Witchcraft: Centuries of Dissenting Views

blasphModern popular perception of witchcraft is almost entirely informed through popular culture, from The Crucible and Bewitched, to Charmed or WGN America’s Salem. To ferret fact from fiction, to understand the roots of America’s witchcraft hysteria, takes up volumes and is continually being reinterpreted by authors and academics. Yet if we look back at the debate on the validity of witchecraft we find some dramatically differing opinions: from pragmatic or dismissive, to the violently merciless.

Burchard, Bishop of Worms, handled beliefs that witches were all around acting with malice as lingering superstitions remedied by penance detailed in his widely distributed 10th century work, The Corrector. In it Burchard hypothetically questions the faithful by asking if they had consulted a magician or recited incantations over medicinal herbs. The remedies to these sins and other sins were variations on penance and fasting over a few days or up to seven years; a stark contrast to later beliefs that witchcraft was Satan’s direct manipulation of humanity and needed to be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.

Interestingly, Burchard delivers a penance for those who accept witches, “Do you believe that there are women who, like the one people call Holda, ride by night on special animals in the company of devils which have been changed into women, as some people— deceived by the Devil— believe? If you do so believe, you should do penance on the appointed days for a whole year.”

An early image of the witch in air speeding to a conjugal visit with Satan was dismissed as misguided spiritual activity according to the 10th century’s Canon Episcopi. When describing the strange image, compiler Regino of Prum wonders, “Who is so stupid and foolish as to think that all these things which are only done in spirit happen in the body.”

The roots of the witches sabbat has its roots in the pagan past of Europe, in particular the idea of the Wild Hunt. In the Wild Hunt, Odin led an army of supernatural hunters or magical beings through the night sky in a tempest of action. Segue to post-conversion; the Wild Hunt becomes a demonic onslaught and a perfect model for a witch’s nightly ride to commune with Satan.

Some 500 years after Canon Episcopi the image of the sabbat as a Satanic orgy is real to Pierre de Lancre who, after putting 80 women to the torch, assembles a 200 page description of the sabbat. DeLancre believes women take flight nocturnally, assemble in numbers as large as 12,000, to meet the devil who they would greet with a osculum infame, before detailing their malefice, feast on babies before dancing naked and copulate with the three-horned goat that was Satan.

In 1486’s Malleus Maleficarum, Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spranger declare not believing in witches alone is heretical, “Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of heresy.”

The deeply misogynistic work from Kramer and Spranger (which I will cover in a future post) essentially created a threat where there was none. Kramer and Spranger positioned themselves as unsurpassed witch prosecutors after leading 50 witchcraft executions in Germany. As they met a variety of resistence from communities and political leadership, the two men received a Papal bull from Innocent VIII. Calculating, Kramer and Sprenger attached the Bull to the front of Malleus Maleficarum, effectively sanctioning their writings and remedies for ridding Europe of Satan’s servants, witches.


Portions of the following post come from a paper I wrote two years ago for a Witchcraft and Charm Magic class.


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