You are here:
  1. » Home
  2. » Areas
  3. » Featured items
  4. » Witchcraft

Witchcraft

by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

To understand the connection between Christianity and the Old Religion, one must make the acquaintance of the Devil. Satan is an ambivalent fellow, and trying to figure out his character, origin, and relationship to God is difficult.

Here is a sentence from Isaiah, stating with authority that God created evil. "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things." Clear enough. But if he was created by God, who is always good, how can the Devil be bad?

Again, God wants to be killed in the person of Christ. It is his design, and it is meant for the benefit of mankind. If so, why are those who execute Christ considered "Devilish" for so long? They were doing God's will!

God is all powerful and all good. However, if God wanted to create a world which was all good, and couldn't do it, than he is not all powerful. If he didn't want to make a world which was all good, than He is not all good.

How do you get out of that? You create an Adversary, who is equal to God in power, and is in a constant struggle with Him. But that doesn't work either. The notion is taken from Persian Dualism, and to true Christians, this is heresy. The solution? God permits the Devil to operate and make man into a sinner. In other words, an evil principle is needed to test men's faith. This solution works until you ask the next question. Why is the sinner punished for what is permitted by God?

This would lead nowhere. If you continue with the questioning, eventually you will hit the wall -- it is so because the Church says that it is so. Well, heresy or not, the Adversary, permitted or otherwise, remained. He had to. He was badly needed.

The Devil has many forms. He has superhuman intelligence and cunning, though sometimes he can be tricked. He is a handsome fellow, unless he transforms himself into an animal or a monster. He can perform miracles. He has tremendous legal expertise. He has scientific knowledge and understands the nature of the universe -- and the psychology of men and women. He can be, and often is, quite charming.

During those times, if you were a good Christian, you believed in him. For without sin there is no overcoming temptation, no salvation, no need of a Church. Without Satan, there is no Christianity.

On the other hand, Satan could not have existed without the Church. Pagans had no fear of magic in itself. They were aware of magic used for good or for bad purposes, but the power itself they considered neutral. Most importantly, it came from men and women, natural to humanity itself. So the gods, demigods, spirits, etc., could never have given birth to the powerful entity of Satan.

To Christians, supernatural powers should come only from God, as miracles. If the saints did not perform them, then a demon did. Shows of second sight, moving of objects without physical action, transportation by levitation and so on frightened them.

As the smaller spirits and demigods were changed into demons, only one entity was strong enough to assume the role of the Adversary. The Devil took the shape of the familiar horned god. Pan loved nature; he was one with the earth; he even looked right with his horns and hooves. He was perfect for the job, and he got it. The new "evil entity" and his hordes of demons were now ready to tempt and mislead mankind.

In 380, Emperor Theodosius declared that all his subjects had to become Christians. Anyone following a different religion was a heretic. The heretics were to expect penalties by an authority guided by divine wisdom. The Church didn't only kill the heretic - his or her family and friends were also seized. Their property was confiscated. Anyone who opposed them was declared a disciple of the Devil.

Christians now felt free to desecrate any temple - a good excuse to loot. In the process, they destroyed an enormous amount of Pagan literature. This literature was irreplaceable, and its destruction left us with huge holes in our understanding of the period. The Church destroyed the theater and any nonreligious music; limited art to religious subjects; declared that science was the Devil's tool. It ignored the natural world with all its wonders, and feared it as temptation for sin. Life was just a preliminary to the glory of the afterlife in Heaven.

In a world that closed upon itself and denied nature, the Witches were at a disadvantage even before the great trials. They were part of a different, threatening way of life. The Church declared a war on Paganism. In the name of saving people's souls it prepared to kill any number of bodies.

For the body didn't matter at all. Pain and suffering were good if they happened in the name of Christ. The salvation of one's soul depended on purity, celibacy, and iron obedience. So what if the body of the sinner was tortured, or even killed? Only the soul mattered. In one document, a priest declared that if an innocent person was executed, it didn't really matter. God will recognize his own and the person will go directly to paradise. The brief, sad life on this dreary, sinful world did not count. From the 11th century on, the Catholic Church had many rival religions. They included Manicheans, Catharists, Waldenses and Albagenses. All were Christian, but the Church declared they were heretics. For various reasons, they also included Witchcraft, so to be a witch meant to be automatically a heretic.

Part of the crusade against witches was the spreading of wild rumors about their immoral and unnatural activities. The Church accused them of flying on broomsticks, having demon lovers, and murdering Christian children. It was quite a successful campaign, and brought a large number of women, some of them teen age girls or even children, to the stake.

