Decline Of Witchhunting And Survival Of Witchbeliefs

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As early as the mid-17th century in some lands, and certainly by the 18th century across much of Europe (excluding the east), large-scale witch-hunting was in decline. This did not mean, however, that belief in the reality of witchcraft or the potential threat posed by witches was declining. Rather, the decline of witch-hunting preceded any lessening in actual belief in witchcraft and was caused primarily, it would seem, by a more limited sort of purely legal skepticism. In a sense, the witchhunts undermined themselves by their own severity, and more and more authorities became concerned with the abuses of legal procedure, primarily the rampant use of torture, that took place in many courts, and the obviously large number of false convictions that were being extracted. While not denying the power of the devil or the possible existence of real witches, authorities increasingly became convinced that witchcraft did not exist as a widespread threat. With the application of more careful legal procedures, more people accused of witchcraft were shown to be innocent, and the level of fear and panic that had fueled the largest hunts was dissipated. Gradually, this legal skepticism was sup plemented by a level of real skepticism about the very possibility of witchcraft. Nevertheless, belief in the real existence of at least some witches remained widespread among most of the European population, if not among the ruling elites, well into the 19 th century.

Although belief in the reality of witchcraft remained widespread at many levels of European society, the legal prosecution of witches and conduct of witch trials required cooperation between populations and ruling elites, and in the course of the 1700s government after government put an end to witch trials. The last legal executions for witchcraft took place toward the end of this century. The end of officially sanctioned witch-hunting certainly had an effect on the nature of commonly held witch-beliefs and popular reaction to suspected cases of witchcraft. Greater historical shifts would be needed, however, to end the widespread belief in harmful sorcery and the existence of witches.

Belief in witchcraft in the most general sense — that of harmful sorcery or maleficium—seems almost a universal aspect of pre-modern human societies and functions to meet a variety of social needs. In almost all cultures in which it appears, the concept of witchcraft, however specifically defined, serves mainly as an explanation for unexpected misfortune or natural calamities, and as an outlet to express social conflict within tightly knit communities existing in a largely agrarian context. Such cultures support the belief in harmful sorcery and witchcraft in many ways, and ultimately it is the very nature of these cultures that must change in order to undermine these ideas. In Europe, the widespread belief in the existence of witches does not appear to have declined significantly until the profound demographic, economic, political, legal, and social changes brought about as a result of the industrial revolution permeated most regions of the continent and most levels of European society, and this process was not complete until the 19th and in some areas even well into the 20th century.

Even as this process was underway, however, ideas of magic and occultism were taking new forms. Already in the 18 th century, European elites began to form numerous secret societies, the most well known of which were the Masonic orders. Certain elements within these elite groups, such as the Rosicrucians or Illuminati, were drawn to magic and occult practices. By the end of the 19th century, in 1888, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in England as a socially elite, secret society explicitly devoted to the study and practice of magic and occultism. At the same time, spiritualism was becoming extremely popular with the urban middle classes of Europe, and all manner of seers and mediums, such as the famous and outrageous Madame Blavatsky, were capturing the public imagination with their claims of supernatural powers and ability to commune with the dead and foretell the future. Even today, the continued prominence of astrology, tarot reading, and other forms of divination—to say nothing of the actual practice of ritual magic by some groups — speaks to the continued willingness of many people in modern, industrialized, and technologically sophisticated society to believe in the existence of magical or occult forces.

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