The Witch Craze: Fact or Fiction?

How much of the fake witch narrative do you think is true?

"From ghoulies and ghosties

And long-leggedy beasties

And things that go bump in the night,

Good Lord, deliver us!"

So runs a traditional prayer. This time of year, though, we swing the door open wide. We wear costumes, watch movies, and visit haunted houses populated by nightmares we normally shove under the bed. The queen of our revels is the witch. A long-nosed old woman in a conical hat, riding on a broom and accompanied by a black cat, the witch is a staple from Walmart displays to documentary films.

We all know her story. During the Middle Ages, the misogynist Catholic Church burned nine million women because they were practitioners of a peaceful, universal, goddess-worshipping religion that had existed since the Stone Age. The woman-hating Judeo-Christian tradition and bloodthirsty Western Civilization drove this Pagan religion underground. With the coming of the Enlightenment and the primacy of science over faith, the witch hunt stopped.  

The National Film Board of Canada documentary "The Burning Times" recounts this history. Dan Brown tells this very tale in "The DaVinci Code." You can read it on page 105 here. Neo-Pagans cling to this narrative because it provides a patina of ancient authenticity to their beliefs. Atheists recite it because it proves that religious people are violent, dangerous lunatics, and that it is only by rejecting religion that man can be moral. Some Protestants support it because it makes the Catholic Church look bad. Nowadays, our Woke superiors are grateful for the timeworn witch narrative. The Woke hope to replace Western Civilization with their Utopia. Europe's persecution of witches is just one of a litany of Western crimes, including the Inquisition and the Crusades, that prove how irredeemable the wicked West is.

Here's a fact that's even spookier than ghoulies and ghosties. Not a single element of the above-told witch narrative is true. Even scarier: because humanity hasn't faced up to the witch craze, we haven't learned the necessary harsh lessons, and we are all too likely to repeat the witch craze's demented destruction. In fact we may be all too close to that reenactment right now.

The fake witch narrative begins "during the Middle Ages." The witch craze did not occur in the Middle Ages, that is, between 500-1500. It occurred in the Early Modern Period, c 1500-1700. Thus we associate witches with the conical hats that were fashionable in the seventeenth century; see the 1675 "Portrait of Mrs. Salesbury," here. The Catholic Church existed for over a thousand years without a witch craze. Before 1400, it was rare for anyone to be persecuted for witchcraft, and, in fact, church documents from the Middle Ages deny even the existence of witches.

The insistence that the "Middle Ages" were really the "Dark Ages," that is, a time of torture and backwardness, is a finely honed, anti-Catholic and anti-Christian propaganda tool. The Greco-Roman, Mediterranean world was Pagan until the reign of Constantine, a fourth century emperor. Slowly, the classical world Christianized. The Catholic Church became a formidable force in Western Europe. If you want to bash Christianity, you present the Pagan, Classical world as an advanced era of "light," and the Christianizing world that followed it as "dark." If you want to bash the Catholic Church specifically, you bash the era when Catholicism was dominant, before the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

The term "Dark Ages" is a misnomer, invented to serve polemics, not accuracy. During the so-called "Dark Ages," significant advances were made in the arts, mass literacy, and agriculture (see here, here, here, here, and here). "Light" Pagan Rome produced horrors like crucifixion and the sadistic nightmare spectacle of damnatio ad bestias. Christians opposed crucifixion, gladiatorial games, and female infanticide.

There's another reason that the fake witch narrative places the witch craze in the Middle Ages. That reason, too, serves a false narrative, the narrative of inevitable human progress. A conviction that people just get better, smarter, and more ethical as time goes on is often associated with the Enlightenment, and also with many atheist thinkers like Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer. In the worldview of human progress, today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today, and we don't need religion to be moral because as time passes, people learn more and they inevitably become nicer. The witch craze took place during the Middle Ages because the Middle Ages were a long time ago, and people were stupider and more primitive then. That witches burned during the Enlightenment defies the false narrative of inevitable human progress.

The "nine million" statistic was invented by Gottfried Christian Voigt, an Enlightenment-era scholar. Just as some compared the Pagan Greco-Roman world, a world of "light," to Christianity, which brought "Dark Ages," many Christophobes insist that the Enlightenment – note the name – was an era of "light" after centuries of Catholic "Dark Ages."

