Since the beginnings of history, humans believed in religions of a polytheist type, worshipping a plurality of gods and spirits. By proposing a monotheist religious system, Christianity intended to change from the ground up this old state of affairs which had endured for centuries. However, the old traditions had deep roots in people’s hearts and minds, a fact which made the Church feel threatened. This clash between old traditions and the Christian cult resulted a long history of the persecution of witches.
The Evolving History of Witchcraft
The persecution of witches evolved over time. Even though the conversion to Christianity had increased on the European continent, there were still those who believed, respected, and continued to take into account the old ways. These talked about the Mother Goddess of the World who had given birth to the Divine Child. He later became her husband, master of harvests and the “Great Hunter" who sacrificed himself every autumn only to be reborn stronger in the following spring.
Even the nobles of the 12th and 13th centuries continued to respect the old traditions, troubadours composing songs in the honor of the Mother Goddess masked in the form of poems for courtesans. In those turbulent times, peasants and simple folk practiced witchcraft in the hope of ensuring a better future for themselves, thinking that it could help them to improve daily life.
Why Did the Spanish Inquisition Allow Some Witches to Stay Alive?
As Christianity extended its power and influence, clerics wanted to take measures against the old ways, and so the Church began the merciless war against that which it named the Devil's cult. The measures imposed by the representatives of the so-called “religion of mercy” (Christianity) led to the violent death of over 200,000 people.
In time this persecution became worse and worse, with the number of deaths surpassing eight million people convicted and executed under the accusation of practicing witchcraft. The fanaticism of the Church reached its peak in the period of the 12th and 18th centuries, then also being exported to the American territory.
Persecution in the History of Witchcraft
In general, one can delimit three main waves in the persecution of witches, each associated with moments in time when new ideas were seen by representatives of the Church as a threat to the supremacy and power of the Christian institution.
The first wave took place at the end of the Crusades, from the 13th century, when Christians and Muslims were fighting in the East. The Church then regarded as a threat the influence of Muslim traditions and ideas. As European Modernism was also making its presence felt, the Church no longer waited to see how these threats progressed, and it instituted the Inquisition.
Dominicans had to fight against heresy, at a time when its primary manifestation was declared to be witchcraft, a social ill deemed to corrupt people and get them to defy God and the Vatican. Among the first witch trials , which took place in the year 1324, Alice Kyteler from Kilkenny in Ireland was accused of worshipping the old gods and condemned to death. As luck would have it she enjoyed a noble position and managed to escape her fate, but her acquaintances were executed and burnt at the stake.
The second stage of witchcraft persecutions began at the beginning of the 15th century. Until then, the Great Plague from Europe, nicknamed the “Black Death", had resulted in the death of over 25 million people and the Hundred Years War had ended. The most well-known episode within this second wave of persecutions is, without doubt, the execution of Joan of Arc .
The Persecution of Joan of Arc
After a revelation, Joan led the French offensive against the English occupation, but in the end she was condemned by the Church and burned at the stake as a witch. Later on, the same institution which had executed her chose to sanctify her. In addition to the motives of a political order which was responsible for her execution, Joan of Arc has also been associated with a cult dedicated to the goddess Diana.
The forest near Domremy village where the young Joan had her revelation and heard the voices suggesting she attack the English, was rumored to have been the meeting place of peasants who practiced ceremonies in the name of the goddess Diana.
The Malleus Maleficarum: A Medieval Manual for Witch Hunters
During these rituals, the peasants danced around a sacred tree to obtain the favors of the goddess. Some sources even suggest that Joan of Arc had taken part in these ceremonies. Details from the trial include reports that the young woman refused to say the prayer “Our Father” during the trial, and that she spoke of “My Lord” rather that “God”.
Joan of Arc was also an acquaintance of the French nobleman Gilles de Rais, who was also executed for purportedly practicing satanic rituals involving human sacrifices. The accusations claimed that he had killed children from the neighboring villages. Gilles de Rais has gone down in history as an alchemist and member of the secret societies of the time.
The last wave of witchcraft persecutions came with the year 1484 when a new papal bull condemned the belief in witchcraft. The belief was that appealing to witchcraft in order to find solutions to everyday problems involved losing one’s soul to the Devil. As a condemnable act, all those who are suspected were to be investigated, by specially prepared inquisitors.
