A Witchcraft History Lesson

It’s October, which is peak season for interest in witchcraft. The uninformed yet interested neophyte has no idea what pitfalls of fake history and legend masquerading as fact await. So as the overinformed history nerd, I consider it my duty (hell, my privilege really) to present some facts on the history of witchcraft to counteract all of the misinformation.

Mythmaking has its own place, of course. Every community has its origin myths which get passed down. And certain aspects of witchcraft legend are probably in that zone by now. The stories won’t go away. But it’s a mistake to take most of the neatly formulated stories that swept the pagan community in its early years as real history.

History isn’t objective.  It’s always open to interpretation.  The whys and wherefores are the fun part of doing history because we get to debate them and come up with better or worse frameworks and stories that weave together the known facts.  But there are known facts, and as we do more research we uncover more facts. To ignore facts which have recently come to light in order to cling to interpretations someone came up with fifty or a hundred years ago is irresponsible.

Poor interpretations of history are overly simplistic, based on little evidence, and can’t flex or change in response to newly discovered evidence. Good interpretations have explanatory power by being nuanced, integrating much or all of the known evidence, and is flexible enough to accommodate newly discovered evidence. Just like science, historical interpretations change over time. Theses become modified or discarded if they don’t fit new evidence, or gain greater credibility if they can encompass new evidence.

But most non-historians aren’t notified when their favorite historical interpretation is discarded, when new facts come to light, or when a set of claims set forth as facts by an older historian are debunked. When it comes to popular interpretations of history written by non-historians, this is even truer. This isn’t to say that people outside of academia cannot do good and accurate work in the field of history, only that a non-historian often has less accountability. Also, if one’s life work is not history, one generally has less motive to update a popular piece of historical writing they might have done which may have proved inaccurate over time. For instance, most popular witchcraft writers devote a chapter of an early book to history, and then continue to write texts focusing on magic and ritual and don’t go back to their early work to correct the one chapter on history. This isn’t necessarily malicious – they just may not be conversant with changes in the academic interpretations of witchcraft history, or their interests may simply lie elsewhere.

And that’s where much of the misinformation comes from. Witches and neopagans don’t have an infallible sacred text or origin scriptures, and we like to argue about things and read and achieve more understanding of our path than previous generations had. And this is great. But often, newcomers to our world will reach for the classic Wicca 101 texts, like Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft or the Farrar’s A Witch’s Bible, and think that the history presented in those book is accurate. Both books, by the way, are valuable resources and vital links in the history of the neopagan movement, but they simply should not be regarded as authorities on witchcraft history. Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler is another foundational text which is fortunately more accurate, but it focuses on the modern witchcraft revival and is not all that helpful to people who want to dig deeply into the question of where Western witchcraft originated.

At the bottom of this post I will link an extended reading list/bibliography of witchcraft history that I’ve put together, and I highly recommend choosing a handful of books from it if you’re interested in learning more. But here’s a basic summary of the truth behind several of the most popular founding myths of modern witchcraft and neopaganism.

First of all, there is no evidence that a witch-cult, that is, a witchcraft religion, existed in Neolithic times and was from thence passed down intact through the ages to the witch-trial era and through to modern neopaganism – or, no evidence which could not be much more easily explained by much more nuanced and widely-accepted explanations which encompass far more of the available evidence. The broad concepts of polytheism, folk magic, and occultism have their places in all known world cultures, but that’s a far cry from one single coherent tradition that survived millennia and massive cultural shifts unchanged. What history does show us is that polytheism, folk magic, and occultism are remarkably flexible concepts which change form as culture and society change. Furthermore, these three concepts, although united in most modern neopagan practice, have by no means always been united with each other throughout history. Witchcraft itself has been referenced as a concept throughout the historic record of Western culture but to apply a modern interpretation of what that means to every reference found in history is laughably naïve.

Far from being something secret and separate, magic and occultism and even to a lesser extent polytheism and nature-worship often survived by existing within (although sometimes at odds with) the dominant culture.  Polytheism is normally considered to have been subsumed in Catholic saint-veneration, changing form to fit with the times. Medieval and Renaissance magicians practiced occult magic, alchemy, and rudimentary science under the patronage of powerful lords and kings. Folk magic changed flavor based on the type of Christianity it was in contact with, but it never fully died out.  From charms and fortune-telling which were never eradicated even by the Puritans, to ascetic mystics who sought altered states of consciousness and communion with spiritual beings, Christians engaged in magical or occult-flavored practices while still remaining Christian. All of this to say that our best historical interpretations take these concepts, of interest to the modern witch, and examine them as they evolved within their known contexts, rather than hypothesizing about a secret cult which left no records. (Indeed, this is why many witches in the past decade or so have turned to “Traditional Witchcraft,” which attempts to root itself what we know of folk magic practices and beliefs, rather than adhering to Wicca which is a witchcraft religion based on origin myths taken from early 20th-century anthropology and the work of Margaret Murray which was discredited almost as soon as it came out. In my opinion, neither path is incorrect, because every modern neopagan path is a reconstruction, and all have a responsibility to be honest about how much of their origin story is myth).

