Wednesday, October 12, 2005

witches in history

I was reading a book on Wicca last night and got quite irritated to note that there was still someone claiming wildly erroneous stuff about the history of the witch persecutions and witchcraft in general, in an otherwise very good book with articles by lots of different authors. So, let's get this straight.

The main witch persecutions that resulted in actual deaths started in the 16th century, mainly due to economic and social pressures resulting from the Reformation. (See Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas). People had previously relied on the charity provided by the monasteries; once these were dissolved in England, there were a lot more poor old people around asking for handouts. People felt guilty for not helping them, so when the old women went away mumbling, they assumed that they had been bewitched when they got psychosomatic symptoms resulting from their feelings of guilt. Also the Catholic Church had provided oodles of protection against sorcery, in the form of holy water, amulets etc., whereas the Protestants just told people to pray. Great.

The Inquisition was more interested in persecuting heretics, especially conversos (Jews and Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism) in Spain. The majority of people judicially killed for witchcraft were in Protestant areas.

The witch persecutions in England differed in character from those in the rest of Europe. The things people were accused of were different. In Europe, witches were accused of flying to Sabbats and having intercourse with the devil; frequently, midwives were accused of performing abortions and stealing children (source: numerous broadsheets in German). In England, they were accused of having witches' teats to give suck to their familiars; bewitching cattle etc. In Europe and Scotland, witchcraft was a heresy, and therefore subject to ecclesiastical law, with the penalty of being burnt. In England, witchcraft was a felony, subject to criminal law, and the penalty was hanging.

There is no unbroken line of witch religion stretching back into the mists of time. The foundation date of modern Wicca appears to have been sometime in the 1920s, according to the latest research by Philip Heselton in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (an excellent book, as was its predecessor, Wiccan Roots). During the nineteenth century (and possibly the eighteenth century), there were various people who either self-identified as cunning folk or witches, or were labelled as such by their neighbours. However there was no organised movement of witchcraft, only isolated groups 'reinventing the wheel' - and they weren't necessarily pagan either - much of their magic was based on Christian symbolism (cf the story Marklake Witches by Rudyard Kipling). Note that the cunning folk were not witches - during the period of persecution they had often accused women of being witches and handed them over to the authorities.

In England, small snippets of Pagan belief and practice had survived and been incorporated into folk belief and practice - but again there was no large-scale survival of ancient Paganism. In some of the more remote corners of Europe (e.g. Scandinavia and Lithuania), ancient Paganisms survived much longer, and so when they were revived, the revivals were much closer to the original forms. There were also traditional practitioners of magic in Finland, particularly among the Sami people.

People really should be forced to read Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft by Ronald Hutton before they are allowed to make pronouncements about the history of witchcraft.

There's also an excellent article by Jenny Gibbons, Recent developments in the study of the Great European Witch Hunt at the CoG site.


Dan said...

Hmmm, I'm also pretty sure that witches were not the only peoples being persecuted at this time, although they were in the majority. If I recall, the Church was doing some "cleansing" of pretty much anything that wasn't catholic and was strange to them. Witches were the main, though.

Yvonne said...

Hello Dan

That's right, witches were not the only people being persecuted at the time. The Catholic Church was also against Jews, Muslims, Cathars, and heretics in general.

The book I was reading claimed that "the Church demonised the figure of the witch in the 1400s" - this was such a sweeping generalisation that I thought it needed further clarification.

According to the article on the CoG site, the majority of witches were persecuted by the Protestants, and the majority of people persecuted by the catholics were actually heretics.

Feena said...

I was so glad to read your post. I'm writing a novel about witchcraft and ghosts and so I've been doing a lot of reading about the "Burning Times".

So many of the books I've read and sites I've browsed have quoted the 5-9 million women executed for witchcraft - I start banging my head on the keyboard and leave rapidly. Hutton's book is really excellent.

Yvonne said...

