Apologetics Index

Chapter 6: Witchcraft for Real — Was There or Wasn’t There?

Rationalist theories of witchcraft dominate academic study of the subject today. The question of whether or not any actual witches existed is seldom addressed as a serious issue. The skeptical assumption, of course, is that they did not i.e., that there never was any such thing as a real witch. Some scholars however, are skeptical of skepticism itself, and try to take the findings of folklorists and anthropologists into account. They begin by comparing the witchcraft allegations with other beliefs and practices that were known to exist in Europe at the time. One historian whose work takes that approach is Dr. Jeffrey Burton Russell, a scholar specializing in the history of ideas.

Russell researched the subject extensively for his landmark book Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. The evidence he assembled indicates that about 30% of the accusations against witches are connected with magic or sorcery, 25% with pre-Christian folk fertility traditions, and 25% with previous or existing heresies.

If one goes on to admit, as all historians do, that sorcery existed and was practiced in Europe as it has been in most societies, and that heresies were believed and practiced, and if one admits, as all historians familiar with the evidence do, that magical folk-beliefs and customs persisted in various forms through the MIddle Ages, one must conclude that about 80% of the charges are associated with phenomena having existence independent of theological embroidery . . . almost all appeared before the Inquisition intervened in witchcraft proper. Without denying that . . . many of the witches condemned were innocent, one is obliged to regard witchcraft as a reality. (Russell, 1972; p. 22)

Rationalist scholars “know” that the major components of medieval witchcraft are all unreal: magic is a fantasy, orgies are a fantasy and the Devil is a fantasy; therefore, witchcraft itself was a fantasy — by definition. Interestingly, modern Witches accept the rationalist’s conclusion that the medieval witch was innocent of crime, but reject the rationalist’s premise that she was innocent of witchcraft to begin with. To the contrary, say scholars like Eliade and Russell, we can believe that medieval witchcraft was real because we already know the reality of the behavior it was accused of.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that witchcraft was real in the same way the Inquisition thought it was. It is clear that the Inquisition’s concept of witchcraft was a stereotype, created around a standardized set of accusations that were applied in their entirety, as a template, in a variety of different situations. In addition, the growth and development of that stereotype can be charted over time. When you couple those facts with the reality that many of the details in the Inquisition’s stereotype came from confessions extorted by torture, it is evident that the Church influenced the idea of witchcraft as much as witchcraft itself did.

Witchcraft Components and Antecedents

It is not easy to separate the reality of witchcraft (whatever it was) from speculation, superstition and outright social hysteria, but Jeffrey Burton Russell makes a credible and convincing attempt. According to Russell’s analysis, medieval witchcraft was composed of elements drawn from five sources. It blended portions of:

  1. folk fertility religion,
  2. low magic and sorcery,
  3. spiritism and demonology, and
  4. heresy, mostly of the gnostic type; those four, in turn, were interpreted and defined by:
  5. the fifth element, Christian theology. (Russell, 1972; p. 23)

It is easy to see that the first three of those elements predate the advent of Christ. All three have their roots in beliefs and practices that are ancient and universal. It is also easy to see that the last two elements reflect the collision between those beliefs and practices and the rising influence of Christianity.

Fertility religion, sorcery, and demonology all developed independently. Although they crossed paths often, each had a history of its own. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Roman Empire, all of them made the pilgrimage to Rome, and all were in place when Rome fell and the Dark Ages began. Finally, they were all pushed together toward the fringes of society under pressure from Christianity.

Yet historians agree that there was almost no organized persecution of magicians, sorcerers, or pagans during the early Middle Ages. In fact, there is a notable decline around the ninth and tenth centuries, which are otherwise the darkest of the Dark Ages.

By that time, paganism was no longer a serious threat. The Catholic Church had co-opted popular pagan piety by means of so-called “baptized paganism.” The Church simply took over pagan forms and symbols and attached Christian labels to them: legends and myths of pagan gods were attached to Christian saints; pagan holy ground was used for churches and monasteries; pagan fests and holy days marking the cycle of Nature were renamed, and integrated into the Church’s liturgical year. Jeffrey Burton Russell speaks of “the infinite resourcefulness with which the Church sought to destroy paganism by ingestion.”

Thus, practicing paganism had dwindled to insignificance even without persecution. It was no longer socially potent. It was theologically denounced, almost as an echo of the Church’s past battles, but was de facto ignored as long as it kept to itself. The various forms of occultism that were often part of paganism were also largely ignored. In fact, there wasn’t a single official execution for sorcery during the Church’s first millenium.

Those early attitudes are exemplified by a famous but anonymous document of the tenth century called the Canon Episcopi. The Canon denied that magical phenomena are objectively real, and ascribed them to “phantasms imposed upon the minds of infidels by the malignant spirit.” In short, the Canon held that witches and sorcerers lived in a world of delusion created by the devil; they could not affect the real world. Obviously, such people constituted no real threat, and were more to be pitied and scorned than feared. Significantly, the Canon invoked no physical punishhment for such behavior, requiring only that those who, in their delusion, practiced the Devil’s arts should be “foully disgraced from their parishes.”

At this time (during the so-called “Dark Ages”), the Church was preoccupied with the internal crises of power and organization that accompanied its rapid expansion. Sorcerers were much more likely to run afoul of local officials by creating social upset than to they were to be pursued for spiritual error by ecclesiastical authorities. The Church didn’t have time to harass the remnants of a beaten and scattered opposition.

