If We Win, Will the Witch Trials Come Back?

If We Win, Will the Witch Trials Come Back? February 20, 2018

If Pagans win, will there be unintended consequences? Because there are always unintended consequences…

What happens if Paganism in its many forms becomes the dominant religion in the West? I looked at what it will take to get there in 2015. Let’s assume that actually happens, by some means, over some amount of time, and now Paganism has the kind of cultural prevalence that Christianity had in medieval Europe, or even in mid-20th century America. The eight major festivals are all public holidays, most churches have been replaced by temples or shrines, Pagan values and virtues are taught and lived.

And the practice of magic becomes commonplace.

I know, magic isn’t part of every Pagan tradition and especially not every polytheist religion. Some consider it impious and some simply don’t believe it’s effective. But magic and witchcraft are a key part of many forms of contemporary Paganism, so it is reasonable to assume that a Pagan society would be a magical society.

Might that create unexpected problems?

In a comment to Facts and Reason in Paganism – Avoiding Materialist Assumptions, Peter M asked:

If as you say “it’s easier to accept that magic is real than to continue with denials and rationalizations” can someone take you to court for cursing them? Can they retaliate physically? Lots of people were recently trying to hex Donald Trump – should he have them all arrested? I don’t think anyone wants witchcraft trials to come back, but that would be the unfortunate outcome if everyone accepted that magic was operatively effective.

This isn’t an unreasonable speculation. The Romans had laws against witchcraft because they feared its malevolent use. Even in our era, we still get reports of people being murdered because they were suspected of being witches.

In a presentation in 2013, historian Ronald Hutton said “we are the only society that both believes in witchcraft and doesn’t believe in it, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

What would happen if that delicate balance was disturbed? Is it inevitable that a common belief in magic would result in the prosecution or even persecution of magic users?

It’s possible, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

In a Pagan society, being a witch is not a crime

It’s one thing to complain to the local magistrate that the village witch cursed your cow and you want compensation. It’s something entirely different to claim that the old woman at the edge of town should be burned just because you think she’s a witch. Saudi Arabia beheads people every year not because they’ve harmed others but because they’re merely suspected of being witches.

Closer studies of the European witch trials have shown that most of them occurred in border regions, and in areas of Protestant-Catholic fighting – places where fear and tension ran high, and where “the other” was especially feared. “Witchcraft” was a convenient pretext for attacking people you didn’t like.

Interestingly, if you were accused of witchcraft, your best odds were with the Inquisition – you were likely to walk away with only some sort of penance, at least for a first offense. Your next best odds were in a national court. Your worst odds were in a local court, where rules of procedure and evidence were often ignored to reach the conclusion “everybody knew” to be true.

In a predominately Pagan society, being a witch is an ordinary thing. Accusing someone of witchcraft is like accusing someone of cooking or washing their car.

“She’s a witch!”

“Yes, and???”

It doesn’t mean people wouldn’t be accused of maleficent magic. But the worst of the witch hunts simply couldn’t happen in a Pagan society.

The Witchery – a restaurant in Edinburgh

We can improve our understanding of cause and effect

There were virtually no convictions for witchcraft in Ireland. If something bad happened, the Irish blamed the Fair Folk and not their odd neighbors. Knowing what I do about the Fair Folk, I tend to agree with them.

The next step is to improve our collective understanding of how magic works, what it can do and what it can’t. It’s rare that I see an experienced practitioner complain of being cursed. They know enough about magic to recognize its effects, and they also know how few people actually go to the trouble of casting curses. They also know how to practice cleansing, shielding, and other defensive magic.

The people who worry about curses are usually beginners… or non-practitioners who’ve been duped by a dishonest magician. They tell people they’re under a curse, which they can remove, for a fee that can run into thousands of dollars.

A Pagan society would understand magic better than a Christian or secular society, and would be less likely to make false charges.

But some charges would be made.

Give secular courts no jurisdiction over misuse of magic

Just because we believe something is wrong or even harmful doesn’t mean we have to make it illegal. I think most recreational drug use (beyond marijuana, anyway) is harmful, but I don’t think it should be illegal. It’s harmful for parents to raise kids in a fundamentalist religion (as I can attest first-hand) but I don’t think it should be illegal either.

There will always be materialists who insist there is nothing to magic, or that “it’s all in your head.” I can imagine a Pagan dominated future, but I cannot conceive of a future where magic has the levels of proof required to justify secular laws around it.

Magic will remain a religious matter. We may very well need Pagan religious courts, to mediate Pagan religious disputes. If right now I thought someone was actively working maleficent magic against innocent people (with any degree of skill, anyway – most people who threaten to work harmful magic don’t exactly scare me… or anyone else), I’d bring it to the attention of as many Pagan leaders and competent magicians as possible, so we could stop it one way or another.

But a religious court would have only the authority the community and its members allow it to have. If you’re not part of that religious community, it would have no authority to do anything to you.

Set a high standard of proof

But some people suspected of magical mischief would agree to stand trial, because they want to remain in the community and this is a way to clear their name. Given the tremendous abuse of the charge of witchcraft throughout history – the vast, vast majority of those convicted were not guilty of what they were charged with – we must set a very high standard of proof to reach a conviction.

the Salem Witch Trials Memorial – never again

At the least, I would want definitive proof that 1) the defendant had worked relevant magic, and 2) the harm had a magical cause. And short of a confession (under rules at least as stringent as today – no repeating the confessions-by-torture of the witch hunts) or bragging about it in public, I don’t know how you could prove the first element. Perhaps someday magical forensics will improve to the extent it could product reliable evidence, but that would have to be established first.

Any convictions (but not acquittals) must be confirmed by divination. We simply have to be sure before we convict anyone of working harmful magic.

It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer – Sir William Blackstone, 1765

Dealing with maleficent magic in a Pagan society

As much as I’d like to believe that a Pagan society would be kinder and more respectful than today’s Western culture, humans are humans, regardless of religion and regardless of worldview. The more people who know magic, the greater chance that some of them will decide to use it for nefarious purposes. Those people exist today – they work in advertising, finance, and politics. They may not call what they do magic, but that’s what it is.

A magical society would have to provide good magical education for its children. This should be done in religious schools – public schools should always be secular – but it should be taught.

Teach everyone the basic skills of grounding, cleansing, and shielding.

Teach Defense Against the Dark Arts. J.K. Rowling got that right – if you live in a magical world, you have to understand the types of magic that may be used against you and how to counter them.

Band together for mutual aid. The one time I had reason to believe someone was working magic against me (and had the skills to actually cause some harm), some of my local friends got together and worked a few defensive spells. We discussed retaliatory magic, but the defensive spells were enough to take care of it.

There are always unintended consequences

We live in a human society and humans are imperfect creatures. Our structures and institutions are flawed and they will always be flawed. That doesn’t mean we should abandon them. We can’t make things perfect, but we can make them better, and better is good.

There will always be unintended consequences. Any time there is change, there will be something we overlooked or simply couldn’t foresee. But if we plan carefully and think things through, we can minimize the unintended consequences, and deal effectively with those we cannot prevent.

So yes, if we win, there will be witch trials. It will be our job to insure they are fair, just, and rare.

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