Common Misconceptions: The Witches

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 20 Jan 1998
Time: 14:33:41


D. The Witches 1. Most Witches were Pagans. 2. No Witches were Pagans. 3. Almost all Witches were women. 4. Most Witches were mid-wives and healers. 5. Witches were just innocent victims in the Burning Times. 6. Witchcraft was a religion focusing on the Horned God.

D1. Most Witches were Pagans.

Most Witches were Christian. A small but significant number were "folk Pagans", Christo-Pagans who combined their traditional Pagan rites with an unorthodox version of Christianity. The number of true Pagans was probably tiny. I know of only a couple cases where we can confidently state that a Witch was completely non-Christian.

The myth of the Pagan Witch owes its popularity to the writings of Margaret Murray. Murray noted that certain themes appeared frequently in the trials of tortured Witches. This isn't surprising -- Christian demonology was very standardized, and Witch hunters simply tortured Witches until they recited whatever nonsense the judges expected to hear. We even have lists of questions used in interrogations. The questioner ran down a list of yes/no questions, marking the Witch's response to each. If she got any of the questions "wrong" (that is, if she disagreed with Christian demonology at any point), she was tortured until she changed her answer. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that most confessions sound suspiciously similar!

Murray disagreed. She thought this uniformity was evidence of an organized Pagan cult, and she wrote several influential books about this "religion." These books contain some of the most abysmal research you'll ever find. Briefly, Murray only used about 5% of our evidence -- and it was the worst, most unreliable 5% too! She ignored vast quantities of counter-evidence. She shamelessly abused her sources, quoting passages out of context and deleting any sections that didn't support her theories. She made sweeping generalizations based on one or two bits of evidence. There are even times when she out-and-out lied. The assumptions that her theory is based upon -- that confessions extracted under torture are reliable and that no one was ever falsely convicted of Witchcraft -- are simply ludicrous. Today, no historians place any credence in Murray's theories. Unfortunately, many Neo-Pagans do.

What was Murray's "evidence"?

1) Most confessions sound the same. This, as I've said, is not a sign of organized Pagan religion. We have clear evidence that Witch-hunters tortured Witches until their confessions meshed with standard Christian demonology. Check Murray's sources and you'll find that almost all of her data comes from trials which involved heavy torture. Areas that didn't use torture produce *no* evidence of Murray's Witch Cult. They do reveal some splendid Pagan sects, like the Italian "Good Walkers" and the Sicilian "Ladies From Outside." But these Pagan sects are nothing like Murray's Witch Cult.

2) Most trials involve Satan, who Murray claims is really the Horned God of the Witches. The part about Satan's frequent appearances is true, but it isn't significant. Satan appears in almost all heresy trials; Witch trials are quite "normal" on this score.

However this answer begs an even more important question: what "Horned God of the Witches" is Murray talking about? Murray demonstrates that some Pagan gods were horned (like Cernunnos). But she never shows that any of these horned gods were associated with Witchcraft. In fact, our evidence suggests that Witches worshipped a goddess, not a god. In the Pagan world, the primary deities of Witchcraft were goddesses, like Diana and Hecate. Early medieval Christians snarled about Witches who followed a nocturnal goddess, called Diana, Dame Hulda, etc. Witch trials that don't involve torture produce evidence of goddesses like Diana, Frau Holde, and Dame Abundia. These, however, are the trials that Murray ignored. She built her thesis on the torture trials, the ones where we have clear evidence that Witch hunters were forcing Witches to answer in certain ways. Since there is no tradition of a Pagan "Horned God of the Witches" and since Witches only talked about worshipping Satan when they were tortured by Christian Witch hunters, it seems silly to assume that the Satan of the Witch trials is anything more than a Christian bugaboo.

Okay, so the evidence for Pagan Witches is weak. How do we know that most Witches were Christian?

1) They said so. Perhaps these Witches were simply claiming to be Christian in the hopes that the court would dismiss the charge of Witchcraft. But many Witches insisted that they were good Christians even when that insistence cost them their lives. Contrary to what you might expect, confessing often saved a Witch's life. A Witch who confessed to the Inquisition almost always received a pardon and a minor penance; the Church only killed Witches who refused to confess, or who were accused again after their first pardon.

