The figure of the witch, defined not only as someone who performed secretive and harmful sorcery, but also as someone who worked this sorcery through the agency of demons and who, forsaking the true faith, worshiped demons and the devil, only developed toward the end of the Middle Ages, appearing for the first time in the early 15th century. Although such a conception of witchcraft was only possible in a Christian society, still, in the most general terms, the two essential elements of witchcraft as conceived during the period of the witch-hunts—that it involved the performance of maleficent sorcery that caused real harm in the world, and that it also entailed serious violations of religious beliefs and practices—can be seen in the very earliest conceptions of magic to appear in ancient Western civilizations. Like witchcraft itself, magic is a difficult concept to define precisely, and distinctions between magical and religious rituals are notoriously difficult to draw. Yet almost all human cultures, it would seem, have posited certain boundaries, and indeed a certain opposition, between these two concepts.
In European history, at least by the fifth century B.C.E., as the city-states of Greece were entering into their golden age, religion, that is, the public and communal cults of the city-states, was being defined to some extent in opposition to magic, that is, other systems for accessing supernatural power that were either private, secretive, or anti-social. Although priests engaged with the gods and other supernatural entities for the greater civic good, and functioned to maintain stability and social order, magicians in ancient Greece were private individuals, either seeking their own gain or hiring themselves out as professionals to whom other people would turn seeking individual magical services. The distinction was amplified by the fact that foreign religious systems were often categorized as magic. In fact, the Greek word mageia derived from the name for the Persian priestly cast, called magoi in Greek. In other words, while the rituals and practices of the Greek civic cults were "religion," the foreign rites and practices of the Persians were "magic." In addition, the Greek word goeteia was often used to describe the lower forms of magic, even further removed from religious ritual, and this concept is perhaps as close as the Greeks ever came to something like later European witchcraft.
The boundaries between all of these concepts and practices, however, were extremely tenuous. They certainly appear so to modern historians, and probably were for the ancients as well. For example, the two most famous images of sorceresses to appear in Greek literature are Circe and Medea. While both would later be considered witches and would contribute to the development of the idea of witchcraft in medieval, Christian Europe, in ancient legend both were also religious figures. Circe was a demigoddess, and Medea was either a demigoddess or a priestess of a foreign cult.
In the ancient Hebrew tradition, too, magic was often defined in terms of being harmful and anti-social but was also seen as a religious error, and the priests of foreign religions were deemed to be magicians. In the Book of Exodus in the Bible, listed among other regulations placed upon the Israelites, is the command not to permit a sorcerer or seer (Hebrew kashaph) to live, rendered famously in the 17th century King James' translation: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). Such people were considered criminals due to the harmful magic that they employed. In 1 Samuel 28:3, just prior to the famous story of the Witch of Endor, King Saul is described as having driven out all the sorcerers and diviners from his kingdom because such people constituted an anti-social threat to the stability of his realm. The contrast between magic and religion is more clearly developed in other pas sages, such as Exodus 7:8-12. Here Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh during the Israelites' captivity in Egypt, and, in order to demonstrate the power of the Hebrews' god, Aaron casts down his staff and it becomes a serpent. The priests of Pharaoh's court are able to replicate this feat with their own staffs by resorting to their "secret arts." Aaron's serpent devours theirs, however, thus proving the superiority of divine power. In 1 Kings 18:20-40, the prophet Elijah confronts the pagan priests of Baal, who have been corrupting the people of Israel. He has them build an altar and place sacrifices on it, and then pray to their god to send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifices. Though they try for many hours, no fire comes. Then Elijah builds an altar, and for good measure douses his sacrifice with water. Still, at his prayer, a great fire descends from heaven and consumes the sacrifice.
As Judaism developed into a fully monotheistic religion, that is, a system of belief maintaining not just that Israel had only one god, while other peoples might have many, but that the one god of Israel was in fact the single supreme deity of the entire universe, the idea of magic as a deviation from proper religious practice became further developed. This process culminated, however, only in the early Christian era. Although Judaism was monotheistic, it never had a clearly defined concept of the devil, that is, the principal opponent of the one god responsible for all evil in the universe, such as developed in Christianity. For early Christian authorities the power of Satan and the legions of lesser devils he commanded was set very directly against the power of God and the church in the world, and much magical practice became fully demo-nized. While holy men and women might perform miracles by calling on divine power, all other such wonders were actually the work of demons. The strict dichotomy was expressed in the New Testament account of Christ's chief apostle, Simon Peter, and the magician Simon Magus of Samaria (Acts 8:9-24). Seeing that the wonders that the apostles could perform were greater than those he could achieve, Simon Magus offered Peter money in exchange for some of his power. Later apocryphal accounts developed the rivalry between the miracle-working apostle and the demonic magician even further. In one story, Simon Magus tried to fly up to heaven, borne aloft by demons. At a word from Peter, however, the power of the demons failed and Simon Magus crashed to earth.
