Given the looming proximity of Satan in Christianity, it seems inevitable that this demonization would happen, because witchcraft involved practices of magic alien and unavailable to the Church – despite the vaunted spiritual authority of the Church, priests couldn’t do it. Surely that left the Devil.
Indeed, Christianity (as opposed to the Church), might have been content to largely ignore witchcraft as irrelevant, and was for a thousand years. Demonizing witchcraft was partially a political act, imposed by Church authorities who had no good answer to the question….
“Hey, if you’re Christ’s representative on Earth, why can’t you do that magic stuff? Jesus did, and He gave the power to the Apostles through the Holy Spirit, and from the Apostle Peter, you claim your legitimacy. So where’s your magic to prove your claims?”
The Church needed to find some kind of response to that, and the nature of that response was already decided by the people’s fear and distrust of the practice: clearly, that kind of magic wasn’t God’s magic, and even if it was, it wasn’t authorized. It had to have another source, and if it wasn’t coming directly from God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, then it must be evil.
The Church had an candidate at the ready – Satan – the Devil. This provided the basket into which many heretical practices of this type could be placed and categorized as Satanic.
Satanic witchcraft was a primal darkly psychological Christian fantasy that superimposed Christian symbolism over folk practices pre-dating Christianity. It caught flame in the form of witch hunts over the centuries with the worst covering a period of hundreds of years in various parts of Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and other European countries from about the 15th and early 16th centuries, declining and then peaking in the 17th century, and finally declining in the 18th century. The fear that their towns and villages had been thoroughly infiltrated by a conspiracy of Satanic God-hating unbelievers that sought to undermine and destroy people’s lives, houses and families caused entire regions to loose all sense of perspective and overreact.
But to be fair, witches had been burning for thousands of years – well before Christianity.
Christianity & Witchcraft
The advent of Christianity would not always have made a difference to people’s traditional beliefs and practices. People don’t change overnight: they would have tried to fit Christianity into their old ways, unwilling to discard them wholesale.
The Church, for its part, struggled with maintaining the true Church among Europe’s wild and warlike tribes.
Although the witch hunts can be regarded a means for the Christian Empire to eliminate opposition and homogenize society, and to intimidate the population, it was a phenomenon that was not entirely within the control of the Church. People associated natural phenomena such as climate change and epidemics with witchcraft, and the rate of prosecutions can be linked to these occurrences. The fear of witchcraft was inherent first in the people, and then in the Church.
However much we have learned from history, human nature has not changed–primitive, wild, stupid mob panic can still drive the authorities before it, even as it then forced the Church into acts it didn’t always feel comfortable with. The Church had not yet filled in the holes left by Christ’s brief three-year ministry, and its world-view was incomplete. Did witchcraft exist? Did it threaten Christians? Was death the appropriate penalty?
As noted, the original position of the Church was that witches don’t exist–and even if they did, how could a witch have power over Christ or His faithful? Over time, the position of the Churches changed according to interpretation and external pressures, and the witch hunts commenced.
“When a “great fear” takes hold of society, that society looks naturally to the stereotype of the enemy in its midst; and once the witch had become the stereotype, witchcraft would be the universal accusation.1 –The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967). Hugh Trevor-Roper.
One external pressure was the anxiety of the people which drove the Church into action, lest it be overtaken by mobs. The witch hunts weren’t entirely the fault of the religious authorities: the people’s superstitious fear forced the Church to act.
Perhaps the panic began to grow when technology and literacy made communication from place to place easier, and as guilds formed associations and met in populated places. It might have seemed that enquiry might bring about the re-discovery of some dread lost secret knowledge, or that new discoveries from the realm of the proto-sciences might unleash – Faust-like – great and horrible forces which would destroy them all. Knowledge was no friend of the excluded – the poor, illiterate, and isolated. It was the beginning of the end of the isolated society, overwhelmed by one that sought power through knowledge.
Perhaps the witch hunts grew out of man’s expectation that “science” would enable man to control nature, the world of spirits, and God Himself. If that possibility existed, then that meant that it might already have been discovered by some secret conspiracy. The “enemy” might already have uncovered those secrets and could deploy them against humanity. Hence a sense of urgency.
The horrible thought must have occurred to some that if those reputed witches skulking around villages invoking their demons and eating babies ever got together and got organized with their nastiness and false-god-worshiping, then things could get ugly.
But if they did get together, pity them. In a competition of magical feats, the Church could hold its own. It had Jesus, all the saints, the Holy Spirit, and God on their side, and failing that, the judiciary and the Inquisition. Anybody else pretending to dispense magic was surely false or derived their power from a malevolent source, because only the (Catholic) Church was authorized, approved, licensed, and endorsed by Jesus.