The professional witch hunter made a very good living. There is a story about Matthew Hopkins, a professional witch hunter during the time of Puritans. The man developed a practical and quick system of destroying his victims. He would go into a village, find out who was unpopular with the Puritan regime, and report them. They would be tortured for a confession, and Hopkins would be paid per head for each conviction. The victims almost always confessed, since death was preferable to weeks of continuous torture.

Most of the victims, of course, had nothing to do with the Old Religion. They never saw a coven or an initiation ceremony. They may have known a little herbal medicine and possibly talked to their cats - strong evidence in those days. Enough to put them on the rack or burn them at the stake.

In 1318 and again in 1320, the Pope brought Witchcraft under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The inquisition, as usual, was ready to eradicate any heretic, so the witch trials expanded. Women were made to confess to crimes that were everything the Old Religion abhorred. People would say anything under torture, and the torture was too horrible to describe in a book such as this. The women confessed, under this horror, the orgy-like nature of the Sabbats. They admitted to submitting themselves to intercourse with the Devil - often described as taking the shape of a male goat! They admitted to casting spells that harmed their neighbors' health, domestic animals, or crops; of using human body parts, even children's, in their magical brews; of cannibalism, particularly involving newborn babies; of giving birth to the children of demons. All that and more - from people who worshiped Nature, who were the guardians of the sacred earth.

As the hysteria continued, the Pope sent two Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to Germany. The two men wrote a book together, considered at the time the best textbook on Witchcraft. The name of this book was, in Latin, Malleus Maleficarum, which means The Witch's Hammer. It is still available today, in the translation of Montague Summers. Summers was one of the few twentieth-century men to believe that the witches got what they deserved. He later wrote a book of his own, The History of Witchcraft, explaining the wickedness of Witchcraft. His book is a mind-boggling piece of superstition, ignorance and hate. As Summers was an educated man, a respected man of the Church, the book throws light on the obvious question: "How could they? How could men of God torture and kill in the name of such nonsense?" Read The History of Witchcraft. It's worth it. You'll understand what a Grand Inquisitor was really like.

The Malleus Maleficarun is horrifying. It explains the depraved nature of the Witch. It permits, even encourages torture, as means of extracting confession. It approves of life imprisonment for the repenting witch, and death to the unrepenting. It explains a sudden insanity as demonic possession - thus allowing the torture of the insane, a practice that lasted for centuries. The worst of it is that it is calmly arranged as a logical, clear, methodical, legal text.

This monstrous book extended its influence until the middle of the 18th century. Even Martin Luther was interested in it. Despite his objection to much within the Catholic Church, he believed in the Devil, and had, apparently, a confrontation with him. There is a story, substantiated by an ink stain in the castle of Wartburg, that the Devil tried to harass Luther. Luther threw his ink bottle at him. One wonders about his state of mind and his hallucinations.

Interestingly, Luther thought that witches rarely attended any Sabbats. According to Montague Summers, he held that witches generally hallucinated it under drugs or in a trance, but not always. On rare occasions, he thought, the Sabbats actually took place. Obviously, Luther couldn't make up his mind. At any rate, he did not object to the witch hunts or the executions. Perhaps he didn't care much.

There are always those who try to stop the madness of mobs. They are the enlightened, the brave, the true heroes of their time. The philosopher Giordano Bruno, for instance, burned at the stake for saying what St. Augustine said before -- that witches were just sadly deluded women. Great doctors like Paracelus, Johan Wier and Thomas Syderham risked their lives to fight it.

To end the madness, it took an inquisitor who could no longer tolerate it. Alonso Salaza y Frias, after a mass execution in Navarre, decided to do an investigation of his own. When it was finished, he openly declared that all the victims of this particular execution were innocent. He then refused, officially, to accept any further accusation without tangible proof. During trials, he would allow no torture. The property of the accused witch would no longer be confiscated.

The public lost interest. Without the pleasure of seeing a woman humiliated and tortured to death, and without the hope of material gains, what was the point of accusing anyone? And you had to supply proof! What an innovation! No doubt, some bemoaned the good old days, when all you had to do was point at someone you didn't like and wail: "witch!"

In England, they pretended they did not use torture, but some of their methods were so near it that the distinction is not clear. They were actively hunting witches for centuries, but eventually, in 1712, one witch was convicted but not executed. The British, like the Spanish, began to lose interest in the spectacle of horror. In Scotland the last burning was in 1727. In Germany, the last execution was in 1628. In France, it was stopped by a law passed in 1682. Europe began to emerge from the darkness.

The horror story is not yet over, though. Witchcraft in early America will be dealt with in the next chapter. While fewer people were executed in this country, it is probably the worst example, since the immigrants came here to escape oppression.

