So one day a bunch of guys wakeup a decide their neighbors are placing magical curses on them? I realize it was a different time, and ppl didn’t have the education & technology we have today, but nevertheless, I am struggling to understand why ppl would believe others were witches?
Well, take a bunch of half-illiterate, undereducated, and socially repressed people…they’ll be more likely to believe that their neighbor is drinking children’s blood and casting spells that a moderately more advantaged person would.
Plus there is a human tendency to be fascinated with superstition. I know very logical and reasonable people who don’t feel comfortable walking under ladders or get mildly annoyed when they see a certain number they consider bad luck.
And these are educated, mildly agnostic types.
You could also ask why so many Germans in the Third Reich believed that Jews were nothing more than subhumans. It’s a combination of ignorance, indoctrination, miseducation, and the human desire to share a “common” belief.
The same reason why people believe in God today.
Well, you can turn the question around, and ask why don’t you believe in witchcraft? I’m assuming (and may be wrong) that it’s because you don’t believe in one or more of the premises behind it.
Maybe you don’t believe there’s a devil.
Maybe you don’t believe the devil has the power to harm or damage things in this world.
Maybe you don’t believe the devil will give this power to people who worship him.
If you do believe all these things, belief that witches exist falls into place.
Witchcraft beliefs (or at least statements about witchcraft) are widespread. Almost all primitive societies had some witchcraft beiliefs. Anthropologists differentiate between “witchcraft” (some power intrinsic to an individual) and “sorcery” (magical techniques said to produce a result).
E.E. Evans Pritchard thought the Ashanti witchcraft beliefs were a way of explaining inexplicably tragedies. H.R. Trevor-Roper thought the European Witch craze of the 16th century (in which as many as half a million “witches” may have been executed between 1520 and 1650) spun out of control due to the practice of torturing accused witches until they not only confessed, but accused their neighbors.
Of course it’s impossible to say what people really “believe”. We can only observe actions and statements. The European Witch craze was closely associated with religious wars of reformation, and may have been used by both Catholics and Protestants to intimidate people. It’s interesting to compare the Witch Craze with the Inquisition – in the former people were executed for horrible crimes (eating babies, etc) which we moderns think they didn’t really commit; int the latter people were executed for crimes they prbably did commit (heresy), but which we moderns think trivial.
I guess I was just shocked that ppl would take their superstitions so far as to kill innocent ppl. Is there any widely-known political agenda that was aided by the witch trials?
Anthropologist Marvin Harris has linked some of the hystria over witchcraft to the anxiety and antipathy most Christians of the time felt towards Catharists. These were followers of a belief system which held that the physical universe is the creation of Satan and that Jesus was purely spirit, so that he did not actually suffer when placed on the cross.
It has also been shown that a disproportionate number of executed “witches” were midwives. Some historians have gone so far as to suggest that doctors who wished to eliminate their competition were responsible for fomenting witch hysteria. Jack Nicholson repeats this theory in the film The Witches of Eastwick; I do not know if it is discussed in John Updike’s novel.
Harris has argued that people who were executed were often midwives largely because midwives came from the demographic least able to get a fair trial: they were women, they were single, and they were poor enough to have to work for a living. In any case, it appears that doctors were hardly ever allowed to deliver babies in the times and places where witch purges took place, so the idea of viewing midwives as their competition does not seem to really hold up.
Witch hunts probably were an excuse for targeting a particular movement or group in some cases.
Mostly, though, I suspect that people believed that there were witches afoot, and set out to get them, because as a way of dealing with problems and anxieties they could not otherwise deal with. Are the cattle dying? Is their a drought or a plague? Is everybody and their brother knocking the state religion lately? Find a scapegoat no one wants to defend and take it out on them. People are doing much the same today with talk of Satanic child abusers.
It should also be considered that, with everyone believing in witchcraft, there might have been, every once in a while, people who actually gave it, or something similar, a try. The Salem witch hysteria started with an incident where several young women were caught trying out a pagan ceremony which was being taught them by a slave who came from Barbados.
Everything from keeping the extant politico-religious power structure (WHICHEVER its denomination: Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even Roman Pagans considered sorcery a crime at one or another point in their history) in place, to confiscating the convicted’s property to engross the pockets of the ruler or the town, to just having the accuser exert the power of blackmail over his/her neighbors. Just like a “Red Menace Scare”, a-la McCarthy (which is how Miller paralleled it with the Salem Trials in The Crucible).
But it’s hard to make a single assertion about “the” witch trials, since witch-hunts happened across centuries, with a background of evolving sociopolitical environments.
And heck, people will take their reaction to differences in skin coloration so far as to kill innocent people. It’s not necessarily the superstition per se that kills, but the manipulation and whipping of it into mob hysteria (because hysterical mobs are easy to convince to give up their freedom to someone who offers to “protect” them, and do his bidding unquestioningly)
I have seen some historians insist that witch crazes are closely linked with misogyny. Many Church “fathers” were rabidly anti-woman, saying that women were lustful, sinful creatures with weak natures. Some seriously debated whether or not women had souls. These historians argue that witch killing was a way to keep women “in their place” because often the victims were women who offended the sense of social order: single women, mouthy women, or women who rejected the subordinance to men.
