Witchcraft and Individual Freedom

Distinctly Modern Magic

 

Sometimes we have a habit of thinking of magic as a throwback to an earlier time, a period when people didn’t exactly understand the way the world worked. Even a cursory study of the history of witchcraft, astrology, “high magic,” and related arts, however, should quickly disabuse us of this idea. Magical ways of thinking about and interacting with the world did not go away with the Enlightenment, but only changed to match the times. Certain practices became less common, others more. Some explanations for the way magic worked fell by the wayside, and others became more important.

Michael Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe is merely an overview of the topic, with truly modern magic occupying only a chapter, or perhaps a chapter and a half if you draw the lines more loosely. But even in this short space, Bailey finds room to suggest ways in which much modern magic is not merely a holdover from a bygone era, but a uniquely modern creature. One way he does this is by drawing attention to the way some have attempted to remove the stigma of participating in magical practices. In the past, he says:

“The labels of magician, sorcerer, and especially witch were assigned to individuals, whether by powerful religious or secular authorities acting through legal courts, or by neighbors acting through equally effective systems of village gossip and community opinion. Many people, indeed most, engaged in actions that some others might well have considered magical, but few judged their own personal practices to be magic, at least not in the sense that magic was transgressive or illicit.”[1]

That is, in the past people may have engaged in a little hocus-pocus, but they would hardly have accepted the label “witch.”

We throw around words like “countercultural” pretty easily today, as if that meant very little, but in many societies being countercultural was a far costlier choice than in our own. We enshrine individual freedom as one of the central tenets of our society—people should be free to believe what they want, to do what they want, to be who they want, so long as it does not directly harm another individual. Both right and left have accepted this basic idea for some time, though of course they apply it very differently, with the right embracing more economic freedom, the left more social and cultural freedom, and libertarians trying to get the best of both worlds.

In societies where social, cultural, economic, and even religious freedom were simply not on the menu, where there were no popular elections with competing parties dividing people into contrasting ideologies, the idea that one would differ significantly from one’s neighbor by choice was a bit strange. Your livelihood was, to one degree or another, dependent on finding a way to belong. If you failed to do so, you generally lacked the mobility necessary to pick up and move on to another place where you had some hope of starting over.

Bailey connects the emergence of individual freedom with new trends in magic and superstition:

“In the modern West, however, with its stress on individual freedom (and, critically, freedom from legal punishment for performing previously illicit forms of magic), certain people began to prove very willing if not eager to take on the title of magician, and later also of witch, in no small part because these titles and practices associated with them have been considered to transgress limits imposed by the structures of modern society. Yet in the very act of transgressing and to some extent attempting to transform these limits, these individuals actually behave in a very modern, at times perhaps postmodern, fashion.”[2]

Consider what it takes to sustain a society where individual freedom is important. You have to not only create the political and religious structures that allow for individual freedom, you also have to pass that value on. You have to tell stories about the courageous individual, bravely standing up against the villainous society which seeks to restrain him. To keep a liberal society going, we have to tell stories of the marginalized confronting the powerful, and being in the right. The witch is by definition marginal, a ready-made hero of a society that values individual choice and self-definition.

 

Witch Trials and Liberal Storytelling

 

There are a number of ways modern magical practices and traditions, especially Wicca, embody a distinctly liberal ethos. I hope to examine several of them more fully when we reach that part of this study. For now, however, I want to draw attention to one of the more interesting ways in which witchcraft lends itself to the “brave individual vs. the world” narrative: the witch trials.

If there’s anything we know about witches, other than brooms, hats, and cauldrons, it’s that the Church loved to burn them. The middle ages was one long slog of random women tied to stakes and set on fire, maybe because their neighbors didn’t like them, and maybe because Judge Claude Frollo is repressed and doesn’t know how to deal with it. We all know that millions of women were killed this way. It was practically a holocaust. More specifically, it was a male-driven holocaust perpetrated mostly against women.

