January 13th, 2017
This blog is going to be dedicated to preserving some of the notes and thoughts I have while going through a course on the history of Witchcraft. I will endeavor to keep it up weekly as new information is presented.
What am I looking at here...
What comes to mind when the word 'witch' is dropped into conversation? Is it a practice? Is it hereditary? Are there pacts made in circles of blood or stone, at crossroads, do you have to kiss a demon? How did the phenomena of witchcraft even start? And is a witch held to a universal truth? Or are there more broad definitions of what is or isn't a witch?
I hope to not only understand where the concepts that surround the witch came from, but also display some comparisons and contrasts of witches from different countries.
The origins of this work are unknown but Cabalists were using it in the 2nd century CE to ward off Evil Spirits. In the Middle Ages, many people believed that wearing parchment amulets with the word abracadabra written in the form of an upside-down pyramid would cure fevers, toothache, warts, and a variety of other aliments. It would also protect the wearer from bad luck.
An amulet attached to linen thread was worn around the neck for 9 days and then discarded by throwing it backwards over your left shoulder before sunrise into a stream that flows from west to east. The reason for this was that the left side was believed to be related to the Devil. Tossing it into the river that flowed in the direction of the rising sun symbolically banished the evil and replaced it with the good created by the rising sun that banishes darkness. Even saying the word believed to summon powerful supernatural forces.
MY HISTORY TEACHER TOLD ME ALL OF THAT...AND I'M WILLING TO BELIEVE HER.
You too can have your own fancy-snacy Abracadabra art! Thanks, Opus Magnus!
So...what do you think of witchcraft?
Are you ready to entertain a few new ideas with me?...
...but first! Wolfshäger Hexenbrut Walpurgis Wolfshagen im Harz!
January 20th, 2017
Alright, let's get one thing straight...
You guys ever watch movies about witches? I mean, it's hard not to. It seems like the world just cycles through its love/hate affair with witchcraft. Witches in narrative have been everything from bumbling oafs, to consumate bad guys, to good vs bad, and now witches can be just about anything at all.....but there's one thing that I really just...I need to clear this up.
There's this movie... I've watched it so many times, I know it by heart. It's from the 1960's, yeah? Now, I know it as Horror Hotel, but IMDB calls it The City of the Dead.
Pretty scary stuff, right? All reverence to the departed, Sir Christopher Lee has a small part to play in it... as a witch. He's a bit more modern, but we're introduced to him as a professor, giving a lecture about witchcraft.
It's shockingly intense...and sometimes I wonder how it got past my parents. They were very strict about movies. The premise of the show is pretty straight-forward. There was this witch, yeah? She was being executed and...it didn't take.
On 3 March 1692, in Whitewood, Massachusetts, the witch Elizabeth Selwyn is sentenced to be burned at the stake, and her partner Jethrow Keane asks Lucifer to save her.
The traditional mayhem ensures. Christopher Lee lures curious outsiders to the town... And evidently the witches gather there to make sacrifices on the Witch's Sabbath...Don't worry. There's a guy there with a cross at the end to save the day.
I've had quite a few problems with this movie, but it's still a favorite. But there's something that I gotta clear up.
This movie's setting is Whitewood, Massachusetts. That's where Elizabeth Selwyn was burned for being a witch.... unfortunately, it's horribly inaccurate. Historically speaking, witches were not burned in England or the Colonies.
Excluding torture, burning "witches" was the common punishment in all other parts of Europe, but not the American colonies.
It's important to remember that narrative, no matter how captivating is, not fact.... Even when based around, on, or steeped in 'true stories', the purpose of narrative is to entertain.
January 27th, 2017
Time & Place
So, let’s say you’ve tripped the light fantastic with a bizarre doctor in a phone booth or delorian or whatever.
Perhaps there are angels involved (weeping or the ones from Supernatural, it makes no difference as both can be rank weather-bitten varlots).
For a modern person, this… can be very trying, I imagine. There’s no running water or refrigeration, or electricity, people don’t bath regularly and there’s no wifi. Still, you don’t have to worry about the current political climate, so I guess that’s a small consolation.
Either way, you’ve been transplanted in the way-back, and you’re not ok. Chances are you might not be well received by any locals since...well...you don’t talk right or look right and who actually knows where you came from?
...but depending on the time period, you might be kiiiind of ok.
If you arrived at any point pre-12th century… Technically Germany’s about to get that Holy Roman Empire (that is neither holy, roman, nor an empire) started, but things aren’t terribly bad in Spain or France, and Britain’s seeing a whole new Scotland as we start into the high Middle Ages.
