Eight hundred years ago, the Catholic Church found the need to set up a court known as the Inquisition. Its duty was to find and punish people suspected of heresy, however the methods were crude, unfair, and even ridiculous. Many innocent people died at the hands of fervent Inquisitors, who were totally convinced of their duty to God to seek and destroy all those who would go against him. Jews, Moors and non-Catholic Christians were all persecuted by the Inquisitors, however the most famous of the persecuted are the witches. With the need for a scapegoat, the Catholics sought out midwives, healers, and dabblers in folk-magic. The 'witches' became the malevolent enemy of the church, and as such they must be eradicated. The Inquisition had a drastic effect on how the common person viewed the practice of witchcraft, and how it would be portrayed for centuries to come.
Before Christianity, there was no practice known as 'witchcraft' The word probably came from a Celtic word for wise, 'wicce'. Many of the signs of witchcraft found in the Inquisition can be related to pagan traditions and magic that have nothing to do with devil-worship. Many of these can be traced to the ancient Celts and Gauls, as they were a major pagan population in Europe where the Inquisition thrived. Before Christianity, pagans were familiar with magic in their daily lives. Priests were the most prominent magic workers, and many people came to them for help with decisions, love and healing. Divinations were done anytime there was a major decision to be made, and the results of a reading were said to be what the result of a situation might be. Healers were a valuable resource, and the priests usually took on the role as healer as well. They combined natural healing techniques with magic that would drive away the evil that had started the illness. Children were given many names, in the hope that an evil spirit would never find its true name and deal them harm.
There were also spells and rituals done to help the general community. The gods were made offerings in order to ensure a good harvest, to prevent draught and famine and for many other reasons. Human and animal sacrifice were not uncommon, although many more animals died for religious beliefs than humans. Some gods and spirits were even said to dwell in animal or plant form. In the Celtic world, certain trees were held sacred. Some animals enjoyed special reverence as a sacred creature, and many were held sacred to a specific deity. Almost every animal was in some way related to the supernatural. Crows were ill omens and a white stag was a good omen, etc. The pagans enjoyed this way of life for many centuries, their world was easily explained by the multitudes of spirits around them, and the supernatural forces in effect every day. By coincidence and the power of belief, their magic worked, and was used every day.
When Christianity first arrived, they attempted to convert the pagans, and in all respects, succeeded. However, not everyone finds it so easy to abandon the teachings they had learnt for years. For this reason, some of the Christian holidays and traditions, and even a few saints, are adaptations from paganism. Easter and Christmas fell right around the time of two of the pagan celebrations. Many of the traditions can be traced back to pagan magic in some form. The physical description of the Devil came from the pagan god Pan, who had goat feet, horns and a tail. Christianity took over Europe and the pagan religions were gone. However a few of the traditions and beliefs were not so easily eradicated. Superstitions were still held against evil spirits and the Devil, and adapted folk-magic was still practiced.
As magic and the apparent ability to use supernatural powers were developing a more sinister face in the eyes of the church, the Catholics decided to do something about it. The Inquisition was formed in 1232. It was a court who's duty was to persecute heretics. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic church reigned supreme, and any people who went against its teachings could be brought before the Inquisition. The majority of the heretics were not witches however, Jews, Moors and any non-Catholic Christians felt the brunt of the Inquisition. The witches were only one of the minorities persecuted. It wasn't until the 16-1700's that the witch-hunts were at full strength, and paranoia set into the people.
In the 1500's Jakob Sprenger published the "Malleus Maleficarum". In his book, he outlines the ways to determine if someone is a witch, how to run the trial and what questions to ask, and the punishments to be carried out. Some of the traits now given to magic workers are as follows.
1. Older women were likely to be a witch, as they reached their age by the use of Devil-granted powers.
2. If they participated in any form of sexual activity outside the basic intercourse for procreation with their spouse.
3. If they had any strange mark on their body that, if pricked, felt no pain, or did not bleed. This was the devils mark, and he supposedly put it on all who had pledged allegiance to him.
4. If they kept a pet. Any pet could be brought under suspicion as a familiar, a witches companion sent by the devil. This probably came from the pagan belief that animals were representations of the supernatural. Witches familiars were usually cats, crows, lizards, goats or rodents. All these had relations to ill omens or dark ideas in paganism, and were easily adapted into becoming tools of the devil. Since most houses had some form of infestation of any one of these animals, suspected familiars were in no short supply.
5. Any odd behavior could be taken as a sign of witchcraft. Not going to church for any reason other then illness was sure to put a person in suspect of heresy. If a person was an outcast or kept to themselves they were among the first to be accused. People who socialized or sympathized with outcasts or those accused were put under suspicion.
His works were admired by Pope Innocent VII, who backed up the German witch hunter and wrote his own endorsements of Sprenger. "…The Catholic Faith should especially in this Our day increase and flourish everywhere, and that all heretical depravity should be driven far from the frontiers and bournes of the Faithful, We very gladly proclaim…those particular means and methods whereby Our pious desire may obtain its wished effect, when all errors are uprooted by Our diligent avocation,… a zeal for, and the regular observance of, Our holy Faith will be all the more strongly impressed upon the hearts of the faithful." was the a passage written by the Pope to endorse the witch hunts and help exterminate heresy.
