Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Magical practitioners and shamans historically have to varying degrees been looked upon with suspicion by outsiders to their craft. This is perhaps natural, considering that secrets and mysteries are intrinsic to magical arts as well as the reality that those who can heal can also harm.

If an individual has the capacity to bless others with good fortune, for instance, then that individual also possesses the capacity to withhold that blessing…or worse.

This is true not only of witches, however, but of any specialist. Although it’s a rare occurrence, every once in a while one does hear of a physician who has forsaken the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm but instead emerges as a secret, malevolent Angel of Death. However, those rare occurrences have not caused prejudice against physicians amongst the general public, nor have they caused “physician hysteria”: the panic-stricken fear that every physician is secretly committed to causing only harm.

Likewise, in many traditional societies, it’s recognized that although the occasional witch or shaman may become corrupt, the majority are responsible, ethical professionals. Most traditional societies have age-old legal mechanisms (not necessarily fair or “nice” ones) in place for magical practitioners perceived as malefactors, but this does not reflect negatively on the greater community of magical practitioners, nor does this constitute a “witch panic.”

A witch panic is characterized by an absolutely hysterical, irrational, fear of witchcraft and witches. A witch doesn’t have to cause harm for others to fear and persecute her. In fact, she may not have to be a witch at all: the key word in “witch hysteria” or “witch panic” is not the first but the second. Witch panics are characterized by a crazed terror that there is a secret conspiracy of witches, a fifth column that seeks to undermine society and cause harm to individuals. No need to wait for the witches to prove they mean harm; in a witchcraze, authorities search out any possible link to witchcraft and attempt to terminate it mercilessly.

Although witch panics existed earlier and still exist today, in some parts of Earth, the term “Witchcraze” historically refers to a specific era of European history, also called the “Burning Times.”

Image Witch-hunt indicates a concerted, active search for witches in order to prosecute or eliminate them

Image Witch panic refers to hysterical fear of witches, leading to extensive witch-hunts. Witch panics have historically occurred in waves: hysteria rises to fever pitch, sometimes for years, then abates only to rise again, sometimes years later

Image Witchcraze refers to the peak fever pitch of hysterical witch panics; in some communities, a witchcraze was sustained for years

Image The Burning Times refers to the centurieslong European witch-hunts and witchcraze. In most regions, although not all, those convicted of witchcraft were condemned to death by burning, hence the name. It is to some extent more accurate than “witch-hunt” or “witch panic” because not all or even perhaps most of those convicted of witchcraft were genuinely witches, although many were.

Although the European Witchcraze lasted hundreds of years, covering most of the continent as well as colonies in the Western Hemisphere and claimed as victims, at a minimum, thousands of people, until recently it was a relatively obscure historical subject; it is still generally treated as a footnote or aberration of history.

Many studies of the Witchcraze have, however, been published in the last two decades; in general, their focus is on perpetrators rather than on victims. All sorts of rationales are offered as to why “normal” people went so witch-crazy. Various books posit all kinds of different solutions for that dilemma, from physical causes (ergot poisoning, for instances) to cultural (virulent sexism—victims were, in most regions, overwhelmingly female), and all points in between.

However, to paraphrase author and physician M. Scott Peck, nothing of significance has but one root cause. There is a tendency to study the vast, sprawling topic of the European witch-hunts as an isolated subject, rather than in historical context. It is not really possible to fully understand them without also considering other concurrent historical events:

Image The persecution of landless minorities in Europe: Jews, Romany, and Saami

Image Continued efforts to eradicate all vestiges of Pagan tradition

Image Unresolved issues stemming from, often forced, conversion to Christianity

Image The emotional and psychological impact of the Black Death and other deadly plagues

Image The imposition of feudalism in some parts of Europe and the development of a professional class in others

Image The denigration and demonization of an entire gender (see BOOKS: Witch-hunters’ Manuals: Sprenger).

How many people died in the Witchcraze? There’s the million-dollar question! Figures offered range from as low as the tens of thousands to as many as nine million. The answer to the question, “How many people were killed during the Burning Times?” often reveals more about the orientation of the person quoting the figure than it does about the witch-hunts themselves.

So how many people were killed? Who knows? That’s the honest answer. The records are a mess and often unreliable. Records are missing, truncated, and edited. For instance, a 1412 decree from Aneu, Spain makes references to previous witchcraft trials for which no records and thus no information exist. And documents from those privy to witchcraft trials demonstrate that existing records aren’t necessarily accurate or trustworthy. (See page 800, Germany.)

Many scholars offer documented but conflicting numbers of victims of the Burning Times. Their totals may all be correct; they’re not necessarily using the same numbers. When considering total numbers of those killed, one must consider various factors:

Image Who is being counted as a victim?

Image What years are being considered?

Image What regions are considered in the total count?

Those victims who died during the interrogation process may or may not be counted alongside those who perished during documented executions. Not all executions were documented. Sometimes records of convictions of witchcraft exist with no further information regarding eventual punishment: do you assume that the convicted witch was executed or do you reserve judgment and not count that person among the total number?

When considering total numbers of victims, what years are included to arrive at a total? Some consider only the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the absolute fever peak of the Witchcraze, to be worthy of consideration. Others begin counting much earlier, in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries for instance. Some consider early Pagan martyrs accused of witchcraft to be among the victims of the Burning Times, although others consider this a whole different historical body count.

