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.

Disenchantment and the Enchanters: Witch Hunts, the Enlightenment, and How Paradigms Fail

One thing the history of magic demonstrates is that we clearly do not live in the same intellectual universe that existed during the Renaissance. Where it was perfectly acceptable for natural philosophers to engage in occult pursuits during that time, the idea that a modern scientist would spend his time conversing with spirits or refuse to prepare certain chemicals unless Venus was in the right place in the sky is laughable. The idea of Peter Venkman is as laughable as Venkman himself.

This shift is one of the more momentous in intellectual history. The old scholars were almost by definition Christian, as the church was the primary center of learning. The new scholars take a skeptical attitude not just towards magic, but to anything that might be termed supernatural. Between them lies the period known as the Enlightenment, a time when the imaginative world of the elite underwent a process of disenchantment. Some science-minded people are apt to say the happened because we suddenly got smart, or were rationally convinced of a more naturalistic cosmos. Michael Bailey suggests that this development did not occur in so straight a line.

“Yet as I have argued throughout this chapter, while magical beliefs and practices altered and adapted to Renaissance, Reformation, and scientific thought, many magical traditions remained vibrant and provided serious competition to mechanical philosophy until the very end of the seventeenth century. The intellectual respectability of magic did not fade because new “scientific” systems provided categorically superior explanatory models that precluded the need for or proscribed the possibility of magical operations. Instead, European intellectuals seem largely to have abandoned their belief in magic first and then set about developing other models of understanding the universe that fully excluded magical forces.”[1]

This is striking. Something gave intellectuals a reason to abandon a view of the cosmos that included magic before they even had a system to replace it. Though this may not be how we are used to thinking of shifts from one view of the world to another, perhaps conceiving of something more like conversion from once complete system to another, it’s not entirely unthinkable. Just because your current beliefs have proved wrong in some way does not mean you have something waiting in the wings to replace them. Demolition often comes long before rebuilding.

With regards to scientific revolutions, the shift from one paradigm to another, there is one scholar well known for studying this phenomenon, and Bailey is quick to cite him:

“Thomas Kuhn, in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, rejected the notion that scientific progress invariably proceeds through steady, incremental advances. Small advances can be made as new knowledge and information about a given subject gradually accumulates, he argues, but this information is always interpreted within some overarching paradigm that governs basic understandings about the field in which the advancement is being made. These paradigms do not alter gradually under the weight of accumulated eveidence; indeed, they cannot, since all evidence is interpreted within their structure. Paradigms themselves change only through relatively sudden, dramatic ruptures.”[2]

So when it comes to the shift from a scientific paradigm that accommodates the supernatural to one that manifestly does not, we should look for two things. First, we should be able to identify a time where a “sudden, dramatic rupture” separates the old view from the new. This would be the eighteenth century Enlightenment. But we should also look for something else. Every “sudden, dramatic rupture” is built on gaps in the previous system, things that cannot be accounted for under the current paradigm:

“Every dominant paradigm has certain problems, certain information that it cannot easily accommodate. Normally these are either explained in some not wholly satisfying fashion or else they are simply ignored. The Ptolemaic, earth-centered conception of the universe, for example, could only accommodate planetary retrograde motion by the introduction of complex epicycles. Occasionally, however, radical suggestions of alternate paradigms emerge, and sometimes, as with Copernican heliocentrism, the come to supplant the earlier paradigm, producing a major revolution. Kuhn maintains, however, that new paradigms do not triumph because they objectively provide a better interpretive system than the old paradigm, at least not immediately. For example, while Copernicus’s heliocentric theory did explain some of the observed properties of astral bodies in simpler and more elegant ways than did the old Ptolemaic system, the better part of a century was to pass before the details of a heliocentric model that was objectively superior to the Ptolemaic system were worked out. During this transition, experts did throw their support behind heliocentrism because of the weight of accumulated evidence, but, Kuhn suggests, more out of aesthetic impulse and intuition than anything else.”[3]

We should therefore expect to see some problems that the old paradigm had difficulty dealing with. This would give intellectuals a reason from abandoning a worldview that allows for magic, and throwing their weight behind one that rejects the supernatural. This is where things get interesting:

“Here too we have encountered the issue of confidence in a system, namely in the area of witchcraft and particularly with witch hunting. In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many authorities lost confidence, not initially in the basic system of thought that supported the idea of witchcraft, but in the ability of legal institutions to identify and prosecute witches fairly and effectively. The previous chapter suggested that this judicial dilemma eventually led to a broader skepticism about the reality of witchcraft in general.”[4]

The previous chapter is indeed a fascinating one. It uproots many of the preconceived notions held by both proponents of modern science and modern claimants to the magical tradition. Rather than being driven by the Church or by the major authorities of Early Modern Europe, the witch trials were miscarriages of justice within local communities, whether intentional manipulations of the law for personal gain, or something like mass hysteria. It was in regions where the Church and centralized government held the least authority that the witch trials flourished. Where higher authority held tighter control over witch trials, the accused was acquitted far more often, and when convicted, was rarely executed. This is a fascinating chapter, and I hope to visit it in detail when this study returns to that period.