Or, perhaps the witch mania was driven by a masochistic urge to sacrifice one’s self, to purge, scourge and purify. Was there an “alchemy of the spirit” performed by the penitent to urge the most purifying magic possible out of the Church?
In broader perspective, perhaps witch-hunts were a way of forming social identity: to homogenize society through auto-genocide; removing the odd, the peculiar, the suspicious, until no one dared stand out for fear of being denounced. The hunts suppressed individualism, helped create nations; Christians subservient to man and god.
“Many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and straying from the Catholic Faith, have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells, conjurations, and other accursed charms and crafts, enormities and horrid offences, have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals; these wretches furthermore afflict and torment men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, with terrible and piteous pains and sore diseases, both internal and external; they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives nor wives receive their husbands; over and above this, they blasphemously renounce that Faith which is theirs by the Sacrament of Baptism, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind they do not shrink from committing and perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls, whereby they outrage the Divine Majesty and are a cause of scandal and danger to very many (…) the abominations and enormities in question remain unpunished not without open danger to the souls of many and peril of eternal damnation. ” –“Summis desiderantes affectibus (Desiring with supreme ardor). Papal bull issued by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 recognized the existence of witches.
Among all people there is a fear of the malevolent power of evil witches and their black magic, but among Christians this fear is intensified by the belief that witches have supernatural powers and are the diabolical foot soldiers of Evil, and the enemy of their God: the Devil, and, that like Faust, witches have made a pact with the Devil to acquire their powers.
When weird and spooky met Christianity (and threw in sexual repression), there was an extraordinary bloom of psychic possibilities that took the peculiar old lady who lived down the lane and had her fornicate with Satan, eternal enemy of God who detested humans, ate babies, and tortured sinners forever in the burning pits of Hell. When people started to think that it was actually possible that their very neighbours were doing this sort of thing, they started accusing them, frightening each another, and forming into congregations of terrified Christians demanding that their Church do something about all the damned witches.
A Little History
The Church was initially of the opinion that even if there were such a thing as witchcraft, then God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (with the help of an ordained priest) could handle any mere witch, demon or devil that came along, and so could any proper Christian with guidance. If you wanted to stay safe from the Devil, you just had to trust in the Church and Jesus.
They got some more advice from Augustine (around 400 AD) who pointed out that mere belief in witchcraft was heresy. In 794, Charlemagne instituted the death penalty for those who prosecuted witchcraft.
“It was necessary for confidence men and tricksters like Faust to walk a very narrow line here. The sixteenth century in Germany was hardly a safe time for those claiming magical powers and traffic with the devil.” –The Sin of Knowledge: Ancient Themes and Modern Variations (page 50). Theodore Ziolkowski, (2000)
In 1320, Pope John XXII allowed the prosecution of witches and Pope Innocent VIII encouraged the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, Kramer and Sprenger in 1484 with the Papal bull “Summis desiderantes affectibus.” Perhaps “real” witchcraft did exist – after all: there was the Witch of Endor in the Bible, and there were warnings in the Bible – in Deuteronomy – that witchcraft was “abhorrent” to God, and – in Exodus – that one should not “suffer a witch to live,” so clearly, it was the duty of the Church to get rid of the witches.
Besides, everyone had laws against witchcraft. This in itself was evidence of the reality of it: if witchcraft didn’t exist, then why were there laws against it?
“Again and again, when we read the case histories, we find witches freely confessing to esoteric details without any evidence of torture, and it was this spontaneity, rather than the confessions themselves, which convinced rational men that the details were true. ” –The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967), by Hugh Trevor-Roper, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001)
It was the witches’ magic and alliance with the Devil that made good Christians come to fear the treacherous infiltration of that same Satanic evil that Jesus battled into their midst, and they were appalled to discover how serious the problem was once they went looking.
They started prosecutions of witchcraft (and other heresies). The Christian prosecutors were initially confused to discover that seemingly harmless people freely admitted to being witches and doing all of the bad things they were being accused of. Hearing this confirmed their suspicions, and set the stage for a thorough de-witching of the continent. Torture was used, not as extensively as sometimes claimed, but it would certainly have been in people’s minds during interrogations. Thorough investigations led to the accused naming their families, friends and acquaintances, who were in turn gathered up, interrogated, and prosecuted.