With these facts in mind we can begin to grasp that few, if any, of the people executed during the witch trials were what we would consider witches or pagans today.  Some of them may not have been fully Christianized, especially in more rural areas of Europe, but they were almost definitely not members of a discrete, secret witch cult, no matter what they “confessed” under torture. The witch panics were connected to Christian (Catholic and Protestant) attempts to enforce orthodoxy and uproot heresy (many of the accusations against the witches, including the use of the word “sabbath”, parallel the accusations made against Jewish people who had converted to Christianity but were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism).  Many of the victims probably did hold on to a handful of ancient nature-worship customs but so did most other people in Europe.  Many of the victims probably did practice some type of folk magic, but so did many others; the witch trials absolutely did not wipe out magical practice in Europe nor did they really attempt to.

Another claim made by those who believe there was an unbroken line of witch cults down to the present day is that witches in the medieval and Renaissance eras kept “Books of Shadows” in which they recorded rituals and spells.  In fact, due to literacy at the time, it is a near certainty that the only books of magic available at the time would have been written by and in possession of scholars, including monks and priests, and occultists who were in the employ of various wealthy and aristocratic patrons.  Although a handful of women were literate at the time, and indeed those who accused certain upper class women of witchcraft sometimes pointed to their literacy as evidence, the vast majority of literate people were men of a certain social status.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that such a book may have been kept by an impoverished woman on the edge of the woods who followed a pre-Christian religion and practiced folk magic professionally but there is by no means evidence that there were a great number of witches keeping a great number of secret books. It’s a nice story but it’s not a historically verifiable fact. (Even during the witch trials, when people were asked if they signed the Devil’s book, it was assumed they would have “marked” the book rather than writing their names, because they were illiterate).

There are many interpretations of why the witch trials occurred and what they were supposed to accomplish.  None of the interpretations can hold up to scrutiny on their own, but together they probably give a fairly accurate picture of what was going on during the witch trials and what the results were (whether those results were necessarily intended by those directly involved in the trials or not).  The trials certainly managed to turn working class and impoverished people against one another instead of against the aristocracy and landholders who were enclosing the commons, beginning to engineer capitalism, displacing populations, and declaring wars.  At the time, due to the social upheaval of war, plague, famine, and enclosure, there were large indigent populations which would not be cared for or confined for a century or more; they became an easy target during the witch hunts, especially when misfortune befell those who refused help to these needy folk.  The witch hunts also were a part of the early modern trend toward discrediting folk healers and relocating medical expertise in doctors who were part of the emerging elite. Additionally, the witch hunts often traded on misogynist ideas, reinforcing (though not inventing) those ideas and reminding women of their subordinate place in a patriarchal society.  Patriarchy is always enforced through violence. And as previously discussed, the violence of the witch panics were related to the violence of the wars of religion of the era, with Catholics and Protestants alike enforcing orthodoxy (it seems to me more likely that the atmosphere of Inquisition, religious war, and fear of being branded a heretic caused people to accuse one another of perceived aberrations rather than the whole thing being intentionally engineered by the church, but it also seems that the church did encourage the witch hunts as part of the campaign against heterodoxy). The church could not tolerate anyone claiming power from a non-authorized source, that is, not mediated by the church and therefore demonic.  This view may not have caused the witch hunts but it certainly affected how the hunts were conducted, what evidence was admitted, and what sorts of confessions were encouraged. And one more little cause often escapes witchcraft historians: the witch panics began very soon after the repeal of a number of laws that visited harsh penalties on people bringing false accusations against others.

