The Origin of the Witch in Early Modern Europe

The Early Modern period (ca.14th-17th c.), as its name implies, was a time in which the new movements then occurring in many cultural arenas hearkened forward to our modern attitudes. Yet also at this time, great numbers of people were involved in the witch-hunts, which from a modern perspective seem to have been based on very superstitious ideas. This apparent contradiction begs the question, how did the concept of witchcraft develop, and how did it come to be so widely accepted? The process of creating the "official picture" of witches and their crimes took centuries of work by theologians, and was driven by many cultural stimuli. Although many of the ideas that were incorporated into the witches' portfolio were derived from popular folklore, the developments were largely the domain of the intellectual elite, and only filtered back to the common people indirectly.

There are five primary elements in the collective ideas about witchcraft. The first of these elements, and probably the most important, is the involvement of the Devil and his demons in witchcraft. Since it's start, Christianity has been an embattled faith. Persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire helped to foster an adversarial tone in the religion. This quality was instilled into early theology, and it remains to this day. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Devil was most often called by the biblical name "Satan," which actually means "the adversary," (Levack, 27). Although Satan played little role in the Old Testament, he takes up a prominent role in the New Testament, tempting people and leading them away from Christ. There was seen to exist a great struggle between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan, each attempting to gain control of men's souls.

As the Kingdom of Christ (i.e., Christianity) spread, and other faiths were encountered, competition arose to acquire converts to the "one true faith." Due to this evangelical attitude, other belief systems were seen as denying the word of God, and leading people away from Christ. Therefore, it was an easy step to view other religions, both Jewish and pagan, as belonging to the Kingdom of Satan (Levack, 28).

Christianity demonised the gods of other religions, particularly those of converts. In fact, attributes of many pagan deities were used to describe the Devil. The process by which an old local deity was caricatured as evil had been a common result of the combining of cultures since ancient times (Murray, 15). Both Roman and Celtic deities were thus incorporated into the Christian Devil's identity. Accordingly, people were taught to fear and loathe pagan deities and their remaining adherents. Fertility gods were particularly recognised as demonic, including Pan (Roman) and Cernunnos (Celtic)-who gave the Devil his often goat-like appearance-and Diana (Roman), from whom Satan was sometimes described as having a woman's breasts (Levack, 28). These details were often described in the confessions of accused witches, probably at the prompting of the inquisitor.

In order to explain the metaphysical nature of demons, it was postulated, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that they must be creatures purely of spirit (Levack, 30). As they were supposed to be fallen angels-and angels were spiritual entities-this followed. Despite earlier controversy, this position remained orthodox throughout the Early Modern period. The visible body of a demon was said to be created as an aerial construct out of vapours from the earth. This power over the air later became an important presupposition for the theory of witches' flight.

Since it was believed that only God could cause true miracles, any suggestion that the Devil had true power of creation or control over free will was in itself heretical. Thus, any perceived miraculous transformations were deemed illusory. The Devil's power to create illusions was an extension of his influence on the material world. Since his powers were over only material things, even if a human being was possessed by demons, their will was still, in theory, their own. Ideas about the Devil's influence had to conform to the Christian orthodoxy of free will. Only by tricks and bribery was the Devil supposed to be able to influence a person's choices (Malleus Maleficarum). This is a very important point, in that it maintains the moral responsibility of accused witches, especially where the concept of the pact was concerned.

The pact with the Devil is the second of the key elements of widely accepted witch-beliefs. The idea of the pact served to draw together two seemingly separate implications of the term "witch." A witch was both a person who practised harmful magic and a Devil-worshipper, but logically one needn't necessarily imply the other. In fact, all heretics could be termed witches by assumption of the latter qualification, while many otherwise orthodox peasants believed they could perform maleficia (harmful spells enacted through malevolent will). The idea of the pact as a link between sorcery and diabolic apostasy was developed over several centuries.