There’s still a lot to be depressed about, but if you’ve landed before the 12th century gets going… chances are you won’t have to worry too much about being accused of being a witch.
See, the concept of witches and witchcraft changed over time, with three identifiable periods.
In the first period (the point where the church is a budding power but still doesn’t have enough sway to make the rules yet), we have our regular Cunning Folk. These are your hedge witches and such that help the villages with a mixture of herbs, charms and chants.
What’s the typical skill sets listed on an average resume for the Cunning Folk? So glad you asked!
- You’ve got your Divination to find things or see the future.
- There’s also healing, which is a combination of spells and charms. Like, “drink this tea while you wear this bone charm” sort of thing.
- There’s also Destroying magic, which is a lot like voodoo dolls, but...this isn’t voodoo, so they call these effigies Poppets.
Here’s another thing!
There was this practice commonly known as counter magic, and it was typically used to reverse spells. So if you thought maybe the cunning folk were being a touch too cunning, and maybe they’d placed some nasty juju on you, you could burn your hair or blood or urine to reverse the spell! Then, if your local cunning person had a burn mark on them, you knew that they had tried to harm you and you had succeeded!
...unfortunately, most cunning folk were women, and most women worked around open fireplaces… but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
Now, Cunning folk were all the rage pre-12th Century. THey were revered by their towns...unless of course they were using bad magic. But during this Conversion Phase (300-1100 CE), the church is only just getting rooted in separate countries, and they tend to use ‘witch’ and ‘magic’ as a label to condemn any form of paganism.
Still, most people don’t see the difference in the trappings of Christianity and the relics of paganism.
After all, the priest burns incense and recites a liturgy, so how is that different tan me sitting in my home, burning herbs and reciting spells?
Once we get into the 12th century, things start to get a touch heated (pun intended).
At this point magic begins to take on a different view. Instead of being this ambient thing that is very similar to the practices of the church, magic is divided into High and Low magic, or Black and White magic.
High/White magic is normally the field of educated men practicing structured rituals that are positive, very exclusive, with links to astrology, alchemy and science!
Meanwhile, Low/Black magic is performed largely by uneducated women, and while it is easy to practice it is seen as harmful.
Of course, this is the phase when the church begins to view magic changes from demonic paganism to demonic and heretical.
With all these men looking into Jewish texts and educating themselves in this ‘high magic’, it’s not much of a wonder that the Crusades kick off against the spread of false eucharistic practices. That’s right! Let’s spread the message of our Lord and Savior!...with a sword!
Now...we’ve entered the next phase… The Late Middles Ages, which starts roughly around 1350 CE.
...I’m sorry to say (though I’m sure it’s no surprise)...it’s bad. Like, unless you’re in Scandinavia (and if you are, I’m sorry about the cold and how tough you’re going to have to become to deal with that), it’s just awful.
At this point Magic = Bad. There is no middle ground.
Witchcraft has transformed into the image of an organized demonic cult...and if it is organized then it has a chance to draw more people in...and thus it becomes antithetical.
Heretical, demonic, and now entering a cult to form a pact with Satan, this is a large group actively working against the church...and they can be anyone. And the church is plenty threatened.
The German inquisition is serious. It takes nearly nothing to be accused of witchery in Germany, and torture..I mean, confession is good for the soul.
It boils down to the Holy Roman Empire (not holy, roman, or an empire) of loose city-states with full judicial autonomy. Each court had a lot of individual power of the isolated locations.
The German Inquisition also had their handy-dandy guide, the Malleus Maleficarum (translating to the Hammer of Witches), which instructed them in all the ways you could find, torture, and kill witches.
A typical day for one suspected of witchcraft was to be taken to a Hexenturm, or witches tower. After stripping you naked, you would be shown all the torture equipment that would eventually be used to gain a confession...
The first rule of Torture in Germany, is that there are no rules for Torture in Germany...
Starting in the 16th century, it was accepted that a condemned witch could not be convicted without a confession of guilt. They also believed that unless a confession was made under torture it was not legitimate.
Now, officially, the rule was that the suspect was only to be tortured three times... unless new proof of guilt could be found. So, if you were tortured and your story changed even a little between sessions 1, 2, and 3... then that meant the sessions could restart again, because you were obviously being misleading or hiding something.
And, we have our winner. The best place to be a witch in medieval Europe....is Italy.
Italy had its own Inquisition and its own guidebook for how to handle witchcraft. There are procedures to go through, and it's important to be logical and thorough.
Italy employs a governing body called the Holy Office, which works much like the Supreme Court does in the United States. It was originally organized to...