In the 14th to 18th centuries in Europe, large-scale witch hunts grew to become hysterical purges consuming the lives of untold numbers of innocent victims,2 both within and beyond the control of the presiding churches.
“Judicial torture had been allowed, in limited cases, by Roman law; but Roman law, and with it judicial torture, had been forgotten in the Dark Ages. In the eleventh century Roman law had been rediscovered in the west, and torture had soon followed it back into use.”3 – The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967), by Hugh Trevor-Roper.
There were regional differences in the use of torture. If torture wasn’t allowed, there were far fewer convictions. There were more successful trials for witchcraft in more remote, rural regions, suggesting that the mania was rooted in ignorance and insularity. Lower classes were more susceptible.
Germany was a hot-bed for witch trials – but not so much the northern regions from which we have the first Faust tales which came out in the mid to late sixteenth century, and neither was our original Faust too bothered in the 15th century, although one was certainly advised to remain nimble, and to be ready to retreat to the road on a moment’s notice, and he didn’t claim to be a witch, just risked the accusation.
The trials went on in various parts of Europe from about 1500 to 1800 when the hunt ended on the shores of rationality, and the Church and the people, burnt-out (figuratively) and disgusted by the carnage that they had created, stopped the prosecutions; stopped the by-now discredited torture; and stopped believing implicitly in witches, witchcraft, magic, and spirits. Even God got pushed a little further back into the shadows, aided by the Protestant Reformation which denied the magic of the priests.
It has been a little over 200 years since the last witchcraft executions in Europe – less time than the full duration of the witch panic in Europe. Witchcraft trials, murders, and executions for witchcraft are still a part of life in other parts of the world.
A more sympathetic and cynical viewpoint is that the practice of witchcraft is nothing more nor less than the remnant of old healing and helping pagan folk traditions that existed in communities before the new religion of Christianity imposed its spiritual and corporeal might to dissuade them; and that it served the purposes of the Church to eliminate them and all other threats to their earthly power while simultaneously looking to the salvation of each individual’s eternal soul. Evidence suggests that this is not so, that particularly, healers and physicians were not prosecuted.
None of these persecutions could have been carried out without the permission and cooperation of secular governments. In only a few small regions, like the Papal States and various Prince-Bishoprics in Germany, were religious and temporal government leaders one and the same. But in all the rest of Western Europe, secular princes ultimately decided whether or not witches were hunted. Still, religious leaders carry a large share of the blame for the hunts, since secular princes often hunted witches on the advice of the clergy. Princes hunted witches because Church leaders taught them that witches were disturbers of the peace, destructors of property, and killers of animals and people.”“Applying blame: Not just the Roman Catholic Church, but Protestants, too, and also the governments. (Pavlac, Brian A. “Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented,” Prof. Pavlac’s Women’s History Resource Site. (June 6, 2006). URL:
Poignantly, there was a certain logic about the process: Christians considered that the fate of the eternal soul after death was far more important than the life of the person being investigated, and if one had to lose one’s life to gain eternal repose beside Jesus, then killing the heretic was the Christian thing to do, because killing a confessed and repentant heretic at the time of their salvation prevented them from backsliding into heresy.
Were any of them Real witches?
It is doubtful. Even then many doubted it. Some of those accused had the attributes of witchcraft without demonic connections – those who knew plant lore; those who favoured or retained aspects of an “old” religion; those who read the stars; those who studied – and practiced the proto-sciences like alchemy; those who traded in charms and amulets; those who made poisons and potions; those who read fortunes, and so on.
And yet, when you consider that societies which believe in witchcraft are susceptible to its effects, a person attempting to use witchcraft (let’s not forget poisons) to harm others, was attempting a criminal act. Didn’t the act of attempting to use the elements of witchcraft to harm someone make them a witch and possibly a felon?
Imagine the brutality, superstition, and lawlessness of rural areas – however enlightened one’s own self may be, down the road there may have lived a brutish, cruel, depraved, insane, deformed, inbred, old, ignorant, thieving, violent, vengeful, stupid, dishonest, murderous, disruptive, gossiping, peculiar, mean neighbour, and there would have been little to do but coexist with them – the law and social services were not there to intrude, neither was any school system likely to change things: one had to protect and defend one’s own reputation, health, crops, children and other loved ones as best as one might.
Living in an area for generations, feuds would simmer and explode: truly one had to look out for oneself. One could claim to have supernatural powers to frighten and subdue the neighbours, or conversely, one could suspect and accuse them of the same things.
