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.

Under the Sun

The American President used to be leader of the free world. Before that, the sun never set on the British Empire. Nation by nation, by Queen and Emperor, a line of rulers stretches back to Augustus, and beyond to Shutruk Nahunte– king of Anshand and Sussa, Sovereign of the Land of Elam. I woke up today, and Catalonia, Scotland, and Dixie all say they will never die, all claim they will rise again. They have said it before, and they will say it again.

Documentaries are made on the history of rock and roll, and a new top 40 rolls out every week. Summer and winter, blockbuster movies hit the theaters, from the moment we invented the camera until today, without interruption. There are poets and authors in every generation, and once in a while they capture some truth in a story and become the favorite until another comes along to usurp them. Since fallen man first lived in cities, since he envied and coveted and idolized, celebrities have had their fifteen minutes of fame, when all their brothers looked on and worshiped them. And in every generation, the path of the fool ends in destruction.

There are rich men and poor men, wise men and simple men, men skilled with words and men who are slow of speech. Young men rise up, thinking they know what they are talking about. One way or another, they realize they don’t. Old men look on and see the pattern repeated, see themselves in the younger generation. The reins of power and influence in a culture shift hands, but humanity is always what it has been.

“That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.”

But there is a God in heaven, the one who made this rhythm, and who made eternity. He has been, he will be, and he is. He came in the form of one more child, was raised in yet another country occupied by yet another empire, and was crucified by the usual religious elite. But he broke out of death, and told us to follow him. That which has been will be, but there is a permanence found in Christ. That which is done is what will be done, but the treasure stored up in his mansions will never rot, will never rust, will never pass away. There is nothing new under the sun, but in his realm there is no sun, only the radiance proceeding from his throne.

Escape the cycle. Get religion.

The Exiles

At the beginning of the 1760’s, the American world was being torn apart and sewn back together. For the better part of a decade New France had been at war with the British colonies. It was here that George Washington first saw battle along the bloody frontier. For the first time, every British colony from Massachusetts to Georgia stood united against foreign invasion. They were proud Britons, and proud Americans.

After some time it grew apparent to the French that the war was being lost. King Louis XV, expecting to be booted from the continent, sold the portion of New France west of the Mississippi to his Spanish cousins. A year later, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris would end the French and Indian War, and the remainder of the French lands in America would be left to the British.

It took some time for the Spanish to adjust to the new situation. No longer was there danger from encroaching French settlements in the north and east. The buffer state of Texas was unnecessary, as were presidios all along the frontier. In 1772 the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, sent out the New Regulation for Presidios. In the order he called for all Spanish subjects in the missions of East Texas to pull back to San Antonio.

Generations had risen and faded since Father Margil’s miracle on the banks of Lanana Creek. The settlers had long ago forgotten whatever lands they had come from. Their homes were here, their farms and ranches and small towns. They had been raised in East Texas soil, had found love there, had raised children of their own, had worshipped there, had scratched a living out of that ground, and by now it had as much claim on them as any Spanish politician.

Antonio Gil Ibarvo was among these natives. He was born in Los Adaes in 1729, in that portion of the Sabine Country that Americans later tacked on to Louisiana. When he married his wife, Maria, they settled a place they called “Rancho Lobanillo,” a hard day’s ride from Nacogdoches. In 1773, when the Governor sent soldiers to force the East Texans off their land, they rallied behind Ibarvo, naming him their leader. When they reached San Antonio, he petitioned for their return. After some time, his request was partly granted. In September of 1774 they founded the town of Bucareli on the west bank of the Trinity River.

Four years passed. The British were at war with themselves, the colonists fighting for their freedom against a tyrannical parliament and the king that stood behind it. Spain declared war on King George’s forces, but the people of Bucareli were already fighting a war of their own. Flooding and Indian raids ruined crops and laid waste to the town. In 1779, without government permission, they quietly left the settlement behind and passed into the forbidden east, to what may have been the only remaining European structure in East Texas: the mission at Nacogdoches.

