Guest Post by Cael Kalbrandt
“Witch.” The sound alone conjures up image of ugly crones with warts, black cats, and a supersonic broomstick. The very word is obscene: an unholy insult to scare children and offend adults.
Of course, society is so much wiser and more civilised now. We may detest those who are not exact copies of our ideal self, but we don’t immolate, drown or hang by the neck until dead. “Immolate” means to burn someone, by the way. But hey, stakes are a thing of the past, right?
Screw that! The witch hunts aren’t over. Not by a long shot.
First, let’s correct a few erroneous but annoyingly common misconceptions:
- Witches are not a folk tale only invented at the end of the Middle Ages.
- The Catholic Inquisition did not conduct witch hunts.
- Modern wiccans are not witches in the original sense of the word, so that is not where this post is going.
Then why are you – yes, you – at a realistic risk of becoming a victim of modern witch hunts?
The concept of witches has existed since the Ancient Greek. Longer, actually, but there aren’t any written accounts going that far back, because Greek scholars didn’t believe in writing anything down. But that’s a story for another time. Back to witches.
In the olden days, anything not understood was called “magic”. Since public education hadn’t been invented yet, “things not understood” covered a wide range of topics: biology, herbology, astronomy and climatology, psychology and a ton of other –ologies.
People weren’t dumb, they just didn’t know any better. Even the scholars.
An above-average understanding of “magic” was called “witchcraft”. So everyone who had such knowledge and wasn’t officially cleared to be knowledgeable – usually meaning women and peasants m/f – was a “witch”. Makes sense, right?
For the longest time, being believed capable of witchcraft wasn’t a bad thing. Cultures around the world revered and even venerated such individuals as shamans, gurus and other (semi-) holy people. No harm done. On the contrary: these were the people you turned to for answers.
Enter the various “One True Belief” religions…
Witches In Organised Religion
When organised religion came about, it brought rules of play:
“Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead.” – Deuteronomy 18:11–12
The Old Testament forms the basis of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic belief systems, so it’s no surprise that in large parts of the world, those few sentences went a long way – in the wrong direction, eventually.
Early Christianity distinguished between white and black magic. White magic/witchcraft was beneficial and therefore not a problem, whereas black witchcraft was severely frowned upon. The penalty for black magic? Confession, repentance, and charitable work.
What, no stakes? Shocking, I know.
In fact, in Medieval times, the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church was that witches did not exist. Heretics, yes, but not all heretics were witches and not all witches were heretics. For centuries, organised religion, at least in Europe, had no quarrel with witches.
So what the Hell went wrong?
Fear And Ignorance Breed Destruction
The second half of the Middle Ages was not kind to the poor Europeans. Repeated failing of crops undermined the whole economic system, and the standard of living dropped dramatically. Political and social unrest inhibited society to recover, and the Black Plague nailed the coffin shut. For a third of the population, that wasn’t a figure of speech…
The populus vulgaris, the ordinary folk, suffered the most. They always do. Centuries of church indoctrination had taught them to turn to God for answers, and they simply didn’t understand what they had done to offend Him. The real cause of their misery was a combination of factors like climate change (Little Ice Age), social and religious revolutions which led to wars, but climatology, sociology and bacteriology were nowhere near to being discovered. So God got the blame.
People were afraid. Afraid of more hardship, more pestilence, and of incurring the unexplained wrath of their Almighty. Terrified to wits’ end, they would do anything to appease him, no matter what the cost.
That is always a dangerous oath: “no matter what the cost”. It tends to turn out devilishly expensive.
Speaking of that guy: everything evil was Satan’s doing, so of course anything strange, anything not understood within the community was the work of the Devil. And what more certain way to anger God than worshipping the Devil?
Ergo, strange people doing strange things had to be scary Devil worshippers.
And what is scary must be destroyed. That’s the most primal reaction to fear. Humans are worse than animals that way.
What is scary must be destroyed. It’s the most primal reaction to fear. Humans are worse than animals that way.
