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The European witch hunting mania was inspired by religious fervour, colonial ambitions, and prolonged ...
2021-07-29 09:00:00

The Invention of Evil
A Brief History of Witches

Francisco Goya, “The Witches’ Kitchen”, 1797–1798. Albert J. Pangos collection in Mexico
The Invention of Evil
The Invention of Evil

Charms, spells, black magic. From the 15th century onwards, the Inquisition was engaged in tracking down collusions with the devil, yet above all with the elimination of evil. The last execution in Poland took place in 1775.

Read in 14 minutes

In accordance with the popular system of periodization and description of history, after several centuries of the gloomy Middle Ages, the advent of the Italian Renaissance introduced a new age in Western history, expressed by rationalism, secular culture, scientific discoveries, etc. Yet this view is actually rather false, and applicable to a certain degree to the intellectual elites only. This is because on a social scale and on many more levels, this gave way to much darker and gloomier centuries, fanatical times teeming with violence and burning stakes. From this point of view, the role of ‘reason’ was not any more significant than in other epochs; rather, the rapid development of Christian demonology was of greater meaning from the 15th to the 18th century.

The Middle Ages were not particularly hostile towards ‘devilish witchcraft’. On the contrary, the tendency was to be more indulgent of ‘pagan’ beliefs. This approach is well illustrated in the words of Pope Leo VII in his letter to a German archbishop, where he writes that if there is a suspicion that somebody has signed a pact with the devil, that person should be left alive in order to ‘do penance’. Gregory VII, on the other hand, criticized the persecution of women on the pretext of having allegedly brought on storms or the plague.

Diagnosing the source of evil

The appearance of the Waldensian and Albigensian movements in the 12th century exacerbated the problem of heresy. In accordance with the content of Papal bulls from the years 1232 and 1233, these sects created secret associations that engaged in appalling activities, such as kissing the behind of a toad or black cat or worshipping a thin, ‘ice-cold’ man (in other words, the devil). This built the base for how people imagined a sabbath to be.

The conflict with sects (or rather, their persecution) led to the creation of the Inquisition and the ideological framework that enabled the scrupulous prosecution of any deviations from the dogmas and religious practices approved by the Church. Several intrigues in the circles of major European courts, where the use of witchcraft for political means was suspected, led to the publication of the Super illius specula Papal bull in 1326, which explicitly condemned witchcraft and directly linked it to devilry. This, in turn, provided inquisitors with the theological (and legal) argument to widen their field of activity. Nobody could have foreseen the disastrous consequences of the content of the bull. Nevertheless, although the bull did give the possibility to persecute persons engaged in witchcraft, something more was needed to trigger the ghastly ‘witch’ hunts.

In the opinion of Jean Delumeau, an exceptional French historian, the beginning of the Modern Age was marked by ‘cyclical fears’. To get a better understanding of this, let’s recall that during the centuries in question, Europe experienced the Hundred Years War, the crusade against the Hussites, the Turkish threat, or the Thirty Years War, just to name a few, and of course everything that war entails: the fear of soldiers and bandits or famine, and above all, the horror of the Plague.

One must admit that the concentration of evil all around was extraordinary at the time. According to Delumeau, society searched for one global explanation for their enormous misery. The cause of the evil was found in the metaphysics of Satan in the broadest sense, while the events observed by people were explained by his presence and interference in the order of things. Of course, the devil had been a part of Christian theology since its ancient beginnings, but the interest expressed in him in early modern times had never been so intense, while his presence had never been tracked so fiercely, methodically and on such an enormous scale.

The 15th century and later periods saw the creation of a great amount of demonology publications, describing complicated hierarchies, cohorts and legions of evil spirits, and attributing them with names and different powers. In reality, it was a patchwork of ancient beliefs, folklore knowledge and ‘information’ obtained from interrogations and torture. To give you a better view of the ‘intellectual climate’ of the period, let me recall that the famous Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), authored by Dominican clergymen Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, saw 14 editions between 1487 and 1520. The only work that had seen more reprints since the discovery of print was the Bible!

The thesis put forth by Jean Delumeau becomes even more convincing if we consider the ongoing pandemic. Faced with the fear of losing their health (not to mention other things), people willingly look to conspiracy theories. And what else is the activity of the devil, if not a great metaphysical conspiracy theory? There is no doubt that if COVID-19 were to appear in the 17th century, for example, most people would have given the phenomenon a religious and apocalyptic meaning. Yet since our society has become secular, today’s global anxieties are explained through theories and arguments referring to ‘secular giants’, ‘secular demons’, rich people, politicians, technocrats, etc.

But let’s go back to Satan. Evil as the result of his activity was most certainly a convincing argument for the masses, yet this argumentation created another issue. By explaining the reason for the fear each person felt, yet another source of fear was created: fear of the devil himself and his earthly agents.