The town soon began to thrive, far from Spanish oversight. Here in the wild woods they traded with Caddoes and Frenchmen, and the newly arrived Cajuns. As the years wore on, the victorious Britons of America would spread their Union westward, founding state after state. Outlaws and refugees of every race and creed would find a hiding place in the country east of the Sabine, where Ibarvo was born. But here, in Nacogdoches, settlers and immigrants would find their gateway back into a civilized nation. In time, Spain named Ibarvo lieutenant governor, commander of the militia, and local magistrate. They had no choice but to acknowledge the pueblo that would not die, the exiles that would not leave. Nacogdoches was here to stay.

Random Sketches on a Sunday Afternoon

This morning, walking back from church, I stopped briefly on a hill to watch birds on the wind. The hills were stretching away, folding and unfolding until they disappeared over the horizon. They are something like golden this time of year, and the sky was a pale blue. In between the gilded land and powdered sky were hawks floating in the breeze. I’ve seen wind toss trees to the ground, send cars across multiple lanes, and topple steeples. These hawks were not disturbed in the least by the moving air. It was strong where they were. They rose up and dove down, drifting about on thermals and cross-breezes, not going anywhere in particular. They were just riding the wind, enjoying the view.

*          *          *

The Palouse hills, though they rise and fall, keep a steady height. It’s like the rumpled sheets on a bed, always curling up only to fall down to the mattress and no further. They’re bounded at the top, too, so you can stand on the top of one and watch the rest ripple off into the distance. But in one place, that is not true.

Wawawai is a sudden downward slope, a passage deep into a valley. The hills surge above, like giants looming. The sun sits above them, gleaming down until the fire touches the river, and the little lake that squats beside it. The water’s surface shines like shook foil, as Hopkins once said. It’s like a second sun, trapping you within a cage of golden beams and walls of grass and earth. It’s a pleasant captivity.

*         *         *

Everyone should sing. It’s a fact. Not all of us have great voices, and not all of us have voices that can sing everything. But all of us should find something to sing, and sing it passably well. Singing is part of being in a community: sharing joy and words of wisdom or worship in a glorious medium.

*         *         *

Every American child should familiarize himself with the history and culture of the British Isles. There is nothing so exciting and so commonplace, so tightly knit and so separate and diverse as that community of nations. An understanding of those islands and the nations that call them home fills with the world with a richness and wonder that stretches back for millenia, providing a hint of the wisdom our American youthfulness has not achieved. And, as one who loves Scottish freedom, it makes a man twice the nationalist and the twice the skeptic than if he had been raised on our history alone.

*         *         *

The sun is falling low now, a jewel set in sapphire and gold, a seal on the passing day. It’s been glorious. Friends and new freshmen, long car rides, shy dogs, and watermelon, all of them interwoven with music to our Lord and for him. As the day winds down and the next week rises up like a battlefield to be traversed, the Sabbath is bidding a fond farewell. It will come again, and we will sing again, and it will go again, and we will fight again, and at the end of weeks, the end of days, there will be another Sabbath. And that one will last forever.

Between the Bayous

The Caddo Indians told an old legend of a cave where the Red River and Mississippi met, a place called Chahkanina, “the place of crying.”  When the Caddoes emerged from that darkness, their leader, Moon, told them to turn west and not look back. Among the bands that turned west were Nacogdoche. They settled in a land of deep woods filled with great pines, the earth shaped by the rivers and creeks that cut through it. The ground there was fertile, and they settled between two bayous, Lanana and Banita. They named their village “Nevantin.”

Nevantin, like other Caddo villages, was a collection of beehive-shaped huts. There they raised corn, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, and sometimes tobacco, which they considered sacred. They hunted deer and buffalo and small game in the surrounding woods. The village had a caddi, a chief, and a xinesi, a priest or shaman. They worshipped the “Caddi Ayo,” or “Lord of the Sky.”

For hundreds of years the Nacogdoche band continued in this way of life, year after year, harvest after harvest, in trade and marriage and war and peace. Then, in the year of our Lord 1542, a Spaniard named Luis de Moscoso Alvarado passed through East Texas with a company of explorers. News of these strangers from across the sea rippled through the Caddo bands. The story of Nevantin, the village between the bayous, was about to change forever.