Persecuting Witches and Witchcraft

Witch-burning in the County of Regenstein, 1550
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Witches have long been feared and hated in Christian circles. Even today, pagans and Wiccans remain a target of Christian persecution, especially in America. It seems that they long ago took on an identity which reached far beyond their own existence and became a symbol for Christians—but a symbol of what? Maybe an examination of the events will give us some clues. 

Using the Inquisition to Suppress Dissent and Outsiders

Witchcraft and the Inquisition: Using the Inquisition to Suppress Dissent & Outsiders
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The creation of the concept of devil-worship, followed by its persecution, allowed the church to more easily subordinate people to authoritarian control and openly denigrate women. Most of what was passed off as witchcraft were simply fictional creations of the church, but some of it was genuine or almost-genuine practices of pagans and Wiccans.

As the Inquisition proceeded through the 1400s, its focus shifted from Jews and heretics towards so-called witches. Although Pope Gregory IX had authorized the killing of witches back in the 1200s, the fad just didn't catch on. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull declaring that witches did indeed exist and thus it became a heresy to believe otherwise. This was quite a reversal because in 906 the Canon Episcopi, a church law, declared that belief in the existence and operation of witchcraft was heresy.

The additional persecution of anything which resembled feminine religiosity went to interesting lengths in that devotion to Mary became suspect. Today the figure of Mary is both popular and important in the Catholic church, but to the Inquisition, it was a possible sign of overemphasizing the feminine aspect of Christianity. In the Canary Islands, Aldonca de Vargas was reported to the Inquisition for nothing more than smiling at hearing mention of Mary.

As a result of this, church authorities tortured and killed thousands of women, and not a few men, in an effort to get them to confess that they flew through the sky, had sexual relations with demons, turned into animals, and engaged in various sorts of black magic. The image here depicts what Christians imagined went on at a court of witches where Satan presided.

People typically fear that which they don't understand, so witches were doubly damned: they were feared because they were allegedly agents of Satan seeking to undermine Christian society and they were feared because no one really knew what witches did or how. In the place of real knowledge or information, Christian leaders made things up and created stories which were certain to cause people to hate and fear witches even more.

People trusted their religious and political leaders to provide them with accurate information, but in reality, the "information" provided was simply whatever furthered their leaders religious and political goals. Creating an enemy of out witches served the goal of increased religious and political cohesion because people would want to draw closer together in order to confront the enemy who wanted to destroy them. Isn't that ultimately more important than whether the stories were true or not?

Witches' Sabbath: Church Depictions of Witches and Witchcraft

Church Depictions of Witches & Witchcraft: Christian Fiction & Prejudice, not Reality
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Portrayals of witchcraft in church records can be very amusing. Almost everything that was "known" at the time about witches was pure fiction, inventions by church authorities who were told that witches were a threat and so had to come up with something to describe. Their creations have passed on into popular cultural images of witches which continue to this day. Very little of people's understanding of witches has anything to do with older, pagan traditions which supposedly were the source of witches and witchcraft.

Most clerics seem to have been rather limited in creativity, so witches were shown as behaving a simplistically opposite fashion from Christians. Since Christians kneeled, then witches stood on their heads when paying homage to their masters. Communion was parodied by a Black Mass. Catholic sacraments became excrement. The above image depicts some of the strange and crazy things which medieval Christians believed that witched did at night.

One of the most famous symbols of the Inquisition's witch-craze was the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (Witches' Hammer) by Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. These two Dominican monks wrote a lurid account of what witches were "really" like and what they "really" did -- an account which would rival modern science fiction in its creativity, not to mention its fictitiousness.

It's not too far from the truth to suggest that Sprenger and Kramer were early propagandists, creating a fake resource for authorities in order to help justify what the authorities wanted to do all along. Sprenger and Kramer told religious leaders what they wanted to hear and helped make it easier for those leaders to pursue the persecution of witches throughout Europe. The political and religious goals set down by the church leaders were deemed far more important than the consequences to their own values, principles, or morals -- and certainly more important than the possible persecution of anyone who might actually be innocent of the charges leveled against them.

