(Investigator 74,  2000 September)

Then said Saul unto his servants, "Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her." And his servants said to him, "Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor." 1 Samuel 28:7

The story of Saul consulting a witch is only one of many references in the Bible to sorcerers, mediums and other occult practitioners, and as the history of witchcraft graphically epitomises the extreme ramifications inherent in superstitious beliefs and the need for critical thinking, I believe the subject is worthy of inclusion.

Legislation against witchcraft dates to ancient Rome. The Decemviral code and later the Lex Cordelia laid down penalties including execution for conjuring, divination and other types of sorcery. In 1595, Nichlas Remy, a latin poet and historian in his Daemonolatria, advocates death for witches, as they are incurable mad dogs and should be executed even though they had committed no malevolent act. Martin Del Rio, in his Disquisitionum Magicarum Sex, 1599, also prescribes the death penalty, although those accused may not have killed anyone, harmed anything and were not necromancers (communicators with the spirits). In short, innocents condemned to death on hear-say and without evidence.

Nothing can compare however, with the concerted campaign against those accused of witchcraft launched in 1484, by Pope Innocent VIII, with his antiwitchcraft bull Summis desiderantres affectibus, and the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). The latter was the work of two members of the Dominican Order, Jakob Sprenger (1436-1495) and Heinrich Kramer (1430-1505), the dean of Cologne University and a monastery prior respectively, and must rate as one of the vilest documents ever penned by man. It detailed the manner and method by which those accused of witchcraft could be detected, interrogated, examined, tortured, tried and executed. There was to be no justice and virtually no chance of acquittal. Accusations leading to a person's apprehension, subsequent torture and death, relied solely on hearsay.

The scholars of those times were advantaged by the new science of printing which guaranteed a writer on the subject of demonology some notability. Detailed accounts and reports of this bloodstained chapter in man's transition from superstitious obscuritanism to enlightenment have been handed down to posterity in many forms; Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft 1584; the Essex Public Records Office; the Criminal Assizes; Quarter Sessions and Ecclesiastical records. They describe in minute detail the unbridled zeal of the persecutors and the tortures inflicted upon the accused.

The climate of the Dark Ages created the opportunity for the less intellectual to indulge in sadistic and sexual perversions in the guise of respectable professional witch hunters. Among them Mathew Hopkins, the son of the vicar of Wenharn in Suffolk. A former lawyer and self-styled 'Witch Finder General', he scoured the land charging a standard rate of twenty shillings plus board, lodging and travelling expenses, and a bonus of twenty shillings for each witch uncovered.

A favourite method employed by Hopkins was to have the suspect stripped, trussed up and thrown into a pond. It was a Catch 22 situation, if the accused floated she was declared a witch and was condemned, if she sank and drowned she was innocent. Others were condemned to sit cross legged on a stool for days at a time without food and water, or walk continually until their feet blistered. Hopkins was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of alleged witches in a period of fourteen months, sixty eight alone in Suffolk in 1645. Like the McCarthy ‘witch hunt’ into un-American activities in America in the early 1950s, Hopkins travelled the length and breadth of England with his committee, making a fortune in fees. He finally aroused some opposition when his methods of torturing innocent women were exposed and his authority declined as quick as it had grown. He died within the year of tuberculosis.

Elsewhere in Europe, particularly Germany, the methods of interrogation were diabolical. Needles and bodkins were used to stick into the body of the accused to find that part insensitive to pain, the theory being that an insensitive spot, a wart, blemish, mole, birthmark or even some imaginary invisible spot was from where the Devil or demon sucked its fluid. Preoccupation with this mark also stemmed from the idea that it signified a pact with the Devil, it was an essential identification as proof of guilt, failing which a confession must be elicited under torture, as the Devil himself could not be summoned to court. In men, the mark was sought under the eyelids, the armpits, on the lips, the anus or scrotum. With women and girls, particular attention was paid to the genital area, breasts and nipples. Some professionals were reputed to use special bodkins with retractable blades so as not to draw blood thus ensuring the fate of the accused.

