Apologetics Index

Chapter 5: Three Myths about Modern Witchcraft

Despite the public’s exposure to Neopagan themes and concepts through the media (or perhaps because of it), there remains widespread confusion about what modern Witchcraft is and where it comes from. In particular there is confusion about how the Witchcraft of today relates to the witchcraft of the Middle Ages.

Among the general public, there are three basic ways of thinking about contemporary Witchcraft. Most people probably believe some version of one of the following statements:

  1. “modern Witchcraft is a flaky New-Age delusion,”
  2. “modern Witchcraft is the revival of an ancient, pagan religion,” or
  3. “modern Witchcraft is a dangerous satanic cult.”

Unfortunately, all three of those statements are false.

The belief that Witchcraft is a New Age delusion is based on a simple ignorance of history. The other two beliefs about Witchcraft, however, are based on an actively false version of history. As a matter of fact, the contending “Pagan” and “Christian” views of Witchcraft (statements numbers 2 & 3, above) are really just conflicting interpretations of the same false version of history! They are opposite spins on the same erroneous assumption — namely that modern Witchcraft is a descendant or development of classical European witchcraft, and that there is some historical connection or continuity between the two.

That assumption is not only false in itself, once accepted, it distorts all further discussion. To “un-distort” the discussion, we need to correct the false history, dispense with the misleading myths about modern Witchcraft based upon it and examine in their stead some of the serious but largely undiscussed issues that Witchcraft really does raise. In a word, we need to “winnow” our ideas about Witchcraft — to separate the factual substance of the matter from the chaff of myth and fabrication.

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Myth Number One: The New Age Delusion

The belief that Neopagan Witchcraft is simply another delusion coming out of the “New Age Movement” is superficially plausible but historically wrong. The sources of modern Witchcraft pre-date the so-called “New Age” by almost a century; the actual beginnings of modern Witchcraft predate the New Age by almost half a century.

What came to be called the New Age Movement is really a delayed outgrowth of the 1960’s counterculture. The counterculture promoted the hope/hype that we are “evolving” into a new phase of history and human development (remember the “Age of Aquarius”?). That hope became the “New Age” mentality as we know it some twenty years later, emerging as an updated version of the counterculture’s mass-market, pseudo-mystical, pop-therapeutic wing (pioneered by the likes of TM’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the apostate priest turned psychotherapist, Alan Watts). But the “New Age Movement” didn’t acquire its identity as such until the late 1980s, when journalists and commentators began using that terminology on a regular basis.

In contrast, modern Witchcraft has been under construction since the beginning of the twentieth century. It acquired a coherent identity in the 1940s and actually began to take organized form during the 1950s. All of the foundation and some of the superstructure for modern Witchcraft were already in place, therefore, before the “New Age” even began.

Modern Witchcraft has a unique and traceable history all its own. Modern Witches did not need the New Age to jump-start their movement, and they have not needed New Age notoriety to stimulate its growth. In fact, many Witches resent being associated with the New Age at all, and some go out of their way to distinguish themselves from anything bearing that label.

People tend to think that modern Witchcraft and the New Age Movement are connected for one basic reason, namely that both emerged into widespread public attention at about the same time (during the mid-1980s). But that timing is coincidental. The rise of modern Witchcraft and the later rise of the New Age Movement are both related to the spiritual dis-integration of society as a whole, and both benefitted from the widespread mood of spiritual discontent that infused our society from the 1960s onward. Both movements flourished in and partly because of that environment. Other than that, however, they are not particularly related to one another.

Myth Number Two — The “Enduring Pagan Tradition”

For many years, with the help of an uninformed but sympathetic media, apologists for modern Witchcraft promoted a view of its past that claims a lineage stretching back to the witches of European history, and beyond them, to prehistoric times.

There are several versions of the basic story-line connecting modern Witchcraft with the witchcraft of the Middle Ages. Not all Neopagans accept the story as historical fact, but many do, and even more of them support the underlying theory that there is a traceable thread of continuity between medieval witchcraft and its modern namesake.