Witchcraft and Satanism: Witches Kissing Satan

Witchcraft & Satanism: Linking Witches & Satan out of Ignorance, to Encourage Fear and Hatred
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Christians in medieval and pre-modern Europe believed that Satan was a real being and that Satan was actively involved in the affairs of humans. Satan's goal was the corruption of humanity, the destruction of everything good, and the damnation of as many people as possible in hell. One means by which it was believed he accomplished this was through human agents to whom he gave supernatural powers.

Witches were easily categorized as servants of Satan. No longer merely adherents to a more ancient religious tradition, witches were targeted for prosecution as slaves of the cosmic enemy of God, Jesus, and Christianity. Instead of a healer or a teacher, the witch was made into an instrument of evil. The witch was portrayed -- and treated -- as worse than a heretic. This tactic was not limited to the medieval church's pursuit of witches.

Religious and political authorities of various eras and different cultures have always found it convenient to associate their enemies with the worst possible evil they could imagine. In the Christian west, this generally meant associating enemies with Satan. These sort of extreme demonization allows a person to stop seeing their enemy as entirely human and the conflict as something which does not require mercy, traditionally just procedures, or anything of the kind. The only just outcome is not merely the defeat the one's enemy, but their complete extermination. In a battle where one's very existence is at stake, survival becomes the only moral value worth upholding.

The above image depicts the "Witch's Kiss." It was believed that part of the rite of becoming a witch in Satan's service involved kissing Satan's rear. It should be remembered that insofar as there existed anyone who practiced the healing and divination techniques of older pagan traditions, they wouldn't have had anything to do with Satan. After all, Satan is a creation of Christianity and monotheistic traditions. Any "witches" who existed were pantheists or polytheists and wouldn't have believed in a Satan.

Persecuting Witches and Persecuting Women

Persecuting Witches & Persecuting Women: Witchcraft as a Means for Subduing Female Influences
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The subservience of women to men was a common theme in early Christian writings -- an outgrowth of both traditional patriarchal attitudes and the extreme hierarchical nature of the church itself. Groups which did not hold to hierarchy in any form were attacked immediately. There is no shared authority between the genders in traditional Christianity, either in the church or in the home. Homosexuality would be particularly threatening to this ideology, as it raises the potential of redefining gender roles, especially in the home.

Witness how the recent attacks upon homosexuality in society has progressed hand-in-hand with the mindless promotion of vague "traditional family values," particularly those which "put women in their place" and reinforce male dominance in the home. With a married couple of two women or two men, who exactly is supposed to be in charge and who meekly obedient? Never mind that the Christians who fear such relationships will never be asked to make those decisions themselves -- the mere fact that people are making such decisions on their own rather than obeying someone else's religious proclamations is quite enough to give them fits of apoplexy.

The perception of women as inferior to men, and possibly the enemy of proper religious or social order, has survived down through this day in the most conservative and fundamentalist religious movements around the world. Religious institutions and doctrines are a primary repository for ancient beliefs about the social, physical, political, and religious inferiority of women. Even if the rest of society is moving on and improving women's status, religion remains the main source of beliefs and attitudes which retard that progress in the hopes of reversing it completely. And, where women cannot be attacked directly, they are attacked indirectly through negative stereotypes about "feminine" values as compared to positive stereotypes of "manly" or "masculine" traits.

It would be a mistake to assert that the Christian persecution of witches and witchcraft was nothing but an attempt to suppress women and feminine influences. Christian society, politics, and theology at the time simply weren't that simplistic. At the same time, it's hard to overestimate the role of misogynistic attitudes and repressed male sexuality played in the persecution of witches. It seems likely that if they didn't exist, the extreme violence directed at women and alleged witches probably wouldn't have occurred.

Witches, Misogyny, and Patriarchy: Clerical Torture of Women

Witches, Misogyny, and Patriarchy: How Misogynistic Attitudes Fed the Fear of Witches
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The persecution of witches reached its zenith at a time when Christianity's attitudes against sex had long since turned into full-blown misogyny. It is amazing how celibate men became obsessed with the sexuality of women. As it is stated in Malleus Maleficarum: "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable." Another section describes how witches were known to "...collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird's nest."

Evidently, they were not entirely stingy with their collections -- there is the story of a man who went to a witch to have his lost penis restored: "She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he like out of a nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belonged to a parish priest."