Voigt lived under the Prussian king Frederick the Great. Frederick was a skeptical Protestant. He conspired with Russia and Austria to colonize Poland, a Catholic country, and there Frederick enacted anti-Catholic policies and oppressions. Frederick corresponded with Voltaire, the poster boy for the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment advertised itself as being all about human liberty and equality. Just as today, back during the Enlightenment, elites shouting about freedom and dignity were often hypocrites. Voltaire was quite happy to support German and Russian monarchs crushing Polish people, that is, peasants and religious Catholics and Jews. Frederick the Great wrote to Voltaire that his oppression of Catholic Poles was merely meant to apply Western discipline to "drunken," "shameless," "crude, stupid, and without instruction" Poles, "all that multitude of imbeciles whose names terminate in ski." Voltaire responded, "It is pleasant to destroy the people and to sing of them."

As historian Wolfgang Behringer points out, it benefitted Voigt, living under Frederick, to diss Catholics. In an essay, Voigt referred to "witch trials and torture" of the Catholic past, contrasted with "the progress of science." "Our times deserve to be rightly called enlightened," Voigt insisted. We Enlightened folk face "a real danger of falling back into the previous barbarism and ignorance and of losing the glory of the Enlightenment if we are not on our guard."

As Voigt rants against past "barbarism" he is living in a state, Enlightenment-era Prussia, that is carrying out barbarism against Poles. Voigt insists that there were 9,442,994 victims of witch trials. Voigt got to this number by assuming that all of Catholic Europe killed witches at the same rate as Reformation-Era Germany. In fact, Reformation-era Germany was the top murderer of witches. No other European country, during no other era, killed as many witches as Germany during the advance of Protestantism.

The nine million number, historian Behringer continues, became useful many times again in German history. The Kulturkampf took place between 1872-1878. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a devout Protestant, conducted an anti-Catholic campaign or "culture struggle." Again, Germans were oppressing Poles, and Poles were largely Catholic. Of Poles, Bismarck famously said, "Hit the Poles so hard that they despair of their life … if we want to survive, we can only exterminate them." Depicting the witch craze as a purely Catholic phenomenon that murdered over nine million women was a useful Kulturkampf propaganda tool.

Top Nazi Heinrich Himmler was obsessed with manufacturing a Nazi-friendly history of the witch trials. In 1935, he began the Hexenkartothek. This project's goal was to discredit the Catholic Church, and prove that the witch craze was a manifestation of Catholic hatred for German women. The witches, Himmler believed, were survivals of an authentic, indigenous German Paganism. Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg mentioned the witch trials repeatedly in his classic Nazi text, "The Myth of the Twentieth Century." Again, the dark Catholicism / light replacement trope came into play. Rosenberg described a "dark" era dominated by Catholicism and the bright, new Utopia that Nazism would bring about, with its "Nordic Apollonian light principle" contrasted with the "dark tide" of "Roman racial chaos." "The witch mania of the inquisitorial middle ages" – note that Rosenberg misplaces the witch craze in the Middle Ages and blames it on the Inquisition – "vanishes … after the successful Enlightenment."

Decades after the fall of the Third Reich, some modern feminists grabbed at the nine million number because it is larger than six million, the number of Jews murdered by Nazis. In the suffering Olympics, women beat Jews. Inevitably, some have claimed eleven or thirteen or eighteen million victims. Dan Brown, in "The DaVinci Code," claims "five million." The term "Women's Holocaust" is used. As Behringer puts it, in this manipulation of statistics, feminism and Nazi Neo-Paganism "shake hands."

Historians using actual trial records estimate that between 40 and 60 thousand victims were killed during the witch craze. Any death of an alleged "witch" is horrific. One can't help but compare this number of deaths, over the course of 200 years and the entire continent of Europe, with the death toll of the French Revolution, one of the most notable Enlightenment projects. The French living in the Vendee resisted the Revolution. One estimate of the death toll there is 200,000. Of these killings, Francois Furet wrote of "massacre and destruction on an unprecedented scale … also a zeal so violent that it has bestowed as its legacy much of the region's identity ... The war aptly epitomizes the depth of the conflict ... between religious tradition and the revolutionary foundation of democracy." The Reign of Terror resulted in tens of thousand of deaths, some by guillotine; some from imprisonment. In a few short years, the Enlightenment, which depicted itself as superior to the "dark, religious" past, far outstripped the death toll of the witch craze.

The fake witch narrative is comparable to a couple of other historical events that are popularly misunderstood – the Inquisition and the Crusades. Both of these events were purposely misrepresented by Protestants in an attempt to smear their rival, the Catholic Church. This misrepresentation was not just about theological rivalries, but real world politics. Catholic Spain and Protestant England competed for domination of the seas and of the New World. The Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604) included Spanish attempts to invade England, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and Spain ultimately declaring bankruptcy. Truth is the first casualty of war, and Protestant England's propaganda against Catholic Spain survives in popular culture to this day.

