A Deeper Look at The Burning Times

In most of my writing about Wicca and Neo-Paganism, you’ll note that I talk about how these faiths were “reconstructed” or “resurrected”. You might wonder why that is, and why the old ways were ever lost.

The simple answer is that they weren’t lost. They were eradicated.

Christian fathers, in their infinite love and mercy and in the name of their all-loving and forgiving God, attacked, tortured, executed and persecuted practitioners of the Old Ways for hundreds of years, from the 1500s up to the 1800s.

They believed that all Pagans and Old Way worshippers were evil witches, sent by Satan to kill and poison and destroy Christendom.
They went to traditional, mostly rural communities and flushed out everything that looked at all suspicious to their paranoid minds.
They went after herbalists, midwives, women who lived alone – because we can’t trust women to run their own lives.
They came for Jews, the insane, the infirm, and toward the end, for anybody who owned something that those pious and loving Christian fathers wanted for themselves.

This is where we get the phrase “witch hunt”. This is where we get the image of women being burned alive, tied to stakes. These are the Burning Times.

It’s impossible to know how many people really died during these persecutions. It’s even harder to know how many of those killed were actually practicing the Old Ways, and how many of them were actually practicing Christians who’d never hurt a hair on anyone else’s head. It is known that the overwhelming majority of those killed were women.

Many people wrongly believe that the witch hunts were some sort of Dark Ages, medieval aberration. They weren’t. They were a result of religious reform and the Catholic versus Protestant wars that ravaged Europe for generations. Witch hunts were conducted during the Age of Enlightenment (heh), the Age of Exploration, and even into the Industrial Age.

Believe it or not, during the early early Medieval Ages, belief in witchcraft was dismissed by the Catholic Church as silly superstition. It wasn’t until the 12th century and the writings of Thomas Aquinas that the idea of maleficium, or harm done by magic, became a Thing.

The Medieval Inquisition was established and codified by Pope Gregory IX as a way of rooting out heresy. The Inquisition was a method of dealing with threats from within, supposedly caused by the Devil, that were designed to undermine and destroy Christendom. The Catholic Church was losing its hold on the people, Protestantism was rising, and the Holy See (Rome and the Vatican) were feeling insecure. They needed an enemy to unite the people. They started the Crusades. When those turned sour because of the military strength of the Muslims, they looked closer to home. They found witches.

In 1485, Henricus Institoris wrote a book called Malleus Malificarum, or The Hammer of the Witches. It was filled with descriptions of evil, Satan-worshipping fiends in human faces who would do all manner of lascivious and perverted things to the good people of the Christian world, up to and including causing disease, eating babies, and flying on brooms at night.

People became obsessed with the Devil and his supposed antipathy to their settlements and civilization. The increased focus on the Devil and a threat to God’s holy people was tied to the belief that the end of the world was coming in the year 1000 AD.

When that didn’t happen, and the world kept right on ticking, the idea that the Apocalypse was near became a focus of every sermon and every religious treatise. The End Times were coming, they said. The Devil was close. Don’t be deceived. The Devil wanted to steal souls away from God so that they couldn’t go to Heaven on Judgment Day, thereby empowering the Devil because Hell would be filled more than Heaven. It was an unseen war, and people firmly believed that it was going on all around them, all the time. Their immortal souls were in jeopardy.

Christianity had begun as relatively tolerant and peaceful, mostly because they were still a minority when they started gaining traction in the waning days of the Roman Empire. They didn’t have a lot of trouble with herbalists and cunning folk, and Christians always made up some (or all) of the clientele of these so-called Hedge Witches.

Then came Saint Augustine and his influential writings, and then came the Black Death, and people were convinced that they were under siege. They began to look at anyone who was at all different from them, and persecutions began. They sought out Jews, homosexuals, heretics (which was usually just splinter Christian groups who dared to think for themselves), lepers and the insane. They were all agents of Evil with a capital “E,” the great enemy, the foe of all humans everywhere. They were the reason so many people died from so many diseases and plagues.

The reason so many people died was because bathing had been proscribed by the Church in the same time period, trying to expunge the so-called Pagan practice of the bath house, where people might – gasp! – be having sex. Filth encouraged the spread of disease, but germs were wholly unknown and science wasn’t even a consideration. Science, you see, looked a lot like witchcraft, and if you wanted to stay alive, that was something you just didn’t do.

Paranoia is a terrible thing. So is self-preservation. To prevent the Malleus from falling on themselves or their families, Christians pointed the finger at their neighbors… out of concern for those people’s immortal souls, of course. They wanted these witches to be brought back to the light, you see, for their good and the good of all mankind. Never mind that these “witches” were never in the dark to begin with, and the only way the inquisitors knew to “save” them usually involved red-hot pincers and nooses.

To show how things changed, in the Christian Council of Paderborn declared in 785 that the belief in witchcraft was itself heretical. In 1326, Pope John XXII authorized an inquisition to prosecute witchcraft as a form of heresy.

It was the beginning of what’s been called the Woman’s Holocaust. They started as little fires here and there, just local flare-ups of overeager citizenry wanting to find someone other than themselves to blame for their sick kids, failing crops and ailing livestock. The advent of the Malleus Maleficarum and another publication, the Directorium Inquisitorum by Nicholas Eymeric (the inquisitor of Aragon and Avignon), kicked things into high gear. Local inquisitors began to run around and ferret out witchery. One of the most accomplished was a witch-hunter called Claude Tholosan, who “rescued” Briançon, Dauphiné from 200 witches – by killing them, of course.