Enter Gnosticism

But in that context of Christianity’s triumph and internal distractions, a new and more virulent challenge arose — heresy. Heresy was a vigorous, active opponent of Christianity, while the remnants of paganism were passive and constrained. The old ways were a defeated enemy; the heresies were a fresh rebellion. Eventually, the two made common cause. Gnostic heresies in particular began to absorb the remants of pagan disaffection and cultural resistance. Gnostics also absorbed some of the spiritual baggage of paganism, including its resentment of Christianity and its backwoods occultism. Debased forms of pagan sorcery, spiritism and fertility practices became mixed with gnostic elitism, mysticism, and antinomianism (disdain of moral rules).

What emerged from that merger was a kind of mystical anarchism, armed with the practices of degenerated occultism and sexual religion. The resulting beliefs and behavior were shocking enough to provoke the full-scale intervention of the Church. An example came to official attention early in the eleventh century, when a group of heretics appeared in Aquitaine who were accused of spurning the cross and holding sex orgies. In 1022, in Orleans, members of the movement were tried for heresy before Robert the Pious, then King of France.

We know some of the beliefs attributed to this group from the records of the trial. They included: rejection of matter as evil, abstention from certain foods, stress on an inner spirituality, a hidden wisdom revealed only to initiates, and baptism by the laying on of hands. This short list clearly shows the gnostic foundation of their teaching. But the indictment against them included non-doctrinal charges as well, charges that relate to even earlier practices — fertility religion, sorcery, and spirit contact.

The non-doctrinal charges included four elements that were important in the later development of witchcraft. The Aquitaine heretics were accused of: 1) demon invocation; 2) promiscuous sexual orgy, 3) infant sacrifice by burning, and 4) cannibalism of the sacrificed infant. Those same charges show up repeatedly in the witch trials of the centuries to come. They are alleged so often, in fact, that they become legal cliches. By 1300, those four accusations are routinely made in most cases of witchcraft.

All four of those behaviors played an important part in religion world-wide. Though universal, they were never common, and were usually hidden (or “occult”) because they were widely condemned. That fact also made them scandal-fodder for religious controversy. From ancient times, it has been standard practice to accuse religious opponents of orgies, or of human sacrifice. The early Christians were accused of such by Roman rabble-rousers — quite possibly because some gnostic “Christians” had created scandals by exactly such behavior. Only in medieval witchcraft, however, do we find those four particular charges brought together, and joined to the dynamism of heretical movements.

The Acquitaine heretics were not witches, but in their case we find witch-like belief and behavior being added to existing heresy for the first time. Here we see the first stages of the process that created medieval witchcraft. It is essentially a process in which ancient practices with separate histories converge and come together around the phenomenon of heresy. To reverse the emphasis, it is a process in which heresy, the new and dynamic resistance to Christianity, attracts and assimilates the remnants of paganism, the old and waning resistance.

Of course, not all heresies mingled with pagan elements. But those that did found that what came from their mingling was neither paganism nor heresy, but something new. That something new was then defined by Christian theology, which cast it in a distinctly diabolical light. The result was witchcraft as we know it historically. Finally, the theological concept of witchcraft took on a sinister life of its own and became the engine for the lethal hysteria of the Renaissance witch-craze.

Dualism and Witchcraft

But that process was a slow one. The trial at Orleans didn’t open the gates of witch-mania, or begin an inquisitorial reign of terror. The full-blown witch craze didn’t begin until four centuries later, just as the Middle Ages were giving way to the Renaissance, and it didn’t end until three centuries after that, as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment. In the meantime, during the early Middle Ages, the various components of witchcraft continued to develop and to interact with one another. As heresy changed and grew, so did its relation to paganism. And so did the Christian response to both of them.

Heresy changed by becoming more “dualistic.” Dualism is an ancient philosophy that believes the world is defined by the conflict between two opposite but equal forces good versus evil, light versus dark, God versus an evenly matched Devil, etc. That vision of cosmic conflict is a congenial way of thinking for a belief-system under seige, and heresies tended to become more dualistic as they came under attack from the Church.

For roughly a century (1140 – 1230) “the heresy of Catharism was the single greatest influence upon demonology and witchcraft.” (Russell, 1972; p. 121) The Cathars, known in France as the Albigensians, used radical dualism to turn the tables on Christianity. Just as Christianity had demonized the pagan deities, so the Cathars demonized the Christian God. According to Cathar teaching,

the Spirit of Evil . . . created the material world for the purpose of entrapping spirit in matter. He imprisoned the human soul in a cage of flesh. The creator of the world, the God of the Old Testament, is the lord of matter, the prince of this world, and the Devil. All the personages of the Old Testment, and John the Baptist in the New, are demons. Christ was a pure spirit sent down by the good God into this world in order to teach man how to escape from the matter that confines him. By the practices of Catharism, man might follow the teachings of Christ and so liberate himself; but the Catholic Church was established by the Devil in order to delude people . . . Since Christ was pure spirit, he did not suffer on the cross . . . since the Eucharist and baptism employ material substances, they too were condemned. (Russell, 1972; p. 123)

The Cathars, like the Orleans heretics, were not witches per se, but they influenced the formation of witchcraft through their dualistic beliefs and their attitude of rejection toward the Church.

Cathar dualism established evil as a powerful cosmic principle — in some versions equal to God. Seldom had the force of evil seemed so majestic, or so awesome in potency. Those who sought to avoid the tribulations of this world might think it expedient to propitiate the Dark Lord of this world. Those who sought the rewards of this world might think it expedient to worship him outright. Catharism generated an atmosphere in which the Devil and his demons were seen as both powerful and accessible. In that atmosphere, witchcraft acquired new vigor and allure.