And some people say that religion isn't really all about wishful thinking!

These sentiments were nothing unique or unusual -- indeed, they are a result of centuries of mean-spirited sexual pathology on the part of church theologians. The philosopher Boethius, for example, wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy that "Woman is a temple built upon a sewer." Later, in the tenth century, Odo of Cluny stated:

To embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure.

Women were regarded as impediments to true spirituality and union with God, which helps explain why investigators focused on women more than men. The church had a long-standing prejudice against women, and this was given vent when the doctrine of devil worship was emphasized as an enemy which the church had to confront and destroy. This animus hasn't entirely disappeared even today. Women aren't persecuted and tortured, but they are deliberately kept out of positions of authority and responsibility reserved exclusively for men.

Under Torture, Accused Witches Would Confess to Almost Anything

Confessing Witches: Under Torture, Accused Witches Would Confess to Almost Anything
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Confessions of witchcraft, extracted under torture or threat of torture, commonly came attached to denouncements of other possible witches, keeping the Inquisitors in business. In Spain, church records tell the story of Maria of Ituren admitting under torture that she and sister witches turned themselves into horses and galloped through the sky. In a district of France, 600 women admitted to copulating with demons. Some entire villages in Europe were may have been exterminated.

Although the children of heretics and Jews had never experienced much in the way of mercy from Inquisitors, the children of convicted witches suffered even more horribly. These kids were themselves prosecuted for witchcraft—girls after the age of nine and a half, boys after the age of ten and a half. Even younger children could be tortured to elicit testimony against parents.

A French judge is reported to have regretted being so lenient when he sentenced young kids to be flogged while they watched their parents burn instead of sentencing them to burn as well. Children may not be easily culpable for heresy or their parents' heresy, but they could certainly be influenced by or even possessed by Satan. The only hope of saving their souls was to torture their bodies to drive out the satanic influences.

Voluntary testimony from someone as young as two could be admitted despite it not being treated as valid in other cases. This was a sign of just how serious the threat of witches was perceived to be. Witches and witchcraft, both of which were in the service of Satan, threatened the very existence of Christian society, the Christian church, and Christians themselves. Normal standards of justice, evidence, and trials were abandoned because no one wanted to take the chance that respecting traditional rights and standards would allow the guilty to escape punishment.

How the Torture of Witches Revealed the Sexual Repression of Inquisitors

Torture & Sexual Repression: How the Torture of Witches Revealed Sexual Repression of Inquisitors
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Interrogations of witches followed many standard Inquisition procedures, but with some added bonuses. Accused witches were all stripped naked, had all of their body hair shaved off, and then "pricked."

The sexually neurotic Malleus Maleficarum had become the standard text on how to deal with witches, and this book stated authoritatively that all witches bore a numb "devil's mark" which could be detected by sharp prodding. Inquisitors were also quick to search for the purported "witches' tits," blemishes which were supposed to be extra nipples used by witches to suckle demons.

Red-hot tongs were applied to women's breasts and genitalia. Researcher Nancy van Vuuren has written that "The women's sex organs provided special attraction for the male torturer." It should not be surprising that just about every torture victim eventually confessed.

Effectiveness of Sexual Torture

When people are tortured, and especially when the torture involves sexual abuse, it doesn't take long for the victim's world to become reduced to nothing but the pain and a desire for the pain to end.

When the only important thing is the cessation of pain, the victim will tell the torturer whatever they want to hear. It may not be the truth, but if the pain ends that's all that matters.

Blaming the Victims of Sexual Torture

If the men interrogating the witches were to become aroused, it was assumed that the desire originated not in them, but instead was a projection from the women. Women were supposed to be highly sexually-charged beings, while the celibate Inquisitors were supposed to be beyond such matters. Of course, the women were expected to admit that they were causing the interrogators to become sexually aroused, leading to a new round of questions and possible torture.

Sex and Interrogation of Witches

Sex & Interrogation of Witches: Did Witches Symbolize Female Sexuality, Power to Patriarchal Church?
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If witches and witchcraft have become imbued with an identity that reaches far beyond their own existence if they have become a symbol for something larger for Christians, then what are they a symbol of? It seems to me that witches served a symbolic role for the male, celibate religious authorities in Europe. Witches were not simply adherents to an alternative religiosity, and they certainly weren't turning whole towns into toads.

