Gothic Witches and the Burning Times

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ifljS^|y the eleventh century any remaining Classic Witches who might have been worshipping Pagan deities in the Church's territory had pretty much died out or gone far underground. Most of the Paleopagan cultures of western and central Europe had been destroyed, and pacification programs had been instituted against any remaining objectors. Having slain all available competition outside of the Church, the Christians proceeded to slay each other. The Inquisition was founded and Crusades mounted against heretics (which were much more successful than the Crusades mounted against the Moslems, who had the rude habit of winning).

Heretic roasting became a lucrative source of wealth, power, and sexual satisfaction for both the Inquisitors and their civilian helpers. Eventually, however, they began to run out of heretics to kill. This was disastrous for them, since many Inquisitors and nobles had built their fortunes on confiscated property taken from their victims. A

few hopeful sadists, however, had been suggesting to the Popes for quite some time that sorcery and witchcraft should be declared heretical. This was done slowly over a period of two centuries.

In 1324 Bernard Gui wrote a manual for heretic hunters that strongly influenced later ones. In 1376, Nicholas Eymeric published a popular handbook for inquisitors, which was in use through the end of the 15th century. In 1428, the Church created a six-point definition of a particular heresy in Calais and Arras (France) that was to eventually be used in a new definition of "witchcraft."

The victims there were tortured until they confessed to:

(1) making a pact (a legal agreement) with the Christian Devil,

(2) having sex with the Christian Devil,

(3) flying around at night (as in the Canon Episcopi) with the Christian Devil,

(4) working magic,

(5) attending secret meetings at night, and

(6) being sexually promiscuous (having more sex than the inquisitors were).

(Wiccan author Gavin Frost has pointed out that limiting the term "witch trials" to only those cases involving these six particular characteristics is one way in which the numbers of those killed for witchcraft can be limited to the lower estimates.)

In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued some Papal Bull officially sanctioning the arrest and trial (that is to say, the torture, conviction and execution) of anyone accused of such consorting with demons.

Soon after, two Catholic priests, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, wrote and published (with the Pope's approval or "Imprimatur") one of the more infamous books in history, Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of [female] Evildoers (which Montague Summers translated as "The Witches Hammer"). This was used along with the previous witch-hunters' manuals to guide and justify three hundred years of atrocities committed against women, children, and men for the thought-crime of "witchcraft."

The theological excuses were easy to manufacture, especially by experienced Bible scholars such as Kramer and Sprenger, and were defended in Church literature well into the mid-twentieth century — see The Inquisition, by Fernand Hayward, published by the Church's Society of St. Paul and with a full Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat (official Church approval) in 1965.

Since there was only "one God, one Faith, and one Church," anyone disagreeing with the Roman Catholic Church (or the later Protestant Churches) about anything was automatically a heretic. By similar du-

alistic reasoning, anyone using a system of magic outside of Christian control and approval was "obviously" doing it with the help of the Christian Devil. Satan was, after all, the only other god allowed to exist in Christian mythology — though they killed you if you called him one. Since the Christian Devil supposedly would not give magical power to people who weren't "his own," the accused witches "must" therefore have been worshiping him.

Many of the early Christian "heresies" had threatened the theological and political power of the Bishop of Rome, who was now called the Pope. The Popes were especially sensitive on this matter, since most of the non-Roman Bishops considered the Popes to be heretics themselves, who had unlawfully usurped the powers of the early Christian Council of Bishops. Most of the Bishops from the other forty Catholic Churches still feel that way today.

Having crushed all opposition and declared their opponents to be the ones who were "really" the heretics, the Bishops of Rome grabbed for all the religious and secular power they could get. Thus, as I often say, the Roman Empire never actually fell, it just changed hands and continued under new management!

Wherever the Roman Catholic Church went, it would first wipe out the native Pa-leopagan culture, then, after a few decades or centuries, start executing heretics. The Roman Church had a vital psychological, political, and theological interest in keeping the attention of Christendom focused on real or imagined enemies. This was similar to how corporate and political leaders in the second half of the twentieth century focused the attention of the world on the "Communist Peril," thus deflecting movements aimed at making them accountable.

Through a series of astonishing theological gymnastics, Pope Guilty VIII and the leaders of the Inquisition managed to declare that the Canon Episcopi (discussed in Chapter 2) was in essence "irrelevant" or referred to some other cult of a similar description. They couldn't actually say it was "wrong" because it had been considered Church Law for hundreds of years.