As we have seen, Cathar dualism also functioned as an instrument of rebellion against the Christian God, the Christian establishment, and Christian values. The Cathars, like gnostics in general, were mystical elitists, a tendency that was carried to extremes by the “antinomian” gnostics. The term “antinomian,” from the Greek, means “opposed to law.” The antinomians believed that they, the elect, had entered a new aeon (age or historical phase) and were therefore wholly set free from the moral laws, rules and regulations governing the old aeon, which belonged to the god of this world, i.e., the Devil.

Blasphemy and sexual licence were seen as signs of spiritual purity, because they are clear ways of rejecting the standards of this world as defined by the god of this world (the Devil) and his religious establishment, the Catholic Church. Antinomians believed that sin only exists because moral rules exist. The God of the Old Testament (the Devil) made the rules, and thereby created sin. Abolish the rules and you abolish sin. Anyone who repudiates moral law thereby acts as his own savior and liberates himself from sin. Acts such as the defilement of an altar, mockery of the sacraments, and orgiastic sex, were interpreted by them as proof that for the gnostic elite, the New Age of sinlessness and spiritual liberty had already begun. It was the most radical way possible of proclaiming a break with the old order, and of announcing one’s spiritual superiority as a warrant for doing so.

Catharism expressed an obviously high level of popular alienation from Christianity, and especially from the Christian establishment. The depth and extent of that discontent is shown in the fact that the Church considered Catharism to be as serious a threat as Islam. In 1208 Pope Innocent III preached a Crusade against the Albigensians — the Cathars of southern France. Organized and waged by the nobility of northern France, the bloody war was over by 1230, and the cult was substiantially suppressed. Yet Catharism had created an environment in which organized irreverance was a demonstrated possibility. In that environment, both heresy and witchcraft continued to flourish.

Theology, the Inquisition and Witchcraft

By stirring up the Crusade against it, Catharism also aroused the machinery of repression. Though the Cathars were defeated militarily, their heresy persisted. The Inquisition, newly created for the occasion, swept up in the wake of the slaughter by searching out lingering pockets of heretical influence. Its mandate naturally tended to extend itself, and the Inquisition began to look for variations on the theme of spiritual rebellion in general. It soon enough encountered witchcraft, which tended to flourish wherever heresy was active.

But to begin with, the Inquisition was a minor threat to witches, compared with the force of popular sentiment. Social rather than ecclesiastical hostility was the strongest source of pressure on witchcraft for the next 150 years. Anxiety ran high in the culture, and popular hysteria was easily released against available victims, including foreigners, Jews, gypsies, witches and heretics. Pogroms and lynchings were common.

As official Christendom slowly began to respond to heretical movements, it put its own stamp of interpretation on them. The heretics saw themselves in one way, the Church saw them very differently. Thus began the long process of defining witchcraft — a process directed by the Inquisition and couched in the language of Christian theology, but founded on the more limited world-view of scholasticism and taking much of its content from popular culture.

“Scholasticism” was a philosophy that dominated medieval Catholic thought. It was represented by Thomas Aquinas and based on the view of Aristotle that the universe was essentially rational and mechanistic, and that the chain of cause and effect was unboken throughout the natural world.

But the scholastic universe had no explanation for anomaly, chaos, or miracle. In a rational world, non-rational events are unexplainable; they are “unworldly” by definition. Such events were treated as being outside the order of nature, i.e., as “super-natural.”

Therefore, the world-view of scholasticism implicitly contained a category called “the supernatural.” The very existence of that category provided a place for miracles and spiritual experiences to reside — both godly and ungodly. The idea of “the supernatural” implied that the Devil’s power might be real instead of just imaginary. By the long way around, then, scholasticism supported the idea that witches and their demonic sponsors could affect objective reality.

Scholasticism was part of the “stage setting” for the witch craze. It was a world-view that accommodated the notion of witchcraft and allowed for the reality of claimed cases. It was an ideological framework that made space for the idea of witchcraft — and for the fear of it — to grow. In that respect it was a distinct departure from the spiritual mood that animated the Canon Episcopi. It would be an exaggeration to say that scholasticism favored the growth of superstition — but not a very great exaggeration. Scholasticism certainly opened the door for the superstitions of popular culture to become part of the Church’s definition of witchcraft.

The Contribution of Popular Culture

Popular culture provided many of the details of witch belief and behavior. Animistic and folk-magical ideas were filtered through Christian theology, and in that processed form were woven into the Inquisition’s understanding of what witchcraft was.

Some of the folk beliefs that became part of witchcraft involved encounters with ghosts, apparitions and other quasi-supernatural creatures, such as gnomes, trolls, faeries and the night-riding “wild women.” To scholastic theology, all of those tales simply depicted different ways of trafficking with demons. Once the gnomes, sprites and spirits of popular pagan lore had been classified as demonic, they tended to collect around he figure of the witch, since she supposedly dealt with demons. The lesser spirits of folklore thus were transformed into “familiars” the witch’s “pet demon.” By the end of the fourteenth century, having a”familiar” became a standard accusation in witch trials.

