This blog will be a fairly straightforward presentation of facts and myths regarding witchcraft in the Western World. But first I feel an introduction of the author, myself, is in order. I'm a Creative Writing major at UCA with a minor in Religious Studies. I am currently enrolled in a course covering the history of witchcraft. As such, I shall be drawing my information both from lectures I attend and from readings I do on my own.
In modern times, "witchcraft" is a term that has been reclaimed by the neopagan community. However, despite the claims of Margaret Murray, research has thoroughly debunked the idea of a pan-European witch cult devoted to a single goddess. Ironically, the source of Murray's claims about a universal witch cult were the confessions of "witches" tortured by the church. That is not to say that witches of pre-Christian times were perceived as evil. Indeed, the church itself took a long path to declaring witchcraft a heresy. No, witches were originally viewed as wise people (the root of "witch", wicce, means wise) whose help was sought in times of peril. In a society lacking modern medicine or basic science, even the knowledge of herbs was enough to convince the common folk of magical powers.
In contrast to the modern witch, ancient witches most likely practiced alone. Theirs was not a religion, but a craft which they plied to earn their keep in the community. Although the church would, for a period of time, accuse them of being mere charlatans, that seems unlikely. After all, a doctor with a fifty-fifty chance of saving you or killing you wouldn't be kept around for long. Admittedly, they claimed magic powers in the form of spells and talismans, but the true power lay in the herbal remedies they prescribed alongside the "magic".
The key thing to remember is the lack of scientific thought. Without an understanding of science, magic was the only explanation people had for illness and misfortune. Therefore magic, and its practitioners, were both feared and respected for their power.
Witchcraft in the Scandinavian Countries
Magic in the Scandinavian countries was called Trolldomr, and both men and women were equally able to work Trolldomr. Perhaps most interestingly, it was able to be used for both good and bad. At the core of this magic system was the spoken word. There was no undoing the magic once the words have been spoken. Because of this focus on speaking, men tended to be accused more than women because they did more public speaking. In a reverse of the typical gender roles, women were accused during large panics. Compounding the regular crime of practicing Trolldomr was the fact that they were doing it in secret. Somehow this made it doubly wrong in the eyes of the community.
Common uses of Trolldomr
Luck! Good and bad, Trolldomr was blamed or praised for happenstance. Love, the arousal and stifling of it. Divination, which would be normal for magic, but for it to be acceptable it had to be done via a dead spirit. They also held to a belief in Fylgjur, guardian spirits connected to individuals or families that take the shape of an animal; the animal form of the Fylgjur reflected the inner qualities of the “owner”. Bears represented strength, an eagle was indicative of social position, and the wolf meant the “owner” was possessed of an evil mind. If you had a vision that your Fylgjur died, you were soon to follow. Lastly, they believed in the ability to shapeshift, using Trolldomr to separate their soul from their body and take the shape of an animal. This was especially dangerous because it left the body vulnerable while the soul was absent. They also believed the dead could shapeshift from the grave.
Penalty for Trolldomr (pre-Christian)
If a practitioner of Trolldomr was accused of using it for a particularly egregious crime, they were brought before a council of men called the Ping. This council facilitated negotiations, conducted criminal courts, and generally handled the duties of a modern court/town hall. The only person who could speak at the Ping was the male head of the household. The leader of the Ping was called the Gothi, and it was a hereditary position passed from father to son. Typical punishments by the Ping were exilement or fines, but once acquitted, you could never be retried. There were more painful punishments if the Ping allowed the family of the victim to choose the punishment. In that case, the accused were often stoned or drowned.
Denmark was the first Scandinavian country to have a witch trial in the 1540’s. The Lutheran Bishop Peter Palladius started the witch hunt, and threw Catholics into the witchcraft category. The government of Denmark declared in 1547 that the testimony of someone convicted of sorcery couldn’t be used to convict another. Torture couldn’t be used until they were sentenced to death, an unusual provision. There was also a royal decree that defined witchcraft as a diabolical pact and that if convicted of witchcraft you would be burned. However, this decree also said that cunning folk would be fined and exiled. Roughly two thousand witchcraft trials were, and about half of them ended in executions.