Folk medicine:

  • A lynx's claw.
  • A weasel's bones.
  • Snakes' vertebrae.
  • Iron pirate pieces. If struck over the body of a sick person, the striking of the pirate will clear both physical and mental diseases and the effect of the evil eye.
  • Charcoal of an aspen tree. In today's folk medicine, the charcoal is useful if the tree was hit by lightning. It is possible that the aspen in the grave was burned in the same way.

Magic items:

  • Horses' teeth.
  • Twigs of a rowan tree.
  • An iron knife.
  • A sword.

The old Scandinavian Sagas describe activities of witches which are still part of today's ceremonies. They also tell the usual stories - shape changing, riding on poles, or sending the soul out of the bodies.

Another interesting ancient connection exists in Mexico. A witch cult there was centered around a goddess, or a "Witch Queen." She always carried or rode a broom. The broom, to the Mexicans, symbolized purity and cleanliness. This is particularly important because the Medieval European witch considered cleanliness and order essential. Her contemporaries rarely bathed, and kept food debris on their straw-covered floors for weeks. The witches in Mexico, just like the European ones, always wore big necklaces. Men wore the same kind of leather apron as the Irish male witches.They worked in small rooms to confine the power - much like the circles of power of the European witches.

There is no explanation to the similarity. Some historical researchers believe that perhaps people traveled across the Atlantic before Columbus, and introduced the Old Religion to Mexico. Or perhaps the needs of Witchcraft created similar evolution wherever and whenever it was practiced.

Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome treated magic as if it was science. Not that they were particularly concerned with pure science; they were more interested in practical results. However, they had to know the medicinal and poisonous properties of hundreds of plants; they knew how to use hypnosis; they understood human consciousness. The magicians combined their practice with incantations and prayers, which is why today's scientists do not take them seriously. But they were not much different. When achieving an identical result, today's scientist credits it to reasoning or experimentation. The sorcerer assumed they were given by a supernatural power.

Some great scholars in Greece worked as sorcerers. Pythagoras, the mathematician, openly practiced philosophy, science and magic. He had a strong influence on Plato, not himself a sorcerer, but clearly a believer. One can see that in his Dialogues Aristotle suggested the influence of the magical theory in his History of Animals. Neither he nor Plato feared the magicians, though many other people did. Obviously, they understood, with their better education and sharp minds, what the sorcerers were doing.

Finding the roots of Ancient Greek Witchcraft and Hellenistic Witchcraft is easy. One has simply to look at their great holidays. Take, for example, the Eleuisian holiday which attracted thousands of people. Much like the May holiday participants in the British Isles, the Greeks had games, theater, wine, food, dancing and music. Everyone was at least half drunk and ready for religious ecstasy. Mystical rites included the purging of the fear of death, the procession in honor of the dead, and the wild, whirling dancing. People fell into trance-like states, many acting as if they were in direct communication with the gods. It was similar to Voodoo possession - or to the ancient shaman/witch union with the unseen forces. Naturally, some people were better at it than others, and some became priests and priestesses.

The best known priestesses were those who worked at the Oracle of Delphi. They dedicated their lives to the gods and practiced prophecy and divination. The priestess sat over a cleft in the rocks, from which fumes of various drugs rose to envelop her body. The drugs brought on a trance state, and under it she told the future. Another priestess or priest had to explain the messages, because often they were hard to understand. Many of the prophecies came true, and the practice lasted thousands of years. It is silly to dismiss the whole thing as a lie, as the Catholic church later tried. Ancient Greece was a culture of sophistication, intellect and learning. Could a handful of priests really trick these people for so long?

The god Pan is another connection with witchcraft. In the Dianic tradition of Witchcraft, one of the schools still active today, the horned god is still named Pan. Is it the same deity? There are some differences. But this happens to every ancient religion. Take the Judeo-Christian tradition. The current merciful God is very different from the angry desert deity that took the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, destroying entire nations in His path. And yet any Priest, Minister or Rabbi would be horrified if you dared suggest that it was another God - Jehovah is Jehovah! Well, Pan is Pan. Then and now, he is a nature god, a part of every living animal and plant. And he is still with his goddess and with those who call themselves the Guardians of the Earth.

Shape changing was common in Greece, too, as seen by both mythology and literature. Zeus' love affairs are famous for it. He changed into a swan, a bull, or even a shower of golden rain, as the occasion demanded. Also, the famous book The Golden Ass, by Apuleius of Madaura tells of such a change. It is a story of Greek man who, with the help of an untrained witch's apprentice, turns himself accidentally into a donkey. After many misadventures, the goddess Isis restores him from the animal shape and he becomes her priest.

