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One of the many recurring gags in Good Omens is Sergeant Shadwell's obsession with nipples. For example:

  • One of the first questions he asks Newt when recruiting him to the Witchfinder Army is how many nipples he's got.
  • When Aziraphale recruits him in turn to help deal with the Adam situation, he asks suspiciously how many nipples this Antichrist has, and Aziraphale lies to convince him to help.
  • Finally, when he "pops the question" to Madame Tracy, it's not a marriage proposal but the question of how many nipples she's got.

What is the significance of this obsession with nipples? Is it just something to make certain readers snigger? Is there actually a traditional connection between witchcraft and nipples? Something else I'm missing? Many of what seem to be meaningless jokes in Good Omens have actually turned out to be obscure cultural references, so I wonder if this is another such case.

  • Did you just want to know if there was a connection between nipple counts and witch persecution, or (given that the link is readily discovered and not particularly obscure) were you also looking for why that link should turn into an obsession for Shadwell? – Spagirl Nov 20 '17 at 14:45
  • @Spagirl The connections between nipple counts and perceived witchcraft was interesting enough to make a good answer for me, but if there's a specific reason why that link should become Shadwell's obsession (other than "because it's funny"), that would make an even better answer! – Rand al'Thor Nov 20 '17 at 18:51
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    The “specific reason” is likely that Shadwell is a bit of a caricature of Matthew Hopkins, a famous “witch-finder” who was indeed obsessed with supernumery nipples as a marker of sorcery. – Obie 2.0 Nov 21 '17 at 19:17
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Sergeant Shadwell is looking for one of the traditional signs of witchcraft.

That is, the answer to the question, “Is there actually a traditional connection between witchcraft and nipples” is yes. Specifically, it was believed that a witch would often have a familiar: a demon in the shape of an animal, or an animal bound to their will through magic, or something along those lines.

As such, the witch would grow an additional “witch’s teat,” by which these demons could be fed on blood. This teat could also be used for other satanic purposes. Per Wikipedia:

The witches’ teat is associated with the perversion of maternal power by witches in early modern England. The witches’ teat is associated with the feeding of witches’ imps or familiars; the witch’s familiar supposedly aided the witch in her magic in exchange for nourishment (blood) from sacrificial animals or from the witch’s teat. It is also where the devil supposedly suckles when he comes at night to bed his faithful servants, sometimes impregnating them with his seed. Once the devilish half-breed has been conceived, the cambion may only feed upon this teat and no other. Folklore suggests that on the 7th day of the 7th week of consecutive feeding upon the teat, the cambion would grow to adulthood immediately and begin wreaking havoc with a range of demonic powers inherited from its supernatural father. However, should the ritual be disrupted during the 49-day period, the process has to restart all over again.

In particular, the most famous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, (to whom Shadwell undoubtedly owes a great deal) had a particular fixation on the presence of the “devil’s teat” as a way of identifying witches. Here, for example, Hopkins insists that such teats will be identified by numerous skilled observers, who can rule out any putative natural cause.

Quer: Many poore People are condemned for having a Pap, or Teat about them, whereas many People (especially antient People) are, and have been a long time troubled with naturall wretts on severall parts of their bodies and other naturall excressencies, as Hemerodes, Piles, Childbearing, &c. and these shall be judged only by one man alone and a woman, and so accused or acquitted.

Answ.

The parties so judging can justifie their skill to any, and shew good reasons why such markes are not meerly naturall, neither that they can happen by any such naturall cause as is before expressed, and for further answer for their private judgements alone, it is most false and untrue, for never was any man tryed by search of his body, but commonly a dozen of the ablest men in the parish or else where, were present, and most commonly as many ancient skilfull matrons and midwives present when the women are tryed, which marks not only he, and his company attest to be very suspitious, but all beholders, the skilfulest of them, doe not approve of them, but likewise assent that such tokens cannot in their judgements proceed from any the above mentioned Causes.

The Discovery of Witches, Matthew Hopkins

There are various other objections that Hopkins addresses in this work, many of which center around the use of the “devil’s teat” to identify witches.

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  • Great answer! (Fun Fact: In the 1995 film Mallrats, the protagonists visit a psychic who sports a "third nipple";) – DukeZhou Nov 21 '17 at 20:55

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