Because, in Christian cosmology, all demons were evil spirits in the service of the one great evil, Satan, who was the enemy of both God and humankind, all magic, insofar as it entailed involvement with demonic forces, was inherently evil. The anti-social and religiously deviant aspects of magical practice were fully merged. It was the great church father Augustine of Hippo, who lived from 354 to 430 C.E., who gave this new Christian conception of magic its full form. In his most important work, The City of God, Augustine described the entire world in terms of the struggle between divine and demonic forces. All evil arose from demons, and all evil sorcery derived from demonic power. Moreover, Augustine fully articulated the concept of the pact made between the demon and the human magician who called upon it. Implacably hostile to humanity, demons would only offer their services in exchange for worship. Thus for Christian authorities the real crime of demonic magic, as ultimately for witchcraft, lay not in the harm that magic was supposedly able to cause, but in the religious violation of demon-worship that such magic was believed to entail.
With the full demonization of magic by Christian authorities achieved at least by the fifth century C.E., one might think that the concept of diabolic witchcraft would have appeared in late antiquity. This, however, was not the case. Rather, the initial general effect of the Christian conception of demonic magic seems to have been actually to reduce the culpability of human magicians. That is, Christian religious authorities recognized their real enemies as being the devil and his demons, who lay behind any harmful sorcery that a human magician might work. The magician was guilty only of having succumbed to temptation and the deceits of these demons. The punishments that religious authorities, mainly bishops, prescribed in cases involving sorcery were in fact generally more lenient than those laid out by secular Roman authorities in the harsh late-imperial legal code.
On into the early Middle Ages, for many centuries, clerical authorities remained relatively lenient in their treatment of sorcery. There are several possible reasons for this. First, in the wake of the influx of pagan Germanic tribes into the territories of the Western Roman Empire, and the expansion of Roman Christianity into lands that had never lain within the boundaries of the empire, clerical authorities probably focused more of their energies on spreading the religion, converting pagans, and stamping out or subsuming within Christian belief the elements of paganism that persisted among the great majority of people in the emerging medieval kingdoms of Europe. Also, in the wake of the collapse of the Roman imperial system, for many centuries the church's own institutions and systems for exerting power and control were relatively weak and certainly not highly centralized. Above all, perhaps, clerical authorities did not, in general, seem to perceive demonic power, and hence demonic sorcery, as a serious threat during this period. The famous 10th century canon Episcopi (a document of church law named after its first word in Latin, "Bishops") warned bishops and their officials to take all steps necessary to eradicate the magical practices of sor-tilegium and maleficium from the regions under their control. The canon then went on to describe the widespread belief that there existed groups of women who would ride through the night sky with the pagan goddess Diana. Centuries later, this belief would contribute directly to the idea of the night flight of witches to a sabbath. In the 10th century, however, the canon declared that such ideas were merely delusions and deceptions of the devil, and that they had no basis in reality. Other documents show that many clerical authorities felt only penance and correction were needed to combat such beliefs, and that harsher punishments were not in order.
This is not to say that clerical authorities in the early Middle Ages did not accept the reality of demonic sorcery. But they were either unable or unwilling (most likely both) to respond to such beliefs and practices with widespread and highly organized campaigns of persecution. Insofar as harmful sorcery, maleficium, remained a crime to be prosecuted and punished in the early Middle Ages, it was mainly secular authorities who exercised jurisdiction over such cases. In Germanic legal codes, as in the law codes of the ancient world, maleficium was defined as a crime not primarily for its implications of religious deviance, but for the real harm that such sorcery was believed to be able to achieve. Such prosecutions, however, could not generate the necessary levels of fear and panic to spark a real witch-hunt, as would occur in later centuries. Although secular authorities in the early Middle Ages were certainly not unaware of the church's position that most, if not all, sorcery involved trafficking with demons, they do not seem to have stressed the point, and so the idea of sorcerers being in league with the devil and part of a larger conspiratorial assault on the entire Christian world never developed to the extent it later would. Also, sorcerers were not typically accused of membership in satanic cults, and no concept like the later witches' sabbath ever developed in the early medieval period. Rather, individual accusations of sorcery tended to be settled without generating other accusations or anything like a widespread hunt.