Another common accusation based on folk beliefs was the charge of engaging in a Satanic “pact.” The “pact” supposedly traded the witch’s soul to the Devil for the sake of some tangible reward. The idea of a desperate compact with the powers of evil is not a Catholic invention. In fact it is a recurring theme of folk-religion world-wide. In Siberian Shamanism, for example, the shaman withdraws his soul from his eyes, brains and entrails, and hands it over to previously hostile spirits in return for certain agreed upon assistance. Often, the pacified spirits become the shaman’s spiritual attendants (Lewis, 1971, p. 57).

In the developing definition of witchcraft, not all “pacts” were explicit, that is, stated and agreed to. Any reliance on the power of demons was considered an “implicit pact.” Simple magic was simply a sin, but magic that invoked demonic assistance was an “implicit pact” and therefore a heresy, since it offered the equivalent of worship to something other than God.

That complicated theological argument became part of the Inquisition’s efforts to extend its jurisdiction. Since “pact” was heresy by definition, it came under the Inquisition’s authority by definition. Thus Inquisitors often brought the charge of “pact” as part of a strategy to obtain control of witchcraft cases.

The official definition of witchcraft started to come into focus with the issuance of the first Inquisitor’s manuals between 1230 and 1250. The manuals advised Inquisitors on the procedure for handling all aspects of the cases before them, from investigation to sentencing. They also listed questions to be asked for seeking out particular heresies. In addition to questions on conventional heresies, many handbooks included questions related to witchcraft — questions about divination, magical operations, invoking or worshipping demons, etc.

The Inquisition was clearly alert to the increasing connection between heresy and pagan occultism — and to the emerging phenomenon of witchcraft based on that connection. But, at the level of actual events, changes were happening more rapidly than anyone could keep track of.

The defeat of the Cathars did not crush the spirit of their heresy. On the contrary, the Crusaders’ military victory simply dispersed the Cathar spirit and the Cathar ideology to a number of near and distant sanctuaries, where they began to mingle with the local holdouts against Christianity.

The first papal Inquisitor in Germany, Konrad of Marburg, did not take long to produce a crop of witches more diabolical than any that had before been seen. That Konrad did not invent the heresies out of whole cloth is made evident by their alleged doctrines, which are partly Catharist and partly antinomian in nature . . . (one heretic) named Luckard, claimed that Lucifer had been unjustly cast down from heaven and would ultimately, she hoped, regain his rightful place. Here is the Catharist hidden God identified with Lucifer. (Russell, 1972; p. 159)

The Inquisition Takes Control

Plainly, based on that kind of Luciferian doctrine, the Inquisition was not just imagining things. Spiritual rebellion was indeed abroad in the land, expressing itself in a variety of creatively depraved ways. But the Inquisition soon made procedures for itself which gave it the power to control the results of its own investigations — a development that opened the door to fantasy and invention in defining witchcraft. The new procedures included secret accusers, no counsel for defense, no defense witnesses, denial of appeal — and torture.

The use of torture in particular gave Inquisitors the power to control the image of witchcraft that they drew from their accused. In an ironically misplaced effort at humaneness, the Pope had forbidden condemnation without confession. From that point forward, confession became the single overriding objective of the entire procedure, from the opening investigation to the final turn of the thumbscrew.

Unfortunately for theories of progress, torture derived less from the “primitive barbarism” of the so-called “Dark Ages” than from the refined law of the later Roman Empire . . . Torture did not create witchcraft, for witchcraft already existed, but it was responsible for fanning the flames of popular hysteria into the holocausts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Russell, 1972; p. 152)

Not many, even of the innocent, can mantain their innocence in the face of sustained torture. The Inquisitors usually got what they wanted, and witch confessions obtained under torture are suspect, to say the least. Particularly suspect are cases in which whole segments of a community appear to be involved. That is almost always the result of prisoners being forced to implicate others in order to obtain relief from their own torments.

But even with the deck stacked so thoroughly in its favor, the Inquisition still took more than 200 years to gain control of the witchcraft phenomenon. It took that long for the inquisitors to complete their definition of witchcraft and establish it as the controlling viewpoint for society at large.

Yet the Inquisition played an oddly inconsistent role in society’s war on the witches. It created the definition of witchcraft that was the basis for the witch hysteria, and it did so using torture and coercion. But it actually exercised a restraining influence on the hysteria itself, especially during its later stages. Where the Inquisition was strong, there were few witch panics and the ones that broke out were quickly suppressed. In 1609, for example, a local French witch-craze spilled over the border into the Basque region of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition responded by issuing an “Edict of Silence,” which prohibited all open discussion of witchcraft. The strategy was effective and the craze quickly quieted down, for as one skeptical Inquisitor observed, “There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about.” (Gibbons, 1998)

The popular image of the witch-hunting, witch-burning Inquisitor, therefore, is simply propaganda. The most active persecution of witches was not driven or directed by ecclesiastical authorities, but by secular ones. It was the secular courts that were most active in pursuing witches and most prolific in killing them.

(T)he Inquisition… played a very small role in the persecution. From 1326-1500, few deaths occurred. Richard Kieckhefer (European Witch Trials) found 702 definite executions in all of Europe from 1300-1500; of these, only 137 came from inquisitorial or church courts. By the time that trials were common (early 16th century) the Inquisition focused on the proto-Protestants. When the trials peaked in the 16th and 17th century, the Inquisition was only operating in two countries: Spain and Italy, and both had extremely low death tolls. (Gibbons, 1998)

The popular image of the sinister Inquisitor in hot pursuit of some twisted fantasy of witchcraft comes primarily from a single source — the medieval witch-hunting manual known as Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches). The Malleus was the work of two active Inquisitors, and it was clearly the product of an obsessed — if not actually deranged — mentality. A strident, almost hysterical, anti-feminine bias permeates the book. According to its authors, women are more drawn to witchcraft than men because they are weaker, more subject to temptation, more stupid, sensual and superstitious than men are.