Once a witch was accused, the methods to go about their trial and questioning were often quite unfair. Few people were found innocent of their accusations, and most went through horrific torture. If they plead innocent, they were most often tortured until they confessed and described their exploits with the Devil and the many crimes they had committed when in fact they had done none. By the end of the questioning many accused actually believed what they were saying in the insanity brought on by torture. The practices that had thrived for centuries as everyday traditions that had helped people to cope with the strangeness of the world around them were now condemned. People no longer wanted their future divined, animals and the earth were no longer sacred. Only God and the church were sacred. Natural healing was seen as magic, and was therefore work of the Devil. People no longer understood that certain herbs and methods might help them heal better or help cure an illness, and a very beneficial practice was now forbidden. If any person used what was now called witchcraft to help someone, they were still dealt with as though they had murdered a person. "...The workings of witches are never lawful" and therefore they were all seen as Devil-worshippers.
The Inquisition was also a mass attempt to keep women powerless. For hundreds of years, women were just as capable magic workers as men, and many were healers. This gave them power that was forbidden in a Christian world. Women who had knowledge beyond the norm were thought of as witches. Healers and midwives were persecuted for their 'magical knowledge' of herbs. It was seen necessary to persecute them as "... No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives." Midwives were in a position of power over the newborns and mothers, and could slip in an evil talisman or charm. The child would then be a target for the devil. Since witches were also supposed to eat babies, targeting midwives as witches is understandable to any good Catholic.
Witches were thought to be able to fly, shape-change, cause blights and bring down horrible curses on those around them. They would fly to Sabbats, demonic holidays where they danced wildly, feasted on human flesh, and cavorted with demons. Their ability to fly most likely came from the pagan priests, who would put themselves in trances that often felt like flight. Shape changing was another supposed ability of pagan priests. Their spirits were able to take on the form of any animal in the spirit world while they were in a trance. They were also able to deal with the weather and crops just as a witch was able, except they meant no harm in their magic but used it to help and ensure their tribes survival. The sabbats were also derived from pagan holidays. On a pagan festival, great feasting was the norm, dancing and cavorting carried on into the night on most, especially fertility festivals. All these are examples of how the Catholic Church and the Inquisition helped to change peoples perceptions of what was now called witchcraft.
Now that everyone knew what to look for in a witch, many more accusations were made. The people knew the signs of witchcraft as well as who to stereotype. Starting in the 1600's and ending in the 1700's, the Witch trials of the Inquisitions reached their height. People were paranoid about witches. Many innocent people were executed at the hands of the church. Women were most likely to be accused, as they were thought to be more susceptible to the Devils propositions. When in torture, one question asked was if they knew of any other witches that they recognized at the sabbat. To appease the Inquisitors, many women simply gave them names of people in the community. These people soon found themselves on trail, and asked the same question. This chain reaction could kill many before it found an end.
The people thought it their duty as Christians to weed out these devil worshippers and accusations ran wild. The only people immune to the Inquisition were those behind it, all others were at risk. Nobles and peasants were persecuted alike.
There are many accounts of how the fear of the unnatural and the power of the church led to deaths of thousands. As the fever of witch hunting grew, witch burnings went from one once in awhile to numerous burnings at once. Years later they were burned by the hundreds. In the French city of Savoy eight hundred were condemned together. In 1586, the winter was very cold on the Rhine, and the frigid weather continued into the summer and decimated the harvest. Witchcraft was blamed for the poor weather, and one hundred and eighteen women and two men died because of the peoples fear and the churches assurance of the evil presence. There are many accounts of torture, accusations and executions, but there are very few documents from the side of those who were accused. There is one letter of a tortured man to his daughter that survived. In it he describes the tortures used on him, and the questions asked. He explains how it came about that he was accused of witchcraft. "Dear child, six have confessed against me at once…all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God's name before they were executed. . . . They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was. . ." This shows how the accused were forced to name their neighbors as witches. Within the letter we find that the man was innocent, and how even some involved in it realized the farce that was the Inquisition. "When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: "Sir, I beg you, for God's sake confess something, where it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch. Not before that, will they let you go." This led the man to confess to many crimes, all of which he describes and swears are false.
Even today, people are still affected by the mistakes made so many centuries ago. A reawakening of paganism in the past century has stemmed many modern-day witch hunts. People who practice the pagan faiths are still labeled as devil-worshippers. A certain group of pagans, who are sometimes called witches, now suffer a severe stereotype of evil and hate when in fact they worship nature, and use 'magic' to try and help better their lives. Children are brought up with the idea that witches are old hags who are going to get them in the night. As people grow up, and are perhaps exposed to modern-day pagan culture, they see them as the stereotypical witches of the Inquisition. Although no one is as afraid of the supernatural elements as in the time of the Inquisition, people are still happy to label them with what they think is an accurate representation. Therefore, the Inquisitions affects can still be felt today. When people think 'witch' or 'pagan' the image of an old, evil person who does strange magic with powers granted to them by dark masters pops into most peoples minds. When in fact, they should think of a normal person, perhaps a healer from many centuries ago, a wise druid, or even a modern day Canadian who has taken up the ways of the ancient pagans.
If the Church and the Inquisition had not taken the fervent direction of changing traditions and practices rooted in the peoples past, the witch-hunts may not have affected so many, if at all. They changed many of the old beliefs into working for them to help convert the pagans. The beliefs and practices that had held for thousands of years were now evil and against everything the Church stood for. The people now actively sought out demons that weren't there, and were eager to accept the facts the Church fed to them as a new explanation for natural misfortune. For this, many innocent people died painfully and needlessly.
2 parts of a six part series, view the rest on Youtube
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