Malleus Maleficarum and the Witch Hunt
Out of the high-ranking Dominicans, Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (also known as Henricus Institor) had to supervise the activity of the Inquisition, and they decided to create a scientific context for dealing with the problem of witchcraft. In this way, in 1486, the two published the work known under the title Malleus Maleficarum (which translates to “The Witches' Hammer") which set rules for the interpretation of witchcraft activity.
This bizarre treatise includes modes of protection against spells, torture methods proposed by the Inquisition, ways of recognizing persons involved in witchcraft and interrogation techniques. The text passed, at that time, through 35 editions, with versions in English, German, French and Italian.
The Inquisition had its most powerful center in Spain and it did not diminish in power until the 16th century when, under the impulse of Freemasonry, the Reform hit the Vatican. The first masonic lodges had appeared as a result of the works of the Order of the Templars which had been persecuted by the Church.
The Evils of Witchcraft, or Evils of the Catholic Church?
In the year 1509, Henry VIII had been excommunicated by the Pope and was now leading the Anglican Church. Martin Luther was excommunicated in the year 1521 after attacking the Vatican. Protestantism had begun to have influence, and in the year 1536, John Calvin set the bases of Calvinism. In this period, Pope Paul the Third introduced the Inquisition in Rome and the peak of the third wave of persecutions against witches, but also against Protestants, began.
With regards to the cases of witchcraft, women represented about 80% of those convicted because it was believed that they were weaker in spirit and they gave in easier to the demonic influences. The convicted were stripped naked in public, their bodies were shaved against a backdrop of laughter as the crowd gathered in the public square.
They were then tortured to confess, through a variety of methods, as evidenced by numerous handbooks on torture published during that era. These included physical humiliations with sexual connotations, whipping, ripping off their nails or being submerged underwater.
In the case of water torture and underwater submersions, if the person accused of witchcraft drowned, they were considered innocent. But if they survived, they were considered guilty and burned at the stake. The “luckiest" convicts were burned at the stake in an unconscious state induced by the uninterrupted period of torture to which they had been submitted.
The witch hunter occupation ended up being considered a respectable profession and history has recorded the case one witch hunter who hunted down 220 victims, only women. Another witch hunter named Peter Binsfeld, is said to have executed around 6,500 women and children under the accusation of witchcraft. In the year 1834, the Inquisition was disbanded, but burning at the stake continued in Europe until the year 1793, the last witches being condemned and executed in Poland.
Witchcraft in North America
In North America, there were two primary ways magic and witchcraft was practiced. One had its origins in a German community in Pennsylvania, where a brotherhood from Philadelphia used witchcraft to communicate with nature. In particular, from 1670 to 1700 they conducted ceremonies to celebrate the summer solstice, giving offerings to fertility gods. They later incorporated additional elements into their belief systems, which resulted in a religion which centered on the worship of divine power in the guise of the Mother Goddess. Their practices included trances, astral travels and the use of charms.
The second form of magic practices which took place in North America did not constitute such a well-structured system, focusing more on the the practical side of things. In this sense, witchdoctors performed healing rituals and spells with diverse purposes, varying from love or luck, or even detecting precious metals. Among these witchdoctors, known for practicing a type of magic inspired by shamanic rituals and the beliefs of Native Americans, there were also some preoccupied with black magic to whom one could make appeal to send curses, disease or even death upon one’s enemies.
When it came to satanic magic , this was practiced by witches who had made a pact with the Devil, offering their souls as part of the bargain. These witches sneaked around at night, visiting churches where they held black masses. These profanations of the churches took place quite often in the 18th century as a result of the black masses organized by witches who reversed Christian rituals and their symbols, in order to provoke destruction.
For example, the Eucharist in the context of a satanic mass was performed with the blood of sacrificed animals or with the period blood of the witches involved. It was said that a way of recognizing this type of witch was through the presence of a witches’ mark, which supposedly appeared on the body as a result of the pact made with the Devil.
However, many innocent people were condemned to death just because they had large moles, scars or birth marks on their bodies. Inquisitors believed that if these marks did not bleed when pierced with a needle, then they were in fact witches' marks.
