A story of witches | Barbara O’Brien


Let’s explore the history of witches, the queens of Halloween. Witches inhabit spaces where religion and folklore overlap. The classic Halloween witch, with her black pointed hat and flying broom, is a European creation. But there are myths all over the world about dangerous women with dark magic powers. This suggests a connection to Jungian archetypes. As Carl Jung explained,

The primordial image, or archetype, is a figure – be it a demon, a human being or a process – which constantly recurs throughout the story and appears wherever creative fantasy express themselves freely. It is therefore essentially a mythological figure… In each of these images there is a small piece of human psychology and human destiny, a remnant of the joys and sorrows that have been repeated countless times in our history ancestral.

Today, it is often assumed that the European witch originated in pre-Christian European paganism. Many have replaced the word witch with old english wiccaa male magician or sorcerer (the feminine is wise). However, there is not much historical corroboration for this idea. Most anthropologists and historians insist that the proposed connection of the witch and wicca to pre-Christian Europe is mostly a modern invention. The witch as most of us understand her is more likely a product of the late Middle Ages. There is, however, at least one pagan influence on the witch lore – Hecate, a goddess from Greek mythology. Hecate is associated with magic and spells and the power of three. And discover other mythical Greek ladies, Circe and the Graeae.

Witch hysteria in the European Middle Ages

At the start of the 15th century, Europe became obsessed with witches. The Church Fathers pointed to the Old Testament, especially Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” There is also the Witch of Endor, who appears in 1 Samuel 28. In this story, King Saul made a deal with a witch, or “medium” in some translations, to conjure the spirit of the late King Samuel. (In exchange, Saul promised to not kill her for breaking the law against contacting the dead. Such a deal.) Samuel tells Saul that he has messed up and is about to be defeated by the Philistines. (The witch in this story strikes me as a blameless person who only did what Saul asked. And then she didn’t let Saul and his entourage leave until they had something to eat.)

The witch hysteria escalated after the publication of a book titled Malleus Maleficarum — “Witches Hammer” in 1486. ​​It was one of the best-selling books in Europe for at least a century. Written by two German Dominican brothers, the book identified witchcraft as a form of heresy, punishable by being burned at the stake. Before the Malleus Maleficarum, someone convicted of witchcraft would generally not have suffered worse than a few hours in the stocks. The book also described in detail how to identify and interview witches.

A lot of things about witches in the books, and eventually the movies, came from the Malleus Maleficarum. Witches were people, usually women, who made a pact with Satan. They are witches who carry out Satan’s evil in the world, the book claims. The book provides details on how to interrogate the accused, and especially how to apply torture until the accused confesses. If, after prolonged torture, the defendant had not confessed, a judge could order that the torture continue until she did.

The sociology of witch hysteria

The 16th century marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The witch hysteria continued, however, and some newly minted Protestants joined in. By 1670, up to 80,000 suspected witches, mostly women, had been put to death. More than half of these deaths occurred between 1560 and 1670.

What caused the hysteria? Had something happened to suddenly make people obsessed with witches? Most likely, we are looking at a confluence of sociological, religious, and even political issues here. For an in-depth look at these, I recommend a 2018 article by Elizabeth Foster-Feigenbaum, “The Middle Ages as a Time for the Witch Craze.”

In short – first “witches” were a scapegoat for the evils of the world. This follows the old pattern of naming a “different” group to blame for things that go wrong. At other times and in other contexts, the blame would fall on Jews, or racial minorities, or Catholics where Protestants are in the majority and vice versa. Etc. In the witch hysteria, the blame lay primarily with the women, but of course it couldn’t have been all the women. Just women who were “different”. Maybe they were outspoken or disruptive, for example. Homeless women, women who never married, were more likely to be charged. Midwives were often singled out and accused of witchcraft, perhaps because they had a vocation outside the home and the church. There was obviously a deep-seated fear of women’s sexuality and their power to give birth to witch hysteria. The occasional male accused of witchcraft was usually the husband or other close relative of an accused female witch.

It is also true that the 15th and 16th centuries were a time of great religiosity as well as religious unrest. The Reformation did not officially begin until Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. But the pressures that led to the Reformation are surely accumulated over a period of time. before that. Stirring up fear of witches also became a way for the Catholic Church to reassert some control over ordinary people. It is also assumed that concern over witch hysteria predisposed some Europeans to Protestantism.

The hysteria ends

Witch trials became less common in Europe in the 18th century and were only sporadic after around 1750. By then, the rational ethos of the European Enlightenment had taken hold. Several European countries have completely banned witch trials. The last person executed for witchcraft in Europe was a Swiss woman, Anna Göldi, who was beheaded in 1782. Historians have determined that Göldi’s “crime” was having an affair with his powerful employer and then threatening to reveal their relationship.

But that leaves us with the ongoing folklore of witches, which keeps changing. Witches in modern books and movies are less and less likely to be associated with Satan worship. They can even be good. But what about the traditional pointed hat and the flying broom? Let’s save that for the next column.

Illustration from The History of Witches and Wizards, 1720. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Collection Gallery, CC BY 4.0


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