Traditionally, witchcraft has always been viewed as malevolent, anti-religious and deviant. Manifestations of it have existed from the earliest times, well before the Christian era. Undoubtedly it arose and gained prominence out of the ignorance of the majority who grew to fear the apparent powers of certain people in their midst. Much later the Christian (RC) Church came to see it as a threat to its influence and saw witches as beings who had gained a pernicious power by means of making a pact with Satan (or the Devil). In time, the grievous charges of heresy and sorcery were levelled at so-called witches, damning them fatally.
Originally, “witches” were people who had probably more initiative and maybe more intelligence than their fellows and developed certain fundamental skills in the area of health and nature, so that they were resorted to when things went wrong. Eventually, these same people came to be regarded with a degree of awe and suspicion and the perception grew among the ordinary people that not only could the “witch” be depended upon for beneficial action but that they could also work “black magic” by means of spells and rituals. “White magic” was believed in by the populace, therefore, as long as rudimentary medical aid, herbal and folk remedies were obtained from these “wise” people of the village. Possibly these practioners came to view their skills as a gateway to power and influence over their neighbours and this realisation marks the beginning of so-called black witchcraft and attendant black magic. In time, the belief that black magic was to be blamed for most of life`s disasters, death, bad luck, crop failure, bad weather, was accepted. Clearly, it was a time of confusion, exacerbated by universal superstition.

This facet of dubiety was eliminated by the unequivocal stance of the ruling Church who saw in it a diabolical element, believing that all “special” people, i.e. those exhibiting abilities out of the ordinary were devotees of the Devil who had rejected the Christian faith. This aspect assumed more and more moment, to the extent that “maleficia” (evil deeds) were in the eyes of the Church less reprehensible than the fact that perpetrators were in league with Satan.

Perhaps the most enduring image of “witches” for most people is that depicted in Shakespeare`s play MACBETH written about 1600, in which three witches are referred to as “secret, black and midnight hags”. It is this portrayal of witches as always female, old crones, of hideous aspect that colours our perception. Indeed, some may have been, but many were not. It was easier to suspect someone of practising black arts if she were cantankerous and repellent than if she were young and attractive. When he comes upon the witches on the heath, Banquo describes them as “withered” and “wild”; he alludes to their “choppy “ fingers and “skinny lips” who seemed like aged men, because of their “beards”. Later the “filthy hags”, as Macbeth calls them, are seen gathered round a cauldron where a noxious brew is boiling, while they enact their spells – malevolent, of course. Undoubtedly, witches were feared by the people and by the Church which led to the centuries of persecution. They were regarded as evil and in league with the devil. Witchcraft and paganism went hand in hand in the eyes of the Catholic Church, which believed that so-called witches had magical powers and thus were under supernatural (diabolic) control. So great was this fear by Church and State, that Henry VIII instituted the first decree against witchcraft in 1542. Another decree followed in Elizabeth`s reign whereby the practice of sorcery (as it was alluded to) was punishable by death. James I enacted the third statute. In his reign the famous Bible was issued which contained the seeds of a quite fundamental mistake. The extant English version contained the words (translation) “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live”; but this was altered, or mistranslated, into the words “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – which had catastrophic consequences for unfortunates suspects in the following years. Just being accused of witchcraft was terrifying, as there was no escape from torture and almost inevitably death.. Anyone who was different, or envied or simply seemed a ripe suspect (perhaps being old and/or wealthy) could be accused.

Many of the people suspected of being witches were often it must be said in some way out of kilter with the normal society of the time; they could be for example, local “wisewomen” (or men) with an unusual knowledge of say herbal remedies; or even malcontents, or in some way marginalised by the community. Because they were different and because they did not seem to be overy religious in the conventional sense, possessing, it seemed, strange powers, they came to the notice of the Church. As a result the early and medieval Church began its insane persecutions. These persecutions were fuelled by the belief of Churchmen that witches were guilty of heresy (rejection of Christian dogmas) and especially of sorcery, the practice of witchcraft, by which harm could be wreaked on people, animals and communities with the aid of the power of the Devil. Ironically in the first millenium, the RC Church insisted that witchcraft did not really exist; however as nature worship (as it was perceived) flourished the Church grew apprehensive and reversed its policy! By the beginning of the fourteenth century, persecutions of “witches”were authorised by Pope John XXII. This fear grew apace, so much so that in the year 1484, in the papacy of Innocent VIII, a momentous,but truly evil book was issued, purporting to show exactly how suspects should be apprehended and tortured. This was the infamous MALLEUS MALEFICARUM (Hammer of the Witches) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger whose basic aim was to explain the devil worship of witches. The latter were pagan, adherents of Satan, motivated by him, and possessed of a power that was diabolic in its nature. This was the burden of the MALLEUS, given authorisation by a Bull of Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484.