- investigate and root out protestants
- find those who distributed banned books
- investigate people who supported divroce
- find and punish people who were ignoring religious fasts
- and deal with heretics.
Most of those charged with magic are being charged with love magic, divination, and/or malifecio.
Most of the witchcraft trials are from 1550-1650, which coincides with that huge ‘burning times’ window in Europe. Very few of them result in any guilty verdicts. In fact, in 100 trials in which Malificio was the verdict, the inquisition did not convict a single defendant of the crime. In some of those case the holy office would intervene, and punish them with something else. And that something else is what got them punished.
Big question when you look at Italy….. why? What is different that causes all these different outcomes from the norm?
The different between the Venetian Inquisition and the German Inquisition is like the difference between chicken Alfredo and chewing aluminum. You can quote me on that.
The Venetian Inquisition was generally cautions and methodical, and their jurisdiction was strictly in the realm of heresy.
But most of the local tribunals where the cases initially started weren’t sure what to do with witchcraft. Particularly in Venice itself. So they are very cautions as to how to proceed with those trials.
Enter, Nicolau Eymeric...
The guide book that the Italian courts relied on was the Directorium Inquisitorum by Nicolau Eymeric. This was their manual when dealing with witchcraft.
Originally printed in the 14th century but represented in the 16th, this book very explicitly says that the only way you can say that someone is guilty of ‘heretical maleficio’ (his words) is that it had to include both worship of the devil and abuse of sacraments. He basically says you’re on shaky ground if you cannot clearly prove both of these things.
There's also the term stregheria. Stregheria is, essentially, supernatural illness differentiated from natural illness by the opinions of credible doctors..... Now, how many doctors do you think are going to stand in front of a court and support a supernatural illness that they cannot treat? That's right...not a lot.
There's even a case of a doctor being asked by a local tribunal whether or not an illness is supernatural or natural... and this doctor essentially says,
"I cannot say one way or the other if it natural or supernatural, after all the devil can deceive doctors."
Also! There was a group of 'exorcists' that tried to step into the market of treating stregheria, and the court basically told them, "Well, you're not doctors so we're not taking your word for anything."
There were things that you would look for in an Italian witch's home, and those things were.
- knotted cords
- sketches made of wax
- powders or potions
...and the chances that these things would be in the average person's house is pretty high. But that means you would turn back to your reference book, and oh look at that. It says 'don't jump to conclusions, there are many logical reasons why anyone would have these things!'. It even goes so far as to say,
"Where there are women, needles abound. You should not be surprised if over time, a great number can accumulate in furniture."
The Sicilian Fairies Cult
So, it's important to understand that Sicily was separated from Italy. That didn't stop the Holy Office from having opinions about it, but stick with me here the story gets better.
In Sicily, fairies and witches are the same thing. It’s very common for poor women to say that they had taken part in Fairy festivities. These are the Sicilian equivalent of Cunning Folk; the wise women and healers were said to learn their healing magic from the fairies. They were called donna di fuora, the lady from outside.
1579 -1671 : The holy office reported 65 people accused of witchcraft. 8 of them were men. All of the interrogation records are hilarious to read.
When the Holy Office arrives, they’re there for a while and there’s a bunch of accusations of witchcraft. When they bring these women in, the women are very confused because they’re like, "What...what have we done wrong? What are you accusing us of?" and the Holy Office explains what the women are being accused of... and the women respond with, “Oh yeah, we did this with the fairies.”
Under the Cult of Fairy ideology dominant at the time, there is no maleficio. All Fairy rituals were done for healing or good. However if something mischievous did happen, if a ritual went wrong, you could just do a ritual to fix it.
In fact, what the women keep saying to the Holy Office is that they’re fulfilling a very important job working as an intermediary between nature and humans.
And the holy office says. "...… ok, we don’t know what to do." And they go away!
They had a clear failure to communicate, and then threw up their hands like ‘never mind’ and left.
Clearly, this shows that even with the failure to communicate, and even with norms varying drastically from that of mainland Italy, the Holy Office understood the difference in culture and probably thought it would be more trouble than it was worth to do anything just to prove a point.
And there we have it, Italy wins!
I leave you with the Auto-da-fé number from the Candide musical (which is absolutely nothing like the actual, oh, you know what, never mind).
February 24, 2017
Let’s move this towards the colonies, shall we?
Firstly… I want to lead with this. I’m being completely transparent, ok? Here it comes.
THERE WERE NO EXECUTIONS FOR WITCRAFT IN VIRGINIA
That’s right. None.
There were fines. There were banishment… but no one was killed.
Ok, so here’s the situation.
As it stands in ye old 1600’s Virginia, things are not good.