Indeed, most of those accused of witchcraft almost certainly wasn't guilty of anything of the sort. Instead, their treatment at the hands of men, and the rationales used by those men indicate that the oppression of witches was somehow symbolic of the oppression of women in general, of women's sexuality, and of sexuality in general. I hate to sound Freudian, but I really do think that in this case, the assertions by celibate men about the alleged sexual obsessions of witches are really a clear case of projection.

I think that it was the religious authorities who were obsessed and insatiable with their sexuality, but since their repressive ideology couldn't allow that, they had to project their desires onto others. If women, sexually evil beasts, were actually responsible for the priests' sexual desires, then the priests could in turn still feel holy -- and better yet, "holier than thou," more righteous and holy than the hated women around them.

When one group is systematically persecuted by others, and especially when the persecutors deliberately abandon normal standards of justice, procedures, and so forth, then it's important to look at whether the persecutors are just reacting to a perceived threat (real or imagined) or if they are instead reacting to something larger and using the victims as a scapegoat for larger fears. Sometimes both may be at work, too.

Joan of Arc, Witch and Heretic

Joan of Arc, Witch and Heretic: Powerful Women Had to Fear the Accusation of Witchcraft
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Although accusations of witchcraft seem to have been most commonly made against older women who lived on the margins of society and who may have become socially troublesome, there is also evidence that women who were too powerful could become targets as well. Joan of Arc is one famous example of a woman who achieved a great deal but was then burned as a witch for her trouble.

Joan of Arc, who has become the patron saint of France, was a peasant girl who experienced mystical visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret during the Hundred Years War which convinced her that she was destined by God to lead the French to victory over the English invaders.

In 1429 she convinced the Dauphin Charles VII to let her demonstrate that she had the ability to match her ambitions and she led French forces to liberate the city of Orleans from an English siege. She was eventually taken prisoner by the Burgundians, allies of England, and turned over to the English who burned her at the stake as a witch on the argument that her claims of direct communication with God were heretical and an act of disobedience to the Church.

Not until June 16, 1456, did Pope Callistus III declare Joan of Arc to be innocent on the charges of heresy and witchcraft. It can be difficult for powerful institutions to admit the error of any sort, but especially when the errors involve grave injustices that cause the suffering and death of innocent people. Everyone likes to think of themselves are pure of heart and doing good work, even when they are hurting others. Sometimes the need to justify one's actions leads one to justifications of brutality, cruelty, and violence in general -- and thus a betrayal of whatever moral principles they thought they held to begin with.

Executing Witches and Eliminating Witchcraft

Executing Witches and Eliminating Witchcraft: Killing Witches as the Best Way to Kill Witchcraft
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Burning and hanging were the most popular forms of execution for accused witches in medieval Europe. Burning seems to have been most common in continental Europe while hanging was more common in Britain -- and thus also in the American colonies later as well. The death penalty was imposed on a wide variety of crimes in this era, but witchcraft, in particular, was punished by death on the basis of Exodus 22:18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and Leviticus 20:27: "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones."

The heretics who were the earlier targets of the Inquisition were almost never executed at first. They typically had a chance to repent and submit to the Church; only after relapsing into heresy did they generally become subject to execution. Even then, they might still be given another chance to repent. Witches received almost the exact opposite treatment: the execution was typically applied after the first accusation and only rarely were accused witches allowed to go free after repenting.

This helps demonstrate the level of threat which the Church made out of witches and witchcraft. Witches couldn't be allowed to live no matter what -- not even if they were willing to admit all that they were accused of and fully repent. Their evil was too much of an existential threat to Christian society and they had to be completely excised, not unlike cancer which has to be cut out lest it kill the entire body. There was simply no tolerance or patience for the witches -- they had to be eliminated, whatever the cost.

Some have claimed that as many as nine million women were executed as witches, even though few could possibly have been truly guilty of witchcraft, and that because this represented a deliberate attempt to kill women generally it should be dubbed a "Women's Holocaust." More recent research demonstrates that many accused witches were men, not just women, and that number of those executed is far lower. Estimates today range from 60,000 to 40,000. Even if we are especially pessimistic, we probably can't go higher than 100,000 people killed across all Europe and over an extended period of time. That's obviously very bad, but not quite a "Holocaust."