The Inquisition's job was to reconcile heretics, to bring them back into the Church. So if a Witch was willing to acknowledge her "error" and embrace Christianity, the Inquisition was fairly lenient. For less intelligible reasons, non-religious courts often kept confessors alive too. Sometimes it was so that the cooperative confessor could help accuse other Witches. So, for example, the only people who were executed in the Salem Witch trials were the ones who insisted they were good Christians. All the self-professed Witches lived.

2) They cared about things that only matter to Christians. When a Witch was about to be executed, the court sent a priest or minister to hear her final confession. Many confessed Witches privately told their confessors that they'd lied and begged to be forgiven for giving a false confession. (See Ann Kaserin's biography for a tragic example of what this could lead to.) This sort of private retraction was not aimed at over-throwing the court's verdict. Instead the Witch, a devout Christian, wanted absolution for the sin of lying.

3) They risked their lives to retract their confessions. Any Witch who retracted her confession was deemed a "relapsed heretic" by the Inquisition. Relapsed heretics were killed, burned alive at the stake. Yet long after their trials, many confessed Witches insisted that they had lied, that fear had made them confess to nonsense. These Witches risked a horrific death. Even when warned of this, many stuck to their retractions.

4) Their spells are largely Christian. The majority of the spells preserved in Witch trials are either fully or partially Christian. A fully Christian "spell" would be, say, the Lord's Prayer -- some English Witches were convicted for praying in Latin rather than in English. Spells which invoke the saints and Christ are most common, though some of these are Christianized versions of old Pagan spells.

5) In one case -- the trial of Johannes Junius -- we have clear proof that a Witch was Christian. Junius smuggled a letter out of prison, in which he described how he'd been forced to falsely confess to Witchcraft. Without this letter, Junius' trial looks exactly like the standard, stereotyped trials that Margaret Murray used to "prove" that Witches were Pagan. His letter proves that we need to hesitate before we put faith in her other "evidence" as well.

D2. No Witches were Pagans.

A goodly number of Witches were Pagan -- that is, if you take a liberal interpretation of the word "Pagan".

Some scholarly books from the '70's and '80's do indeed dismiss the notion of Pagan Witches. Murray's Witch Cult hypothesis enjoyed tremendous popular support until the 1970's. This enraged many Witchcraft historians, who had long said that there was no evidence to support her thesis. As the new evidence from trial records conclusively debunked Murray's Witch Cult, a lot of academics over-reacted and began to insist that no Witches were Pagan.

The over-reaction was quickly nipped in the bud by Carlo Ginzburg. In a brilliant and meticulously researched study (_Night Battles_), Ginzburg demonstrated that some Italian Witches were indeed drawing on pre-Christian traditions. Most of these Witches were not non-Christian: Ginzburg only found a couple of 15th century Streghe who openly declared that they worshipped Diana. But many others, like the Good Walkers, combined both Christian and Pagan beliefs. (The biography of one Good Walker, Paolo Gasparutto, is on-line.)

Since Ginzburg's ground-breaking work, other researchers have found evidence of Christo-Pagan Witches. Some of the best studies include: _Night Battles_ and _Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbat_, both by Carlo Ginzburg; "The Ladies From Outside: An Archaic Pattern of the Witches' Sabbath" by Gustav Henningsen (appears in _Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries_ by Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen); and "Shamanistic Elements in Central European Witchcraft" by Gabor Klaniczay (appears in his book, _The Uses of Supernatural Power_).

D3. Almost all Witches were women.

Overall, approximately 80% of all Witches were women. This percentage varied dramatically in different times and places. In Central Europe, up to 95% of all accused Witches were women; in Iceland, only 5% were.

Male Witches were more common early on, and in the northern regions. Between 1300 and 1500, approximately 35%-40% of all Witches were men. Under the influence of misogynist Witch-hunting manuals, like the _Malleus Maleficarum_, the percentage of women gradually rose. At the height of the Burning Times, this percentage hit 95% in some centers of the persecution.

Several of the Scandinavian countries, however, killed approximately equal numbers of men and women, or slightly more men. Iceland is the most anomalous. There, a type of magick called "galdur" became associated with Witchcraft. Since galdur was primarily practiced by men, an astonishing 95% of Icelandic Witches were male.

D4. Most Witches were mid-wives and healers.

