I read an entry recently in The Opinionated Dictionary of Religion.
Some version of the word witch is found in all languages and cultures and it generally refers to a person, usually female, who is thought to affect people and the material world through benevolent or malevolent magic.
The problem for the word in American and European usage is that it is so laden with connotations of malevolence and mischief that it actually aids in the mis-understanding of non-American, non-European witchcraft, which was often only benign shamanism or herbalism.
Which witch to define? Well, since most readers are familiar with the European witch, it is that witch that undoubtedly needs (re)defining.
The European witch had her heyday in the calamitous fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries when, as scholar Norman Cohn definitively showed in his book ‘Europe’s Inner Demons,’ no witch actually existed in Europe, except as a fantasy of ecclesial brains.
Dubbed the witchcraze, this three-centuries-long mass hysteria about witches is truly one of history’s mysteries. How, in that period of Europe, did one hundred thousand witches, who were not even witches at all, get executed for being that which they were not?
Numerous theories abound, though none has convinced all scholars. Here are a few of the theories:
The ‘witches’ were targets of villainous villager envy or revenge.
The ‘witches’ were targets of compassion fatigue, since many ‘witches’ are thought to have been beggars.
The ‘witches’ were targets of misogyny aimed at strong women who were often called ‘scolds.’
The ‘witches’ were targets of rabid orthodoxy.
The ‘witches’ were victims of an idea: not the idea of the witch but the idea of the devil, the idea that God has an opponent who at every stage tries to thwart the good intentions of God. And this opponent enlists human co-conspirators in an effort to derail God’s plans. In the Christianity of this period, any religious dissent was not merely error; it was malevolent error.
The ferocious three-hundred-year European witchcraze, with its faint echo in America’s Salem, can be traced like white string across black a Hawaiian beach right to the foot of Satan, in which case the witchcraze might just as well be called the satanic panic.
Orthodox keepers of the totalizing system that Christianity had become during these years feared the disintegration of the totality, even when no credible threat presented itself. And so paranoid ecclesiastics and theologians, nervously protecting the edifice of orthodoxy, imagined the existence of witches, and they imagined that each witch made a conspiratorial pact with the devil to overthrow Christendom. (It must have worked because Christendom did eventually collapse in Europe).
Not one of the executed witches was a witch, wicked or otherwise, though each was perceptibly, conspicuously, clearly, and without a doubt, the work of Satan.
Even the intellectual elite of Europe participated in the delusion. Professors, Judges, Popes and Protestant leaders all agreed that the enemy in their midst was the witch.
For hundreds of years the witch was believed, and then all of a sudden, as if overnight, no one believed in witches anymore, and the witch became a laughable idea.
‘When was that?’ you might ask. It was the eighteenth century, the much maligned Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, that early moment on the path to increased Western secularization and the continuing movement from credulity to incredulity.
There are those who doubt that the West has been secularized. Compare the present to the witchcraze of a few hundred years ago and ask youself, ‘Whence witches?’
Featured image ‘Ditch Witch’ by Ned Haight via Flickr