The opportunity to sexually abuse hapless female captives and to practise perverted, depraved and bestial acts with impunity, was fully exploited by the inquisitors. Pubic hair was shaved off, alcohol poured over the genitals and set fire to, young naked girls were subjected to excessively prolonged and minute examinations, raped, and had red hot nails thrust under the fingernails to the quick. Nightmarish implements capable of inflicting unimaginable pain were used to extract confessions: pyrwykes or thumbscrews for crushing fingers and toes, iron boots filled with molten lead, the iron maiden or virgin internally studded with spikes on which the victim was slowly impaled, boiling alive in oil or water, flaying – where the flesh was peeled off with red hot pincers, spreadeagled on a wagon wheel and the bones broken one by one. Age, sex and even pregnancy made no difference and the methods used exclusively on women and girls must rate high on the scale of revulsion and torment – the tearing off of the breasts with red hot pincers and red hot irons thrust into the vagina. Any lingering life left in the pathetic wrecks was finally extinguished by burning at the stake.

The moronic accounts of the impassionate callousness of the jailers, torturers and their assistants is sickening to recount, but the knowledge that their vile work was countenanced by the Church is even more nauseating. An estimated one million people lost their lives in this carnage, the instigation of which can be traced directly to superstition and a belief in the supernatural.

The term witchcraft applied to any kind of activity beyond the average capacity to perceive; fortune tellers, psychic healers, conjurers and even the operations of some contemporary scientists were often thus labeled. Theologians had been distrustful of supernatural claims as far back as the Council of Ancyra in 314 AD, which demanded penance from, those found guilty of practising it, and some of the pagan customs and rituals adopted by the Catholic Church itself were likewise labeled by the Protestant polemicists.

Conceptually, the Church saw witchcraft as a heretical belief Devil worship by those who had made a pact with Satan and were therefore disloyal to God, the penalty for which was execution. At the village level however, where most of the accusations originated, the emphasis was on the doing of harm by occult means. Witchcraft prosecutions were mainly the result of accusations arising from quarrels among villagers. This is reflected in the Acts of Parliament of 1542 (repealed 1736); 1563 (repealed 1604); and 1604 (repealed 1736), where hardly any reference is made to diabolical compact, the emphasis being on maleficium.

That witchcraft became a more satisfactory explanation of misfortune or strange events than medicine which failed to heal or a God who turned a deaf ear to prayer is evident when Reginald Scot (1584) wrote:

"that fewe or none (nowadaise) with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversite, greef, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, cattell or libertie happen unto them; by and by they exclaime uppon witches."

In addition to the disposition to attribute everyday misfortunes to witchcraft, to a lesser degree charges of diabolical aid were made by politicians jealous of their rivals' successes, and those servants and children deliberately fabricating stories for a variety of reasons. Many of the accusations therefore were completely false and of a malicious nature.

Scot, who was well read on the subject of demonology also remarked,

"yet who indeed would not confess to anything under such like circumstances?' referring to how red hot needles were forced under the fingernails of young girls to make them confess. He also averred that if witches had as much power as was claimed they would have exterminated the human race long ago. This observation applies equally as well today when questioning modern claims of paranormal powers."

In seeking the raison d'etre for the resurgence of witchcraft, we must consider the religious, social and sexual mores extant at the time. Prior to the Reformation, accusations of witchcraft were few, the medieval church provided both the ritual means of warding off the maleficium and the cure if necessary, but with the religious revolution giving rise to new Protestant churches and to a reformed Catholicism, the absence of the religious counter-magic necessitated a substitute – accusations and persecutions in a court of law. Prior to this time also, there existed the communal norm of mutual aid on which village communities were based. A tradition of neighbourly support for the elderly, especially women and widows whose means of subsistence was often inadequate.

With the decline in the customary manorial support and the development of a national Poor Law, what was once a moral duty became a legal obligation. Thus a refusal of alms or help would often result in retaliation leading to an accusation of witchcraft.

The sexual corollary was more evident in Western Europe, France and Germany. Sexual hysteria in some quarters was rampant and no constraints were placed on sado-masochism. Both the persecuted and the persecutor alike exhibited sexual neuroses, witches and nuns suffering from severe sexual repression or just plain frustration, often claimed sexual relations with the Devil or his demons, and the inquisitors showed an abnormal pre-occupation with sex in the trials young women and girls were subjected to micro examination of the breasts and genitals in search of the Devil's mark, real or imaginary.