For that matter, many Neopagans think the thread of continuity extends all the way back to Stone-Age religions of fertility and nature-worship. Long-time Witch Isaac Bonewits sardonically refers to this expanded version of the story as “the myth of the Unitarian, Universalist, White Witch-cult of Western Theosophical Brittany.” The basic scenario of the myth goes something like this:

What came to be called “witchcraft” is really the Ancient Wisdom of Nature that is common to humanity world-wide, and it literally goes back to the Stone Age. Paleolithic people worshipped the god of the hunt and the goddess of crops and fertility; those two primal figures eventually generated all the complex pantheons that we know today. Divine names changed with time and location, and divine qualities fragmented into to various sub-deities. But beneath the change, the basic deities endured, and the forces and functions that they symbolized remained the same.

The religions of Nature are inherently at odds with the religions of The Book — and vice versa. When Christianity first appeared amidst the Nature-worshipping paganism of Europe, the antagonism was mutual and spontaneous. From the outset of the conflict, Christendom’s cultural strategy was one of cultural co-optation. The Roman Church undercut paganism by taking over important pagan forms and symbols, and putting them in Christian dress — e.g., renaming pagan festivals as part of the Church’s liturgical year, erecting Christian churches over pagan shrines and sacred sites, and recasting popular pagan myths as the lore of Christian sainthood.

That strategy of co-optation was substantially “successful,” in that the Roman Church did in fact attain cultural and religious dominance within a few centuries. But, in the nature of things, the strategy could never be entirely successful, just as the dominance could never be complete. Some pagan die-hards insisted on continuing their homage to Dionysus or Demeter (or whoever) out of sheer spiritual inertia, simply because that’s what they had always done. Others refused the new “Christianized Paganism” not because they cherished paganism, but because they rejected Christianity.

In the end, whatever Christendom could not absorb, it condemned. The pagan gods who could not be converted (typically those connected with sex and fertility) were demonized instead. Their pagan followers who would not convert were hounded and sometimes killed. With their gods turned into devils and the flames of persecution at their heels, the followers of the Old Religion went underground in order to survive.

But even hiding couldn’t save them from the gathering fury of Christian bigotry. Beginning about 1300, the Inquisition directed a 400-year reign of terror against anyone who resisted the patriarchial repression of the Catholic Church, especially pagans, heretics, healers, midwives, and women in general. As many as nine million may have died at the stake in this slow-motion “holocaust,” and the period is therefore known as “the burning times.”

By the end of the 1600s, the witch-mania began to wear itself out. But the terror and repression had succeeded in driving the followers of the old ways deep beneath the surface of society. In the face of ostracism at best and persecution at worst, the Old Religion was kept alive by families and by small, secretive, local groupings. When England finally repealed its Witchcraft Laws in 1951, those secret followers of the craft came quite literally “out of the woods” to make themselves known as “witches.” They also began a campaign to rehabilitate the image of their misunderstood religion. The modern Witchcraft movement has grown from that resurfacing of a long submerged tradition.

Such is the “Charter-Myth” of modern Witchcraft. As noted, there are several variations on the basic theme. One of them (a radical feminist version) claims that an original, goddess-worshipping, matriarchal paradise was overthrown by a conspiracy of patriarchal males, who replaced the gentle, all accepting Goddess with the jealous, judgmental, moralistic, male deity that prevails in religion to this day.

In recent years, every claim of the Charter Myth — from the idea of a Dawn-Age Matriarchy down to the very existence of medieval “witchcraft” itself — has been subjected to a withering historical critique. Every link in the chain of presumed continuity has been broken. The blunt fact is that current scholarship actively falsifies the Charter Myth on almost all of its important assumptions. (See Appendix II)

This is what current scholarship does indicate: There never was an original matriarchy, no worship of a universal Mother Goddess and no primal tradition, transformed over time, to be finally defined (by a hostile Church) as “witchcraft.” Last and most importantly, there has been no passing down of any tradition from medieval witches to anyone in our own time. There is no identifiable continuity between the witchcraft of the Middle Ages and the modern-day religious movement that bears the same name. The most that can be said is that bits and pieces of mythic and magical lore from long ago are still to be found today. But fragmentary religious and occult survivals do not constitute a tradition, and they offer no support for any claims of continuity.

To their credit, many Neopagans have acknowledged those realities of historical research and no longer accept a literal version of the Charter-Myth. Margot Adler writes about changing attitudes within the Neopagan community in her recent essay, “A Time for Truth.”