One legacy of that propaganda is an exaggerated depiction of the Spanish Inquisition. Spain was "the first victim of a long tradition of polemic that picked on the Inquisition as the most salient point of attack," wrote Henry Kamen, author of the Yale University Press book, "The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision." Richard L. Kagan, a Johns Hopkins professor of Iberian and Latin American Studies, wrote in the New York Times that "an all-powerful, torture-mad Inquisition is largely a myth. In its place [Kamen] portrays a poor, understaffed institution whose scattered tribunals had only a limited reach and whose methods were more humane than those of most secular courts."

The Crusades, too, were adopted by Protestant and Enlightenment polemicists in their attacks on Catholicism. More recent history has presented a more nuanced view. See, for example, here, here, here, and here.

Goddess theorists like Riane Eisler, Donna Read, Starhawk, Maria Gimbutas, Margot Adler, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Margaret Murray, and Dan Brown tell a story that many women love. In humanity's Stone Age past, women were revered and humans lived in peace. It's only after the arrival of allegedly misogynist Judaism that men began to dominate and mistreat women.

Facts on the ground present a different story. Sites like the 10,000 year old Lake Turkana massacre in Kenya, the Crow Creek massacre in pre-Columbian South Dakota, and defensive fortifications around Solnitsata, a Stone Age settlement in modern-day Bulgaria, suggest that there was never a time when humans weren't killing each other. That ancient peoples contributed to the extinction of megafauna and expanded desertification proves that humans have never lived in harmony with nature. Modern Stone Age tribes, like the Yanomami, often practice female infanticide, child marriage, polygyny, wife beating, wife branding, and gang rape.

That shopper in the New Age store who wears flowing robes, who smells like patchouli and listens to wind chimes is not practicing an ancient faith. Neo-Paganism is a modern invention, cooked up by nineteenth-century Romantic nationalists, eccentric Victorian and Edwardian elites, top Nazis, and white supremacists. Neo-Pagans reject many of the pillars of authentic Paganism, like animal and human sacrifice, sexism, and stratified hierarchies. Neo-Pagans have decided that their Paganism is a religion of environmentalism, fat acceptance, and eclecticism, that is, picking and choosing your own Pagan observance. None of these features of Neo-Paganism bear any relation to authentic Paganism. In short, the women killed in the witch craze were not surviving members of a goddess-worshipping religion that stretched back to the Stone Age and is practiced in modern suburbs.

In a 2007 lecture, UCLA Professor Teofilo Ruiz, who was awarded a National Humanities Medal by Barack Obama, titillates his audience with a tidbit about the witch-craze. In 1486, a Dominican clergyman, Heinrich Kramer, published "The Malleus Maleficarum," or "The Hammer of Witches." This book became a bestseller and it was used to persecute accused witches. Among other cruel absurdities, Kramer accuses witches of stealing penises, housing them in bird's nests, and feeding them oatmeal. One victim attempted to retrieve his penis. He found many, and chose the biggest. The witch told him not to take the big one, because it belonged to a priest. Kramer believed bawdy jokes to be accurate accounts.

In referring to this passage, Prof. Ruiz milks his audience's laughter. But Ruiz acquits his duty to deliver the heavy verdict. "Hatred of women," he tells his audience, "is inherent in Western Civilization." "In the two great rivers that make Western Civilization, the Judeo-Christian tradition, women are placed in an inferior role." Guilty of the murder of millions of innocent women, both Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition deserve capital punishment. In his formulation of how the witch craze came about, Ruiz has plenty of company. Mount Holyoke College claims on its website that "The Malleus Maleficarum" is "based on the Biblical … book of Exodus."

All too few inquiring minds seek any further than these conclusions, delivered as if definitive from authoritative sources. Intellectually curious and ethical people, though, must ask the following questions.

How to explain these statements? "Let nobody presume to kill a … female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds." Anyone who does accuse another of witchcraft must pay a fine. Or this: claims of witchcraft are "lies in every way," and those who believe them are "stupid and foolish," "deluded in sleep," experiencing "visions," and "worse than a Pagan." Or this: "Witches do not exist." Are these statements declaring that witches do not exist and forbidding the killing of witches the product of the modern, secular, scientific era? No. In fact they are statements made by devout Catholics living in 643 AD, c. 900 AD, and 1100 AD. Throughout the so-called "Dark Ages" powerful Catholics insisted that witchcraft is a delusion. What changed?