The decline of witchcraft has been ascribed to the growth in scientific rationalism and the repeal of the 1604 Witchcraft Act in 1736, which permitted no more accusations against witches but imposed instead minor penalties for fraudulent occultism.

What of the witches alleged supernormal powers? Scot reveals them for what they were simple tricks; the burning of a barn, the killing of an animal, or inflicting bodily harm requires no special powers. The rest, beyond the ken of simple village folk amounted to the soaping of the inside of a milk churn to prevent the coming of butter, and the concealing of wolf dung in a barn to stampede the cattle.

The last trial under the Act of 1736, and the Vagrancy Act of 1824, was that of Helen Duncan in 1944. Accused of necromancy she was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. In 1951, the old Witchcraft Act was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which recognised the possibility of genuine mediumship and only prosecutes in cases of deliberate fraud. As a sceptic, I find it surprising that the legislators of the day notwithstanding the complete absence of evidence in support of the existence of any supernatural powers, and despite the history of the effects of irrational beliefs so vividly illustrated only a few centuries before, could still allow for the possibility of genuine mediumship.

Anyone claiming to be a witch in our society today would probably be looked upon by most as an eccentric, yet they and their covens do exist, worshipping demons and casting spells. Modern witchcraft was first brought to public notice when Gerald Gardner, a retired British public servant, published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954. In this and a second book published in 1959, Gardner described how he had been initiated into a coven, or group who worshipped the Horned God and the Mother Goddess, and how they cast spells to do good. Unfortunately the other side of Gardner's witchcraft received the greatest publicity – the nude rituals, flagellation, and 'The Great Rite'. The latter involved sexual intercourse between the High Priest and the High Priestess in full view of the assembled members of the coven.

Since Gardner's time, a split has developed in the witchcraft movement, some are still heavily sex-oriented, others are almost puritanical in their approach, wearing elaborate robes and performing complicated ceremonies. Meetings are held thirteen times a year corresponding with the lunar months and on the night of the full moon. Black candles, cords, wands, incense, 'athames' (ritual knives), silver cups, bracelets, magic circles, horned helmets and other regalia are commonplace, and dancing and chanting play a major part in the rituals. Animal and bird sacrifices are not unknown, and oaths swearing homage to Satan and signed in blood are included in some initiation ceremonies. Altars are of course a significant item in any form of worship, and in Black Masses conducted in some covens it is usual to have a young naked woman lie on the altar as part of a mock sacrifice followed by her having sexual intercourse with the High Priest.

Although covens conduct their meetings in great secrecy, from time to time stories of witchcraft make media headlines, usually they relate to the casting of spells, and on occasions, murder.

In 1985, Bui Thi Chi, 51, the wife of a Vietnamese government official was accused of casting a spell on another woman with the help of other black magic practitioners. She was alleged to have enriched herself considerably by the practice, was convicted of practising sorcery and sentenced to eight years in jail.

Not long after, in South Africa, nineteen black Africans were jailed for terms of up to ten years after being found guilty of incinerating two men they had held responsible for a lightning bolt which had killed a child. The judge had to sift through what was reported as nonsensical evidence and twice referred to the villager's belief as "absolute tripe." Two village witchdoctors who had thrown bones to find out who were responsible for the lightning bolt which had struck the child were among those sentenced. The judge said the senseless killing of innocent people in the name of witchcraft could not be tolerated in a civilized country, it was a damning practice with which the courts had wrestled for many years.

The rational believe in the natural, in the unbroken and unbreakable succession of causes and effects. They do not believe that demons can be invoked or can possess, nor that gods can be pleased or appeased by rituals and ceremonies. The myths that have survived the centuries were all created by the imagination of the credulous, and superstition is the nourishment on which they feed. Hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children were tortured and burned after being found guilty of an impossible crime by ignorant and superstitious men who believed in the existence of witches, a belief for which there is no evidence and for which there never has been.


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________ 1981. Witches. Dragon’s World Ltd. Great Britain.

From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards

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