Fourteen thousand people were accused, but only about a ¼ were killed. This appears to be a smaller witch hunt than Denmark’s, but it works out similarly in terms of population percentage. The Norwegian government required two witnesses who actually saw the magic to convict you. The law said you couldn’t use torture until after the sentence, but in practice that wasn’t followed. Norway was home to many flying witches, which made sense as they were said to gether in the far north. This would have been a rather difficult trek to make on foot. Suprisingly, several Lutheran Clergy members were accused of witchcraft. This was largely because the communities resented the clergymen, but the church quickly made a provision that the clergy couldn’t be accused of witchcraft. Nonetheless, Anna Absalon was accused of witchcraft by the community because they couldn’t accuse her husband (a clergyman) directly. She was accused once before, but the second time she was sentenced and executed.
The first accusations of and persecution for witchcraft came in the 1580’s. There were five hundred accused and three hundred executed. Again, this seems small, but for Sweden’s estimated population at that time it was rather significant. The first official witch law was created in 1593. This required six witnesses or a confession for a capital conviction, but torture was allowed with no limitations. Any maleficium that killed a person or cow was considered a capital offense, anything else resulted in a fine. Sweden had a massive witch panic from 1668-1676, during which they killed two hundred overall and one hundred in the year 1675 alone. This was fueled by the accusations of children and teens claiming that they were taken to a witches’ sabbat against their will by parents, neighbors, and older siblings.
Finland was the last Scandinavian country to suffer from witchcraft persecution. It started in the year 1640 when Isaac Rothovius became bishop and aimed to exterminate sorcerers. From 1640 to 1649, seven hundred and ten people were accused, mostly men, and of the hundred and fifty casualties the majority were men. Only lethal maleficium was a capital offense, otherwise they were sentenced to fines and/or flogging, perhaps with church penance for good measure. 1675-1676 was the peak of the witch panic, and the “devil’s mark” was found on many offenders. The two main cities were Ostrobothnia (1665-1684) and Ahvenanmaa, with only one execution was performed outside of those cities.
Witchcraft in Russia
Vedun (warlock) and Ved’ma (witch) were the words used for magic practitioners in Russia. Koldovstvo (or chardeistvo) was the word for witchcraft. Spell casting, fortune telling, and weather manipulation were all considered magic, but the definition of a witch was someone who could mysteriously harm another person. The word for bad magic in Russia was porcha, not maleficium. The first accusation of porcha was in the town of Suzdal in 1024, where several elderly folk were blamed for food shortage and executed. Early on they followed the model of burning the witches. Throwing bound witches into the river was a standard test of witchcraft, used regularly. In 1227 in Novgorod four Veduni were burned for practicing sorcery. In the city of Pskov in 1411, twelve women were accused and killed, but what they were specifically accused of is unclear. Legally, witchcraft was under the jurisdiction of the church. The code that ruled was called Nomokanon; this was the source of the death sentence for witchcraft. Nomokanon was was in place until the early 13th century when it was changed by Iaroslav the Wise to a fine of six grivna instead of death. For perspective, the fine for sibling incest was forty grivna, while a wife beating her husband was five grivna.
There were three ways the court could initiate a trial. First, if they apprehended you in the act. Second, if there was an inquest, where you were reported by another. Or third if you were implicated by someone else under torture, called ogovor. Although the church started the process, the military governor, or voevoda, would handle the case after the church handled the initial questioning. The voevoda’s primary concern was whether it was a single witch, or a conspiracy of witches. To obtain this information the Russians relied on a method of torture known as knouting, a form of lashing where you were beaten to within an inch of your life. If that didn’t produce the desired information, they would move on to tougher methods like the rack, the strappado, hot pincers, the burning wedge, and the water torture, which was a small, but constant, stream of water on your head.
Both sides were allowed to bring in witnesses. The witnesses, both for and against, often talked about paraphernalia, such as herbs and written spells. This was interesting because in some cases good magic would go unpunished. Porcha fell into six categories of malevolent magic. The first, and largest was the taking of a life. The second was maiming, the third was causing illness, most often through putting grave dirt in the victim’s drink. Number four, depriving people of reason, or inducing insanity into individuals. The fifth was impotence, performed by urinating on a stick and hiding it under the couple’s staircase. The sixth was crop failure, a near death sentence for a community.