During the past 10 years, there has been what Ronald Hutton . . . calls a “tidal wave of accumulating research” that has essentially swept away many of the assumptions upon which the “Old Religion,” Wicca, was based. Two of the most basic that have been revised are the notion of an unbroken tradition and the belief that our religion had a history of persecution that rivaled or even exceeded the Jewish Holocaust . . . Scholars have never accepted the myth of an unbroken Wiccan tradition, and now most Wiccans are being asked to look honestly at their history. (Adler, 2000)

Some Wiccans are apparently finding that kind of honesty difficult to come by. As Adler notes in her essay, the “new breeze that is blowing through Wicca is not being celebrated by the more literal among us. In some groups, there is open hostility to this revisionist history.”

The reason is not hard to find.

Functions of the Charter Myth

For many, the Charter-Myth’s presumption of continuity is central to modern Witchcraft’s sense of identity. Therefore modern Witches have promoted the myth in one form or another for four understandable (and largely undisguised) reasons:

  1. As a way to gain a personal feeling of spiritual connectedness and religious continuity.

    Every religion needs a tradition, and all believers need to feel a part of something tried and true, something with a history that is longer than their own. Few people can sustain themselves solely on a faith in their own spiritual resources for very long. Psychologically, a contrived tradition or even an imaginary one — is better than no tradition at all.

  2. As a strategy to gain social acceptance and legal status.

    Partly on the basis of its claimed historical lineage, modern Witchcraft asserts parity in the religious marketplace. The Federal Court of Appeals decision that declared “The Church of Wicca” to be a constitutionally recognizable religion (Dettmer v. Landon, 1986) relied on the bogus claim of modern Witchcraft’s continuity with medieval witchcraft and, through it, with ancient pagan religion. Partly on the basis of that claim, the religion of Witchcraft was given official recognition and first amendment protection — in the armed forces and in government policy generally.

    In Dettmer v. Landon, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals used the supposed long history and tradition of “witchcraft” as a basis for its ruling that modern Witchcraft is indeed a legitimate, officially recognizable “religion.” In its opinion the Court said:

    Another . . . parallel to recognized religions is witchcraft’s long history. . . evidence (for this) includes a handbook for chaplains published by the United States which states that witchcraft enjoyed a following in Northern Europe during the Middle Ages as an ancient pagan faith, losing public expression when systematic persecution began in the 15th century. It regained some popularity after the repeal of English Witchcraft laws, and the handbook estimates that there are between 10,000 and 100,000 adherents in America.

  3. As a tactic to gain a rhetorical advantage over their perceived competitor and adversary (Christianity) by claiming “victim” status.

    In that connection, Neopagans have promoted the idea that the witch-hunts of European history were an outburst of Christian bigotry against women, healers, midwives and gentle, nature-worshipping pagans. They have also promoted the idea that modern Witches are heirs not only of that history, but of those resentments as well. Among other things, the concept provides a platform for taking the moral high ground against Christianity and supplies a rationale for righteous anger directed against it.

  4. As a way to define their boundaries as a community and their identities as individuals.

    Neopaganism began as a rejection of the main religious culture, grew as a protest against it, and has established itself as a systematic alternative to it — a genuine “counterculture.” Inevitably, Christianity (at least as perceived by Neopagans) becomes the “rejected background,” against which the identity of Neopaganism is defined.

Thus, for many in the movement, an abiding antagonism to Christianity is basic to being Neopagan. Now that the historical basis for that resentment is being dismantled by scholars, the Neopagan community faces a crisis of identity that is just beginning to assert itself — as Margot Adler has already noted.

From its inception, the modern Witchcraft movement was built on the explicit claim that the “old ways” had been suppressed by Christianity, but had survived and were being rediscovered. For many Neopagans, those beliefs are part of their religious self-image, something that can’t be changed without de-stabilizing the sense of personal identity that goes along with it — a prospect that is simply too daunting for most people to deal with. Those Witches and Neopagans who do answer Adler’s call for honesty and are able to acknowledge that the myth is factually false, generally respond by insisting that the myth is “metaphorically” true — i.e., that it asserts a continuity of spirit, sympathy and attitude, rather than a continuity of teaching or practice, or of any actual tradition.