Although the Malleus achieved considerable popularity within the Church, the Inquisition rejected the book for its gross legal and theological errors and later condemned its chief author for the “irregularity” of his procedures. The Malleus was never officially used as a guidebook by the Inquisition, but was widely picked up and applied by the secular courts, which were leading the charge in the witch-persecutions. The book had a strong influence on the popular conception of witchcraft, but by no means represented the Inquisition itself.

Heinrich Kramer, the text’s demented author, was held up as a typical inquisitor. His rather stunning sexual preoccupations were presented as the Church’s “official” position on witchcraft. Actually the Inquisition immediately rejected the legal procedures Kramer recommended and censured the inquisitor himself just a few years after the Malleus was published. Secular courts, not inquisitorial ones, resorted to the Malleus. (Gibbons, 1998)

The Malleus was written in 1486, near the beginning of the witch craze per se. The full-blown hysteria, which was characterized by accusations of a vast underground conspiracy of witches, sensational trials and widespread witch-executions, peaked between 1550 and 1650.

On first impression, it seems strange to find the worst of the witch mania climaxing during the Renaissance, which is otherwise reputed as an age of enlightenment, toleration and intellectual freedom. But there are good reasons to find it there rather than earlier. Medieval society was not really conducive either to witchcraft or to public hysteria over it. It was the breakup of that society, and the social breakdown accompanying it, that opened the door of opportunity both to witchcraft itself, and to the anxieties that fueled the fear of it.

Social Change and Alienation

Starting around 1300, the stable universe of the Middle Ages began to unravel. Politically, the notion of a united Christian society was being shattered by the emergence of the nation-states, and the inevitable hostilities between them. The Holy Roman Empire began to shrink in significance and power. The Papacy itself became subject to pressure from political interests; by the end of the century, a schism had damaged its credibility even further.

People were losing their bearings. All their anchors were coming loose at once. They were disoriented by a series of terrible catastrophes that wracked Europe, including wars, famines and devastating epidemics (both literal and figurative) that forced a restructuring of economic and social institutions on all levels.

The literal epidemic was the plague of the Black Death, which may have killed as much as a third of Europe’s population. In reaction to that terrifying threat, there were also epidemics of hysteria and populist frenzy; better-known examples include the flagellants, who publically whipped themselves into a mystical trance, and the St. Vitus dancers, who publically danced themselves into total exhaustion. And for the meringue on the century’s misery pie, there were a host of political upheavals and dislocations. Peasant revolts challenging the aristocracy were suppressed with bloody brutality, and the Hundred Years War brought the full horror and devastation of war to large parts of Europe on an apparently permanent basis.

Most unsettling of all, people were losing their faith in a Church that had been unable to predict, prevent or even repair those disasters. To make matters worse, the Church winked at corruption, endorsed injustice and baptised social evils at the same time that it “embraced the life of medieval man so fully that heresy often seemed to be the only way to cast off the smothering embrace of spiritual totalitarianism.” (Montgomery, 1973; p. 62)

Because of such frustrations and upheavals, people became alienated from the Church and the society it supported; thus they were ripe for movements of cultural dissent, including heresy and witchcraft. The tension between the two poles of orthodox defensiveness and heretical disaffection increased sharply. Then, into that explosive situation came a technological spark — the printing press.

Gutenberg invented movable type in 1454. In 1427, just twenty seven years earlier, Inquisitors and learned monks had begun to turn out theoretical treatises devoted exclusively to witchcraft. While witchcraft had previously been considered one aspect of heresy, now it became the center of scholarly attention — an intellectual trend that Gutenberg’s invention caught on the rise and boosted into orbit. The witch craze can justifiably be seen as the world’s first media flap.

The fact that the printing press could now disseminate the works of the witch theorists in a quantity hitherto undreamed of added enormously to the growth of the witch craze. The first printed book on witchcraft, the Fortalicium Fidei, was issued in 1464, only about ten years after Gutenberg had produced the first book printed with movable type. It was an unfortunate coincidence that printing should have been invented just as the fervor of the witch hunters was mounting, and the swift propagation of the witch hysteria by the press was the first evidence that Gutenberg had not liberated man from original sin. (Russell, 1972; p. 234)

The Classical Definition of Witchcraft

By 1486, only thirty-two years after printing was invented, the Malleus Maleficarum was published. Despite the fact that the book was rejected by the Inquisition, it achieved wide distribution and had great influence on the way witchcraft was perceived. The book’s popularity was partly due to its comprehensive scope — its declared purpose was to establish the indisputable reality of witchcraft by refuting all the arguments against it. As a result, the Malleus put on display most of the main elements of the witchcraft stereotype as it stood after two hundred years of elaboration. Some parts of the “classic” witch-stereotype were curiously missing (there is no mention of orgies or familiar spirits, for instance) and other parts of the full stereotype wouldn’t appear until several decades later (the now-familiar “covens” and “sabbats, ” for example, don’t show up until the 1500s — the Malleus depicts the witches as individuals, working alone). (Gibbons, 1999).

But despite its shortcomings and distortions, the book provides a clear outline of what witchcraft was thought to be at the end of the fifteenth century. According to the Malleus, witchcraft is the most abominable of all heresies and the most evil of all crimes. It has three necessary elements, and four essential characteristics.