However, after 1484, it was heresy if one did not believe in witches who flew through the air and had magical powers given to them by the false deity they worshiped — only now, that deity was said to be Satan instead of Diana. Thus the Church created out of thin (if busy) air a brand-new kind of "witchcraft," the religion of Satanism, which I call Gothic Witchcraft. (It should be noted that I coined this term in 1979, before the rise of the "Goth" subculture of vampire fans.)

The details of Gothic Witchcraft were easy to invent. Since Roman Catholicism was the only "true" religion, and since Satan was deemed the opposite of their God, Satanism must thereby be an exact reversal of Roman Catholicism. (Other Christian sects accused the Gothic Witches of reversing their particular version of the One True Right and Only Way to worship.) From here sprung fully formed the whole concept of the "witches' sabbat," "Black Masses," and the like.

Previously, the concept of "Black Masses" had referred to masses (the standard Catholic liturgy) said for the dead — in which Catholic priests usually wore black vestments — only performed for people who were still living, as a kind of curse!

The ancient Roman urban legends about Evil Cultists who profaned sacred things, ate little babies, held wild orgies, etc., previously used against early Christians, and then by them against Paleopagans, Jews, and heretics for centuries, were dusted off and laid at the feet of Gothic Witches. These lies were repeated constantly, with evidence manufactured to support them. It was rather like what happened in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s (see Jeffery Victor's book of that title) when Americans and Britons decided that there was a global conspiracy of baby-killing devil worshippers sacrificing hundreds of thousands of people in Satanic orgies.

This insanity was (and is) rooted in the Dualist paranoia of Christian mythology, which describes an eternal cosmic battle between Good and Evil. Therefore, anyone who was not a good Christian (by local definition) was committing "spiritual treason" by helping the enemies of Christendom. This was far worse than mere political treason (which was more of a pastime than a crime in those days). Gradually, the power of Satan increased in the Christian mythos, until he was credited with an entire anti-church of his own. The congregation of this anti-church was said to consist of heretics in general and Gothic Witches in particular.

I really should not go into the details of the persecutions (often called the "Burning Times" by modern Witches) against suspected (and therefore "guilty") Gothic Witches, since most readers may not have strong stomachs (they can skip to the next page if they like). Somewhere between 50,000 and a quarter-million women, children, and men were killed. Estimates of the total body count vary widely among scholars, depending upon their biases and academic fashions. The victims were raped, maimed, mutilated, and murdered in ways that make the atrocities of modern stormtroopers and death squads look like child's play.

People were torn limb from limb by wild horses, flayed alive (having all their skin removed), covered with boiling tar, had red-

hot irons locked around their bodies, had toenails and fingernails ripped off, toes, fingers and testicles crushed. Women had their hair burnt and nipples torn off, and jagged irons shoved up their genitals, or, if they were "attractive" women or girls, were raped to death.

Most of this, mind you, was what was done during questioning, before "guilt" had even been "proven" and sentence passed. The actual executions were swift and merciful by contrast: hanging, burning alive, strangulation, drowning, etc.

The whole pseudo-legal point of the torture was to ask the accused people long, involved questions, and to force them to answer "yes" or "no." The torture continued until the victim "confessed" all she or he was told to say. Then they were taken out of the torture room and asked the same questions, with the threat of further torture if they did not reaffirm their confessions. Once a confession was reaffirmed, the Inquisitors could state in the official records, "the accused confessed without torture," and send the victim (usually a woman or girl) back into the torture room for the "good Christian men" to do with as they pleased.

After a few decades, many of the Inquisitors themselves began to believe the Big Lie their predecessors had invented. They put more and more pressure on the civil authorities to torture and execute witches and other heretics, threatening to have them executed as heretics themselves if they did not comply. Thus, in direct opposition to Christian defenses to this very day, it was the Bible-quoting Inquisitors who urged the civil courts on, not the other way around. Yet once the civilians realized that they could share in the political, economic, and sexual benefits of witch-hunting, they became equally zealous.

These horrors were not confined to Roman Catholicism; after the Protestant Reformation, the new religious leaders agreed with the old that Gothic Witches deserved to die. So they proceeded to roast accused Gothic Witches, heretics, Catholics, and each other. The Bible translators working in England managed to insert the English word "witch" into several parts of the scriptures where "a Devil-worshipping sorceress" could not possibly have been meant (the ancient Hebrews had no "Devil" figure for anyone to be worshipping). The infamous "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" line, for example, actually referred to poisoners, but the witch-phobic King James, like Christian Fundamentalists today, loved how the mistranslation could justify his hatred and violence towards accused witches.