Many Witches claim, as Adler does, that their lack of tradition is actually a positive virtue, in that it unshackles modern Witchcraft from the dead hand of the past and liberates its potential for creative development. Adler quotes other Neopagan commentators to the effect that “nothing prevents us from embracing our syncretistic origins while still preserving the unique worldview of modern Wicca, except for our own self-consciousness.” (Adler, 2000) In other words, since modern Witches don’t have a tradition, they aren’t bound by one, and are thereby freed to create their religion by blending together whatever elements appeal to them.

In any case, the myth of the enduring pagan tradition is disbelieved by all serious historians and, these days, by increasing numbers of honest Neopagans.

Myth No. Three– The Satanic Cult

Witchcraft’s Charter Myth is not the only way to see the supposed connection between medieval and modern witchcraft. There is another, very different, way to read that same dubious claim. In the interest of honest history, it is important to correct the parallel misconception that modern Witchcraft is a satanic religion of devil-worship.

That belief is common among conservative Christians, ironically because they have bought the same false version of history that some Neopagan apologists have sold to the general public. Modern Witches claim that their beliefs are directly descended from medieval witchcraft. According to accounts of the time, historical witchcraft involved worshipping the Devil, and was strongly at odds with Christianity. So, when Christians believed the Neopagan claim that a continuous line of descent unites modern Witchcraft with its medieval predecessor, they naturally gave the claim a negative value rather than a positive one as the Neopagans had done. Because modern Witches identify themselves with medieval witches, Christians identify them as witches in the medieval mold. By their very claim to be the spiritual heirs and descendants of historical witchcraft, modern Witches automatically gave themselves an evil image in Christian eyes. The creators of modern Witchcraft seized upon medieval witchcraft for their inspiration in part because of its anti-Christian reputation — which of course is inseparable from its Devil-worshiping reputation. Therefore when modern Witches stress their identification with medieval witches, in a real sense they are helping to sustain the historical confusion.

That confusion is compounded by the fact that today, some avowed Satanists also refer to themselves as “witches” — apparently because they too identify with the anti-Christian reputation of classical witchcraft. And that confusion is compounded yet again by the fact that the Neopagans themselves don’t all agree that the Satanists should be excluded from their number. (Pike, 2001; p. 113)

For that matter, some modern Witches enjoy the sense of dread and menace that the classic “witch” image inspires in ordinary people, and they haven’t always struggled to separate themselves from it. There is no doubt that Gerald Gardner (one of the founders of modern Witchcraft) liked to “put on the horns,” so to speak, and adopt a style and appearance that played to popular stereotypes of the demonic. Outraging conventional sensibilities was one of Gardner’s hobbies, and he sometimes exploited the public’s (mis)perception of Witchcraft for his own amusement.

For all of those reasons and then some, the confusion persists — especially among Christians — that modern Witchcraft and Devil-worship (or Satanism) are one and the same. But that negative image is as false as the positive one in Witchcraft’s Charter Myth. Today, there is no reason to believe either of them. Both images are bogus because both are based on the same spurious version of history, invented to serve the purposes of the Witchcraft movement.

As usual, ideology impoverishes history. Historical witchcraft and modern witchcraft each have their own unique pedigrees. Their real histories are more complex, more credible and, ironically, more interesting than any of our fantasies about them.

Historians Study Witchcraft

Witchcraft appeared during the Middle Ages, rose to crisis proportions during the Renaissance, then abruptly disappeared — raising several obvious historical questions: Where was witchcraft before the Middle Ages? Where did it go after 1700? And what did it consist of while it was here?

Nineteenth century scholars, under the influence of the “romantic movement” in philosophy and politics, offered speculative answers to those questions (one example: witchcraft was a quasi-political movement of peasant resistance to the Catholic aristocracy). But by the time the study of history had become an academic profession (in the late 1800s), a different mood enveloped the academy. An aggressive skepticism characterized scholarly thinking, and “debunking” was a favored mode of academic discourse. The scholarship of the day was dominated by rationalism, secularism, and anti-clericalism — attitudes that dismissed witchcraft as the deluded creation of ignorant medieval priests.

Prior to 1920 therefore, historical scholarship largely discounted witchcraft as a fantasy of the Inquisition.

