It is worth considering that many of the reputed practices of ancient witchcraft were not frauds, and however we may dismiss the “superstitious” nature of witchcraft, herbal potions could be potent brews, and in a community that was fearful and superstitious, curses and incantations1) could have a very real psychological effect on people.
So let us take some consolation from the possibility that some of those witches who were destroyed in witch hunts really had it coming to them, although that wasn’t the conclusion of Spanish Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías who looked at eleven thousand cases and couldn’t find one.
The history of witchcraft is dubious. It may be a catch-all phrase for innumerable, disparate local practices that came to be known generally as witchcraft when the harrowing of the witch hunts created a popular definition of witchcraft. Along with the witch hunts, the popular notion (or fear) of actual witchcraft died off as a fairy tale, but has gained a resurgence as adherents to a benign natural religion sought to find a historical thread with which to identify and legitimatize themselves.
The current “witchcraft” is an invention without any real history behind it. It is rooted in some modern texts invented, cobbled, and plagiarized from various sources, including Alistair Crowley’s writings.
There never really was witchcraft as we imagine it – those definitions came out of the fright and zeal of the Inquisitors and the public, and consequently, witchcraft magically disappeared the day the last of the fires went out, like a phantom.
After a long, safe interval, people began to re-examine witchcraft, looking for lost pearls, and intrigued, reshaped and devised traditions and rituals for it. There was also a desire among disaffected to latch their wagons to a sad, dead history of injustice, and to claim to be a fellow suffering, deserving reparations. There are also those who like to dress up (or down) and prance around in the moonlight.
Today’s “witchcraft” is less than a few hundred years old – much like Satanism – and grew out of people’s imaginings about the craft – there is no substantial or substantiated tradition or continuity.
Again, like Satanism, once examined, we find that witches and witchcraft aren’t what we imagine them to be, and today witchcraft has been reshaped to be something less demonic and more focused on sensitivity to nature, well-being, and health. But then, perhaps witchcraft never really changed: many of those who were prosecuted as witches in the past might have matched that description.
Sources and some important works
- 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.):
The Tryal of Amy Duny
“…that very Night her Son fell into strange fits of swounding, and was held in such terrible manner, that she was much affrighted therewith, and so continued for divers weeks. And the said Examinant farther said, that she being exceedingly troubled at her Childs Distemper, did go to a certain Person named Doctor Jacob, who lived at Yarmouth, who had the reputation in the Country, to help children that were Bewitch’d ; who advis’d her to hang up the Childs Blanket in the Chimney-corner all day, and at night when she put the Child to Bed, to put it into the said blanket, and if she found anything in it, she should not be afraid, but to throw it into the Fire.
And this Deponent did according to his direction; and at night when she took down the Blanket with an intent to put her Child therein, there fell out of the same a great Toad, which ran up and down the hearth, and she having a young youth only with her in the House, desired him to catch the Toad, and throw it into the Fire, which the youth did accordingly, and held it there with the Tongs; and as soon as it was in the Fire it made a great and horrible Noise, and after a space there was a flashing in the Fire like Gun-powder, making a noise like the discharge of a Pistol, and thereupon the Toad was no more seen nor heard.
It was asked by the Court, if that after the noise and flashing, there was not the Substance of the Toad to be seen to consume in the fire ? And it was answered by the said Dorothy Durent, that after the flashing and noise, there was no more seen than if there had been none there.
The next day there came a young Woman a Kinswoman of the said Amy, and a neighbour of this Deponent, and told this Deponent, that her Aunt (meaning the said Amy) was in a most lamentable condition having her face all scorched with fire, and that she was sitting alone in her House, in her smock without any fire.
And thereupon this Deponent went into the House of the said Amy Duny to see her, and found her in the same condition as was related to her; for her Face, her Leggs, and Thighs, which this Deponent saw, seemed very much scorched and burnt with Fire, at which this Deponent seemed much to wonder.”
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).
- 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 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