Witchcraft in the 16th Century
Ivan IV became Tsar of Russia in 1547. In the same year there was a highly damaging fire in Moscow. An advisor in Ivan’s court started a rumour that Ivan’s grandmother and his aunts and uncles started the fire and were the source of the unrest. This led to a mob going and killing many them. The Moscovite church became increasingly worried about witchcraft, and to help out Ivan issues an act (ukaz) in 1552 that said astrologers, sorcerers, etc. would be tried under ecclesiastical and civic law. During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613) there was political unrest and competition for who would be the tsar. Boris Godunov accused and exiled the entire Romanov family for supposedly using witchcraft. He also instituted an expanded oath of allegiance that included a promise not to use magic against the royal family.
Witchcraft in the 17th Century
The majority of the trials in Russia were from 1622-1700. The majority were men, and no children were accused or used as witnesses. Of the ninety-nine accused, ten were burned at the stake, five were exiled, and three died under torture. Over half of the accused were peasants, but the majority were seemingly random. Historians remain unable to pin down what exactly tied the accused together. In 1625 Michael Romanov’s first wife was killed, supposedly, by witchcraft. As a result, he banned merchants in the town of Pskov from buying hops from Lithuania as they were “contaminated with witchcraft.” Michael was convinced of magic being a widespread problem in his court. He held three investigations within his own court. The first resulted in three people being exiled. The second investigation resulted in several families being exiled to Siberia. In 1642, a man already imprisoned for sorcery claimed he would kill Romanov’s wife from prison, so he had him killed. Just in case. In 1653 Tsar Alexei passed a law against using roots in potions, fortune telling manuals, divining dice, and written spells. If found using any of these, they would burn your items, your house, and you too clean up the mess. In 1682, Moscow University implemented a law that any of its students or teachers found practicing witchcraft would be burned.
Witchcraft in the 18th Century
Peter I forbade magic and any occult practices under penalty of death through the Military Statute of 1716. Conversely, Catherine II thought that witchcraft punishments were too severe because she believed them to be fraud. As such, she orders the courts to handle witchcraft to as a case of fraud. In 1775 she revamped the court system into “courts of conscience” or sovestnye sudy who handled specific things. Witchcraft, under the title “popular superstition”, fell into the same category as juvenile delinquents and the criminally insane.
Why were Russian Cases Unique?
Only one case (that we know of) refers to dealing with the devil. Only one case talks about a woman stealing a child, and that same case is the only one that mentions a familiar. Like Scandinavia, we see more men than women accused. Also, no children were accused nor accused anyone. Finally, we can find no pattern for the accused or the accusers. Unlike Western Europe, we don’t see the witchcraft crazes. The closest is during times of economic stress where several people at a time may be accused, or when the Tsar initiated investigations himself.
Why “Witch Scare”, as Opposed to “Witch Craze”?
Slavic paganism venerates nature, elements, and phenomena. So magic was intellectually perceived from a pantheistic concept of the universe as opposed to a demonological perspective. As such, it was not diabolical heresy and the absence of the devil from the imagery meant the church was less concerned with it. Historians also believe that paganism and Christianity existed alongside each other for years (a system known to the Russians as dvoeverie).
Witchcraft in the British Isles
Witchcraft trials were generally more mild and restrained within the context of the British Isles. In England the height of the trials was in 1640, while Scotland had two panics. The total number trials was roughly five thousand across the British Isles. Historians differ about the number of executions, but it’s estimated to be roughly two thousand people. Why were the witch hunts more mild in the British Isles? It was largely due to a late and incomplete concept of witchcraft. Lingering pockets of folk magic were strong enough to keep panic from spreading throughout the populace when magic was mentioned. There was also an absence of papal inquisitors, which in turn lead to a lack of fear of heresy. They also had a different concept of the witches’ Sabbat, specifically that all they did at the Sabbat was dine with the devil, a definition which lacked infanticide, flying, and orgies. Torture was used sparingly in the witchcraft trials because the law required approval from the Privy Council and a fear of treasonous actions. Nonetheless, “minor” forms of torture such as sleep deprivation and constant interrogation were free game. Finally, it was a trial by jury, requiring a unanimous vote by your peers in England and a majority vote in Scotland.
The first true witchcraft statute was passed in 1542, and it only established that witchcraft was a crime, lacking even a definition of what was witchcraft. In 1563 a second statute was passed with the penalty of a year in prison and four appearances at the pillory (also known as the stocks) if you used it to harm a person or their possessions for a first offence, although the second offence was death. The same punishment applied to witchcraft used in treasure hunting, although the second offence merely resulted in life in prison. The statute passed in 1604 amends the second statute so that the first offence of injurious magic is death and that it was now a crime to remove bodies from graves. It also allowed them to prosecute witches for the intent to harm, even if the grievous spell failed.