Witchcraft, according to the liberal view, was a gross product of the superstitions of the Catholic Dark Ages, beyond which we have infinitely progressed and with which we have little in common . . . Emotionally committed to liberalism and viewing the Church as an obstacle in the road of progress, they reject the possibility of there being any real currents of witch belief and practice and insist that not the witches, but the Inquisitors, invented witchcraft. . . . some witches may have believed in their own powers, but only because the ideas propagated by the Inquisition had rendered them hysterical. (Russell, 1972; pp. 30-31)

That stance of miltant skepticism inevitably generated a counter-stance of militant credulity. As Christopher Nugent observes, “a scientism that sees no evil inclines to generate its oppposite, a moral hysteria that sees nothing but evil.” (Nugent, 1983; p. 104) A group of writers, led by traditional Catholic apologist Montague Summers, “believed in the reality of Satan and accepted all trial reports as accurate and literal.” (Adler,1986; p. 45) The rationalists assumed that the lurid charges lodged against the witches were all false; Summers, contrariwise, assumed that they were all true. Although Summers never attained academic credibility, he exercised wide popular influence, along with Dennis Wheatly, another author of the “anti-rationalist” school. And their influence lingers — even today, the works of those two are the source for many of the details in our popular image of the Devil-worshiping witch.

In 1921 the increasingly sterile debate between the rationalists and the anti-rationalists was swept aside by a sensational new theory of witchcraft from an unexpected source — Margaret Murray’s book The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Although Murray was a professional scholar, her expertise was in Egyptology, not European history. She had a hobbyist’s interest in British folklore, however, and it led her to construct an interpretation of witchcraft that not only seized the imagination of the public, but held it for over forty years. Her work was eventually discredited during the 1960s, but not before her theories had helped to energize the growth of the modern Witchcraft movement during its critical early years in the 1950s. Murray’s influence will be discussed at greater length in Chapter Eight, but in essence, she wrongly gave credibility to the “theory that victims of the early modern witch trials had been practitioners of a surviving pagan religion.” (Hutton, 1999; pp. 194-5) That is just what the creators of Neopagan Witchcraft wanted to hear, and they eagerly used her speculations to bolster their own eccentric theories of history.

Murray’s work was subjected to criticism during the latter stages of her career, and it was subjected to outright rejection after her death in 1963. By the 1970s, the demolition of her scholarship, her theories and her reputation was complete. The decline and fall of the “Murrayite thesis” threw the study of European witchcraft into confusion. For four decades, it had been commonly assumed that witchcraft was a pagan survival. Once that “common knowledge” was gone, some other theory was wanted to replace it.

New Theories: Cultural pathology or Political Mythology?

The old style of rationalism had been rendered obsolete by half a century of scientific and intellectual changes, but the basic motives behind the viewpoint hadn’t changed. After Murray, skeptics changed their approach, but not their attitude. Secular scholars were reluctant to attribute any reality to witchcraft’s weirder dimensions, but the weirdness still had to be accounted for somehow. As a result, the theories of witchcraft that are popular today deal with the topic in psychological, sociological and political terms, focusing on why people believed that witchcraft existed, and why the witch hysteria existed — even though witchcraft itself didn’t exist — indeed, by definition, couldn’t exist.

The school of thought on the subject that is (currently) most influential among historians could be called the “delusional” school. The leading exponent of the delusional school is historian Norman Cohn, whose views are put forth in his book, Europe’s Inner Demons — An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt. Cohn takes the old style rationalist argument that witchcraft was a hysterical fantasy, and brings it up to date by adding elements from psychoanalysis and sociology. Instead of claiming that witchcraft was a delusion created by the demented mentality of the Inqusition, Cohn says that it was a deep, psychological disturbance that overtook the whole population of Europe. The disturbance was centered around a twisted fantasy of infanticide, cannibalism and deviant sexuality that existed in Europe long before witchcraft appeared on the scene. One commentator summarized Cohn’s argument as follows:

(T)here was a standard definition of a sinister, conspiratorial organization working to undermine society at large; this definition was operating at least as early as the Roman persecution of Christians, and has simply changed hands and altered appropriate details as it has pursued its course over the centuries. The early Christians, the heretical Cathars and Albegensians, the Knights Templar and the so-called witches were all tarred in turn with the same brush, as can be seen in the fact that the accusations against them were all so similar. In Christian times, the central elements in the stereotype included repudiating Christ, worshipping the devil, murdering and eating babies, and holding orgiastic celebrations full of promiscuity and incest. (Davis, 1998; p. 309)

According to Cohn, that basic nightmare stereotype surfaced again during the early Middle Ages, at which point it also blended with a network of surviving folk beliefs about spirits, goblins, goddesses and night-flying hags. As the stereotype became more elaborate and more detailed, it attached itself to certain socially marginal types and — voila! — the myth of witchcraft was born, eventually to bloom into the terrible witch hysteria.

Cohn’s theory is easily the leading view among academic historians, but it is not without its critics and competitors. One of its weak points lies in his explanation of where the “nightmare fantasy” came from, and how it embedded itself in the collective mentality of Europe. For answers, Cohn relies on the dubious insights of psychoanalysis and the increasingly discredited views of its founder, Sigmund Freud. In his concluding Postscript (appropriately titled “Psycho-Historical Speculations”), Cohn says that “for many Europeans, (the fantasy) came to embody part of their innermost selves — their obsessive fears, and also their unacknowledged, terrifying desires.” (Cohn, 1977; p.259) And where do these fears and desires come from? Cohn’s answer is pure Freud — incorporating not only Freud’s ideas, but also his personal attitudes toward religion.

Freud regarded religion in general (and Christianity in particular) as a repressive and constraining force in human affairs, irksome to the untamed appetites of our animal nature. In Freud’s view, this repression generates resentment, which unconsciously brings back what has been repressed, but projects it outward and perceives it to be “out there” rather than within. That is also Cohn’s view, and when all is said and done, his analysis of the Great Witch-Hunt boils down to restating Freud’s critique of religion (including Freud’s special, hostile focus on Christianity). According to Cohn, Europe’s nightmare fantasy turned into the witch mania because of an

unconscious resentment against Christianity as too strict a religion, against Christ as too stern a taskmaster. Psychologically, it is altogether plausible that such an unconscious hatred would find an outlet in the obsession with the overwhelming power of Christ’s great antagonist, Satan, and especially in fantasies of erotic debauches with him . . . . (T)he tens of thousands of victims who perished (are) victims of an unconscious revolt against a religion which, consciously, was still accepted without question. (Cohn, 1975; p. 262, emphasis added)

“Altogether plausible” to whom, is the operative question. If one finds Freud’s assumptions questionable, then Cohn’s “plausibility” diminishes accordingly.

Many Neopagans, understandably enough, reject Cohn’s claim that medieval witchcraft was nothing more than a delusion. Whatever their motives, their criticisms will sound eerily familiar to Christians who are in the habit of complaining about the limitations of the secular mindset. Cohn routinely dismisses as “fantasy” all reports about witches that don’t fit in with his idea of what is and isn’t real. Margot Adler puts the point concisely:

One of the problems with Cohn’s argument is his limited conception of what is possible in reality. For example, he considers all reports of orgies to be fantasy . . . . Here he is surprisingly ignorant of the history of sex and ritual. Orgiastic practices were a part of religious rites in many cultures of the ancient world. And while most modern group sexual encounters lack a religious dimension, one only has to read reports about modern sex clubs to know that orgiastic experiences are not merely a product of fantasy. Adler, 1986; p. 82)

Cohn’s theory is the leading explanation of medieval witchcraft among academic historians, but not the only one. An alternative theory that also expresses the skeptical outlook is put forth in the work of British historian H. R. Trevor-Roper. Trevor-Roper (in contrast to Cohn) essentially says that witchcraft was indeed a creation of the Inquisition — not as a sick delusion, however, but as a more or less deliberately crafted tool in the pursuit of religious domination. Unfortunately, the Inquisition’s tool got out of hand and took on a malignant life of its own in the form of the renaissance witch hysteria.

Trevor-Roper says that in its struggle with heretical goups, the Inquisition created the stereotype of witchcraft to use as a weapon of religious politics against its opposition. For centuries, the Church had pretty much ignored the fragments of paganism and folk magic that lay scattered about Europe after the fall of Rome. To the extent that the Church paid them any attention, it was to deny that they had any significance. Saint Boniface went so far as to declare that it was was unchristian even to believe in witches.

