Thursday, May 24, 2012


"She turned me into a Newt!!"

I've never quite understood the concept behind burning a witch. If she's really a witch with magical powers, has a pact with Satan, and can curse you with a glare, how on earth do you figure you'll get away with killing her? The very fact that she's not cursing you all and melting your face while she's on trial suggests she's probably not, in fact, a witch.

Salem, Massachusetts is infamous in American history for the source of Witch Trials, so much so that any political hunt that damages someone or seeks punishment is called a "witch hunt" at some point. Women were dragged out of their homes and killed by the score in a blight on America's founding, something some say proves how wicked Christians and white Europeans were and how America is founded on evil.

Worldwide witches were burned and killed for their practices, or presumed practices, in intolerant crazed examples of religious zealotry. Modern day Wiccans tend to fear and resent Christians for what was done centuries ago against people they claim as kindred spirits.

If you look around the Internet you can find some pretty spectacular numbers of claimed witches put to death, some claiming over ten million. That's a lot of witches. But is it true?

Actually, not even close.

First off, the Salem Witch trials have been so incredibly overblown its difficult to comprehend. From February 1692 to May 1693, a total of between twenty and thirty-three women were killed (its difficult to get an exact number, but the letters and documents from the time give an absolute maximum of 33). The best guess is 25 total. At the height of the hysteria, two hundred women from the are were imprisoned for witchcraft, which by any standard is just bizarre. There just weren't that many people living in the area, and they were Puritan Christian colonies. How on earth would so many of the women become Satan-worshipping witches, by any standard?

Its not unreasonable to assume that a few could have been, but two hundred? The entire Plymouth colony of settlers in 1690 is estimated at just over 3000 souls, and just about half of that would have been women. If you discount children, that cuts the pool down to around 1000 people or so. So 20% of the population were witches? By that point even the most hysterical people were starting to realize this was ridiculous. Governor Williams put a stop to it in 1693:
When I put an end to the Court there ware at least fifty persons in prision in great misery by reason of the extream cold and their poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them and their mittimusses being defective, I caused some of them to be lettout upon bayle and put the Judges upon consideration of a way to reliefe others and to prevent them from perishing in prision, upon which some of them were convinced and acknowledged that their former proceedings were too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation ... The stop put to the first method of proceedings hath dissipated the blak cloud that threatened this Province with destruccion...
To be sure, it was a dark time and women suffered greatly at the hands of a few radicals. This kind of thing is a hideous evil that crops up every so often such as in the McCarthy era, where fear and social hysteria sweeps people along to do crazed, horrible things to each other. But it wasn't the massive slaughter that so many seem to think.

The truth is, the witch trials in Salem Massachusetts were pretty mild compared to those elsewhere. Under King James, there was a massive surge of witch hunting in England, coinciding with a general fear of witchcraft that spread across Europe and America from the late 1500s to the late 1600s. In 1604 parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which made witchcraft a felony and thus under Common Law rather than Ecclesiastical law - the state would try witches rather than the church. James himself became fixated on witches and personally wrote a tract on the topic (which apparently formed the basis for Shakespeare's depiction of witches in Macbeth) and supervised torture of suspected witches.

Primarily witchcraft was defined as dealing with spirits and familiars, particularly demons. It wasn't about spellcasting and herbalism in particular but about the use of demonic spirits. The modern wiccan is about communing with earth spirits and presumed goddesses, using herbs and crystals rather than some sort of satanic connection, but they do hearken back to a lot of women who were considered witches for their ability to prepare herbal remedies (such as willow bark - aspirin and molds - penicillin). These women were consulted also for magical abilities such as telling the future, charms to help with love, curses on enemies and so on.

It was the position of the government of England (and others) as well as the Church that witches learned their spells from demonic spirits, and were accompanied by a demonic spirit called a "familiar" which would take the form of an ordinary creature such as a cat. Thus, anyone who cast spells was someone who would traffic in demons. A whole mythology built up around this such as the idea of the "witches teat" which was an extra nipple somewhere on the torso where the familiar would drink from. These marks were looked for on suspected witches, and any old mark such as a birthmark, mole, pimple, or freckle would do.

