I began this year by looking back, way back. On my hunt to find a western novel I had written in my early 20s, I found my old Reflections Duotang from grade ten and a project I had written on witchcraft in grade 7 (1979-1980). In the coming months, I’ll share my old reflections on the blog, but today, I wish to share my project (complete with footnotes and bibliography): Witchcraft. This is word for word, just as I had written it when I was twelve years old in my first year in junior high. My mark was 18/20.
Being a witch in the olden days was very dangerous. Even if you were not a witch it was dangerous because someone who did not care for you or wanted something that you had could simply say that you were doing something strange and charge you with witchcraft where you would be hanged or burned at the stake.
Hundreds of women during the 16th and 17th century were killed because of the saying, “if looks could kill”. Many people felt that if a person looked at you with an evil eye you were sure to be dead. People were said to have died just because they received an angry look from someone. The judges of the court were so terrified of being bewitched by the evil eye that they had the accused walk in backwards.
People who felt they were bewitched would buy the hanging rope that had been used, and burn it to ashes. The ashes were mixed with cold water and drank.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Footnote #1) is not the usual commandment but was heard throughout the land in the olden days. The definition of witchcraft is said to be “the use of supposed supernatural power for antisocial ends. The witch is the unauthorized, and especially the malevolent, practitioner” (Footnote #2). The witch was not said to have drawn its power from Satan until the Middle Ages when the witch scare broke out.
Dr. Margaret Alice Murray, an English anthropologist, suggested that medieval witchcraft was actually a primitive religion that had survived from the Paleolithic times. But nobody has ever taken this idea very seriously.
The problem with witchcraft does not lie with the witch but the victims. Human beings have a tendency to blame bad things that happen on something or someone other than themselves. There were many witch hunts started in a small community because of unusual weather or total crop failure. These hunts usually only lasted a short time. One that did not was the one connected with the plague in Europe known as the Black Death that destroyed a quarter of the population in the fourteenth century. The mass hysteria that was created not only endangered an accused witch but also the Jews who were thought to have polluted the air and water. The church started the idea that Satan was behind witches and the plague and that something desperate must be done to save all mankind from Satan. The three century witch hunt started because of the belief amongst the churchmen had concluded that witchcraft was a reality and Satan had powers to carry witches through the air, change their forms and to create epidemics. Hearsay was all it took for someone to be hanged as a witch.
What was established was the Faustian concept that witches were partners with the Devil, the witches’ Sabbath, and that all witches gathered together for a meeting called covens. Witches were said to periodically gather and worship their leader, Satan. Their transportation to the leadership party was either by Satan flying them through the air or by the witch covering her body with the blood of a child, who was a victim, or by riding a broomstick or a cow or a goat. Satan would arrive in the form of a black animal such as a goat or as a man with cloven feet.
The witches would eat and dance at the compulsory meeting which was referred to as the Black Mass. The menu consisted of bread, cheese, beer and bodies of slaughtered infants. All this information was taken from confessions of accused witches. (It seems to me that people had a great imagination when they are trying to save their necks. If you confessed to being a witch would you also be able to describe some of the things which you did as a witch?)
Some of the ideas that were believed many have evolved when the followers of Luther split with the Catholic Church. Each side accused the other of witchery and created vivid scenes of what the other did.
The procedure for the witch trial began with someone accusing another of being a witch. The accused’s house was searched for ointments, pots of herbs, and poppets. Then the body of the accused was searched for any mark left by Satan when they made the compact. This usually was a deformity that could not feel pain. For this the searchers were armed with pins.
The courts were not only looking for witches but reforming of them. So torture was used in many cases for confessions. If the accused confessed freely or was very young he would be sent to prison or to a religious order. If the accused had to be tortured to confess he would be put to death easily by hanging or being beheaded.
At first old women were charged because in their weak state they could easily be taken over by Satan. But as time passed more substantial people were accused along with mayors, magistrates and property owners. Priests were denounced by the church and monks and nuns were condemned. The mother of the famous astronomer Kepler was kept in prison for five years because someone went insane after being treated by her herbs. Joan of Arc was even burned at the stake because of witchery.
The Netherlands was the first to put an end to the prosecutions in Europe. Jesuit Friedrich, in 1631, concluded that innocent people were being accused because of malice and jealousy. Friedrich, himself was saved only by the protection of his bishop. Slowly the idea that Friedrich held was accepted.
After three centuries of the cry of witch, hundreds of thousands of people were found to have been killed by the witch hunts.
The most recent outbreak of a witch hunt was in Alaska in 1957 when a virus epidemic occurred and the Eskimos tried to destroy the witches who caused it. The civil authorities had a tough time stopping the Eskimos.
1. Marion L. Starkey, Collier’s Encyclopedia. Volume 23, (United States: Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation, 1971), page 549.
2. Ibid – page 549
Starkey, Marion L., Collier’s Encyclopedia. Volume 3. United States: Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation, 1971.
Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Montreal: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1978.