The Famed Salem Witch Trials
Probably the most well-known witch hunt from history took place in the winter of the year 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts. Betty, the nine-year-old daughter of priest Samuel Parris, and Abigail Williams, her cousin, had been taught by the family's Indian slave named Tituba about magical beliefs transmitted from the ancestors.
Many people from the village appealed to Tituba, known for practicing a divination technique which implied pouring egg whites in a glass of water. Over time she taught witchcraft practices to several young girls from Salem. Betty and Abigail began to enter trances, having seizures and running around the courtyard howling like wolves. Other girls who had entered into contact with Tituba began to act as if they were absent, and when they came to they would say that they had seen apparitions.
A 12-year-old child named Ann Putnam came to from such a state and declared that she had been chased by a demon. Medics consulted the girl and they did not find anything wrong with her from a physical point of view. This is how the investigations began to study the strange happenings from Salem and, at the village tribunal, Betty Parris accused Tituba of practicing witchcraft.
She wasn’t the only one they accused. They also pointed the finger at a Sarah Osborne, an unmarried woman who lived with a man from the village, a scandalous thing at that time. There was also Sarah Good, an alcoholic beggar known for smoking a pipe, an eccentric passion for her time.
During the trial, Tituba recognized that she had used her astral body to attack Ann Putnam. As a result of her confession, the priest Parris did not condemn her to death, preferring to sell her. Meanwhile, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and another 17 women were condemned and executed for practicing witchcraft.
The Salem witch trials created the legal precedent for future witch trials . From this moment on, even accounts related to spectral presences were considered acceptable evidence in court. In this way, someone could very easily get rid of a person whom he or she disliked. All they had to do was to declare that they had been attacked by the spectral double of the individual and that individual would be executed for practicing witchcraft. There was no escaping such an accusation since it was believed that a spectral double could act while the material body led its daily activity elsewhere.
The History of Witchcraft in the 20th Century
Despite such a long history of witchcraft persecution , witchcraft has not disappeared. On the contrary, it has evolved and diversified, with a range of practices ranging from white to black magic. In fact, the most well-known representatives of black magic from history include Aleister Crowley and Anton Szandor LaVey.
Aleister Crowley was part of the secret society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. After his failed attempt to control the society for his own interests, he was excluded from it. He has gone down in history as “The Worst Man from History", or “The Great Beast" as he liked to be called. His reputation as a magician was centered around sexual magic.
Victims of Arrogance and Cruelty: The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612
Crowley organized animal and human sacrifices, as well as orgies in which the victims were animals and drugged children. He also organized public ceremonies he considered to be a symbolical repetition of the seven rituals from Eleusis and for which those who wanted to participate had to pay enormous sums of money. Another adept of black and sexual magic, Anton Szandor LaVey, founded the Universal Church of Satan in which he promoted the idea that unleashing sexual energy can result in a special occult energy charge.
White magic is situated at the opposite extreme of witchcraft in an attempt to reconnect with nature and with the powers it can offer. Based upon the old Celtic traditions of the druids, the rituals of white magic celebrate the power of nature’s regeneration, often taking place in its midst, such as in forests, where practitioners meditate, organize Sabbaths during the full moon, dance around a sacred tree as an Axis Mundi type symbol or even bathe in spring waters. This perspective rejects the idea of the original sin, since white magic holds that humans are sacred beings who contain divinity within themselves.
Top image: The persecution of witches is a common theme within the history of witchcraft. Source: Matrioshka / Adobe Stock
By Phoenix Vald
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Copenhaver, B. 2017. The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment . Penguin Books: London.
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Institoris, H. 1978. The Malleus Maleficarum . Dover Publications: New York.
Roach, M. K. 2004. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege . Taylor Trade Publishing: Lanham.
Actually persecution of witches was far more common after the Reformation under Protestantism than it ever was under Catholicism.
In the beginning humans didn’t have a “polytheistic” type of religion. The correct terminology is “Animism” - whereby inanimate objects, like rocks, trees, rivers, mountains, volcanoes or certain animals etc are assigned “spirits” & special significance.