The three necessary elements are: 1) the evil intentioned witch; 2) the help of the Devil; and 3) the permission of God, who hates evil but allows it so that man may have freedom, and sin may execute judgment on itself.

The four essential characteristics are: 1) the renunciation of the Christian faith; 2) the sacrifice of unbaptized infants to Satan; 3) the devotion of body and soul to evil; and 4) sexual relationships with Satan and/or with seducing demons (incubi and succubi ).

In addition, witches were said to engage in a wide range of characteristic activities. They render obscene homage to the Devil as he appears to them in various grotesque forms. Jeffrey Burton Russell summarizes the allegations:

They use incantations, effect apparent changes in their shapes by diabolical illusion, practice various forms of maleficium (hostile magic), are transvected through the air from place to place by the power of demons, and use the Christian sacraments in their vile rites. They cook and eat children, either their own or those of others; and they use the children’s flesh and bones to obtain a salve or ointment which they then employ in their magical operations. (Russell, 1972; p. 233)

As the fifteenth century ended and the sixteenth began, both the fear and the persecution of witches started to gather momentum. The height of the witch-craze, with its lethal panics, mass trials and multiple executions, happened in the hundred years between 1550 and 1650; many historians attribute the increase to the new disruptions and anxieties caused by the wars of the Reformation. Indeed, recent studies have confirmed that the worst panics took place in those areas where Catholics and Protestants were actively battling each other for religious and political contol. (Gibbons, 1998)

Renaissance: Climax and Unravelling

The beginning of the Renaissance watched the witch mania come into full and terrible bloom, while the end of the Renaissance saw the phenomenon dwindle and vanish with puzzling rapidity. Why?

The Renaissance was fertile soil for the witch craze because it set off another round of social upheaval and intellectual revolution. “Deprived of the old securities, people responded in a panic that at that particular time found vent in terror of witchcraft.” (Russell, 1972; p. 227) The influence of printing, the quintessential invention of the Renaissance, has already been pointed out, as has the impact of the Reformation, the defining religious event of the Renaissance.

Another factor favoring the development of witch mania during the Renaissance was the revival of pagan learning. With the revival of the Greek and Roman classics there came also a revival of the magical knowledge of antiquity. That revival validated witchcraft in spirit, if not in detail.

Another aspect of the pagan resurgence was a revival of Neoplatonism, which “caused a vast reawakening, first in intellectual circles, and then at large, of the magical world view. This in turn greatly augmented the intellectual respectability of belief in witchcraft, until eventually it became difficult to argue against it.” (Russell, 1972; p. 227) In the long debate that the Church was having with itself over whether the phenomena of witchcraft were “real” or “delusory,” the pagan elements of the Renaissance cast a decisive vote in favor of their “reality.”

Yet the same conditions that favored witchcraft, also limited it. Witchcraft was defined by its conflict with Christianity at the end of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance stimulated witchcraft in the short run, but stifled it in the long run because the Renaissance put an end to the monolithic orthodoxy against which witchcraft had rebelled, and against which it had been defined. At the same time, the Renaissance opened up new channels of expression for the counter-Christian impulse that had motivated witchcraft to begin with.

The terms “Renaissance” and “humanism” are not necessarily terms of praise, clarity and ideality . . . “Renaissance” was also the revival of ugly, idolatrous, and often obscene creeds, and “humanism” may mean just what it says: the adoration of man and his occult powers to create the world and himself . . . The result will be moral aberration (to a divine being all things are possible and permitted) and also intellectual aberration, the loss of proportion in things human, divine, scientific, cultural, social and political.

In this manner a strange alliance is concluded between the occult and the rationalistic (as opposed to the rational, the reasonable). (Molnar, 1974; pp. 118-19)

Faust, after all, was as much a “Renaissance man” as Leonardo da Vinci. Faust was the literary version of the Magus, who lusted after secret knowledge. Many Renaissance figures follwed his example, including Paracelsus, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and Giordano Bruno. In addition to pagan magic, the revival of pagan philosophies opened further options for non-Christian thinking.

The Empty Shell

Thus the official definition of witchcraft began to harden just as the spirit that animated witchcraft began to abandon it — to dissipate, and find other outlets for expression. The outer features of witchcraft congealed and were targeted in that form, while the inner dynamic of witchcraft dispersed itself elsewhere through newly opened channels of opportunity. Witchcraft crystallized outwardly, while being emptied inwardly. It became an abstract structure, sustained by collective fear and the activism of anti-witch zealots. Largely deserted by the spirit(s) that had energized it, by the end of the Renaissance, witchcraft had become a “form of ungodliness without the power thereof.”

When the end came for the witchcraft craze, it came quickly. It came with little advance warning, and for no obvious reason. In the first half of the 1600’s, the great war against the witches continued to rage. The English witchfinder Matthew Hopkins is said to have put over two hundred “witches” to death between 1645 and 1647. In the latter half of the century, however, the number of witch prosecutions began to decline, and the severity of the penalties began to diminish. By the end of the century the active pursuit of witches, with few exceptions, had dwindled to the point of near invisibility. That general quieting of the hysteria was punctuated by three sensational trials toward the end of the century: the “witches of Edinburgh” — Major Weir and his sister Jane (1670); the “Paris witches” and their poisoning conspiracy (1679); and, in America, the “Salem witches” (1692). The Salem witchcraft trials were the literal last gasp of the Renaissance witch hysteria, which had long since been over and done with in Europe, where it began.