The earliest writings on such pacts were by St. Augustine, but the concept did not become widespread until descriptions of them were translated into Latin in the ninth century. By this time, it was an established belief that while not all Devil-worshippers were granted magical powers, all magicians received their powers through pacts with the Devil (Levack, 32-3). According to the ninth-century-circulated accounts, the pact took the form of a legal contract, in which the Devil promised some sort of reward in exchange for the witch's service and custody of their immortal soul. The reward could take the form of a promise (whether kept or not) of wealth, power, sexual indulgence, or guaranteed happiness in the afterlife (Murray, 81). Sometimes, magic was bestowed upon the witch, in exchange for their services. Here we see the basic connection between the two concepts partly explained, but it is another three centuries before the possibility of good magic is fully reasoned out of existence.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, translations of some Greek and Islamic texts led to an increased practice of magical arts among certain intelligentsia, even in courts of nobility (Levack, 33). Necromancy (literally, "communication with the dead") became popular, wherein demons were supposedly summoned in order to trap them and extort hidden knowledge from them. Increased occurrence of such practices demanded increased condemnation of those practices. Demonologists reasoned that although necromancers may not intend to pay any homage to Satan, even a captive demon wouldn't give something for free (Levack, 33). Therefore, it could be concluded that either by offering bait for the demon, or by other tacit reciprocity, the magician was doing service to the Devil. Thus, the way in which all magic came to be condemned as evil, no matter the intent, is evident.

Although magic had been condemned as heresy before, the pact was a significant addition to witch-lore. By the logic of the scholastic demonologists, the condemning label of "witch" could now be applied to unsophisticated peasants who practised maleficia without understanding the implications of their actions-they had made a pact with the Devil, whether intentionally or unwittingly. Additionally, the connection between magic and heresy led to the application of the sort of claims already laid against other heretics to witches. Such accusations included secret, collective worship and perverse, anti-human behaviour (Levack, 34). In this way, witchcraft coalesced into a religious mockery of Christian practice, the ultimate expression of which was the witches' sabbath, discussed below.

Before moving on to the next element of the concept of witchcraft, it is interesting to note the shift in focus here, from the usually upper class, academic, male magician to the usually poor, unsophisticated, female witch (Purkiss, 45). There was a corresponding shift in the nature of the pact, from an equal partnership, in which the magician was able to grapple for the upper hand, to a subservient role, wherein the witch voluntarily submitted. King James VI of Scotland pointed this out when he said, "Witches are servants only, and slaves to the Devil; but the Necromancers are his masters and commanders," (as quoted in Levack, 35).

The sabbath was a gathering of witches, in which all manner of debasement and horrors were said to take place. Sexual deviance and copulation with demons were common attributes of this concept, as were infanticide and cannibalism. In France, Spain, and Italy, witches were said to engage in a parody of the Catholic Mass. All of these supposed actions were direct reflections of the greatest of Christian fears. Monks may have invented much of this diabolic society concept in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as propaganda against the heretical Waldensians and Cathars, and then applied by extension to other viewed heretics (Levack, 37). As knowledge grew about the actual practices of heretical groups, these extreme allegations became the sole burden of witches.

Although belief in the sabbath was not universal, it was widespread, and quite important to the scope of the witch-hunts. The assumption that witches gathered to worship the Devil led to the exhaustive searches for the co-conspirators of accused witches, which probably contributed significantly to the actual scale of the hunts.

The fourth element of witch-belief was the idea that witches could fly. There were two intellectual versions of this belief. One was that the Devil, using his material control over air, could actually cause witches to fly great distances. The other theory was that by using his powers of illusion, the Devil made them believe that they had flown, and thus also that the sabbaths were illusory (Malleus Maleficarum). Either way, it explained how witches could attend sabbaths, apparently in remote locations, without being missed from home.

The origins of the flight concept may be in pagan beliefs that were still held by many credulous peasants. One of these was the notion that women could transform themselves into strigae, or terrible screech owls. The other of these is the Dianic "wild hunt," in which women supposedly rode through the wilderness on various beasts (Levack, 41).

The fifth and final element of the Early Modern model of witchcraft was metamorphosis. This was the idea that witches turned themselves or others into animals, particularly wolves. Although this idea was officially relegated to the status of another illusion, it was a commonly held assumption (Malleus Maleficarum).

Although these five elements seem irrational and out of sync with humanism and the Renaissance rejection of medieval superstition, they were actually quite well thought-out, and seemed very rational to people of the time. The accepted beliefs in witchcraft were challenged by some, but no one dared deny the central theme that held the entire movement together: the belief that the Devil was real and had malicious influence over mankind. Therefore, the equally malicious witch-hunts continued throughout the Early Modern period, and became permanently ingrained in our collective historic memory.

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Copyright Joshua Ohmer, November 1998