From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," it says in the book of Exodus (xxii, 18). This and other Biblical admonitions and commands both defined the witch and prescribed his or her fate. A witch is someone in consort with Satan, the Evil One, the spirit who rebelled against Abraham's god [AG] but whom AG suffered to live.
Today, the typical witch is generally portrayed as an old hag in a black robe, wearing a pointed black cap and flying on a broomstick across a full moon. Children dress up as witches on Halloween, much to the dismay of certain pious Christians. Hollywood, on the other hand, conjures up images of sexy women with paranormal powers such as psychokinesis, mind-control, hexing, and an array of other occult talents. "Pagan" or anti-Christian New Age religions are sometimes identified with witches because some pious Christians think they practice witchcraft or because those in the religions claim to practice "magick" or "the craft." Some of the members of these groups refer to themselves as "witches" and their groups as "covens." (Some male witches are very touchy about being called "warlocks".) Some of the members of these groups call themselves "sorcerers" and worship Satan, i.e., they believe in Satan and perform rituals which they think will get them a share of Satan's supernatural occult powers. (Some are very touchy about being called "sorcerers".) Most New Age witches do not worship Satan, however, and are very touchy about the subject. They would rather be associated either with the occult and magick or with attempts to re-establish a kind of nature religion which their members associate with ancient, pagan religions, such as the ancient Greek or the Celtic, especially Druidism. The neo-pagans also refer to both men and women witches as witches. One of the largest and most widespread of these nature religions is Wicca.
The witches of Christian mythology were known for their having sex with Satan and using their magical powers to do evil of all sorts. The culmination of the mythology of witchcraft came about from the 15th to the 18th centuries in the depiction of the witches' Sabbath. The Sabbath was a ritual mockery of the Mass. Witches were depicted as flying up chimneys at night on broomsticks or goats, heading for the Sabbath where the Devil (in the form of a feathered toad, a crow or raven, a black cat, or a he-goat) would perform a blasphemous version of the Mass. There would also be obscene dancing, a banquet and the brewing of potions in a huge cauldron. The banquet might include some tasty children, carrion, and other delicacies. The witches' brew was apparently to be used to hurt or kill people or to mutilate cattle (de Givry, 83). Those initiated into the satanic mysteries were all given some sort of physical mark, such as a claw mark under the left eye. The Devil was depicted as a goat or satyr or some sort of mythical beast with horns, claws, tail, and/or strange wings: a mockery of angel, man, and beast. One special feature of the Sabbath included the ritual kiss of the devil's ass (de Givry, 87), apparently a mockery of the traditional Christian act of submission of kneeling and kissing the hand or ring of a holy cleric. Numerous testimonials to having witnessed the witches' Sabbath are recorded. For example, a shepherdess, Anne Jacqueline Coste, reported in the middle of the 17th century that during the night of the feast of St. John the Baptist she and her companions heard a dreadful uproar and
looking on all sides to see whence could come these frightful howlings and these cries of all sorts of animals, they saw at the foot of the mountain the figures of cats, goats, serpents, dragons, and every kind of cruel, impure, and unclean animal, who were keeping their Sabbath and making horrible confusion, who were uttering words the most filthy and sacrilegious that can be imagined and filling the air with the most abominable blasphemies (de Givry, 76).
Such stories had been told for centuries and were accepted by pious Christians without a hint of skepticism as to their veracity. Such tales were not considered delusions, but accurate histories. [Learn more about the history of witches and witch craft.]
Here behold the guests of the Assembly, having each one a demon beside her, and know that at this banquet are served no other meats than carrion, and the flesh of those that have been hanged, and the hearts of children not baptized, and other unclean animals strange to the custom and usage of Christian people, the whole savourless and without salt.
The claims made in books such as de l'Ancre's and the depictions of Sabbath activities in works of art over several hundreds of years were not taken as humorous fictions or psychological manifestations of troubled spirits. These notions, as absurd and preposterous as they might seem to us, were taken as gospel truth by millions of pious Christians. What is even stranger is that there are many people today who believe similar stories about child-eating and ritual killing of animals, combined with sexual abuse and satanic influences.