The infernal powers of women

Demonologists put great emphasis on the devil’s role as a conjuror, with the ability to manipulate the minds of people at his discretion. Satan himself could appear in human form, using a dead body or by materializing a body from thin air; he could also change people into animals, and vice-versa. Malleus Maleficarum analyses the case of a young man who, being under the influence of a diabolical illusion, could not see his own genitalia. We should also add that according to Jesuit theologist Martin Delrio, demons are able steal a man’s semen at night and even use it (which results in the theoretical possibility of great procreational chaos). Attributing devils with such enormous powers necessarily led to an obsession with demonism and demonic paranoia.

People who had enough strength and courage could engage in battle with Satan, while the logic behind the witch hunts was quite diabolical here. It is a well-known fact that most of the accused people confessed their guilt, meaning they confessed to witchcraft, collaboration or cohabitation with the devil, insofar as they were subject to torture.

Although men would likewise fall victim to diabolical temptation, such cases were limited. Women, on the other hand, are weaker beings according to the early modern age rhetoric, and in addition, unlike men, they are susceptible to lustfulness. The above mentioned Delrio put great emphasis on the sexual nature of pacts with the devil. By giving themselves to Satan, women took great pleasure, but also obtained incredible magical powers. The authors of Malleus Maleficarum give a few more reasons for women’s vulnerability to the demon. Because they are more willing to embrace the faith, the evil spirit, in its desire to destroy Christianity, strikes women in particular. Their natural susceptibility to manipulation also means that they succumb to diabolical whispers more easily. In addition, they frequently hate people they once loved: they burn with anger and “foam at the mouth like a violent sea”, and their strong feelings lead to their desire to possess magical powers. Malleus Maleficarum also confirms that a woman’s lust is insatiable.

Francisco Goya, “The Witches’ Kitchen”, 1797–1798. Albert J. Pangos collection in Mexico
Francisco Goya, “The Witches’ Kitchen”, 1797–1798. Albert J. Pangos collection in Mexico

Yet how can one recognize a witch? First of all, we need to distinguish a witch from a hag, who has been possessed by a spirit unknowingly or not in bad faith. A hag requires care. The case of the witch is much different; she consciously chose the demon as a result of sinful will.

The demonologist Giovanni Battista Codronchi described 47 symptoms of possession that were used in inquisitorial diagnostics. Some of these are hard to distinguish from illness: a swollen abdomen, fever accompanied by headache, stabbing pain in the heart, or the feeling that ‘something pierced my brain’. Other symptoms – which we are quite familiar with from pop culture and contemporary descriptions of exorcisms – include the ability to speak unknown languages or spontaneously understand them, fierce thrusting and tossing of the body, or the hearing of voices. Moreover, these also included pretending to be an imbecile when a priest prescribes prayer, the ability to sing with a refined voice that requires years of education without any training, and the ability of a simple commoner to speak of lofty and complicated matters.

De officio inquisitionis includes a kind of questionnaire that helped determine whether the suspect was engaged in black magic. A few of these questions are listed below: Were any rituals in praise of the devil performed? Were the heads of other people, dead or alive, used for magic? Did the suspect evoke the feeling of love in anybody? Was the future predicted from the viscera of animals? Were any words written on the host using human blood? (According to a certain bishop’s sentence, the punishment for magic with use of the Eucharist was to be walled up alive in a dark cell.)

The voice crying in the wilderness

We need to note that the paradox of the witch hunts was already quite visible even as we read the description of the phenomenon. It was best expressed by Dominican friar Bartolomeo Spina, who in his work entitled Quaestio de Strigibus deliberated whether the sabbath was indeed for real. His reasoning was as follows: since the Inquisition advocated the existence of sabbaths, questioning their feasibility would equate to questioning to authority of the Inquisition itself, and that was impossible, since the Inquisition operated on behalf of the church. Therefore, according to Bartolomeo Spina, sabbaths had to be real.

Once in a while, you come across opinions stating that it wasn’t possible to undermine the possibility that witchcraft existed until the age of the Enlightenment, when the concept of what we refer today to as common sense appeared. Yet such opinions are false. The approach expressed by Popes Leo VII and Gregory VII, which I mentioned earlier, was also shared in later centuries. Scholars and theologists who criticized the sense of witch hunts actually appeared at the same time that the persecutions started. Yet they did not possess the proper political power to make their views visible, and besides, their theories did not respond to the needs of society. In the 15th century, Guillaume Adeline, a French doctor of theology, questioned the existence of sabbaths. What reaction did that invoke? He was suspected of having signed a pact with Lucifer, so he was sentenced to life in prison (where he died four years later).