There are several great Greek witches. Medea is probably the most famous witch of antiquity. She is strong, possibly insane, and murderous. Hecate is first a moon goddess, then a witch goddess who rules the nights and all its frightening creatures. Circe is a sorceress who turns her lovers into swine when she tires of them. All the Greek stories of the great, power wielding, magnificent witches view them as evil. This is because they were, originally, priestesses of the Old Religion, worshipers of the mother goddess. The "new" Greek religion saw them as competition and turned them into evil hags, as most cultures do. For further proof, the texts often stress the witches' knowledge of herbal medicine and magic - the obvious traits of the followers of Wicca, then as now.

The Romans used much magic in their daily lives. They employed magical astrology, and used amulets, incantations, healing and cursing formulas.

The Romans had an interesting device, very similar to today's Ouija board. It was a metal disk, supported by a wooden tripod. On its rim, the letters of the alphabet were inscribed. The person performing the ritual suspended a ring on a thread, right above the disk. Some incantation was said, and the ring began to swing like a pendulum, forming words and answering questions.

The Aeneid describes magic extensively. Dido, the tragic heroin, is a powerful sorceress whose magic eventually turns against herself, much like Medea's in Greece. Horace's plays describe evil Witchcraft, including some horrifying ritual murder of children. Other Roman poets describe necromancy and divination. Obviously, witches in Rome had a bad reputation.

Romans, as a nation, enjoyed cruelty. One has only to look at their arena games and war atrocities to see that. The stories about the witches reflect that taste. Unquestionably, some Roman witches turned to the dark side. The records show that their help was often used for poisoning, necromancy, and even attempts at raising of the dead and the creation of zombies. It was a sad period for true followers of the Old Religion.

In Egypt, magic was entirely scientific. It was mixed with religion, but nevertheless practiced as a precise and organized activity. From the mythologies and magic books it is clear that they had a system of the Occult based on subjects. There are separate texts on astrology, alchemy, formulas for magic in daily use, etc. The practitioners were specialists. The ordinary people, in addition to consulting the experts, could also purchase amulets and herbs for self protection and do-it-yourself magic.

Repeating the magic formula in exactly the same way, even down to the tone of voice, was called "right speaking." The Book of the Dead stated that the gates to the other world would not open to a person who did not know his secret name or who uttered it incorrectly. The name of each gate in the other world also required correct reading and pronunciation.

The Egyptians had many books containing formulas and incantations, spells and charms for daily use. Amulets were important. They were worn by the living and put on the dead. Amulets could be made of any material and sometimes carved with magic formulas. Some shapes were particularly popular, such as the scarab and the heart. The Egyptians even had amulets to protect each part of the body. The books often mention dreams and shape changing. For example, there are spells in the Book of the Dead teaching the newly deceased how to change into birds, crocodiles, or serpents.

The positive image of the witch lasted for generations. Eventually, however, patriarchal monotheism took over in the West, first by Judaism and later by Christianity. With it, the position of the witch deteriorated. The Bible often refers to witches in a negative manner. They are always fiercely persecuted by the priests of Jehovah. Most notable is the Witch of Endor, who is consulted secretly by King Saul. The story is interesting because Saul killed many witches on the demand of the Prophet Samuel. She is one of the few survivors.

Earlier, Moses and Aaron practiced Egyptian magic, described in detail in Exodus. They turned a stick into a snake, for instance, during a competition with the Egyptian magicians. The plagues visited on the Egyptians, including such things as pestilence and darkness in the middle of the day, sound like malevolent Witchcraft. Naturally, the Bible describes the plagues as punishment by God.

King Solomon, David's son, was supposed to be the wisest man of his generation, perhaps the wisest ever to live on Earth. He was a magician as well. The book The Wisdom of Solomon was written many years after his death, but much of it is probably based on his words. In it he said that God gave him power and knowledge, and that his studies included not only science but the Occult. In the original text, this included power over demons. The sentence was mistakenly translated as power over the winds, because the two words are similar in the original Hebrew. He also claimed knowledge of exorcism.

Nevertheless, the Bible is determined that no witch should be permitted to live. The reason is simple. A witch is not only a worshiper of a competing religion, but a symbol of a matriarchal society. A society ruled by women is offensive to the male-dominated Jews and Christians. So the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan is the point in time in which the power of the Old Religion began its slow decline. It has taken many centuries and a fierce struggle, but a gentle nature religion is no match to the powerful, military, new religion. Starting from Mount Sinai, a fiery volcano in the desert, the Judeo-Christian creed swept everything in its violent path and conquered the Western world.

Go to chapter 5: Early America