I will leave it to the Freudians to interpret these persisting myths of satanic creatures with horns, big red tails, and huge sexual appetites; of kidnapping and sexually abusing, mutilating or killing children; of women who put long sticks between their legs and rub on a magic unguent and fly to a sexual liaison with a demonic he-goat; and of creatures with supernatural powers such as metamorphosis. My guess is that witchcraft and sorcery were for the most part brewed in the cauldron of sexual repression and served up as a justification for the public trading in art and literature, if not in life, of Church-created, sanctified, and glorified pornography.
To be sure, there was undoubtedly some persecution of those, especially in the countryside, who maintained a connection with their pagan past. But it is difficult to believe that the descriptions of witchcraft wrenched from tortured and mutilated victims century after century were not mostly created in the imaginations of their tormentors. The inquisitors' power was so great, their tortures so varied and exquisitely sadistic, that they had thousands of their victims deluded into believing they were possessed and wicked. The cruelties and delusions went on for centuries. Witch-hunting was not abolished in England until 1682. The hunt spread to America, of course, and in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen witches were hanged. (In 1711, the Massachusetts State Legislature exonerated all but six of the accused witches. In 1957 the state legislature passed a resolution exonerating Ann Pudeator "and certain other persons," who were named in a bill exonerating them in 2001.)
The last judicial execution for witchcraft in Europe took place in Poland in 1793, when two old women were burned. A wizard, however, died as a result of an unofficial ordeal by water in England in 1865, and in 1900 two Irish peasants tried to roast a witch over her own fire (Smith, 295).
Whatever the psychological basis for the creation of an anti-Church with witches and sorcerers joined with Satan to mock and desecrate the symbols and rituals of the Church, the practical result was a stronger, more powerful Church. No one knows how many witches, heretics, or sorcerers were tortured or burned at the stake by the pious, but the fear generated by the medieval and Spanish Inquisitions* must have affected nearly all in Christendom. Being accused of being a witch was as good as being convicted. To deny it was to prove your guilt: Of course a witch will say she is not a witch and that she does not believe in witchcraft. Throw her in the river! If she sinks and drowns that will prove she is not a witch; if she swims, we will know the devil is assisting her. Pull her out and burn her to death, for the Church does not like bloodshed! In truth, the Church ran a Reign of Terror the superior in many ways to those of Stalin or Hitler. Obviously, in terms of absolute numbers terrorized or killed, Stalin and Hitler far surpassed the Church. But their Terrors lasted only a few years and were restricted to limited territories; the Church's Terror lasted for several centuries and extended to all of Christendom.
The Church's Terror, while aimed at both men and women, has left a legacy that it was aimed mainly at women. This may be due to such things as the Salem witch trials, which, of course, had nothing to do with the Church's Terror. In any case, those religions today whose members call themselves witches or sorcerers are often anti-Christian, pagan, and woman-centered, or satanic. New Age religions often exalt whatever the Church condemned (such as egoism and healthy sexuality in adults whether homosexual or not) and condemn whatever the Church exalted (such as self-denial and the subservient role of women).
Witchcraft and sorcery are still practiced in many countries around the world. For example, in Malaysia a witch, her husband and assistant were recently hanged to death for a grisly murder. Before killing their victim, they had him lie on a floor and wait for money to fall from the sky. "He was then beheaded with an axe, skinned and chopped into 18 parts before being buried in a hole and covered over with cement" (Reuters news service). In Tanzania, an elderly man was beaten to death after he claimed to have used witchcraft to cause a road accident in which 32 people died. The man had been collecting heads and other body parts of victims at the crash scene (Reuters news story). In Saudi Arabia, Hassan bin Awad al-Zubair, a Sudanese national, was beheaded after he was convicted on charges of sorcery.
books and articles
Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 7 "The Demon-Haunted World," (New York: Random House, 1995). Chapter 24 is written with Ann Druyen and contains a synopsis of Friedrich von Spee's Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors) (1631), which details the irrational and sadistic methods of the witchhunters.
The Witches: Myth and Reality by Adrian Nicholas McGrath
What's the deal with witches and broomsticks? - Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope
According to a 2005 Gallup poll, belief in witches has decreased from 26% to 21% over the past five years but is up from 14% in 1990.