What is significant at the moment, however, is the way this fits with Kuhn’s paradigm:

“To rephrase this process in Kuhnian terms: the inability of courts to prosecute witches effectively was, if not an inherently incompatible anomaly, certainly a problem in an intellectual and moral paradigm that held witchcraft to be a real and terribly threatening crime. The solution of simply curtailing witch trials resolved the immediate problem but would have been intellectually unappealing and inelegant because it meant that there were horribly dangerous and destructive malefactors in the world against whom legal authorities could provide no protection. The rise of skepticism about the very existence of witches provided a more comprehensive solution. Yet because the idea of witchcraft was only one facet of European conceptions about magic, and more basically about demonic and divine power operating in the world, denial of the reality of witchcraft entailed a major shift in prevailing systems of thought and required that something like a new paradigm be accepted.”[5]

This suggestion is stunning. We often treat the period of Early Modern witch hunts as something totally unrelated to the “enlightened,” “disenchanted” era that followed, but according to Bailey, they “may have been a key factor contributing to the ultimate eighteenth century disenchantment of Europe.”[6]

An important aspect of this revelation is the fact that the problem witchcraft presented was not essentially a scientific or philosophical one, but a moral one. It made the old paradigm seem implausible not because it didn’t fit with known facts about the natural world, but because it upset the moral and political world in which Early Modern Europeans lived. Intellectual shifts, even in the natural sciences, are sometimes driven by moral and political concerns.

This is an important idea for Christians today to grasp. Many of us would like to reverse the trend of secularization in our society. We may even feel that it is necessary for our own safety and the safety of the broader Church. But if we are going to convince people that a Christ-centered way of looking at the world is worthy of consideration, and more worthy than the alternatives, we need answers to all sorts of problems—certainly to scientific ones, but also to moral and political ones.

Christian morality and politics is often not much more than red-state conservatism, or red-state libertarianism, with a few out-of-context proof verses slapped on for good measure. Our beliefs, and many of the arguments we use to defend them, are not very different from those of our secular neighbors. And not to leave anybody out, the same is true for blue-state and centrist Christianity. All of us draw on political traditions that are skin deep, no more recent than the 1960’s. Is it any wonder our secular neighbors look at our lifestyles and opinions and wonder why faith in Christ is necessary?

But Christianity has a long history of moral, political, and philosophical discussion. We have a wide range of views represented in the Church Fathers, in medieval scholastics, in Reformation and Counter-Reformation intellectuals, and in more recent Christian tradition. Behind that stands the very Word of God, not in some hodgepodge collection of discrete verses, but as a library of wisdom poetry, royal chronicles, legal documents and case studies, philosophical meditations, and examinations of the connections between the kingship of Christ and our daily lives in a world that does not recognize Him. We have resources.

Looking at the impact the Early Modern witch hunts had on European intellectual thought should shame us and spur us to action. Christianity had been firmly established in Europe for long centuries before the witch craze set in. During that time, the conception of witches as the sort of threat they appeared to be in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was nearly nonexistent. Church and secular authorities certainly saw no reason to prosecute or punish them in the way it was done in that era. Could we not have found a better solution?

Likewise, we are today confronted with a wide range of political and moral conundrums that beg for an answer. How does Christian just war theory apply to ISIS and to Syria, to the use of drones or of “enhanced interrogation” techniques? Does a historically Christian perspective on the common good call for open borders and an untrammeled free market, or are our rulers called to nurture specific communities? Does the Bible and the conversation of Christians across time call for a more nuanced alternative to that question? How are Christians to behave in nation that is hostile to their beliefs? How are we to behave if we gain power over a nation consisting of many unbelievers? Both of these questions were asked and answered over the course of centuries in the Roman Empire. We are not without resources.

The study of magic is a fascinating one. It opens up new imaginative vistas, and it sheds light on the past from new and interesting angles. While wisdom for its own sake is clearly an end worth pursuing, we should also be open to the lessons history teaches us. I took, and I hope you take, this particular lesson as a wake-up call.

[1] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe, pgs. 210-211.

[2] Bailey, 211.

[3] Bailey, 211.

[4] Bailey, 212.

[5] Bailey, 212.

[6] Bailey, 213.