Although this was not their intention, the excesses of the witch hunts (as well as the religious wars occurring around the same time) helped lead to the disenchantment of Europe and the secularization of philosophy. The era of witch hunts was also an era of shifting power relations, on the cusp of the consolidation of European empires and the European colonialism which would soon engulf the entire globe.  Dealing harshly with those on the margins of society, sweeping up the riffraff, solidifying the power of the church and state and demonstrating their ability to root out anyone they pleased was necessary to ensure that power flowed to the ones meant to have it, and away from the dangerous lower classes.  Those accused as witches were swept up in the preparatory stages of European imperialism, and even today, colonialism and the exportation of Western religious values lead to witch hunts in Africa, India, and other regions of the world.  Separately, none of these explanations can tell us why so many thousands of people were executed in the witch hunts nor why the hunts broke out in an unprecedented way all over Europe for about a century but, taken together, they paint an appropriately complex picture which probably comes closer to the truth than any one explanation could.

Finally, let’s clear up the little matter of numbers.  There is still a number floating around which causes any witch who’s done any actual historical research to twitch: Nine Million.  Nine Million Women Burned, the memes say.  That’s not even close to true.  Not even a little true.  Not even slightly.  Even the older sources usually say “up to nine million,” admitting that that’s the highest estimate possible.  For a full breakdown of the historical evolution of this number, see Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon.  You could come up with such a number if you took the very worst period from the town with the very highest number of executions, and then extrapolated the numbers from the very worst year in the very worst town to the entirety of Europe for the entirety of the century considered the witch hunting period.  And then, of course, you’d have to assume that every person executed was a woman, and every execution took place by burning. But that’s simply not how anything works.  The number of people executed, the gender ratios of those executed, and the means of execution varied from region to region and year to year, with most areas seeing a few peak witch hunting years during the entirety of the century.  In all of Europe, about a quarter of the people executed were men.  And based on the best estimates we now have, extrapolating from extant court records (both secular and ecclesiastical) which have been found and studied in the past century, most scholars would place the outside number of executions at 100,000 for the century of witch hunts.  That’s still a lot.  And the number of those accused is much higher than those actually executed.  Some died in jail or under torture, while others were lynched, but even factoring those deaths in, no current estimate even comes close to one million, let alone nine.

This is not to downplay the seriousness or the terror of the witch hunts.  The very important interpretations and observations that have been made based on this period still stand.  The overwhelming fear of living in an era where one could be accused based on spectral evidence just because your neighbors didn’t like you remains a blot on human history which the Enlightenment rightly strove to overcome. There is no need to continue circulating a wildly inaccurate number – any innocent people at all being executed is an injustice, let alone thousands executed by a broken legal system that believed in demons.  The witch hunts still are an important period of history, with repercussions down to this day.  It’s still socially and politically important to discuss the era, to understand what happened and why.  It’s still vital to ensure that no such thing ever happens again.

After the witch hunts, occultism and folk magic persisted.  Scientists in the 1700’s and 1800’s were frequently interested in paranormal phenomena.  Fortune-telling, whether by professionals or by young girls peeling apples to determine the name of their future husbands, was popular as ever.  In America, the same patterns are found, with the educated elite studying esoteric occultism and impoverished settlers in the incorporating magic into their everyday lives.  Religious revivals often included an ecstatic, mystical component.  Enslaved people of African and indigenous descent developed Voudon (aka voodoo), a mixture of American folk magic, African and indigenous religious and magical practice, and Christianity (see for instance the use of Psalms as charms).  Voudon was often used as resistance against those who had enslaved its practitioners, notably during the successful Haitian revolt.  Native American religious and cultural practices were viewed much as the early Christianizers of Europe viewed pre-Christian religious practices, and were met with extreme and ongoing violence meant to force assimilation to the European settlers’ lifestyle and religion. At the same time, the Appalachians became a place where Native Americans, African Americans, and white immigrants shared traditions with each other in solidarity against their shared poverty, blending into a unique American folk magic which is still practiced today. None of these religions and practices should be claimed as some sort of direct line down to current Wiccan practice, nor should white neopagans following European reconstructions think that somehow Voudon and Native American practices are “all the same thing” and ours for the taking. (If one does wish to engage with living traditions, education, respect, and engagement with the community in question on their own terms is essential).

It is perhaps understandable that a revivalist religion in its early days would wish to claim an unbroken lineage from ancient times.  It is also understandable that a simple tale, in absence of copious scholarship, would make some kind of sense.  It feels significantly more legitimate to be a group revealing its existence after centuries rather than a reconstructed religion based on existing fragments of folklore.  But it’s okay.  The truth won’t hurt us as badly as clinging to falsehood will.  Our history may be less poetic than the mythology woven by the founders of Wicca, but it’s an interesting, complex, and intricate tapestry which in the end offers far, far more.


For further reading on witchcraft history, check out my bibliography here


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