The Witches of Idstein

Idstein is a pretty little town about 20 minutes by car from Wiesbaden.

It is charming and appears to be a very popular location for the construction of upscale condos, providing residents with an easy commute to Frankfurt. The new construction overlooks the old medieval town center and one would expect that the downtown core would be bustling.DSC_0318DSC_0313

But when Jay recently walked around Idstein’s old town he found it disconcertingly quiet and actually a little eerie. It was late morning on a weekday, a time that usually would mean local merchants actively catering to customers. He expected to see what he often sees in other towns, people shopping, chatting and going about their day. But, for all its charm, Idstein was strangely vacant.DSC_0326DSC_0324DSC_0323DSC_0322DSC_0316

Jay then noticed the primary landmark of Idstein, the Hexenturm, or Witches Tower. The tower was first built in 1170, and despite its name, it never housed any witches. DSC_0297But as he walked around the area surrounding the tower, he noticed a plaque. It was a memorial to the people who were burned at the stake for being witches in Idstein. DSC_0298

Jay’s subsequent research revealed that between February 1676 and March 1677, between 38 to 43 witches (both men and women, but mostly women) were executed near where he stood. This was a period in German history when witch trials were in full swing and Idstein had a particularly strong supporter of witchcraft removal in their local noble, Count Johannes of Nassau. Since 1630, old Johannes had been ordering his protestant pastors to preach against the evils brought on by witchcraft and trials had been going on for over 40 years before things really got going in 1676. Fortunately for surviving witches, Johannes died in 1677 and the witch trials stopped.

Some people think Idstein is still haunted by the ghosts of the executed witches. While Jay doesn’t particularly subscribe to this theory, it might partially explain why the place was so quiet when he visited. His visit to Idstein  kindled his interest in the subject of witches and witchcraft, and more importantly, why otherwise rational human beings would believe their neighbors were witches and call for their execution.

But don’t let the stories of ghosts and witches stop you from visiting Idstein. Maybe just don’t go after dark.

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