The origins of witchcraft in Britain and Europe are vague, extending into pre-history, and probably back to the first human communities when individuals first attempted to conjure nature and discovered the power they gained over others.
It was based in magic–not unlike Christianity. Its work-things were animal parts and fluids, botanical herbs and mushrooms, minerals, symbols and words–particularly invocations chanted in ritual ceremonies and spells cast over crops, people and property alike.
It came from all over: The Greeks had their witchcraft, as did the Gauls, and the Germanic and Nordic tribes.
The modern European concept of a witch, and of witchcraft, however, has been shaped by the perspectives of the Catholic and Protestant churches which sought to identify and prosecute them. While some of the elements are traces of older, pagan beliefs, magical practices, and simple fairy tales, some are purely paranoid invention.
In contemporary popular culture, witchcraft is associated with a cackling wicked old witch in a black pointy hat and dress, bent-over a stew of bats heads bubbling in a big, black iron cauldron over a fire. She is aided by a spirit familiar who connects to the spirit world.
She controls the weather, withers crops, manipulates and deceives men. She casts fortunes, foretells the future, and talks to the dead. She works black magic, casts spells, and flies through the air on a broomstick. She can prepare potions to make a man fall in love, or to kill him.
“When Christianity spread over Northern Europe it came into contact with the Teutonic and Celtic nations, who added new ideas to its system and transformed several characteristic features of its world-view. Christianity to-day is essentially a Teutonic religion. The ethics of Christianity, which formerly was expressed in the sentence “Resist not evil,” began, in agreement with the combative spirit of the Teuton race, more and more to emphasize the necessity of struggle. Not only was the figure of Christ conceived after the model of a Teutonic war-king, the son of the emperor, while his disciples became his faithful vassals; not only did the archangels assume the features of the Asas, the great northern gods, Wodan, Donar, Fro, and others; not only were the old pagan feasts changed into Christian festivals; the Yuletide became Christmas and the Ostara feast in the spring was celebrated in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection; but the individual features of the evil powers of the North were also transferred to Satan and his host.”
History of the Devil, by Paul Carus, 1900, at sacred-texts.com. Accessed June 2010
While this much may have been true enough, a Satanic side of our stereotype arose from the pens of various second millennium Christian witchcraft “experts” who wrote manuals to assist in prosecutions (see Malleus Maleficarum).
She is a priestess of infertility, blight, and poison. All witches are united in their hatred and fear of anything holy. To gain her powers the witch has signed a pact with the Devil, and she communes with her coven performing unnatural sex acts in secret nocturnal Sabbaths. Satan appears and there are sacrifices of the innocent and pure.
Fathers of Invention
“It has been argued by some speculative writers that the demonology of the sixteenth century was, in essence, a real religious system, the old pre-Christian religion of rural Europe which the new Asiatic religion of Christ had driven underground but never wholly destroyed. But this is to confuse the scattered fragments of paganism with the grotesque system into which they are only long afterwards arranged. The primitive peoples of Europe, as of other continents, knew of charms and sorcery, and the concept of night-riding “with Diana or Herodias” survived into the early Christian centuries; but the essential substance of the new demonology—the pact with Satan, the witches’ sabbat, the carnal intercourse with demons, etc., etc.—and the hierarchical, systematic structure of the kingdom of the Devil, are an independent product of the later Middle Ages. All the evidence makes it clear that the new mythology owes its system entirely to the inquisitors themselves. Just as anti-semites build up, out of disconnected titbits of scandal, their systematic mythology of ritual murder, poisoned wells and the world-wide conspiracy of the Elders of Zion, so the Hammerers of Witches built up their systematic mythology of Satan’s kingdom and Satan’s accomplices out of the mental rubbish of peasant credulity and feminine hysteria; and the one mythology, like the other, once launched, acquired a momentum of its own. It became an established folk-lore, generating its own evidence, and applicable far outside its original home.”
The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century  3: The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 2001, at Online Library of Liberty. Accessed June 6 2010
But witches could be uncovered in various ways (they said). There might be a peculiar mark on their bodies that was the Devil’s mark. If one were to drive a pin into their bodies one might discover a tell-tale insensitive spot. A witch thrown into a pool might float where an innocent person would drown.
Once in print, the images called up in the tremulous mind could never be extinguished again, and the terror took hold all the more firmly. These imagined details were subsequently extracted from suspected witches during interrogations (often including torture) which pressed the suspects to confess to doing whatever the experts accused them of doing.
