The Devil is in the Details How witches came to be associated with demonic pacts

January 27, 2017

Many are familiar with the stereotypical witches of popular culture. They are ugly hags who fly on broomsticks wearing pointed black hats. They use spells to curse their enemies, conjure spirits, and inflict disease. Where do these witches get their powers? According to movies, books, and cartoons the witch must make a pact with Satan himself in order to gain her powers. Only after signing his black book can she begin her evil practices. However, the idea of signing a contract with Satan was not always associated with witches.

The Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus mistake a man dressed in red long johns and a cape as their master, the devil.

Before witchcraft became a crime punishable by death, magic was a part of a country’s cultural knowledge. Although some magic may be used for harm, not all of it was seen as evil. In fact, the person later described as a witch for using spells and potions, was originally viewed as a healer using herbs and helpful talismans. Only after the introduction of organized Christianity did magic become a crime associated with the devil.

Cunningfolk and Folk Magic

Early practitioners of what would later be called witchcraft were known as cunningfolk. These individuals were people within a community who had special knowledge of herbs and magic. They were seen as highly valued members of society with the ability to heal.

Drawing of a cunning woman named Gertrud Ahlgren of Gotland (1782-1874)

Cunningfolk and other early witches used several types of folk magic. Four examples of folk magic include healing, divination, destroying magic, and countermagic. First, healing magic could be used to relieve pain and sickness. Second, divination was the practice of seeing into the future or finding lost items. This could be done in several ways. For example, a witch may crack a raw egg into water, put a candle behind it, and use it as a crystal ball. Next, destroying magic could be used to inflict harm on others. This could be accomplished through the use of poppets, more familiar to many as voodoo dolls. Last, countermagic could be used to reverse a spell back onto the witch who cast it. In order to accomplish this, the hair, blood, or urine of the victim had to be burned.

Example of a human figure with needles through it, used to injure the person it represents.

Folk magic differed depending on the country. For instance, Scandinavians believed in the existence of luck and love magic, shapeshifting, and flygjurs. Flygjurs were a form of guardian spirit which took the shape of an animal. Whichever animal shape it took was seen as a reflection of the owner. Although forms of folk magic varied across geographic region, and some forms of magic may be more harmful than others, it was not viewed in the same negative light as later descriptions of witchcraft. Instead, folk magic was a form of cultural knowledge which could serve as a benefit to others.

Christianity and Witchcraft

As organized Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, began to influence different countries, the outlook on magic changed. At first, magic and religion coincided and were not seen as inconsistent with each other. Witchcraft was mainly viewed as a crime associated with pagans who the church wished to punish. In the 12th century, however, the official church stance shifted from witchcraft being associated with paganism to a demonic crime associated with heresy. Finally, starting around 1350, the church declared all magic as evil and derived from the devil, listing witchcraft as both a criminal and heretical offense.

As the church’s opinion transformed, so did the characteristics associated with witchcraft. Whereas early accusations may have only included making someone sick or harming crops, later trials added on charges of meeting with the devil, flying to his Sabbath, and having intercourse with him. For example, Niclas Fiedler’s confession in 1591 included details such as being approached by a “black man” who commanded him “that he should swear adherents to him (the devil) and help with murders as well as to renounce Christ crucified” (Levack, 176). Another accused witch, Isabel Bequet, confessed to flying to the devil’s Sabbath, making a “special compact to be faithful to him,” and that she “danced with him back to back” (Levack, 189). Claims of ritual pacts with the devil became more and more common as witch trials progressed. Several other confessions included further descriptions of dancing with Satan, signing his book, and kissing him on the buttocks.

Witches gather to take turns kissing Satan on the buttocks.

Magic began to be punished by death only after the introduction of Christianity and the organized church. Originally, cunningfolk and witches were appreciated for their ability to heal and see into the future. Even when the magic went wrong, the witch would more likely be exiled rather than killed. Under the rule of the Christian church, witchcraft became a heinous offense, no matter whether it was being used for good or evil. Common cultural practices became associated with the devil, and soon the once-known healers were transformed into Satan’s accomplices, doomed to burn for their crimes.

Information taken from lectures by Wendy Lucas.

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