Previously witchcraft was punished only when someone had demonstrated maleficium or specific supernatural harm against another (she turned me into a newt). This usually took the form of a perceived curse or some sinister-seeming event, such as a cow going suddenly dry or an axe breaking. Anything that was miserable and unexpected could be traced to magic or a curse, particularly if you didn't like someone and she was really weird anyway.

The new law made the crime less about circumstances and more about behavior and suspicion. And furthermore, it was assumed that Witches did not act alone, because it took several women to get a demon to show up, so if you found one, there had to be others, even men. But its usually women, for a reason: women are sort of magical and difficult to understand. And back then they didn't have a lot of power to defend themselves, especially single women.

The "witch" was then tortured until she died or confessed, or in some rare cases protested innocence and was killed for lying. James oversaw a trial in Scotland where 70 women were put to death because they were accused of creating a violent storm while he was visiting Denmark. Some 200 witches were put to death in Scotland while James was king, but only a handful were killed in England where people were less inclined to accuse and follow through.

Eventually James became skeptical and distrusted witch trials, advising his son to be so as well. He was replaced by William and Mary, however, so his son did not get much of a chance to show greater wisdom.

In total, scholars estimate that between 40,000 and 50,000 women were executed for witchcraft in the past by Europeans. Which is a ghastly large number, but not anything remotely approaching the absurd 11,000,000 mark. Most of them were just women who were strange, disliked, or involved in political or land battles. At least some of them probably were people who believed they did magic, strange hedge witches who lived in the forest and would create poultices and sell charms. But the "where there's one, there's more" theory meant that a lot of women were rounded up and offed on principle rather than evidence and reason.

And since the government was presumed to be doing the right thing when it acted, the trial wasn't about finding someone guilty so much as getting them to admit they were guilty. Many people use this to condemn Christianity, but that's not very accurate or historically supportable. Yes, the folks who did this were at least nominally Christians - everyone was in Europe at the time. However, Christianity as a religion teaches that we should forgive, turn the cheek, pray for repentance, and avoid sin rather than punish and burn it.

There is one line in the Bible about killing witches: Exodus 22:18, in the Old Testament. This is part of a batch of miscellaneous laws such as putting anyone who has sex with an animal to death, and how to deal with someone who sleeps with a girl but won't marry her. Its an instruction for ancient Hebrews in how to run their country, and those laws were civil and for that specific time and place only. The point was that this would lead people away from worshiping and relying on God and instead turn to witches and sorcery.

Jesus teaches we should forgive and pray for people. To the extent sorcery and magic is mentioned in the New Testament, it is warned against, not condemned to death (and the word translated sorcery is closer to drug use and herbalism than magic - pharmakeia).

In truth, the real culprit is fear, superstition, and a tendency of people to go along with culture and their peers. When enough people in a group start to think and act a certain way, many others, perhaps most will do so as well. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is the fear of seeming weird and out of place, being mocked or shunned. Few people really want to be ostracized or shunned by their community or left out of what everyone else is doing.

And compounding that is a psychology that figures if enough people go along with something, well there must be something to it, right? I mean, if so many people believe something, it must be true. They can't all be wrong and mistaken. And that's what this entire series is about. The tendency of people to be misinformed and just presume that's the facts because everyone thinks this way. From witches to global warming, the herd mentality moves policy and activity, and sometimes that can get very evil. Just ask a Jew about how it can work out.

Here's the thing: modern popular culture portrays the past as being largely lit by fires burning around the feet of witches. And it just wasn't all that common, even at the height of witch-hysteria. Every single one of those women put to death by fearful, suspicious idiots was a tragedy, and it was wrong, but it wasn't the way people portray it now.

And before you giggle at those crazy people in the past, witch trials are still going on around the world in the third world. And those women die.

*This is part of the Common Knowledge series. Things we know that ain't so. Incidentally much of the data in this post came from books, which I can't really link to online (I tried to show that kind of work in the Kent State post but I don't think anyone really cared).

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