When did the Witchcraze end? With the last government-authorized execution of witches in Western Europe, or in the whole continent of Europe? Legal executions of witches in Europe did not end until close to the end of the eighteenth century, although by then there were comparatively many fewer of them. Some stop counting once the fever pitch cooled. Repeal of laws against witchcraft was often unpopular with the masses; after the laws were repealed, sometimes fatal vigilante justice took its place (see page 786, England). Are those deaths counted amongst the Witchcraze numbers or not?

And what regions are considered? Witchpanics were overwhelming in some regions (the German lands, Scotland) and lighter in others (Finland, Ireland), however virtually no part of Europe was completely untouched. There were witch-trials and executions in Croatia, Estonia, and Transylvania as well as in France, Italy, and England; are all territories being incorporated into totals or just a few? Some regions have maintained serviceable records; some have hardly any. Lack of records does not indicate lack of witch-trials; it merely indicates lack of documentation, that’s all.

And who exactly do we count in the totals? Many people were charged with multiple crimes: heresy and witchcraft. Do we automatically include anyone with a charge of witchcraft in the totals of victims killed during the Burning Times or is the count more selective? And what of those Jews, Romany, and Saami who were accused of witchcraft or sorcery, although others in their community were killed simply because of their cultural identity with no added charges? Where do you count them?

These are all factors one must consider when meditating on the huge disparity between the totals offered for numbers killed during the Burning Times. In general, those coming up with larger numbers aren’t intentionally exaggerating for political purposes as they are so often accused; they are merely counting a broader spectrum of victims.

The largest number bandied about, nine million, is often criticized as a “feminist exaggeration”; however the first person to quote that number seems to have been Cecil Williamson (see HALL OF FAME). The number was derived by looking at a broad spectrum of historical persecution of witches rather than a narrower one.

Witch panics possessed regional characteristics:

Image In Russia, there was no “witch-hunt” per se; however those attending at court were frequently accused of using witchcraft for political purposes or to harm the royal family

Image In Transylvania, wives and female relatives of political competitors were targeted

Image In Hungary, practitioners of shamanism were targeted

Image In German lands, wealthy people were particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft as if convicted land and assets were confiscated by witch-hunters

Image In France, a series of highly publicized cases involved demonic possession of nuns within convents, usually with a priest charged as perpetrator

Included in these pages is but a brief overview of witchcraft persecutions including but not limited to the Burning Times. For reasons of space, the areas that now constitute modern Germany and Italy are considered together although there were no unified nations known as Germany or Italy during that time. Instead, there were independent states, which did not all have the same laws or leaders; hence witchcraft persecutions were worse in one region of what is now one country than in another.

The scope of the entire witchcraze is beyond these pages. What you see here is only representative, not a total. Witches were burned in the Isle of Man as well as in Scotland; Austria had a particularly virulent witchcraze; the Alpine region in general is often considered the geographic nucleus of the Burning Times.

As a rule, regions that placed greater emphasis on torture as a device for uncovering witches discovered greater numbers of witches than those regions that placed less emphasis on torture. Among the primary lessons of the witch-hunts is that if people are tortured, most will confess and tell their torturers whatever they wish to hear. Thus virtually all confessions recorded during the witch trials are suspect and may reveal more about the manias and obsessions of the torturers than about anything regarding the victims, heresy or witchcraft.

Some things to bear in mind: there is a tremendously sexual aspect to the witch trials that is often ignored or glossed over. Women were the majority of the victims; men were, almost without exception, in positions of authority and judgment during this time. Women may have testified against other women but they were not in positions of authority. Sometimes women were hired to examine arrested women; however these hired women were consistently supervised by men. They did not work independently or unsupervised.

Female prisoners, frequently naked, were routinely left alone in rooms with one or more men. Women were undressed, their bodies examined minutely. Their interrogation often involved explicitly sexual subjects: orgies, sex with Satan, demons and imps. Imagine yourself shaved, bound, examined, and asked tremendously embarrassing, humiliating questions by those who hold your life in their hands.

There is a pornographic quality to many trial transcripts. Men accused women of participating in sexual acts; women routinely denied these accusations and then were tortured, often in sexual ways, until they confessed and elaborated on their torturers’ fantasies.

Although trial transcripts often quite explicitly describe the torture of victims, which subsequently cannot be denied, reports of sexual abuse are less forthcoming, perhaps because many (although not all) of those in authority were clerics who had taken vows of celibacy. Women were routinely raped. When reading trial testimony, this can never be forgotten or overlooked, even when not explicitly stated. The history of the witch trials is as much about men behaving abusively toward women as it is about abuses of religious authority. Even when there was not rape, there was constant sexual humiliation and the threat of rape.

Witch-burning evolved into an industry. Some people made fine livings killing others convicted of witchcraft. Many torture weapons still in use were invented during the Burning Times. Ovens were not first used as murder weapons to kill Jews during World War II; they were used in German lands to roast convicted witches 300 years before. It wasn’t fantasy when Gretel burned the witch in the oven in the Grimms’ fairy tale Hansel and Gretel; the candy house in the middle of the forest may have been make-believe but killing witches in ovens was pure reality.

Were any of the victims actually practitioners of witchcraft? Apparently yes, many were, again depending upon definitions of witchcraft. Some were practitioners of magical arts and shamanism. Others held stubbornly to Pagan faiths or traditions. The witch-hunters eventual obsession with Christian-derived demonolatry obscures these practices, and because of the standard use of torture it may be impossible to determine definitively, but within trial transcripts there are occasional hints, pieces, and vestiges of ancient witchcraft, magical, Pagan, shamanic, and Fairy traditions.