Witch Hunts and Persecution in America

Witch Hunts & Persecution in America: Salem as an Iconic Example of Social Persecution
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As most Americans know, witch hunts also affected the American colonies. The Salem Witch Trials pursued the Massachusetts Puritans have entered American consciousness as being much more than just the killing of witches. They, like the trials of Europe, have become a symbol. In our case, the witch trials have become a symbol of what can go wrong when mobs of ignorant people go crazy, especially when egged on by just as ignorant and/or power hungry leaders.

The Salem story began in 1692 when a few girls, who had become friendly with a slave woman named Tituba, began acting very strangely -- hysterical screaming, falling into convulsions, barking like dogs, etc. Soon other girls began acting in a similar manner and they all must have been possessed by demons. Three woman, including Tituba, were promptly accused of witchcraft. The result was much like the European experience, with a chain-reaction of confessions, denouncements, and more arrests.

In an effort to help combat the witch menace, courts relaxed traditional rules of evidence and procedure -- after all, witches are a terrible menace and must be stopped. In place of the normal rules and methods, the courts used what was common among Inquisitors in Europe -- scouring the women's bodies for marks, numb spots, etc. Also accepted were "spectral sources" of evidence -- if someone had a vision of a woman being a witch, that was good enough for the judges.

The people who were mostly killed were not those who submitted quickly and obediently to authorities. Only those who were defiant or hostile were put to death. If you admitted being a witch and repented, you had a very good chance of living. If you denied being a witch and insisted that you had rights which must be acknowledged, you were on a quick path to execution. Your chances were also bad if you were a woman -- especially if you were an older, deviant, troublesome or somehow disorderly woman.

In the end, nineteen people were executed, two died in prison and one man was pressed to death under rocks. This is a better record than what we see in Europe, but that isn't saying very much. The religious and political authorities clearly used the witch trials to impose their own ideas of order and righteousness upon the local populace. As in Europe, violence was a tool used by religion and religious people to enforce uniformity and conformity in the face of dissent and social disorder.

Witches and Scapegoats

Witches and Scapegoats: Persecuting & Prosecuting Witches as a Way of Attacking Social Problems
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Jews and heretics were often treated as scapegoats for other social problems and witches ended up no different. Regions with the most social and political unrest also happened to be those with the greatest problem with witches. Every social, political, and natural problem was blamed on witches. Crop failure? Witches did it. Well gone bad? Witches poisoned it. Political unrest and rebellion? Witches are behind it. Strife in the community? Witches are influencing people.

Lest anyone imagine that the persecution of witches has been relegated to the distant past, it must be noted that witch hunts -- and killings -- continue well into our own "enlightened" times. The church's creation of witchcraft and devil worship has exacted a heavy and bloody toll on humanity which still has not yet been fully paid.

In 1928, a Hungarian family was acquitted of killing an old woman they thought was a witch. In 1976, a poor German woman was suspected of being a witch and keeping familiars, so people in the small town ostracized her, pelted her with stones, and killed her animals. In 1977 in France, a man was killed for suspected sorcery. In 1981, a mob stoned a woman to death in Mexico because they believed that her witchcraft incited an attack on the Pope.

In Africa today, fears of witchcraft cause the persecution and death of people on a regular basis. Parents who fear that their children are possessed or are witches either kill them or turn them out into the streets. Government authorities have tried to put a stop to such nonsense, but they haven't had much luck. Both traditional African religion and Christianity contain enough to feed people's superstitious fears and this leads to others being harmed.

It's not just allegations of witchcraft which causes people to behave like this. Many other things can become the object of hysterical persecutions and prosecutions. Sometimes the alleged threats are genuine and sometimes they are not; in either case, the threats are magnified to such a degree that people no longer feel bound by traditional standards of justice or morality in order to confront their enemies. The consequences are almost always violence and suffering pursued in the name of good and God.

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Persecuting Witches and Witchcraft." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Persecuting Witches and Witchcraft. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Persecuting Witches and Witchcraft." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).