine, along with materials such as hair, iron nails, and bent pins.
However the term “witch cakes” is more of a modern fact, as they were mostly known as “urine cakes” or, if the writer was feeling creative, a cake made with a person’s “water.”
Although it is a far away from a regular cake ingredient, urine was also crucial in warding off witches, and the belief in the cake’s efficacy was rooted in magic. Whoever the witch was, the belief was that there’s an invisible connection between that person and the bewitched person. Following this logic, the best way to break that connection was to take a physical representation of the bewitched (their urine) and manipulate it in some way.
Luckily no one, save the occasional poor pet, was eating the results of the magic recipe as it seems that, essentially, the cake was just a container for the urine. Try to imagine: It’s logic that, If you just have a bit of urine splashed around, it is not not much use but, in this way, you mix urine with a cake, and then you’ve got the main ingredient sealed in it.
Then you can bury it, burn it, or even can give it to someone to eat.
But fire was often the favorite method.
A few years before all the mess broke out in Salem, a doctor prescribed a witch cake for a troubled boy in Yorkshire, England.
A reverend’s diary describes a 1688 house call in which the doctor concluded that the boy “hath had some hurt by an evil tongue.”
For that reason, he refused to prescribe any medicine for him, until his “water” has been tryed by fire. They took his urine and made a cake or loaf of it with wheat meal, and put some of his hair into it and horse-shoe stumps, and then put it in the fire.
However traditions and beliefs varied considerably. For example, sometimes they were used to identify a witch. Burning the cake, might hurt the witch and force her to reveal herself, while sometimes might passed a curse on to a new victim, but there are even stories describing the cakes as witches’ weapons, or even shields to protect against them. In these cases, the witches were said to hide cakes in a person’s house to curse them.
Due to this variety of stories, witch cakes are a controversy fact, and all specimen seems to have been destroyed except two that live at two British museums: the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Scarborough Museums Trust.
I have no idea what Tituba and John’s 1692 cake looked like, but both cakes are the same curious shape: a circle, with spikes protruding from its sides and a hole in its center.
They look like a spiky bagel but, sadly, there are no historical records describing the shape’s significance.
Something about some symbolism?
Maybe a sun or a crown of thorns?
Just mere speculations.
Both “survived” cakes were both collected by British folklorists during the early 1900s, respectively from Flamborough and Bempton, two Yorkshire towns that are a mere three miles from each other.
However people could have easily been duped when it came to their provenance and purpose.
For example, Yorkshire residents used cakes as a protective device that they hung in their doorway and replaced every year during Holy Week, depite there aren’t any historical evidence that this was actually a practice.
But even if the two artifacts might just be spiky bagels, they are still connected to the history of charms in the Yorkshire area, at the time a quite a remote place. There people were dependent on fishing and climbing down the huge local cliffs to collect seabirds’ eggs, both of which are really dangerous occupations.
And, historically these sorts of amulets often tend to be associated with times of great struggle or particularly dangerous lines of work.
In any case, with the rise of Wicca and modern witchcraft, despite there are lot modern witches around demonstrating how to use potions and charms on TikTok and Instagram, they can’t explain the urine cake….
Images from web – Google Research