But as the Church’s struggle with heresy intensified at the beginning of the Middle Ages, that attitude changed. Gradually, says Trevor-Roper, fragments of the old, non-Christian ways were assembled into an elaborate system of demonology that turned into the concept of “witchcraft.” The Inquisition used the concept of witchcraft as a model for attacking groups that resisted the dominance of the Catholic Church. For several hundred years, that model was applied sporadically and locally. Its use probably would have died out at that stage, but the model was revived in response to the social crises of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Then, very suddenly, it became universal, spread throughout Europe by the new technology of the printing press. Finally — and fatally — it was given fearful urgency by the religious passions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. At that point, there was no stopping it; the witch-hysteria had become a social reality in its own right and had to simply run its course, like some virulent disease.

Beyond Skepticism

The theories of both Cohn and Trevor-Roper can contribute something to our understanding of historical witchcraft, but neither approach can stand on its own as an adequate account of its subject. Cohn suggests that the pattern of witch-accusations reveals the deep psychological roots of witchcraft-fear. He is partly right, but he rejects the possibility that those deep psychological roots also generated any actual witch-behavior. Trevor-Roper suggests that the myth of witchcraft was “the creation of social and political struggles. And only when the social structure of the society changed could the myth be destroyed.” (Adler, 1986; p. 54) Again, he is (partly) right; there is no question that the ideological battles of the Catholic Church helped to determine how the idea of witchcraft developed. At the same time, Trevor-Roper’s skeptical worldview limits his understanding; his picture of reality simply can’t accommodate the possibility that any real witches existed.

The existence of actual witch-behavior would, to say the least, change our assesssment of the forces at work behind the witchcraft craze. Unfortunately, historical study alone won’t solve that riddle. There is no historical evidence to tell us whether anyone did any of the things that witches were accused of. All we have are records of accusations, trials and confessions all of which are suspect in some way and historically inconclusive. The historian is left to weigh the possibilities and draw his own conclusions according to the assumptions of his worldview.

But there is other evidence suggesting that Europe’s flap over witchcraft may have had some basis in fact. Studies in comparative religion, folklore and anthropology have turned up practices among the Africans, Asians and South Americans that are strikingly similar to the practices of witchcraft alleged by the Inquisition. Mircea Eliade, for instance, points out that the practices of tantric yoga are a virtual duplicate of the European witchcraft allegations. Eliade’s conclusions are a challenge to those who would dismiss the lurid aspects of witchcraft as mere fantasy.

I do not intend to summarize here the results of the investigations of the last half-century. It suffices it to say that, as work progressed, the phenomenon of witchcraft appeared more complex, and consequently more difficult to explain by a single factor . . . For instance, even a rapid perusal of the Indian and Tibetan documents will convince an unprejudiced reader that European witchcraft cannot be the creation of religious or political persecution . . . As a matter of fact, all the features associated with European witches are — with the exception of Satan and the Sabbath — claimed also by Indo-Tibetan yogis and magicians. They too are supposed to fly through the air, kill at a distance, master demons and ghosts, and so on. Moreover some of these eccentric Indian sectarians boast that they break all the religious taboos and social rules: that they practice human sacrifice, cannibalism, and all manner of orgies, including incestuous intercourse, and that they eat excrement, nauseating animals, and devour human corpses. In other words, they proudly claim all the crimes and horrible ceremonies cited ad nauseam in the western European witch trials. (Eliade, 1976, p. 71.)

Such evidence suggests that those who looked for witchcraft were a) looking for something that was really there, even if b) they didn’t understand what they were looking for, and c) often found something else, which they called by the same name anyway.

In Chapter Seven, we will look at European witchcraft to see how it came together, what it consisted of and why it disappeared. Finally in Chapter Eight, we will look at some of the thinking about witchcraft that developed after witchcraft itself had vanished, and see how those theories, speculations and outright fantasies all became part of the mythology and ideology of the modern Witchcraft movement.


Witchcraft Goes Mainstream

© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]

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First published (or major update) on Thursday, October 20, 2011.
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