There was never a time or a place where the majority of Witches were healers.

In most countries, approximately 20% of Witches were folk healers. The lowest percentage comes from Denmark where less than 2% of Witches practiced magickal healing. The highest comes from French appellate courts. There, almost 50% of all appeals involved healers.

Feminist writers invented the myth of the mid-wife Witch. In 1972, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote a book called _Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers_.. In it they claimed that the vast majority of Witches were healers. The Burning Times, they said, was the male medical establishment's attack on the power of these women.

Although influential in the feminist and Neo-Pagan communities, this book has been largely ignored by the academic community, because of the exceptionally low quality of its research. The bibliography is a collection of all the worst, most inaccurate texts on Witchcraft. And it was written before any statistical surveys of the trials had been completed. So -- despite their confident statement that the vast majority of Witches were healers -- the authors had no way of knowing what the true percentage of healing Witches was. Recent research has shown that healers were always a minority of Witches. They were never the majority, much less the "vast majority".

Ehrenreich and English's myth has been cited frequently, too many times to detail. But although many writers affirm that the vast majority of Witches were healers, you'll notice that no one offers any statistics to back this statement up. (They can't, because all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.) Instead, they mention a couple of startling trials where the accused Witch was a healer. Then they blithely aver that these are "typical" cases. This is not true. Look at any detailed study of any country's trials and you'll find that healing Witches were a small -- though significant -- minority.

D5. Witches were just innocent victims in the Burning Times.

Witches were both victims and persecutors in the Burning Times.

One of the ugliest aspects of the Burning Times is that Witches were active Witch hunters. Healing Witches frequently blamed illnesses on "black" Witches, just as some doctors did. More commonly Witches used their divinatory skills to accuse other Witches. When a person believed he'd been cursed, the standard way of checking was to go to a "white" Witch and ask her. Often the "white" Witch confirmed her client's fears, and the client turned around and either attacked the "black" Witch physically or charged her with Witchcraft. In either case, the "white" Witch bears some of the guilt for the "black" Witch's persecution, for it was her professional experience that transformed a client's vague fears into the certainty that he had been magickally assaulted.

How could Witches attack each other like this? In some cases they probably did believe that the "black" Witch was a magickal criminal. Moreover many Witches accepted the stereotypes of Christian demonology. They believed that there really was a conspiracy of Devil-worshippers who were out to destroy all decent folk. Of course, these Witches knew that they, themselves, weren't part of this conspiracy. But they were willing to believe that their neighbors might be.

How common was this sort of behavior? We don't have any solid statistics, but it appears extremely common. One historian who's studied the issue says that a "white" Witch was far more likely to be hunting Witches than to be the victim of a Witch hunter's persecution.

D6. Witchcraft was a religion focusing on the Horned God.

Very few trials mention a Pagan deity of any sort. Those that do focus on goddesses, not the Horned God.

The most common deity mentioned is a goddess who leads a nightly procession of spirits. Witch trials list over fifty names for this goddess, including Diana, Frau Holde, Irodiana, Habunda, and the Greek Lady. This evidence meshes nicely with what we know about pre-modern Witchcraft. In Pagan times, the patron of Witches was usually a goddess, like Diana or Hecate. Likewise early Christian penitentials rail against Witch goddesses, against the "women who ride with Diana". Best of all, much of this information comes from trials that did not involve torture, trials where there's little evidence of coercion.

Margaret Murray was responsible for the myth that most Witches worshipped a Horned God. Murray believed that the "Satan" who appeared in the Witch trials was really the Horned God of the Witches. Now, she didn't provide any evidence for this. She never showed that there was a pre-Christian horned god who was traditionally associated with Witchcraft. Certainly Pagans worshipped horned gods (and horned goddesses, for that matter). But none of them appear to have had anything to do with Witchcraft. Murray never produced a single Witch trial which equated Satan and some horned deity. (By comparison, there are a number of texts which state that although Witches call their goddess Diana, She's "really" Satan. Others rail against people who worship "Diana, Goddess of the Pagans.") None of the Witch trials ever state that Satan is anybody other than the Christian Devil. Worst of all, Murray relied on our weakest evidence: on trials that involved copious amounts of torture and coercion. Given this, there seems to be little reason to believe her unsupported affirmation that Satan "really" was a Pagan deity.