The targets of the witchhunters were, as it was supposed, the practitioners of “black” magic, of malevolent intent. These people were variously known as sorcerers, conjurers as well as witches. They possessed all manner of incredible powers, such as the ability to change shape, fly through the air, bring misery to another by means of the “evil eye”, allied to their general magical abilities, and were usually accompanied by “familiars” – cats, dogs, or toads, mainly – who aided them in their nefarious practices.

A major element in the persecution of witches was their perceived sexual laxity, in which (female) witches indulged in sexual congress with the Devil. In the eyes of the Church all pleasure is/was suspect especially carnal activity. If not actively conscious of sexual acts, it was believed that demons, known as incubi, (those who lay on) who were the henchmen of the Devil, visited the witches when asleep and had intercourse with them. Fantastic though some of these ideas were, it has to be remembered that it was an age when belief in demons and magic was universal. Females of course were the favourite suspects because they could have congress of a sexual nature with the Devil and demons, who were irretrievably associated with pagan deities. According to the Bible, witches were people who had dealings with unholy spirits and therefore should not be permitted to live, as Exodus says 22;18. They were regarded as owing their powers to a compact with the Devil and hence were in the eyes of the Catholic Church damned. As early as AD 306, (at the synod of Elvira) witchcraft was condemned by the Church as a grave sin. Equally, in the view of civil authorities, the practice negated or violated the rights of others.

A great development in the attitude to witchcraft (by the Authorities and by the Church) occurred approximately in the mid 13th to mid 15th centuries. Heresy appeared to be proliferating, hence the growth of Inquisition methods and attention to the study of demonology. Many books were (or came to be) written on the subject reinforcing the evil of witchcraft and advocating “remedies”. The Inquistion provided most of these! Its mission was to extirpate what it saw as malevolent activity (maleficia, as it was called) : “black” witchcraft and concomitant “black” magic. The Inquisition in Spain was particularly active. By means of diabolical tortures “confessions” were extracted from victims. The 17th century was when witch trials in England were in their heyday, although trials and executions continued into the 18th century. Of course, persecutions of so-called witches were not by any means confined to England, or Britain, but were much in evidence throughout the western world, especially France and perhaps above all, Germany. In America there was the celebrated (if this is the right word!) case of the Salem witches, in 1691; executions also took place in South America. Modern computation methods suggest in the region of half a million people lost their lives in these “burning times”. This murderous delusion was however not without its critics, despite severe penalties handed out by Church and State.A few brave souls went public in criticising belief in the powers of witches. On the other hand, some witches really did believe in their own powers, and victims (of witchcraft) usually did believe in the witches` powers. Credulity and exaggerated tales increased the ordinary person`s fear of the witch. Hallucination on the part of both witch and victim played a confusing part in the accusations and subsequent trials.

What must be stressed however is that the picture of witchcraft painted by the Renaissance Church (and earlier) is undoubtedly a distortion of the facts and is perceived so by present day practitioners of witchcraft. I believe categorically that there never was any such thing as a “witch” – at least in the sense that witch-hunters of ther time would maintain.This is not to deny that certain individuals did have unusual talents, employed for good or malice. But that they were in league with the “Devil” is a nonsense – a perception of the medieval Church which saw itself threatened. “Confessions” extracted under torture were useless; of course the victims would say anything to end their agonies. Witchcraft was heresy punishable by death. Not only was witchcraft viewed as a traducement from the teaching of the Church, but also as a type of adherence to a pagan religion of very ancient origin. This ancient religion had always connoted magical powers – something to be feared and abhorred by organised religion. The evil witch image was created.