This is, of course, a gross exaggeration in almost every detail. To begin with, rather than millions of people killed, the European witch trials probably claimed less than 100,000 lives, spread across the entire continent, and over three centuries.[3] More likely, the number was actually between forty and fifty thousand.[4]  Moreover, the witch trials were not a medieval phenomenon, but an early modern one. The worst half century was from 1580 to 1630, well after both the Reformation had ended the monopoly of Roman Catholic religious power, and after the Scientific Revolution had already begun.[5] Also, while the trials were certainly directed more often at women, on average 25 percent of the accused were men, though in pockets like Normandy the number might actually be 75 percent, or over 90 percent in Iceland.[6] Furthermore, it was not the Roman Catholic Church or the Spanish Inquisition that drove these trials. Trials, conviction, and execution were all far more common in places where centralized church or state government had less influence, not where they had more.[7] In fact, Spain, home of the famous Inquisition, executed far fewer witches than almost any other country in Europe, with Italy not far behind. This number, for the curious, is a mere 300 in the century from 1560 to 1660, the height of European witch trials.[8]

Fifty thousand spread across three centuries, for the curious, is about 167 people a year. This was spread across the kingdoms of England, Scotland, France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the patchwork quilt of Italian city-states and the realms of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, Iceland, Poland, Switzerland, and other assorted European nations. Massive hunts were not the norm, but the exception. Rather than burnings in every village for the entire course of the middle ages, we ought to imagine sporadic and isolated events spread unevenly over a very large area.

This is not to say that the witch trials were not a serious miscarriage of justice, or to minimize the suffering inflicted many no doubt innocent people. There is, however, a rather large gap between our picture of what happened, and what actually did happen. This ought to make us curious. Where did our picture come from?

Weirdly enough, the first group to really embrace this notion of the European witch trials was the Nazi party:

“By the mid-twentieth century, the notion that medieval and early modern witches had actually been practitioners of a pre-Christian, pagan religion…had gained considerable credence. The Nazi leadership decided that witches would make useful symbols of northern European völkisch culture, in opposition to essentially Mediterranean Christianity, which was, moreover, rooted in Judaism.”[9]

As the Third Reich expanded, the SS’s “Special Witch Unit” went through records of witch trails in various regions, hoping to use them for propaganda purposes. [10] The Nazi brand of feminism—wherein Aryan women were decidedly superior to the men of other races—even adopted a line common to later feminist takes on witchcraft, proclaiming that it was an assault on Aryan womanhood by degenerate Christian men.[11] The Nazi’s conception of a witch-holocaust was expressed in the 1935 pamphlet Der christliche Hexenwahn, or “The Christian Witch-Craze.” A year before, another leader of the German pagan movement, Mathilde Ludendorff, printed Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen, “Christian Cruelty to German Women,” which claimed that approximately nine million women had been killed throughout the witch hunts.[12]

None of this is to suggest any sort of moral equivalence between Nazis and people who have a similar understanding of the witch hunts. To claim that because, say, Wiccans share certain beliefs about history with Nazis, that they must be similarly monstrous and wicked is patently ridiculous. Such smear tactics have no place in any sort of civil discussion, whether they are directed marginalized or at mainstream religious, ethnic, or political groups.

But there may be a reason liberal narratives of the witch hunts and the Nazi narratives are so similar. These two disparate movements had a common enemy—the Christian Church. A unified Christian Church, even in the loosest sense, can compete with the Aryan race for German loyalty, as it did in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. It can also present itself to individuals as an entity demanding moral and behavioral conformity. In either case, it is convenient to believe that the Christian Church perpetrated a massive slaughter of either fiercely independent women or of noble Aryan pagans when at the height of its power.

Every movement needs heroes, and a good hero will often breed a movement. Looking back to the exaggerated tale of nine million women slaughtered in a holocaust of superstition and prejudice, especially if one believes these women were carrying on an ancient pagan faith, it is easy to see what makes identifying with them attractive. They seemed to have a spirit of independence and courage, as well as a connection to something more ancient and apparently more good than the currently prevailing religion. If we, as a society, teach our children to value these things, is it any wonder a number of them will grow up to claim the label “witch?”

As always, it is a mistake to assume that facts automatically lead to beliefs. Often the version of history we select is driven more by which stories express our values than which has the most evidence behind it. If Christians want to win hearts, we should aim to shape hearts, not just convey information. And we should also learn to pay attention to myths and storytelling tropes, at least as much as we do to actual history.

 

 

Update: I recently began another nonfiction project offline, with an eye towards publication. While I will continue the History of Witchery project, the other has priority, and new posts will likely be more spaced out than they were in June.


[1] Bailey, pg. 216.

[2] Bailey, 216.

[3] Bailey, 176.

[4] Bailey, 175.

[5] Bailey, 143.

[6] Bailey, 149.

[7] Bailey, 161-170, but especially 162.

[8] Bailey, 165.

[9] Bailey, 236.

[10] Bailey, 236.

[11] Bailey, 237.

[12] Bailey, 238.

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