It seems as if the whole society all at once began 1) to feel moral, spiritual and emotional exhaustion after three centuries of hysteria and holocaust, and 2) to suspect that the classical definition of witchcraft had been rendered irrelevant by social and intellectual changes.

That practical change of heart, by the way, was pioneered by the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition in particular led the way by encouraging official skepticism about witch-accusations in the face of prevailing credulity . In 1611, the Inquisitor Alonzo Salazar de Frias arrived in Navarre to investigate an outbreak of fear, accusations, and executions of the previous year. Salazar came armed with an “Edict of Grace” that permitted him to undo penalties applied to alleged “witches” if he found their conviction unjust.

Salazar received 1802 applicants (under the Edict of Grace), of whom 1384 were children of from twelve to fourteen years of age and, besides these, there were eighty-one who revoked confessions previously made . . . He found, by one means and another, that some 1600 persons had been falsely accused. At one place he found tales of a Sabbath held at the very place where his own secretaries had been harmlessly on the night named. (Williams, 1941, reprint ed. 1959; pp. 251-2)

From 1614 onwards, witchcraft practically disappeared from the formal religious courts of Spain. A similar trend was taking place in England, though less consciously and more sporadically. Other Inquisitions followed suit in due course. In 1657, the Roman Inquisition issued a series of instructions designed to curb the worst abuses of the witchcraft proceedings, namely: “1) the arrest on common suspicion, and 2) the indiscriminate use of torture.” (Ibid., p. 263) Slowly but progressively, European society began to back away from its blind paranoia and exterminating zeal. Gradually the realization seemed to spread that things had gotten badly out of hand.

Interestingly, people continued to believe that witchcraft itself was real, while becoming ever more skeptical of specific allegations. “At the beginning of the eighteenth century that admirable example of good taste, Joseph Addison, put the thing neatly enough. ‘I believe in general,’ he wrote, ‘that there is such a thing as witchcraft; but at the same time can give no credit to any particular instance of it.'” (Ibid., p. 301) The general idea of witchcraft remained undisturbed in the public mind, but particular cases stopped turning up and were disbelieved when they did so. Thus ended the witch-craze of the Renaissance — its abstract identity remained intact, but concrete examples of it simply disappeared.


How “real” was the witchcraft of European history? Was the Devil-worshipping witch a historical fact, or just an imaginary stereotype? The rationalists believe they have settled that question once and for all, but others think such claims are premature. The truth is that the available historical evidence is both sketchy and one-sided, which means that very little can be said that isn’t subject to challenge. Rationalist theories of witchcraft express the attitude of most professional historians toward religious ideas in general; the dominance of the rationalist view is more of a current poll result than a position established by argument or enforced by the evidence. In fact, by the standards of intellectual coherence, the historical scenario offered by Jeffrey Burton Russell makes more sense of more of the evidence with fewer assumptions and leaps of logic, than any of its rationalist counterparts.

The main point of contention between the two viewpoints today concerns whether or not anyone actually believed in a “dualistic” Devil who was the opposite of God, so as to “worship” him as witches were said to do. Rationalists dismiss such charges as mere “projections,” that is, horrifying thoughts dredged up from the subconscious of the accuser and attributed to someone else. Actually, this the weakest point in the rationalist’s case. In point of fact, dualism is a very old and well documented religious attitude, described in detail by Greek, Roman and Persian sources. It is plausible theologically and philosophically, and there is no good reason to assume that it didn’t continue to exist in Europe right on through the Middle Ages. (Russell, 2001) A skeptic who dismisses dualism outright, lives in a mental universe that is smaller than the real one — an inherently disabling aspect of his worldview.

From a strictly historical standpoint, the following can be said with a high degree of confidence:

  1. A stereotype of witchcraft existed, in large part derived from ancient ideas.
  2. No one ever embodied the full stereotype.
  3. It is probable that some people embodied some of the stereotype. (Russell, 2001)

Beyond that bare-bones historical pronouncement, there are a number of observations to be made, both about witchcraft and the mania connected with it.

We can say with relative certainty that witchcraft was not a fantasy of the Inquisition, nor was it the product of popular hysteria, though both played their part in creating the concept of witchcraft as well as the craze that eventually surrounded it.

The Inquisition was basically correct in classifying dualistic witchcraft as a heresy. After all, one cannot venerate or even traffic with the Devil (or “demons”) unless one has already accepted the Christian world-view, at least as far as it says that such things exist. Overall, witchcraft (out of its gnostic connection) accepted that Christian picture of reality, but reversed its values. In that context, the real witches can only be considered as deviant believers; in other words, as “heretics.”

As “heretics,” Witches sought not only to reject the establishment, but to shock and challenge it as well. Therefore it is plausible that some of them deliberately did things the establishment deemed to be most awful. The psychology of that process is not difficult to understand, even if its outcome seems bizarre. In medieval society, the image of the Devil embodied everything that the Church called evil. As that image of evil prevailed in society, those who consciously sought to reject society and its values acted out the image because it would be understood by others. The issue is communication — the spiritual rebel speaks out because he wants to be heard. Thus he expresses his rebellion in the spiritual language of his times. No spiritual anarchist wants to keep his insurrection in the closet. Above all, he wants to send a message to the establishment he is rebelling against, a message that carries the maximum offensive charge. Therefore he gravitates toward behavior that the establishment defines as maximally offensive. Because the Church said that worshipping the Devil was the worst thing you could do, some people scrambled to do it for that reason alone.