The first fully recognizable witch trial took place in the Western Alps in 1428. Called the Valais witch trials, they set the gold standard for witch trials for the rest of the Burning Times. The only difference between the Valais trials and the one that followed was that the majority of the victims here were male. After Valais, the accused and the dead were almost always women.

The accusations were always the same. A local farmer’s cow died while calving, or his wife died in childbirth (an appallingly common occurrence in those days). He would complain to the local authorities that clearly someone had it in for him. The authorities would then start listening to local gossip. If two or three people had a beef with the same person, then said person was hauled in for “questioning”. They were then tortured brutally until they confessed to the charges that had been brought against them.

Of course they confessed. People will say anything to get the torment to end. That’s why torture is such a cruel and useless thing – it causes unendurable pain and is rewarded with lies, which then cause more pain for someone else, who then lies again to get it to stop, and the whole thing snowballs until there’s not one grain of truth anywhere to be found. This was true of the breast-rippers and the pear of anguish back in the day, and it’s true of waterboarding now.

And what charges did they confess to committing? Murder, heresy, sorcery and being in league with the Devil. They told ludicrous stories, and the inquisitors ate it all up, torturing them to get more details, the more lurid the better. Ah, the things people did for entertainment in the days before TV….

The image of the witch emerged from the ravings of these pain-maddened victims. The Devil appeared to them as a man in a black cloak, or a black hat, or as a black animal. They lined up to literally kiss his ass to pay homage. He would preside over witches’ sabbaths, which were meet-ups where witches from all over the world would fly in on their brooms, enabled by invisibility potions using the rendered fat of infants.

The witches would then cavort, have orgies, kill and eat more children, and all of them, male and female, would have sex with the Devil. Sexuality is a frequent part of these accusations and the “horrors” that were committed. The fact that clerical celibacy came to be the law right before all of this means nothing, though. No sex obsession here, no, sirree…

The people who were accused of witchcraft were accused of using their evil powers to cause illness, miscarriage, crop failure, livestock deaths, dairy cows drying up, lameness, blindness, and anything else that the inquisitors could think of. The penalty? Death. Because God loves you.

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII signed a papal bull called Summis desiderantes affectibus, which not only legalized but encouraged witch-hunting.  Now the evils of witches included abortion and causing impotence. Sex, again – but this time it was okay for men to have it, just not those pesky women.

The persecution and inquisition reached their zenith in a dreadful fifty-year period between 1580 and 1630. Witch trials took place in every Christian country. Sometimes royalty even got into the act, like in the 1590 North Berwick witch trials, when King James VI somehow became convinced that witches were out to get him. He ordered suspected witches to be brought to him, and the accused included the 5th Earl of Boswell, Francis Stewart, who wisely got the hell out of Dodge when he heard. He was sentenced as a traitor in absentia and died in poverty in Naples in 1612. (He probably really did have it out for James, but that’s beside the point.)

King James (he of the King James Bible) was convinced that Bothwell had been in league with witches, and he meant to find them all. He set up royal commissions to hunt down witches all through his lands, and he strongly supported torture as a means of dealing with suspects for all crimes. King James even authored a book on the subject, Daemonologie, which was printed in 1597.

It’s interesting to note that the King James Bible is one of the first to have Exodus 22:18 say “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Before that, the verse said “do not suffer a poisoner to live”. The only other time the word “witch” appeared in this Bible verse was the Geneva Bible, printed 50 years earlier… in the area of the Alps where the Valais trials took place. Makes a person go “hmm,” doesn’t it?

That verse, that supposedly sacred line taken directly from the mouth of God (but somehow self-servingly changed in the 1500’s), has been the driving force behind a wave of misery like none the world has ever seen, and which continues to this day.

The witch mania relented, and the last of the organized witch trials in Europe took place around 1750. By then the appetite for the blood and suffering had subsided. Witch-burning was outlawed, priests began to complain about the trials being conducted illegally, and learned men published treatises disputing the actual existence of witches. Reason finally began to take hold.

Unfortunately, people still believe in persecuting witches. In 1997, two men in Russia killed a woman and attacked five of her relatives because of the “evil magic” they had cast upon them. In Tanzania, more than 3,000 people were killed on suspicion of witchcraft between 2005 and 2011.  In 2014, a mob in Papua New Guinea burned a young woman to death when she was accused of witchcraft.

The tragedy continues. There’s no state-sponsored persecution anymore, but I defy any witch reading this to wear her ritual robes and walk down main street in any conservative town in the American South. I myself had a co-worker, an Eastern European Romany wise woman, who lost her job in conservative Grand Rapids, Michigan, because she wore her pentacle openly at work.

That wasn’t the stated reason for her dismissal, but when her “sin” was overlooked completely when committed by our Dutch reform co-workers, you knew the real reason she was singled out. (For the record, her work was always very, very good, very timely and she never caused any HR headaches… apart from that darned pentacle. Our Christian supervisor disliked it, and in her Christian charity, she saw to it that Maria got canned. What a saint.)

We have a lot of work to do to gain full acceptance. I don’t know if we ever will, but we have our heroes. Among them is Laurie Cabot, a high priestess who swore to the Goddess that she would always wear her witch garb in public and openly proclaim her faith. She nearly lost her children because of it, and she’s been spit on, shouted at, and verbally attacked.

Laurie Cabot owns and operates a witch store in Salem, Massachusetts, the town that murdered 29 people in 1692 in the largest – but not last – witch trial on North American soil. Someday, I hope to meet her. Until then, let’s raise a glass and toast her courage in facing down the haters.

Blessed be until I write to you again. Be safe, be healthy, and be healthy. Don’t let the fires burn you down.

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