Dispelling myths of witches


The Craft: Behind that tried-and-true Halloween costume lies a wealth of history.

October 31, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

What would Halloween be without witches?

Tonight, the classic old crone will be prowling our streets, dressed in a black cloak and matching pointy hat, sporting a long wart-covered nose and carrying a broomstick.

Behind the familiar caricature lies a dark history of the witch hunts of the 15th to the 17th centuries: unjust accusations, confessions coerced through torture, church trials, and burning at the stake.

Scholars have long tried to fathom the factors that led to the witch hunts. Some blame religious and social hysteria. Feminist scholars, noting the high proportion of women targeted, see a misogynistic motive.

Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, believes witches were a part of folklore that was exploited by rational men who were seeking to redeem their religious worldview in an increasingly skeptical world.

In the recently published Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief, Stephens argues that belief in witches became a useful tool for late-medieval theologians to explain the existence of evil in a world ruled by a good and loving God. And ultimately, he says, witches and the demons they communed with served as a proof of the world of spirit, of the truth of the Bible, and of the very existence of God.

Such proof was needed, he says, because of the anxiety felt by theologians of the era, who were attempting to justify their beliefs as the age of reason and skepticism dawned.

"By the 15th century, a lot of Christian clerics are quite worried about the reality of the spiritual world," says Stephens, sitting back in his campus office as a small tin witch keeps watch from a bookshelf. "They began looking for proof that it isn't just an imaginary world dreamed up by us in order to console ourselves with the fact that someday we have to die."

One way to prove the world of the supernatural is for humans to somehow have bodily experience of it.

"So what ends up coming out is the accusation that certain people are having physical relationships with demons," Stephens says. "That is, they are interacting with them bodily in ways that include flying, that is straddling a broomstick and being carried by a demon, and also having sex with a demon."

The witch hunts that ensued, which began in the mid-1400s, were attempts by religious authorities to find evidence to prove their theories, evidence that inevitably was extracted through torture.

Stephens found that the treatises he studied on witchcraft not only answered questions as to why the witch hunts started, but also explained many of the stereotypes commonly held about witches and witchcraft.

Witches are old women

Stephens estimates that between 30,000 and 60,000 people were accused of witchcraft over the 300 years between the 15th and the 17th centuries. Of those, 80 percent were women, but a good percentage were men, and there were significant numbers of children accused, some as young as 8.

The witch as an old woman, Stephens says, is a stereotype that corresponds to reality.

"In a small witch hunt, the people most vulnerable to accusation were people with no allies - the village crank," he says. "And they tended to be women in part because the accusations of witchcraft tended to center on things that were women's work: children, livestock, food preparation, medicinals, midwifing and so on."

Witches fly on brooms

Actually, Stephens says, witches don't fly.

"They don't fly. They're carried by demons," he says. "And the broom - or it can be a bench, a chair, an animal, it can be almost anything - is simply a platform for the witch to sit on while being carried by a demon."

The idea of witches being transported through the air, which is first seen in a text from the 1440s, is so they can be taken to a sabbath, a celebration of witches and demons.

"They fly because even though these mass meetings of witches [were believed to be] so numerous and so heavily populated, they can't be found" by investigators, Stephens says. "So they must be held some place we can't get to. It locates the witch's sabbath in a distant, but still real landscape which we, the investigators, can't reach because we as virtuous people can't be carried by demons to investigate it."

Witches eat children

Infanticide was a constant accusation against suspected witches.

"Witches have to kill babies because the New Testament implies that if you're not baptized, you don't go to heaven," Stephens says. "And so why would God allow babies to die by natural means or by accident before they could be baptized? God wouldn't do that. So witches must be killing them and they must be killing them in order to please the devil."

Witch's caldron

This accusation appears to originate in the early 15th century, in a text that recounts the confessions of two women who said they killed babies to please the devil.

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