What, beside the greed and sexual depravity of the Christian clergy, turned witch hunting into a socially accepted activity? Many scholars have offered many theories, ranging from the Church's fear of the upcoming scientific worldview, to a sexist reaction against strong women, to a homophobic reaction against real or alleged lesbians and gay men, to a conspiracy by medical doctors against midwives. All these theories have something to offer, so we should not let ourselves be trapped by monothesisism (by insisting on a single explanation).

Part of the answer, I feel, lies in the fear that magic and psychic phenomena can cause in ignorant people. Even the Classic Witches had inspired fear as well as respect. With ten centuries of Church propaganda drumming it into the populace's heads that all magic came from either Jehovah or Satan, more fear of magic workers developed. When the Black Plague wiped out a third of Europe's population almost overnight, preachers were quick to suggest that it was punishment from the Christian God for laxity in Christendom. Jews, Gypsies, strangers, and other unusual people were scape-goated on an unprecedented scale. This soon included itinerant magical workers such as the Classic Witches.

For more details on this whole, sick mess, consult Rossell Hope Robbins' book, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demon-ology and Jeffrey B. Russell's A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans.

Chapter 5:

Witches as Pagan Cultists?

as there actually a secret, underground movement to act as the peg upon which the Church could hang its branding irons? Could the Classic Witches have actually been the leaders of a European-wide Pagan revival or survival, a Paganism that the Church merely distorted into a Satanic cult?

Since the Classic Witches would commonly be among the elder members of any village social structure — it takes a long time to become adept at healing, herbology and divination — they could have been at the fore-front of any sporadic efforts to preserve Pagan customs. They could have helped to organize dances, parades, and other folk customs with which tiny remnants of the old religions could have been kept alive. However, we have no historical record of anyone called a "witch" ever doing so.

Furthermore, Ronald Hutton has shown, in The Stations of the Sun and The Rise and Fall of Merry England, that many of the customs we have long been taught were Paleopagan survivals were really medieval or Renaissance inventions. That would make them Mesopagan (mixed Christian and Pagan systems, see Appendix 2) customs at best. The little we can plausibly say about the Classic Witches, therefore, is a far cry from the now well-known theories of an organized cult of Pagan witches spanning the entire continent.

Margaret Murray is the writer most associated with these theories. In the early twentieth century, after a successful career as an Egyptologist, she decided to study a topic she apparently knew nothing about — medieval Christian history. She took the "confessions" wrung from the supposed Gothic Witches and compared their artificially constructed similarities (caused by the Inquisitors' use of torture manuals such as the Malleus) with collections of folk beliefs and customs from England, Brittany and Italy. The major conclusions she came to in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, first published in 1921, were astonishing, at least to modern scholars.

Murray argued that there had been a gigantic, anti-Christian cult in medieval Europe, only it had been Pagan instead of Satanic. Furthermore, the leaders of this cult might have been witches, as the descendants of the postulated priestesses of "the Old Religion." This religion, she speculated, was a belief system based on the worship of Diana (and Her male counterpart Dianus!)

and was so well organized that every witch in Europe had essentially the same theology, ethics, cosmology, and rituals.

A "Dianic Witch" (Murray was the first to use this term) could supposedly travel from Denmark to Italy, from England to Poland and be accepted into the local services. This, she said, was why the persecutions happened — there really was a gigantic threat to Christianity, only it was run by Pagan witches.

This is an important theory that needs discussion, for many Neopagan Witches and Feminist Witches (see Chapters 8-10) accept it as "proven" and it has been published as absolute truth in many books, including a few encyclopedias (Murray wrote the Britannica entries on witchcraft for several editions).

Evidence in favor of witches as leaders of a religion of any sort is rare, as is evidence of any "universal" cults (of specific, named deities) among European Paleopagans, while contrary evidence is plentiful (serious readers may wish to consult the Paleopagan section of Appendix 6). However, for the sake of argument, let us pretend there really was a unified "Old Religion" of some sort throughout Europe, which survived intact into the Christian era. Could the customs and beliefs of such a cult survive 500 to 1,500 years of oppression?

There are certain factors required for the safe transmittal of a real tradition from generation to generation. It must be written down and physically preserved, or else it must become part of an oral literature supported by public approval of the bards, actors, storytellers, etc. Either way, it will usually be altered by the requirements of the literary, theatrical, or poetic forms used, as well as by the religious expectations of the intended audience.