Pietro Pomponazzi, who lived at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, created a theory that proves to be an example of exceptional intellectual clarity. One of the key pieces of evidence for having signed a pact with the devil was the ability to fly; witches would fly to a sabbath at night. Women subjected to torture admitted that they flew. Pomponazzi analysed the cases of confessions and noticed that these women, who were using hallucinogenic ointments and plants, could have, under the influence of intoxication, thought that they were flying, though they were really experiencing “hallucinations similar to dreaming”. The interpretation presented by the Italian scholar was ahead of its time; it in fact complies with contemporary psychological and ethnological theories that explain paranormal experiences through altered states of consciousness. These contemporary theories I speak of make reference to shamanism, and specifically to the element of ‘magic flight’ – the flight to the after world made during a trance. It is quite possible that this was a practice also known in ‘pagan’ Europe.

Yet another interesting and enlightened voice in the discussion on witchcraft was that of Johann Weyer, a doctor who criticized witch hunts for medical reasons. Without negating the reality of the devil, he claimed that women accused of magic are often mentally ill. He tried to convince the inquisitors that as they are ill and therefore weak, they become easy targets for Satan’s attack; they are thus victims and not agents. They should not be punished, but rather be provided with medical care. So what fate did Weyer meet for having published such opinions? He was accused of heresy.

A fact worth noting is that there were actually no significant differences between Protestants and Catholics in their approach to witches – both groups were just as willing to fire up the stakes. Though Luther was a fierce critic of the papacy, he shared the views of the inquisitors as far as witchcraft was concerned. As a matter of fact, Catholic-Protestant wars inflamed the wave of fear and deepened eschatological unrest; one group would accuse the other of having connections with the devil. Catholics viewed Protestants as ‘soldiers of Satan’ who desired to destroy the unity of the Church, while Lutherans and Huguenots considered the popes to be embodiments of the Antichrist, and so on.

According to English mediaevalist Jeffrey Burton Russel, the ritual killing of alleged witches was the execution of a ‘scapegoat’ mechanism. I already mentioned the exceptionally difficult conditions of living in the times we are discussing. If each experienced act of evil had its cause in witchcraft, be it illness, drought or even milk turning sour, the possibility of burning a witch at the stake gave people the feeling of having fought with hostile circumstances. Even if a person was not healed and the evil was not rectified, at least there was the satisfaction of having punished the guilty.

Witch hunts on a larger scale appeared very late in Poland, not until the Saxon Era (the early 18th century). That was when over half of all the recorded stakes burned in the country. Let us note that during this period, the country was exceptionally devastated by wars and epidemics.

It has been estimated that several hundred ‘witches’ were burned at the stake by the mid-15th century throughout Europe. Between 1450 and 1700, there could have been as many as 100,000 victims. There is really no way to accurately determine this number; the lower limit you can find in source literature, most likely heavily underestimated, is 50,000 victims.

Satan from the New World

Women accused of black magic were not the only victims of the demonological obsession. Albeit in incomparably lesser number, also burned at the stake were men: peasants, townspeople, sometimes clergymen. In the European imagination, the role of ‘scapegoat’ was also played by Turks, Moors, and – of course – Jews. The native inhabitants of the newly ‘discovered’ America constituted a fascinating yet little known object of ‘demonization’ in those times. A number of fascinating stories appeared about the meetings of European clergymen – brought up and educated in the spirit of modern demonology – with the cultures and religions of both Americas, not to mention all the theories accompanying them.

These clergymen made their way to the ‘discovered’ Americas to ‘convert’ the Indigenous peoples. According to Jesuit friar José de Acosta, when Christ appeared, Satan went to live in ‘India’. He beguiled the local population, who unaware of his real nature, started to worship him. This disturbing theory, although not unconditionally accepted by other missionaries, did play a certain role during the conquest. So López de Gómara, chronicler and secretary to the ‘conqueror’ of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, emphatically asserted that the devils ‘confidentially’ spoke to the Aztec priests, providing them knowledge about the future and urging them to offer human sacrifices. Similar narratives gave way to a strategy adopted by the missionaries that involved convincing the natives that the gods they had been worshipping were in fact demons. Supaya (god of the Andean afterlife and people who died as a result of strange circumstances, or people who ran out of time to accomplish an important life goal) enjoyed such a classification.

The missionaries used not only words. They would use other items, such as large paintings with depictions of paradise and hell. When words would not suffice, they used gestures to explain to the local inhabitants of the colonized lands that only people who convert will enter the first place, while their ‘non-believing’ ancestors all ended up in the second.

Only from today’s perspective are we able to assess the scale of the mental crisis that the actions of the evangelists must have triggered. In many American tribes, the cult of the ancestors played a paramount role, as they were considered to be holy. Meanwhile, the preachers proclaimed with reliable confidence that the mythical and important figures in native societies, as well as close family and anybody that the newly ‘converted’ loved and admired ended up in the Christian hell, where they were now being burned.