There is another dynamic at work here as well. While some groups set out to oppose the Church from the beginning, others found themselves under attack from the Church willy-nilly. They were thrust into opposition without intending it. Either way, groups and individuals under siege from the Catholic establishment felt the need for allies and support — spiritually and otherwise.

Since the Church said that the Devil was its strongest and most dangerous opponent, those who found themselves at odds with the Church might well think of turning to him for aid and comfort. Since the Church said that witchcraft was an attack on Christian culture, those who felt oppressed by that culture could see witchcraft as a way to strike back at their oppressors. It was the final and ironic sign of the Church’s cultural triumph that its enemies began to imitate its definition of evil. In any event, it seems highly likely that some of those tried as witches were substantially guilty of at least some of the charges lodged against them.

Unfortunately, it is also certain that the Church was complicit in causing a large number people, perhaps as many as fifty thousand, to be falsely accused and wrongfully executed after subjecting them to torture that was demonically inventive in its cruelty. Irrational fear of irrational evil is not conducive to the making of subtle distinctions, and the witch-hunters made few distinctions of any kind in their campaign of extirpation.

Surprisingly to some, the most barbaric and unjust features of the persecutions were not derived from Christianity, but from the adulteration of Christianity with subchristian values. We have already seen that torture was a vestige of Roman practice, and not a Christian innovation.

(I)t must be admitted that for very long, superstition was admitted as an ally within the Church itself. Like the Emperors and the barbarian chiefs, the hateful energies of hate were enlisted on the side of Christendom. Cruelty, denounced as a sin, was welcomed and embraced as a savior. (Williams, 1941, reprint ed. 1959; p. 308)

By this means, one form of sin was pitted against another. The sin inside the Church clashed with the sin outside it, and the two of them together raised such a clangor that the biblical command to judge sin in sorrow and compassion was drowned out. Only by stepping outside the hysteria could the Church regain its balance and perspective, and realize what was happening to it.

Near the end of the witch-craze, that began to happen. In 1683, a commission of inquiry in Germany noted the destruction wrought by the witch trials, and “raised the possibility that the trials were themselves the work of the Devil, who had induced the fear of witchcraft in the Christian community in order to turn it against itself and destroy it.” (Russell, 1980; p. 126)

Christianity is an unabashedly concrete religion, even in its supernaturalism. In the middle ages, Christianity wrestled its supernatural opposition into concrete form as well. That form was witchcraft; it was shaped by its times, but it was also the conduit of timeless forces.

European Witchcraft is unthinkable in anything like the form it took without the shaping influence of Christian myth and theology. But in a deeper sense, witchcraft springs out of hostility and violence that are at the same time as old as man and as contemporary. Now once again institutions are failing and men are being thrust back upon their own formulations of symbolic order. Once again, lacking the framework of a coherent rational system, we are increasingly subject to propaganda, nihilism, asnd mindless violence. Dogmatic and unreasoning ideologists are preparing for us a new witch craze, couched now in secular, rather than transcendental terms.

It is in this universal context that European witchcraft is best understood. Medieval witchcraft was in one sense only the first stage of a long period of witch delusion; in another sense, it was a manifestation of the innate and perennial darkness of the human soul. (Russell, 1972; p. 289)

Many modern Americans would like to think that our society is immune to such eruptions of mass hysteria as the witch craze because of our democratic institutions and our greater tolerance and rationality. But they are mistaken. In fact, they themselves may be the best proof of their own mistake, since many of them are prepared to demonize Christianity and to “scapegoat” Christians without recognizing the implications of their own behavior. No cultural tradition, social system, or ideology can prevent the outbreak of collective fear, blame, hatred, and persecution under the right (or wrong) conditions.

The history of witchcraft, perhaps, does not altogether encourage a belief in democratic opinion. Nor in aristocratic opinion. It is the history of a fashion, and it has yet to be shown that either democracy or aristocracy are proof against fashion. As the Middle Ages hurried to their feverish and calamitous close, fashion rode them like a fury. (Williams, 1941, reprint ed. 1959; p. 309)

Seeing the witchcraft craze as the fruit of intellectual fashion helps us understand its place in history. The commonsense skepticism of the Canon Episcopi declared witchcraft to be a spiritual delusion, and belief in witches to be a disreputable superstition. Scholasticism turned that viewpoint inside out; belief in the reality of witchcraft became a high and serious duty for Christian intellectuals, while those who doubted it were marginalized at best and stigmatized at worst. Then the Enlightenment brought in yet another world-view that reversed those intellectual polarities one more time. “Witchcraft declined because a new world-view made it a superstition. It declined because it was as intellectually disreputable to defend witchcraft under the new system as it had been to attack it under the old.” (Russell, 1980; p. 124)

The history of European witchcraft can also be seen in terms of the coming together and breaking up of its individual components. Prior to the middle ages, witchcraft did not exist as such, because it was still in pieces. Its components had not yet abandoned their separate histories and been fully joined. After the Renaissance, the process reversed itself , and witchcraft ceased to exist as such because it went to pieces. Its components disjoined and resumed their separate histories once again. Gnosticism dispersed itself into a spectrum of heresies, magic and sorcery continued on their own terms, and spiritism discovered a prophet in Emmanuel Swedenborg who would build a church in its name — and his own.

Those strands were woven together by circumstance to form witchcraft; they unravelled again when those circumstances changed. All of those strands have continued to exist on their own and all have continued to generate their own historical trails, right down to the present day.


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 Friday, October 21, 2011.
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