Cults did flourish which worshipped certain “deities” (e.g. Diana) which naturally were anathema to the Church. This fired the flames of persecution of course.In the tenth century the Church (RC) issued a document in which they alluded to “wicked women” who are “perverted” by the Devil and obey Diana`s commands….(Canon Episcopi). Later on, attention ceased to be focused on Diana and was directed to devil worship. In 1310, however, the Council of Trier associated witchcraft with the worship of Diana. Over two centuries later in his treatise “On witches”, Grillandus writes that “Witches think that Diana and Herodias are true goddesses so deeply are they involved in the error of the Pagans.” Consequently. Witches brought to trial were only questioned about “witchcraft” (as the inquisitors perceived it) and not about pre-Christian adherence to the goddess, Diana. (Modern thinking is that witchcraft as a survival of a pre-Christian religion is erroneous and not consonant with the facts.) However, there is material in writings on withcraft which does suggest elements of a pre-Christian belief system. Most victims were probably “misfits” in a certain way, but maybe some were members of the “Old Religion”, as it may be referred to.)

Perhaps in order to put the Church`s attitude to witchcraft firmly into context, it might be instructive at this juncture to indicate some of the beliefs of the Church which were claimed to be absolute fact. Remember the Pope`s word was regarded as infallible.

The claims:

failure to believe in the existence and powers of witches amounted to heresy;

female witches had intercourse with the Devil;

witches could change men into beasts;

witches injure and kill cattle by magic;

witches raise hailstorms ;

witches use spells to injure;

witches can cause people to fall sick;

witches can cause storms at sea;

witches can prevent men from fullfilling the sexual act;

witches can fly to meetings, aided by the Devil;

witches kidnap babies and murder them;

witches can cause crops to fail

There are many others: these are some of them.

(List taken from information supplied by Peter Mills, High Priest of the Sacred Coven of Hecate. Very illuminating are the articles written by Peter Mills, such as “Is it Witchcraft or Wicca” ; “The Beliefs and Customs of Wicca” in the magazine “Prediction”.)

Of course all this nonsense was a figment of the imagination of the cleric questioners, “confirmed” by the “confessions” under torture of innocent victims: valueless evidence, fuelled by visions of material gain from the death of the accused, the urge to control and let`s admit it, sadism on the part of the interrogators. Although Pope Alexander IV had in 1258 sanctioned the prosecution of those suspected of sorcery (black magic) it was not until 1320 that Pope John was persuaded that witchcraft was heretical. After this date, persecutions began in earnest with a series of witch-hunts, usually accompanied by torture. Evidence for a pact with the Devil was the major concern, and such absurdities as the discovery of witches` marks, and Devil`s mark was damning. Often there then followed (or preceded the interrogation) the ludicrous “Trials” by “Ordeal” which can be summed up in the current phrase, “Heads, I win; tails, you lose.”. Once accused, there was no escape. The most significant date,which we have mentioned above, in the development of the witchcraft mania was the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484, which effectively sanctioned any methods for the pursuit and questioning of suspects. This witchcraft hysteria lasted for three hundred years (at least) from about 1450 to 1750 in which some half million innocent people were put to death.

The witchcraft mania lasting centuries had several phases when the emphasis was on differing aspects (of persecution). Early on, it was mainly a political aspect when prominent figures were accused, mainly of sorcery, with diabolism a comparative rarity. Later on, trials of important personages were quite infrequent: this takes us to about mid fourteenth century. From approximately that date to about mid fifteenth century, diabolism assumed significance, with witchcraft generally. Most cases occurred in France, Germany and Switzerland.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries theologians and the legal profession, started to view witchcraft as a form of heresy. The maleficia of witches was considered to entail idolatry and apostasy. Harmful magic was closely allied to these, so that often a plausible suspect was identified for persecution. Such a person was generally seen as antisocial deserving of enmity. In days when very little could be explained, misfortune could be/was attributed to witchcraft. In viewing the whole aspect of witchcraft, Darren Oldridge`s words in THE WITCHCRAFT READER, (p.56), are truly relevant: “It is only by considering the belief system of early modern people as a whole that we can start to understand the meaning of witchcraft.”

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D