“Enough has now been said to make it clear that the Middle Ages were far from being the period of orderliness and morality which they are sometimes represented as being. They represent rather a cross between a charnel house and an insane asylum, in which sadism and perversion, cruelty and licence, flowered on a scale which has seldom, if ever, been equalled. In comparison, the spontaneous animality of the Celtic predecessors is comparatively attractive. ” –Sex In History (6. Sex And Heresy). Gordon Rattray Taylor, (2000). Amazon.
Rather than deal directly with one’s neighbours, and bear retaliations that could extend for generations, one could denounce them4 to the Inquisition, expecting (as the Scientologists do (“Attack the Attacker”), that everyone has something to hide, and it would be a short time before the accused would trip up, and be executed, with kudos to oneself for ridding the world of another sorcerer.
Thus, “witch” became an accusation which was easy to make, and very difficult to shed once made.
Standard for trials were variable. Evidence was often lacking or of poor quality, and included hearsay. Torture was used to extract fleeting confessions. Prisoners were compelled to name names which were added to the lists of those to be rounded up, that they were named at all being damning evidence.
The zeal of the Church emboldened accusers. The Church needed to remove sources of opposition, and other religions, including the folk religions and splinter Christian sects were threats to the civil status of the Church – as it had already learned in the early Roman years.
A paranoid fantasy built on old traditions, the spectre of an anti-Christian Satanic conspiracy of witchcraft was nevertheless believed quite strongly.
There was much to support the prosecution of witches – from primal fear to social relations to political expediency, but when all is judged in today’s light, very little to confirm the existence of actual Satanic witchcraft, a credible conspiracy against the Church, or even a pre-existing witch cult, and today one is more likely to be prosecuted for fraud for pretending to be a witch than for witchcraft, reflecting the current belief that witchcraft is superstitious nonsense.
The fear is rooted in human behaviour: we feel threatened and we lash out. On individual levels we learn to enquire a little further before we burn our neighbours, but mobs have not learned very well over the years, and we still react like the animals we are in stressful situations. Today we have the uneasy tension between so-called fundamentalists5 of different religions, and they still do the same stupid, compassion-less, hypocritical, cruel, and hateful things that they did centuries ago, because they think books about imaginary beings living up in the sky are more important than working together to make a better, more just and harmonious life here on Earth. Faust might suspect religions conspire to keep us at each others throats.
There are still those who believe in the literal presence of Satan, and who believe in witchcraft. It is particularly instructive to remember that the witch hunting crazes in history have been due to the tendency of masses of people toward irrational panic when threatened. While we may have lost our belief in Satanic witchcraft, we have not lost our propensity to panic when circumstances are right, nor have we entirely lost our affection for our own right to stupidity and credulousness: the last “Satanic Panic” in North America over fears of child abuse happened within living memory (see Satanism for the 1980’s Satanic Panic).
Although we are relatively tolerant of witchcraft today, and ever so much more enlightened and rational, in the past, ages of tolerance or denial have preceded ages of panic and murderous persecution, so don’t think it’s all over in the Western countries.
Appalled by the morass of evils besetting humanity, Faust rises as an heroic figure battling the ignorance and bigotry of a pre-technological, pre-literate society. He is a vanguard of the individualist – the free-thinker, and the entrepreneur.
“Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins,” (James. 5:19-20).
A tryal of witches, at the Assizes held at Bury St. Edmonds for the County of Suffolk, on the tenth day of March, 1664, before Sir Matthew Hale Kt., then Lord Chief Baron of His Majesties Court of Exchequer By an unknown author, reprinted verbatim from the original edition of 1682, with an appendix, by C. Clark, Esq. Published 1838 by John Russell Smith in London.
A short but fascinating account of the trial of Amy Duny and Rose Cullender for witchcraft, and a primary source for many researchers into the subject of witchcraft and the trials in England.
Sources and some important works
- Sex in History, (1954). Gordon Rattray Taylor
- The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change. Chapter: 3: The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Hugh Trevor-Roper. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001. Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/719/77036 on 2010-06-09.
- Wikipedia article Christian views on witchcraft. Accessed May 2010.
- Witchcraft Out of the Shadows: A Complete History, (2004). Leo Ruickbie. Robert Hale, Pubs.