Frustrating isn't it? I mean it's good to be aware that people were persecuted and remember them, but when people start using it as an excuse to feel persecuted themselves, it's just a bit sad really. What we should be getting worked up about are the many places in the world where people are actually being persecuted for witchcraft now.

R. D. Robbins, Novelist said...

Thank you for your well done review of the burning times. What happens to one, happens to all and that is clearly true with this nasty bit of our cultural past. Does this sort of thing still happen today? Certainly, we still see some degree of religious intolerance in the West, but I wouldn't want to be a Witch in a Muslim country.

I'd love to read your take on WHY Christianity so easily overcame the Druid faith in the British Isles. Did the Druids drop the ball? Had their time passed? Or did Christianity offer something that people needed at that time? How has Paganism shaped modern Christianity, for example, in people who call themselves Celtic Christians?

Yvonne said...

Why did Christianity so easily overcome the Druid faith in the British Isles.

But did it? In fact, as you suggest, much druidic wisdom was incorporated into the Celtic Church. Also the druid schools continued well into the Christian era in Ireland (I think up to the 18th century).

Did the Druids drop the ball? Had their time passed?

Well, don't forget that the Romans had actually wiped out a lot of the druids on the mainland at the Battle of Anglesey, effectively removing their power base. The conversion to Christianity therefore filled a power vacuum, and much of it was imposed on the people rather than being by choice.

Or did Christianity offer something that people needed at that time?

Yes, it offered the ruling classes entry into the powerful elites of Europe, who had already signed up. It is now generally agreed by archaeologists that after the collapse of the Roman Empire (mainly due to economic and logistical factors), the ruling elites of Europe join ed the Church because it was the only available source of law and order.

How has [ancient] Paganism shaped modern Christianity, for example, in people who call themselves Celtic Christians?

There are numerous examples of liturgy, symbolism and ceremonial trappings which have been borrowed from ancient Paganisms: the bishop's crook comes from the augur's lituus; the bishop's hat is the fishtail hat of the Babylonian priests of Dagon; the practice of baptism comes from one of the initiatory mystery traditions, can't remember which one; most of the titles and symbols of the Virgin Mary (Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, the moon, the peacock, etc.) are borrowed from Pagan goddesses; much of Christian philosophy is based on the Greek philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) There are also instances of churches being built on ancient Pagan sacred sites (though not nearly as many as some people have claimed).

Feena said...

You're right, it is frustrating. I read on some sites the phrase Never again, the Burning Times but no mention that it's happening right now in some parts of the world.

They do tend to be the same ones that say millions of women died, but tend to gloss over the fact that men died too.

This is one reason I want to get the things I write about as accurate as possible. At the beginning of The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown writes of 5 million women killed and that made me think that if he got that basic detail wrong, what else might be wrong in his research?

I don't want people thinking that about the rest of my writing on witchcraft.

Yvonne said...

Yes, quite a lot of the Da Vinci Code is inaccurate, from what I can gather from what friends who have read it have told me.

The worst current persecution is happening in Africa, where even children are accused of witchcraft.

BBC News articles on African witchcraft

But there was also the American teenager, Tempest Smith, from the Bible Belt who committed suicide because she was being bullied by her Christian schoolmates for her interest in Wicca. She was 12. And there was an attempt by the Christian right in the 1990s to smear witches with accusations of Satanism and child abuse. And the Christian right in America is still spreading misinformation about Wicca. See also this article about what happened to Darla Wynne.

Feena said...

Thanks for those links yvonne, it's unbelievable that these kind of things are still happening today.

That witchvox site is really interesting :-)

Yvonne said...

Regarding Christian "appropriation" of Pagan trappings - this could also be regarded as preservation; and let it not be forgotten that the monasteries made a huge effort to preserve Pagan myths and legends by writing them down, and that many pre-Christian cultures didn't write sacred stuff down, so the monastic records may have been the first time they were written down.