An important aspect underlying the lack of any truly rampant persecution of sorcerers in the early Middle Ages was the use of accusatorial procedure in most European courts. This was a legal method whereby an accuser, a private person who felt himself to be afflicted or aggrieved in some way, not only brought the initial charge of a crime, but also bore the responsibility of prosecuting the case and demonstrating the guilt of the person accused. For a crime like sorcery, secretive by its very nature, hard evidence was usually difficult if not impossible to find, and witnesses were similarly scarce. In such cases, accusatorial procedure relied on the judicial ordeal (or for certain elite groups trial by combat) to determine guilt or innocence. Typically, the accused would be made to grasp a heated iron. If, several days later, the wound was judged to have healed sufficiently, the person was deemed innocent. Another common ordeal was for the accused to be immersed in a pool of water. If they did not immediately float to the surface (a sign that the pure water had not rejected them as being evil), they were judged innocent. In theory, such methods left the determination of guilt or innocence in the hands of God. In practice, they were uncertain at best. Since the accuser was responsible for proving his case, and was subject to legal penalties if the person accused was judged innocent, entirely frivolous cases were rare, and the sort of wild accusations that later typified the witch-hunts were almost unthinkable.
Around the 12th century, important developments began to take place that would lay the foundations for the emergence of witchcraft and witch-hunting centuries later. Perhaps most directly, Roman law was rediscovered across Europe, and the new legal method of inquisitorial procedure began to be used, first by ecclesiastical courts but then by secular courts as well, instead of the older accusatorial procedure. Under inquisitorial procedure, a private person could still bring a charge of some crime, but now judges could also initiate inquests themselves. In either case, after the initial accusation, the responsibility for prosecuting the case lay with the judges or magistrates. Rather than relying on practices like the ordeal, judges employed more rational methods, such as examination of witnesses and interrogation of the accused, as well as collection of any evidence that might be available. In cases of sorcery or witchcraft, however, where secrecy still prevailed, evidence and witnesses were rare. Thus, the confession of the accused was virtually the only way to achieve a conviction. Since it was assumed that guilty people would lie to protect themselves, judges could employ torture. Under normal circumstances, use of torture should have remained limited and strictly regulated. In cases of witchcraft, however, where the crime was believed to be so severe, panic usually ran high, and the devil was often thought to exert his power to prevent guilty witches from confessing, the use of torture was often uncontrolled and excessive. In such cases, authorities could extract a lurid confession from virtually anyone accused.
Although the development of inquisitorial methods and use of torture provided a legal procedure that made rampant witch-hunting possible, legal changes alone were not enough to lead to the concept of witchcraft as developed in the late-medieval and early-modern periods. Authorities also had to be prepared to see a vast demonic conspiracy behind accusations of simple maleficium. Here, too, important changes began to occur around the 12th century. As part of the so-called "Renaissance of the 12th Century," the general revitalization of intellectual life in Europe, classical Greek and Roman, Hebrew, and Arabic texts were rediscovered and began to circulate more widely among educated, mainly clerical, elites. Among these texts were learned treatises on magical arts, including astrology and alchemy, and also works discussing forms of magic and divination performed through the invocation of spirits or demons. These authoritative sources took the reality and power of demonic magic seriously, and so clerical writers in Europe followed suit. By the middle of the 13 th century, the great scholastic authority Thomas Aquinas was devoting significant sections of his major theological works to exploring and explaining the powers of demons. Aquinas' writings were arguably the most important treatment of demonology in the Western Christian tradition since Augustine in the fifth century. By the early 1300s, the older, less intensely focused clerical attitude toward demonic sorcery had given way to profound concern at the very highest levels of the church. Pope John XXII, who reigned from 1316 until 1334, was deeply worried about the threat posed by practitioners of demonic sorcery. He ordered papal inquisitors to take actions against this crime, and he passed an automatic sentence of excommunication against anyone who engaged in such activities. By the later 14th century, the theologian and inquisitor Nicolau Eymeric crafted a definitive theological and legal argument that all demonic sorcery was heretical and necessarily involved the worship of demons. The stage for the emergence of diabolical witchcraft was set.
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