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On The Witch Craze

On The Witch Craze

by George Jelliss [based on book reviews in LSS Newsletter, issue 1, 2000]

(1) Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics by Richard Holloway (1999, Canongate Books, Edinburgh).

In view of its title it is perhaps surprising to find that the author of this book was Bishop of Edinburgh, 'Primus' of the Scottish Episcopal Church and a Professor of Divinity. The author was also for seven years a member of the (UK) Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Needless to say:

There will be frequent references to God and religion in this book, but the aim is to unite those who [B]elieve with those who do not, in the discovery of a workable ethic for our time.

The author makes an interesting distinction between moral and ritual [or cultural] codes of behaviour.

Sin is an essentially religious idea; an ancient definition describes it as disobedience of God. ... there are passages in the Bible where God orders the performance of acts of great wickedness in order to test the obedience of his children. [e.g. the Abraham and Isaac human sacrifice story in Genesis] The sin concept transfers itself mechanically to certain natural acts and [use of] substances that are held to be wrong [morally] because they are wrong [ritually], not because of any evidence that is offered to support the claim. ... The most significant of these confusions comes from the passage in Leviticus where it is written: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." ... The Hebrew word here translated 'abomination' does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft, but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in sexual intercourse during menstruation, both of which are forbidden in Leviticus.

The writer seems strangely to be unaware that Leviticus ch.20 verse 13 specifies the death penalty for homosexuality.

Morality tries to base itself on observed consequences, not on beliefs, superstitions or prejudices. A wrong act is one that manifestly harms others or their interests, or violates their rights or causes injustice.

The phrasing here is rather odd: the author treats 'morality' as if it is an evolving species or person. He really means he himself is trying to define morality this way, which is indeed the way most humanists view the matter.

In chapter two he discusses sexuality in a strangely abstract manner; with no mention of Freud for instance.

... we have to acknowledge that the christian use of the myth of the fall in the book of Genesis has been damaging to human self-understanding and has loaded us with a burden we are only beginning to shake off. It has built into christian anthropology the crushing idea that, simply by being born, human beings inherit a sinful, fallen nature, like a congenital virus that can only be remedied by extraordinary methods. ... More fatefully, it has held women to be the primary agent of the fall and the continuing means through which its deadly consequences are transmitted. This is all made brutally explicit in the Malleus Maleficarum, or 'Hammer of the Witches' [the strict translation is 'Evildoers'], a handbook for inquisitors written by two Dominican friars in 1486. In the first part of their book the authors explain why women are more prone to witchcraft than men.

He gives extracts then says:

Itis worth repeating that all of this comes from taking an ancient myth literally.

This strikes me as being a far too bland and rationalised explanation. The Freudian account given in the following book is far more convincing. He goes on to discuss contemporary questions such as homosexuality, drug-taking, abortion and genetic engineering.

Another account of the witch craze appears in: —

(2) Book of Shadows: Rediscovering the Ancient Wisdom of Witchcraft and Magic by Phyllis W. Curott (1999, Judy Piatkus Publishers Ltd, London).

This is a rather uneventful quasi-biographical tale of a woman's involvement with a circle of female New Age Witches in New York, in process of which she comes closer to nature and gains the confidence to resign from her job in an advertising agency and pursue a more worthwhile career. The subtitle, on the cover but not the title page, is more to attract buyers than accurate.

"To understand what the craft is really all about you must confront the negative stereotypes, the perverted images." ... She pulled a large black book from a shelf and handed it to me. "Malleus Maleficarum," I pronounced slowly. "The Hammer of the Witches. Between its covers you will find the most vicious lies ever told about witches. And women. When this book was written, they were considered one and the same, and both were declared evil. This codified the misogyny of the catholic church. It was written by two dominican inquisitors in 1486. The preface is a papal bull. ... That Vatican edict, which has never been rescinded, branded witches as worshippers of Satan," Nonna explained. "But it was not true then, or now. It authorised the use of torture to secure confessions and spurred a terrible anti-witch hysteria throughout Europe. ... It became a guide for witch-hunters, and they used it to commit some of the most heinous acts of cruelty and violence that the human mind has ever conceived. ... And it was all generated by the church's fear of women and repression of sexuality," Nonna sighed. "Go on. Turn to any page and read." ... "It was the women's holocaust. Everyone knows about the inquisition, but people don't realise the extent of this persecution," Nonna added, "not only against the various so-called christian heretics and jews, but against the old religion of Europe, and against women. For several hundred years a terrible witchcraze swept over Europe. At least a hundred thousand people, mostly women, were executed on the basis of 'confessions' that were obtained through the most vicious and sexually perverted forms of torture. ... There is no Satan in the old religion. He belongs entirely to the patriarchal religions; he is their figure of evil." Nonna continued, "Really, the church's assertion that witchcraft is satanism, or demonology, is a projection of their own fears and phobias. And they used this accusation to justify their violence. Those whom the church could not convert, they finally tried to destroy with the witch-hunts. And they were brutal."

In case the above account of the 'witchcraze' was biased I checked with: —

(3) Europe: A History by Norman Davies (1996 Oxford University Press, 1997 Pimlico). This is a scholarly book, which has received widespread and positive reviews. He in turn (page 567) cites Hugh Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century, London 1990.

The witch craze poses many problems. Historians have to explain why the age of the renaissance and the reformation proved so much more vicious in this regard than the so-called dark ages, why superstition came to a head when humanism and the scientific revolution were supposedly working in the opposite direction. They usually attribute it to the pathological effects of religious conflict. They must also explain why ... the most ardent witch-hunters, such as King James VI and I, were among the most learned and, at the conscious level, the most christian men of their day. ... the collective hysteria and false denunciations of witch-hunting have much in common with the phenomena of jew-baiting and of the communist purges. From the papal bull of 1484 to its decline in the 18th century, the craze persisted intermittently for 300 years, consuming vast numbers of innocents.

He specially mentions Dr Benedikt Carpzov (1595-1666).

He would live to a ripe old age, and look back on a meritorious life in which he had read the bible fifty three times, taken the sacrament every week ... and procured the death of 20,000 persons ... He was a protestant and Europe's leading witch-hunter.

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