Unfortunately, there are no equivalents yet discovered to the Eddas or the Mabi-nogion (collected tales of Norse and Welsh mythology, respectively) that present the entire mythology of the "Universal Witch Cult" as practiced by our hypothetical ancestors. Granted, a large number of people have claimed that the above-mentioned texts are just chock full of references to the Old Religion and are "really" about the Witch Cult. The fact remains, however, that the sacred scriptures of the postulated Witch Cult's beliefs and practices (with the exception of quotes from old poems and folk songs) were never found in written form until the last hundred years.

Christianity did not provide much in the way of support for competing religions. The Church accepted some local planting and herding customs and holidays, turned some of the local deities and nature spirits into saints and demons, and went merrily on its way subverting and co-opting the faiths of the conquered tribes. Now, it could be argued that as an underground movement, the Witch Cult might have provided a subculture that gave public support to an oral literature of religious witchcraft.

But Europe of the Middle Ages was not the England or America of today where religious subcultures may be tolerated, even if despised. A subculture has to be substantial to provide the necessary amount of support. Bards have to eat, after all, and so do dramatists, dancers, and polytheologi-ans. Long before any survival or revival could have reached the necessary size, it would have been subverted or destroyed by the Church.

It's useful here to look at the maranos, a secret underground of Jews in Catholic Spain. In 1492, the King of Spain ordered all Jews to leave Spain, convert to Catholicism, or be executed. Many left, many died, but many others chose to convert, some of them under false pretenses. These "underground" Jews practiced their faith in secrecy while acting in public as good Catholics. When caught, they were referred to as maranos, Spanish for "pigs" — used because it was a word especially insulting to Jews, who considered pigs unclean animals.

After World War Two, many of the maranos went public, demanding to be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the "Right of

Return," which says Jews anywhere in the world have a right to move to Israel and become citizens. In order to determine the validity of their claim, the government of Israel sent a team of linguists, anthropologists, and rabbis to Spain to interview them. The maranos, they discovered, knew that they were supposed to study the "Old" Testament and ignore the "New," light candles and say special prayers on Friday nights and Saturdays, and use mezuzim and other Jewish talismans their ancestors had hidden away. That, and a handful of Hebrew words, was all the maranos knew about being Jewish (for details, read The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot, by Trudi Alexy).

Thus we have a group of highly literate people with a rich and deep tradition of organized religious beliefs and practices, who lost 99% of it after only 500 years underground. Just how likely is it then, that Pa-leopagans, most of them illiterate, would have been able to keep their religion alive for nearly twice that long — let alone for three times that long as believed by some Neopagans — without public support for families of myth-memorizing clergy?

Yes, the medieval peasants built need-fires at certain times of the year; yes, they followed the agricultural customs of their ancestors (and invented new ones). None of these activities prove, however, that they had any idea, magically or religiously, of what they were doing. This is why outside observers make remarks such as, "The peasants really did this because..." or, "They were actually worshiping an old Pagan god named Murphy, who."

You do not need a religious or magical reason to perform customary or enjoyable acts. The mere fact that, "This is the way my grandfather did it," or that, "Actually, I've always rather enjoyed orgies," is more than sufficient to ensure that some form of that act will be perpetuated. After all, in magic and religion as in many other fields, you do not have to consciously understand what you are doing in order to get results (though it usually helps). Just because a group of peasants is performing a ritual of possible magical efficacy, or one that is at least constructed according to the basic Laws of Magic (see Real Magic), does not prove that they have had someone train them in the art of magic. Nor does a belief that a ritual is old and "authentic" make it so.

To the average medieval peasant, the Church provided nearly every religious comfort that the old belief systems did, except for one area of life: sex. The Church provided nothing except monogamous marriage to fill that niche. So it was all the more likely that older sexual customs would be preserved, with or without a magical or theological context that would provide a deeper meaning. I'm willing to grant that the peasants sometimes went into the woods to hold orgies. But it is entirely possible that they only wanted to have some fun, not get enlightened.

It was fashionable for scholars a hundred years ago to interpret many European folk customs as Paleopagan survivals under thin Christian veneers. However, even if some of them were genuine customs, there is little or nothing to suggest that the people practicing these customs knew that, or that they were in touch with each other, or that they shared more than the vaguest of common beliefs. Thus, the theories of both the Inquisition and Margaret Murray about The Great Witchcraft Conspiracy must be dismissed as highly unlikely, at best.

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