- The Sin of Knowledge: Ancient Themes and Modern Variations (2000), by Theodore Ziolkowski, Princeton University Press. At Google.com or buy it at Amazon
- “Thus on all sides the myth was built up and sustained. There were local differences of course, as well as differences of time; differences of jurisdiction as well as differences of procedure. A strong central government could control the craze while popular liberty often let it run wild. The centralized Inquisition in Spain or Italy, by monopolizing persecution, kept down its production, while north of the Alps the free competition of bishops, abbots and petty lords, each with his own jurisdiction, kept the furnaces at work. The neighbourhood of a great international university, like Basel or Heidelberg, had a salutary effect, while one fanatical preacher or one over-zealous magistrate in a backward province could infect the whole area. But all these differences merely affected the practice of the moment: the myth itself was universal and constant. Intellectually logical, socially necessary, experimentally proved, it had become a datum in European life. Rationalism could not attack it, for rationalism itself, as always, moved only within the intellectual context of the time. Scepticism, the distrust of reason, could provide no substitute. At best, the myth might be contained as in the early sixteenth century. But it did not evaporate: it remained at the bottom of society, like a stagnant pool, easily flooded, easily stirred. As long as the social and intellectual structure of which it was a part remained intact, any social fear was likely to flood it, any ideological struggle to stir it, and no piecemeal operation could effectively drain it away. Humanist critics, Paduan scientists, might seek to correct the philosophic base of the myth. Psychologists—medical men like Weyer and Ewich and Webster—might explain away its apparent empirical confirmation. Humane men, like Scot and Spee, by natural reason, might expose the absurdity and denounce the cruelty of the methods by which it was propagated. But to destroy the myth, to drain away the pool, such merely local operations no longer sufficed. The whole intellectual and social structure which contained it, and had solidified around it, had to be broken. And it had to be broken not at the bottom, in the dirty sump where the witch-beliefs had collected and been systematized, but at its centre, whence they were refreshed. In the mid-seventeenth century this was done. Then the medieval synthesis, which Reformation and Counter-Reformation had artificially prolonged, was at last broken, and through the cracked crust the filthy pool drained away. Thereafter society might persecute its dissidents as Huguenots or as Jews. It might discover a new stereotype, the ‘Jacobin,’ the ‘Red.’ But the stereotype of the witch had gone.” –The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967), by Hugh Trevor-Roper, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), at The Online Library of Liberty [↩]
- It has been estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were executed during the 200-plus years of the European witch hunts. [↩]
- “Judicial torture had been allowed, in limited cases, by Roman law; but Roman law, and with it judicial torture, had been forgotten in the Dark Ages. In the eleventh century Roman law had been rediscovered in the west, and torture had soon followed it back into use.” In 1252 Innocent IV, by the bull Ad Extirpanda, had authorized its use against the Albigensians. By the fourteenth century it was in general use in the tribunals of the Inquisition, and it was used, particularly, in cases of witchcraft, where evidence was always difficult to find. In 1468 the Pope declared witchcraft to be crimen exceptum and thereby removed, in effect, all legal limits on the application of torture in such cases. It was not, as yet, used by the secular courts; and Lea points out that certain of the more extravagant and obscene details of witches’ confessions do not, at first, appear before secular tribunals, but only before the tribunals of the Inquisition. In other words, they were obtained only by the courts which used torture. But this distinction between lay and clerical practice did not last for long. At the time of the Renaissance the medieval Inquisition was everywhere in decay and, north of the Alps at least, the secular courts had taken over many of its functions. Thus cases of witchcraft in Germany and France were judged by secular lords who had higher jurisdiction. But at the same time the procedures of Roman law were adopted in the criminal law of all countries of western Europe except England. Thus England alone escaped from the judicial use of torture in ordinary criminal cases, including cases of witchcraft. It may also be observed that some of the more extravagant and obscene details remain absent from the confessions of English witches. When we consider all these facts, and when we note that the rise and decline of the European witch-craze corresponds generally with the rise and decline of judicial torture in Europe, we may easily conclude that the two processes are interdependent: that the Dark Ages knew no witch-mania because they lacked judicial torture and that the decline and disappearance of witch-beliefs in the eighteenth century is due to the discredit and gradual abolition of torture in Europe. We may also observe that, since torture has been revived in certain European countries, absurd confessions have returned with it.” –The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (1967), by Hugh Trevor-Roper, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), at The Online Library of Liberty. [↩]
- Especially those less able to defend themselves. When people became rash and emboldened enough to level accusations of witchcraft at the higher levels of society, the Inquisitors tended to come to their senses. [↩]
- In truth, we don’t think “religious fundamentalist” describes these people correctly. We suspect many are just stuck back in the village they were born in, and can’t let go of mommy. What they think of as their religion is simply their heritage – they worship as their parents did, without regard for the genuineness of their religion – they’re conservative traditionalists with a strict religious background, trying to protect the status quo. [↩]