Women were seen as especially susceptible to the temptations of Satan, possibly because, deep down, men realized the second-class status of women was galling. Women were seen as unable to control petty jealousies, which might lead them to sell their souls in order to right a wrong. Because of their insatiable lust, sex with Satan was attractive. (Many “confessions” of witches describe Satan as having a huge, icy penis.)
A good portion of the victims were social outcasts, women that no one liked, or cared about. There was no “purpose” for a woman who was not married. Even if she worked, she was seen as a potential burden on society, and without a man to “keep her in line” who knew what kind of immoral behavior she could get herself into?
This was an age in which science often had no explanation for crib death, weather phenomenon, or other calamities beyond the catch-all of “It’s God’s will.” If the victim felt themselves to be undeserving of such punishment, it MUST be an outside force of evil. The Devil often worked through witches, and if the disaster happened after a fight with that mean lady down the road, well, perhaps she put a curse on your household, causing all of your distress.
It is comforting to be able to blame one’s woes on another person, especially if a death of a child is involved. The mother may feel guilty that something she had done, or neglected to do, led to the death of the child, and a way to relieve this is to pass it off on someone else.
Although well over half of the European witches executed were women, quite a significant number of men were killed as well. So the misogyny theory dosn’t seem sufficient. Also, in many African or New Guinea societies, the majority of witches killed are men.
Social outcasts, of course, are readily killed because they have little support from others. This seems to support the theory that the executions may have been intended to intimidate.
Amazingly, some people spontaneously confessed to being witches – including (as Trevor-Roper chrinicles in his excellent book “The European Witch Craze”) some who were educated, intelligent, literate, and seemingly as rational as any modern man.
Harris (a neo-Marxist anthropologist) uses Trevor-Roper’s book for his data.
Well, why do they believe in God? Who knows, sometime in the futrue people may say, “Why the hell did ppl believe in some superior being?”
Hmmm… Pick a religion and put its core belief/message in the space marked blank… Interesting…
No cite, but I believe there’s also the placebo effect at work. Bad events are happening, and so a witchhunt ensues. The “perpetrator” is found and then executed. All of a sudden, with the witch dead, people begin to notice things are getting better. Later, however, the perception declines, until enough folks think that, well, there must be another witch cursing the land. So they find and kill her.
Later, after a few iterations of this, a “witch” is killed, but things don’t seem to be getting better, hence, there must be another witch working in collusion with the first. So women (and the occasional man) are tortured to reveal the names of their conspirators. I’m guessing things start to snowball here.
Either Halloween or Devil’s Night, I can’t recall, the History Channed had a documentary on about the big witch burning period in European history. According to it, the whole mess was a response to the plague. With no viable theory of disease and with people dying by the millions, the powers that were could only conclude that evil was afoot and that the appropriate response was to get back to the biblical basics, so to speak. If witches were some how singled out I cannot say (although a friend did visit the Museum of Torture and described a tool specifically used on homosexuals…). For example, I don’t know if anybody was put to death for wearing mixed fabrics.
Anywho, given the fact that this was a magical time before modern science really took hold over nearly all aspects of life, and given that the plague was visiting upon the populace the wrath of god in a fashion we can hardly imagine, one can understand the motivation to reform.
wow this thread turned out really well.
I suspect greed had part of it. If you accuse your neighbor, someone gets to loot the property. Maybe you, maybe the judge. Someone will get ahold of it.
Judging from the postings, what reason was there to hesitate? A win-win-win-lose situation where most people win.
I’m surprised no one thus far has mentioned ergot as I’ve seen that cited in many documentaries on the subject. Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye (I think. I’m just a layman citing the best I can from memory here) and has hallucinogenic properties when ingested. (It’s a presursor to LSD).
The theories expressed in the documentaries I’ve seen believe that rye, contaminated by ergot, caused hallucinations in people which they interpretated as witchcraft.
Of course, as others have said, people need not ingest hallucinogens to hold beliefs based on superstition or based on other things besides cold hard evidence. I know a number of people who believe whole-heartedly in some wacky new age treatments for sickness and health. Beliefs can be very powerful, and can be difficult to overcome in even the most scientific-minded people.
As I understand it, there is alot more to LSD than just plain-old ergot. That’s not to say that you aren’t correct–I’ve heard that same thing proposed in numerous documentaries as well. I’m just not confident that ergot per se can make you trip. It would be like eating barley or hops and getting drunk–maybe??
That’s the thing. They weren’t innocent people. They were witches who were using black sorcery.
Remember that whole riitual abuse thing back in the 80’s? There were all these stories that Satanists were sexually abusing kids as part of their rituals, and also that all these day care providers were sexually abusing kids? It was a kind of big deal at the time. It turns out it probably didn’t happen, but a lot of people believed it, and a lot of innocent people ended up getting hurt, tarred with false accusations.
Lots of people need a god.
Lots of people need a scapegoat.
Witchery provides a nexus.