As far as the audio-visual persuasion applied by the missionaries is concerned, a certain Father Antonio de Roa is worth mentioning. He was famous for having vigorously succumbed to physical punishment; he would also rip off his clothes, or have himself beaten for alleged sins, or have resin poured on his wounds, just to name a few actions. Moreover, he was said to have walked over hot coals with a heavy cross on his back. That was how he achieved his desired goals. The Indigenous peoples, with their newly instilled feeling of guilt, cried, screamed and banged their heads against walls and the ground.

Since the missionaries were raging a war against Satan himself, the methods did not matter. The cross and holy water were used as magical tools in the same manner as during exorcisms. In 1529, the first bishop of Mexico, Zummárraga, reported that over 500 ‘pagan’ temples and 20,000 representations of gods had been destroyed since the beginning of the conquest. According to Ciez de León, a soldier involved in the conquest of Peru, between 1540 and 1550, all the key Inca sanctuaries were destroyed, while the “demon was chased out of them”.

The conquest of America had its own theological interpretation that preachers gladly exploited: the Indigenous peoples were losing because their god was not the real god, but rather a demon. In turn, the punishment that fell upon them – mass deaths, depopulation, hunger, plague and forced labour – was the consequence of having served the demons. Franciscan friar Montolinia linked the mass deaths of Indigenous peoples as a result of the epidemic with the 10 disasters that God inflicted on the sinful Egyptians. In the opinion of Avendaño, another Spanish preacher of those times, it was not Cortés who took power away from Aztec king Montezuma, but rather God himself.

The first synod in Lima in 1551 introduced the possibility of bringing legal action against priests and local leaders who were obstructing evangelization. The court procedures were modelled on the ones developed by the inquisition. The death penalty and stakes were not introduced, but the Casa de Santa Cruz prison was established in Lima as a place designated for hardened pagans.

Franciscan friar and missionary Bernardino de Sahagún is the author of priceless writings on Aztec mythology and customs. Yet his pioneering ethnographic activities were motivated by his sincere conviction that the religion of the Indigenous peoples was an expression of a ‘disease of the soul’ and the ‘sin of idolatry’ – so in order to pull out the weed along with the roots, he had to acquire a profound understanding of it. Sahagún would even ask newly converted Indigenous people to tell him their dreams, in an attempt to track down any remnants of the ancestors’ faith in their subconscious.

As the journals of Bernal Díaz del Castillo suggest, the Aztec human sacrifices further deepened the conviction in newly arrived Europeans that the Indigenous peoples were worshipping the ‘devil’. As a result, the conquest, destruction and looting of ‘discovered’ lands gained moral justification.

Incidentally, to this day many people still think that human sacrifices were reason enough to enslave the Indigenous peoples. Oddly enough, the killing of ‘witches’ somehow did not fit this logic. Yet if we attempt to look at these practices from the outside and without prejudice, it’s quite clear that there is nearly no difference between them. In their essence, they were the same: ritual murders.

The demonological fever started to die out in the beginning of the 18th century. The last execution in England took place in 1684, in Scotland in 1727, in France in 1745, in Germany in 1775, in Poland in 1775 (14 ‘witches’ were killed during the execution that took place in Doruchów in the Greater Poland region). In line with the interpretation presented here, we should seek the cause of the demise of the practice in the relative stabilization of the social and political situation in Europe. The period between 1700 and 1900 was relatively calm and prosperous. Although events like the French Revolution took place, the intellectual climate was completely different and defined by the ideas of the Enlightenment.

This does not mean, though, that the social figure of the ‘scapegoat’ disappeared along with the end of the witch hunts. In moments of crisis, Europeans searched for other guilty parties, including Jews, monarchs, the bourgeoisie, capitalists, communists, etc. It is a well-known anthropological fact that people in principle always look for the source of their distress. The ‘unveiled culprit’ becomes one of the solutions to the problem.

I used the following sources when researching this text: J. Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries, Polish version translated by A. Szymanowski, Warsaw 1986; A.M. di Nola, The Devil, Polish version translated by I. Kania, Kraków 2001; J.B. Russell, Concepts of Witchcraft [w:] The Encyclopedia of Religion (red. M. Eliade), vol. 15, New York 1987; J. Sprenger, H. Kramer, Hammer of Witches, Polish version translated by S. Ząbkowic, Wrocław 2000; T. Todorov, Conquest of America, Polish version translated by J. Wojcieszak, Warsaw 1996; M. Kamler, Czarownic procesy [Witch Trials] [w:] Religia [Religio]). PWN Encyclopedia, vol. 3, Warsaw 2001; B.D. del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Polish version translated by A.L. Czerny, Warsaw 1962.


Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon

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