The standard requirement for evidence was two eye-witnesses, but it became clear early on that this was unachievable. Instead, they relied on the character witnesses of neighbors and associates. Children and spouses were allowed to give testimony because it was thought that perhaps they had seen something that the general public wouldn’t notice. Sometimes these cases were dismissed immediately by magistrates, but the following things were likely to start the court process: cursing (followed by injury to the cursed), malice towards a person or object followed by damage unto them, long standing reputation as a witch, relation by blood to a proven witch, successful countermagic (with the witch being prosecuted, not the countermagician), a confession (pre-trial), or showing too much interest in a sick neighbor. The list of things that allowed conviction by trial: accusation by another witch, an unnatural mark on the body (such as the devil’s mark or witch’s teat), two witnesses who saw the accused make a pact with the devil or entertain familiars (animals of some kind, often unnatural in appearance), the discovery of poppets in the witch’s house, the bleeding of a corpse when touched by a witch, a gift from the witch followed by the injury of the recipient, and finally, of course, confession. England never burned witches, only hung them. Matthew Hopkins was the “Witch Finder General” and wrote several books on the subject of witch hunting.
Herne the Hunter, ghostly Lord of Windsor Forest
In Scotland, they did burn witches, as opposed to the practice of hanging used by their southern neighbors. The first witchcraft law was passed in 1563 by Mary Queen of Scots. She imported a more continental view of witchcraft, ergo her witchcraft act declares witchcraft to be heresy, hence the punishment of burning. King James VI was responsible for the first major witchcraft scare in Scotland. In 1589 he went to Copenhagen to retrieve his wife, Princess Anne of Denmark. At first everything was smooth sailing on the return trip, but horrible storms forced them into port in Norway. During this stay, a Danish Admiral informed James that these storms were the doing of an aristocratic witch that he had insulted during his stay in Copenhagen. This gave James a courtly focused paranoia of witchcraft. It actually sparked a synchronized panic in both Denmark and Scotland. In Scotland one hundred people were arrested and torture was authorized by the king because he viewed witchcraft as a threat to his throne. They confessed to routine things such as giving the devil the obscene kiss, but they also confessed to being ordered by the devil to poison James and his family. In his later life James wrote a book called Daemonology which was used as a handbook by later witch hunters, a significantly less famous book than his edition of the Bible. Generally, witch trials in Scotland were more intense, with three-to-one ratio of executions when compared to England. There were roughly two thousand trials in Scotland, with the majority happening from 1620-1680. Commissions were given to local magistrates to try witches without supervision. Much like Germany, this allowed too much local control leading to a higher conviction rate. Scottish clergy also played a more active role in the lives of people in Scotland than did their counterparts in England. They frequently partook in the interrogations and urged local magistrates to prosecute suspected witches.
The Morrigan, Lady of Death
There was only one witchcraft statute passed in Ireland. It was established in 1586, but all it proclaimed was that witchcraft was a crime without providing an explanation for what constituted witchcraft. There were very few cases in ireland, for two reasons. First, conflict between English rule of law and Gaelic culture resulted in an irish resistance to bringing their fellow people before the English courts. The second reason was the strong Irish fairy culture. If something minor went wrong, it was blamed on fairies. Primarily viewed as mischief magic, and like the Sicilians, they viewed it as non-malicious and easily reversed.
Cernnunos, Lord of the Wild
Who were the Puritans?
They started in England as a breakaway sect of the Church of England whose goal was to purify the church. They wanted to strip away the rituals and elaborateness and replace it with three hour long sermons. They wanted people to practice what they preach all the time, meaning theatre, drinking, and dancing were all bad. Unlike the Pilgrims, the Puritans as a whole did not desire to separate from the Anglican Church. They simply sought to reform it. While the Pilgrims original settlement consisted of forty families, the Puritan settlements in the Boston area consisted of two hundred families.
