Ever wonder whether witches are real or simply fictional characters representing the shadow side of our psyche? I believe the answer is – both.
First, a little history.
The earliest mention of witches dates back to 560 BC – The Bible, Exodus – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The word witch in Exodus is a translation of the Hebrew word kashaph which comes from the root meaning to whisper. So, in Exodus it most likely meant one who whispers a spell – meant for the people of the time to adhere to their own religion and not be swayed by the teachings of others.
Saint Augustine argued in the early 400s AD that god alone could suspend the normal laws of the universe. He felt it was the error of Pagans to believe in some other divine power than the one god. The church accepted his view and decided not to investigate witches.
Pope Innocent III in 1208 attempted to discredit the Cathars – they believed both god and satan had supernatural powers – the fight between good and evil begins. The Church attempted to paint the Cathars as devil worshippers.
Thomas Aquinas in 1273 argued the world was full of evil and dangerous demons. He felt these demons, among other things, would take the sperm of men and spread it among women. He felt sex and witchcraft were associated – demons sought their own pleasure and also lead men into temptation. Did you ever notice the demons most always are leading men to temptation? And, the demons most always are women?
In the mid 1400s torture inflicted on heretics suspected of magical pacts or demon-driven sexual misconduct lead to alarming confessions. This is when the crime of witchcraft began to take shape.
Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 announced the satanists in Germany were meeting with demons, casting spells that destroyed crops and aborted infants. He ordered a report be prepared of these activities. This resulted in the publication of Hammer of Witches which put to rest the old held belief that witches were powerless and replaced it with the new orthodoxy that held Christians had an obligation to hunt down and kill witches. The Hammer of Witches told stories of women who would have sex with any convenient demon, kill babies and even steal penises. Over the next 40 years the Hammer of Witches was reprinted 13 times and helped to define the crime of witchcraft.
In the mid 1500s mass executions began to appear. In 1515 authorities in Switzerland burned 500 women at the stake. Nine years later in Como, Italy 1,000 were executed. Witch hysteria swept Europe. Most protections under the law were eliminated for those accused of witchcraft. Between the years of 1500 and 1660, as many as 80,000 suspected witches were executed – 80% of whom were women. Germany takes the prize with as many as 26,000 executions during this time.
King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England) in 1591 authorized the torture of suspected witches. The genesis of this move was rough seas which he and his new wife experienced on their honeymoon and which the ship’s captain blamed on witches. He launched one of the greatest witch hunts in history.
The largest witch hunt in French history occurred in 1643 – 1645. However by the end of the1640s the number of trials began to drop. Holland by 1648 was a tolerant society that had done away with the punishment of witches.
In 1682 England executed its last witch. Across the Atlantic the outbreak of hysteria began in Salem in 1692. The Enlightenment in the late 1680s contributed to the end of witch hunts throughout Europe. It was also taught that the use of torture to force confessions was inhumane and lead to suspect information being gathered.
What is witchcraft anyway?
Witchcraft is the use of magical faculties. This can take many forms depending on the cultural context. The belief in and the practice of magic has been present since the earliest human cultures and continues to have an important religious and medicinal role in many cultures today.
The concept of witchcraft as harmful is often treated as a cultural ideology providing a scapegoat for human misfortune and conduct. As can be seen from the timeline above witchcraft came to be seen as part of a vast diabolical conspiracy of individuals in league with the devil, undermining Christianity.
As an aside, I wonder if anyone has prepared a comprehensive list of all the people the Catholic church has killed in the name of god in an effort to assure its position of power?
Today witchcraft has become a branch of modern paganism, practiced by those following the Wiccan tradition. Most view this as a spiritual path grounded in love and in living close to natural laws.
In fiction stories witches often represent the dark side of human nature. They can take many forms. Darth Vader in Star Wars – the dark side of the force. Agent Smith in The Matrix.
The Buddha taught we are born total and complete, lacking nothing. The light and the dark – all right in here. Which do I choose to express?
The above historical timeline clearly shows the mass projection of the dark out onto others in the societies of the times. Isn’t it amazing the extent to which the people of these times needed a scapegoat so as not to own their own dark side. And, the church was the leader of the pack – all in the name of god. How very sad.
“Whatever we reject in ourselves, we project onto others. Whatever we disown, owns us. Whatever we resist, persists. By making conscious what has been unconscious, we trans-form; we go beyond our current configuration, into a higher, more unified level of consciousness.”– Stephanie Austin, Mountain Astrologer, Oct/Nov 2013
A Brief History of Witchcraft Persecution before Salem by Douglas Linder (2005) http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/witchhistory.html