Although there have been suggestions that witchcraft is the remnant of an ancient witch cult, the evidence is scanty (as one might expect after hundreds of years of persecution), and the original early modern witch cult proponents were given to invention and speculation, and have been discredited. There is no reliable evidence of an ancient witch cult.
Good and ….
“It may be said that the Church was always interested in another heresy: dualism. The Manichees, like the Zoroastrians before them, decomposed good and evil, and postulated a God of Light forever in conflict with a God of Darkness. The Church could not allow that any pre-Christian religion had been correct even when it had itself begun to fall into the same error. It sought to distinguish itself by the claim that, whereas in Manichaeism the outcome of the conflict was uncertain, in Christianity the devil only operated by permission of God, so that the outcome was sure. It then proceeded to make this claim ridiculous by persecuting heretics with rack and stake, saying that this violence was made necessary because it might have brought the whole world to ruin. Once the Church adopted its desperate plan of encouraging decomposition, persecution of Manichaeism became inevitable, because it made the whole Christian position ludicrous. But although Manichees decomposed, they did not project, and so were not led into the sexual and sadistic obsessions which entrapped the Church. They were not only more logical in doctrine, but psychologically were more mature than the unhappy neurotics who led the ranks of Christendom.”
The witchcraft trials of the middle ages portrayed witchcraft’s magic as Satanic–where Catholic priests performed the sacred magic of the Holy Spirit, the so-called witches practiced a lower, cruder grade of magic derived from a sordid association with God’s mongrel angel, Satan. According to the Church, witchcraft was decidedly anti-Christian, to the point of being a dark mirror image Bizarro World of Christianity.
European witchcraft then, became a reflection of Christianity: evil versus good. The witches were good for the Church in that way–they helped everybody to focus on two polar opposites – good and evil. In witchcraft, good Christians finally had a suitable and tangible mortal enemy of God complete with back-story, and they could get on with God’s work on Earth.
Father God, Mother Goddess
“In saying this we cannot overlook the important part played by the sadism of the Inquisitors and the projection of their own unconscious desires upon the victims. The accused, of all ages from five to eighty-five, were stripped naked: the modes of questioning, even when torture was not technically being used, were cruel to a degree. A common one was to tie the right arm to the left leg and vice versa, and then to leave the accused for twenty-four hours, so that severe cramps occurred. The Justification for this course was that witches give suck to demons, and these demons must revisit their patroness at least once in twenty-four hours. If any spider, louse or fly were found in the cell during that time, this was interpreted as a demon in disguise and provided evidence of guilt. Again, it was held that witches could be identified by the existence of insensitive spots. To locate them, the Inquisitors would prick every inch of skin as far as the bone with a thick bodkin, and especially the private parts. (This did not constitute torture.)”
In Sex in History, Gordon Rattray Taylor portrays Christianity and specifically the Church, as “Patristic” or paternal (“God the Father”), and pagan spirituality as “Matristic”, or maternal (“Mother Earth”). In the logical inversion of Christianity, Mary, Christian Goddess of Fertility, becomes the witch: the witch is the antithesis of Mary: Goddess of Infamy, sodomite, and Satan’s whore.
Mathew Hopkins, Witchfinder
“…Besides the arts used by Hopkins to extort confession from suspected persons, he had recourse to swimming them; which was done by tying their thumbs and great toes together, previously to throwing them into the water: if they sunk it was a proof of their innocence, but if they floated they were guilty. This method he pursued till some gentlemen, indignant at his barbarity, tied his own thumbs and toes, as he had been accustomed to tie those of other persons, and when put into the water, he himself swam, as many others had done before him. By this expedient the country was cleared of him.”
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 (1838). (It’s not known if this is true!)
The divisions become then, not good and evil, but father versus mother. Through this division, good and evil are further defined: man is good, woman is bad.
Ever since God gave dominion over the Earth to Man, you could tell He had it in for Mother Earth. It’s small wonder then that His priests zeroed in on witchcraft as a threat to Christianity–they were on the lookout for a swing in the direction of Matrism–God is a jealous and misogynistic God: He doesn’t like Mother Earth, and that’s why the kids don’t respect her.
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 European_witchcraft. Accessed May 2010.
- Witchcraft Out of the Shadows: A Complete History, (2004). Leo Ruickbie. Robert Hale, Pubs.