The Puritans were constantly readying themselves for salvation because they believed in predestination******. Whenever they began to feel secure in their salvation, they believed that was a sign they were becoming too arrogant and confident and a sure sign that they were not saved. Unlike Calvin, they did not embrace the idea that wealth was an indicator of salvation. One of their more interesting beliefs was that all souls were female, meaning there exists a large amount of literature that is basically Jesus porn. Back to theology, they believed in providentialism. In short, all things are God’s will. As such, they believed strongly that good events were direct rewards from God, and bad events were punishments. In the event of “God’s punishment” the immediate reaction of a Puritan was to fast and pray for forgiveness. Finally, they held to the principle of moral stewardship, meaning they had a moral obligation to ensure that their neighbor didn’t sin. In other words, they were guilty of the sin the neighbor committed if they didn’t prevent it.
Goal: to Create a “City Upon a Hill”
This phrase comes from John Winthrop. It means that they wanted to establish a perfect religious community to shine a light into the world. Besides the obvious pressure of this, they had to bring sinners along too to fill out their ranks. There were three institutions that they believed could be used to establish this “City”. The first is the family, or “little commonwealth” as they called it, was the foundation. If children were raised properly, there would be no need to establish a police force or teach respect for the governor because these ideals would be instilled by the parents. A further source of discipline and training were apprenticeships. A festering problem was that “children” became disgruntled as their parents hung onto controlling them… into their thirties.
The second pillar of the community was the church. Attendance in church was required on threat of a fine. Each service was three hours long and happened twice a week. Everyone paid a “tax” which constituted the minister’s salary. There were two levels of church membership. Full members had a vote in church actions; membership was attained by sharing your conversion story in front of the church and the current members voting on your acceptance into the church. Women formed a significant majority of the “full” members as it was the only way for them to hold any political power. The rest were simply churchgoers, with no say in what went on in the church. The final pillar was government, a democratic body formed by free, white, adult males. They would elect people into (and out of) offices.
The Role of Women in 17th Century New England
In Puritan theology regarding women focuses on pre-lapsarian (before the fruit incident) Eve. From this they deduce that women’s role was to serve as a “help meet” for men. This fell into three categories: economic, natural, and theological. For economic, they were expected to help in the fields when needed, but primarily supply all things necessary for the house. They also filled the role of “deputy husband”, meaning that when the husband was unavailable the wife was legally considered to be the husband in dealings that would normally have been his. The second duty was natural, a fancy term for companionship and reproduction. This led to most women being “chronically pregnant” after marriage, often having a child every two years. On average, they had eight to twelve living children. Finally, the woman served a theological woman. Although they held men and women to be equal on a spiritual level, the man was considered superior in the earthly church.
“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.”
A Reflection on Witchcraft in the Modern World
In this post I’m going to take a break from history and focus more on the modern era. To give a brief setup, the majority of “witchcraft” in Europe and North America is related to Wicca. Most people would agree that Wicca is not an ancient religion, but rather it is one that was born from the mind and experiences of Gerald Gardner in the mid 20th century. Of course, there are a minority that believe Wicca to be the most ancient religion, so we will touch on them first.
The Ancient Witch-Cult
There is an author named Margaret Murray who hypothesized an ancient witch-cult throughout Europe that universally worshipped a single, great Goddess. Based on this belief, some hold to the theory that Wicca is what survived through fragmented, underground groups of this cult. Unfortunately for this belief, evidence in favor of the existence of any kind of witch-cult is virtually non-existent. Due to this small detail, Wicca is considered a “new” religion by most standards.
The words “Wiccan” (a practitioner of Wicca) and “witch” are often used interchangeably, but there is an important distinction to be made after so much talk of ancient witches. Wicca is a religion. It does incorporate magic, quite heavily, but the focus of the religion is the worship of the Lord and Lady, two deities whose true names are a religious secret. I stress the importance of this because it is so clearly a departure from the role of witches in Medieval and Ancient history.
There is a large neo-pagan community that has spun off from Wicca. They are largely based around the concept of following an ancient pantheon of pagan gods. However, they diverge from these ancient practices by using Wicca-based rituals and often follow Wiccan philosophies. They are not true Wicca because they do not follow the Wiccan deities. In order to learn the identities and rituals pertaining to the worship of those particular deities, one must be initiated into a Wiccan coven.
Conversely, in order to be pagan you must simply declare yourself one. This does occasionally breed a certain level of elitism on the part of the Wiccans towards those who merely imitate Wicca, but are uninitiated.
Overall it can clearly be seen that the word “witch” has not so much been reclaimed by modern Wiccans as it has been redefined to suit their current needs.