Which must have been the point where someone remembered the Bible mentioning “immolate” in the same verse as “people doing strange things”, and put two and two together.
Fortunately, the Inquisition proved to be better at calculus than the average mob.
“Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition!”
The boys of Monty Python certainly got that right. Nobody – not the people, not the clergy, not the Pope – expected the Inquisition to get involved in witch trials. The Inquisition safeguarded religious purity, and witch trials had nothing to do with religion or heresy.
Roman Catholicism had denied the existence of witches for centuries, remember? So why would the Pope send his police force on a witch hunt? Of course, if an “outbreak” of witchcraft suggested a community was straying from the good Catholic fold, the inciting elements had to be removed. If that removal needed to be permanent, so be it. Other than that, the Inquisition had precious little interest in claims of women flying on broomsticks.
And what’s with witches always being women, anyway? Sure, men were tried for witchcraft as well (often acused of being a werewolf), but the specific persecution of women originates from the unadulterated drivel that is the Malleus Maleficarum.
The specific persecution of women originates from the unadulterated drivel that is the Malleus Maleficarum.
The Lies Of The Hammer
The Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, is the most famous witch hunters’ tool, widely used and cited whenever another stake was lit.
Yet the Hammer was a farce, the collected rants of a lone demented and disgraced monk by name of Heinrich Kramer. Its blighted pages consist solely of fabricated facts and allegations, strung together with false claims of papal authority. A lot like today’s politicians draw from inaccurate or outright falsified research to back up their claims to their voters, actually.
A lot like today’s politicians draw from inaccurate or outright falsified research to back up their claims to their voters, actually.
In truth, the Church never endorsed the Malleus Maleficarum or its author. They even cautioned the Inquisition to steer clear of the Hammer’s teachings, which were at best unsubstantiated.
How in Hell’s name did that ever become popular? Simple: in the same three steps that make populist politicians popular:
- Spew a surplus of aggressive rhetoric that demonizes certain activities, attributes and backgrounds only shared by a minority of the population.
- Blame said minority and their sympathisers for all that is wrong in society.
- Call for the destruction of said extended minority. To Hell with evidence. Accusations are sufficient to establish guilt and warrant execution.
Now there was a language the poor folk understood! It echoed their primal instincts and gave their fears a focus: anyone who was not like them.
That message spread across the continent like wildfire thanks to the new printing press, further fuelling the mass hysteria that “witches” were to blame for pretty much every misfortune and posed a real and immediate threat.
And so the Hammer went down in history. Not as a horrific pamphlet that inspired a craze that sent tens of thousands of innocent men women and children to their deaths, but as the Church’s supposed justification for that massacre.
Except the Church didn’t head the witch hunts. The people did, with their wide-eyed frenzy that everything they fear – and they fear everything – must be destroyed. Utterly, completely, and in the worst possible way. Preferably right here and now.
Does that aggression sound familiar? Does it make you think of the Holocaust, of genocides and terrorism? Of the populist politicians screaming that the very existence of their country is threatened by some poor haphazard fugitives, because they have a different culture, skin colour or religion?
It damn well should.
Modern Day Stakes On Your Doorstep
Modern witches exist, but they are not the pagans or wiccans. Today’s witches don’t know or care about magic or unusual knowledge, nor do they need to. It is sufficient that they are different – and since every person is unique, “being different” is not a long shot.
Society’s fear still prey on the outcasts. Refugees and immigrants are accused and condemned. Ethnic, religious and sexual minorities are shunned, blamed and hunted now as were the suspected witches as recent as a last century.
Anyone deemed “strange” in the eyes of local, national or global society is sacrificed to the alter of social paranoia. By the governments, by the groups and companies, by individuals – and ultimately by you.
The Hammer of Witches is back, and it’s called “24/7 mass media”.
The Hammer of Witches is back, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s called “24/7 mass media”. It is the populists’ tool of choice, like the Malleus Maleficarum once was for the most malicious of witch hunters. And like the crowds on the old village squares, we sit behind our screens and cheer them on as they light the stakes. As if nothing changed in 400 years.
The choice is yours.
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