Also, if "Malleus Maleficarum" is, as Mount Holyoke College claims, "based on the Biblical … book of Exodus," how is it that Jews never produced a witch craze? According to professor and Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, "in the entire vast rabbinic corpus" there is only one account of capital punishment used against a witch, "and given its particularly legendary features, many scholars have held the historicity of the story suspect." Further, "there is no record of any large-scale witch hunts among the Jews of Europe to mirror the witch-hunting mania that seized gentile society."

And if the Bible automatically turns men into witch-hunting misogynists, how is it that some of Kramer's Catholic contemporaries saw through him? Bishop Georg Golser denounced Kramer as "completely childish." Bishop Golser "in language unusually blunt for correspondence among ecclesiastics," ordered Kramer out of his diocese. About Kramer, Golser wrote to a fellow priest," if [Kramer] does not withdraw with all speed, you, father, should say to him in my place that more than enough scandals have arisen … and that he should not remain in this place, lest anything worse should follow from this or happen to him." Kramer "was not someone who was so well respected by his peers that his views on witchcraft would be accepted without question. Quite the contrary, he was widely (and perhaps even charitably) regarded as being somewhat eccentric," writes historian Hans Peter Broedel. Kramer "forged a document" and misused a papal bull to grant an official sanction to "Malleus Maleficarum" that it did not receive.

Not just Catholic individuals, but entire Christian territories resisted the witch craze. A quick glance at a map of witch trials and witch executions might inspire an inquisitive mind to question the fake narrative. While Germany was sinking into murderous madness, neighboring Poland, a devoutly Catholic country, had few witch trials. Catholic Ireland is a short distance from Scotland and in Ireland "witch-hunting had never really begun." Scottish witch-hunting was "twelve times more intense" than witch hunting in England. Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Italy, majority Catholic countries, had few trials and few executions. Orthodox Christian countries like Russia also had few. If the witch craze really was all about Western and Judeo-Christian misogyny, how to explain Iceland? The accused there were almost all men. In Estonia and Russia, as well, and in late trials, like the "Sorcerer Jack" trial in Salzburg, most of the accused were men and boys.

Brian P. Levack, the John E. Green Regents Professor in History at UT Austin, is one of the most important scholars crafting an accurate history of the witch craze. Levack points out that the witch craze was multi-causal. No one thing sparked the witch craze. Rather, causes were psychological, sociological, theological, economic, and political. If Ruiz were as good a scholar as he is a comedian, he'd do a bit more thinking, and less winking and smirking, about those stolen penises, and he'd understand the witch craze much better.

The Middle Ages was an exceptionally warm period in the North Atlantic Region. Only the twentieth and twenty-first century have seen higher temperatures. Suddenly, things changed. Atlantic pack ice and mountain glaciers advanced. Swiss villages were wiped out. Summers were no longer reliable. Rains ruined crops. The River Thames and the Baltic Sea froze. Swedes could march across ice to Denmark. Iceland's population fell by half. Maybe it was the sun's radiation. Maybe it was volcanic activity. Maybe we can blame ocean currents, the earth's tilt, or even high death rates from the Black Death. The Little Ice Age began. To us this is merely the topic of a fascinating, if nerdy, science documentary. To Europeans in the Early Modern Period, this Little Ice Age meant failed crops, empty bellies, starving children, and dry cows.

In the chapter, "The Influence of the Sexes on Vegetation," in his classic multi-volume work on magic, "The Golden Bough," Sir James Frazer describes traditional people having sex, or simulating sex, in cultivated fields. "The husbandman and his wife visit their fields by night and there engage in sexual intercourse for the purpose of promoting the growth of the crop …  young married people lie down on the sown fields and roll several times over on them, in the belief that this will promote the growth of the crops," he reports. It is, he says, "the same theoretical belief in the sympathetic influence of the sexes on vegetation" that "has led some peoples to indulge their passions as a means of fertilising the earth." Frazer mentions "sympathetic magic." This is the belief that like influences like. If you want a fertile field, have sex on it. Another example: jaundice sufferers should make eye contact with a stone curlew, a bird with yellow eyes. Lungwort, a plant whose leaves look like lungs, is used to treat diseases of the lungs.   

To Prof. Ruiz and his audience, penises are about pleasure. To traditional people living on the knife edge of existence, penises and vaginas are symbols of life itself. Without fertility, humans starve. Witches steal penises; witches ride on broomsticks. Brooms, of course, are symbols of feminine domestic labor. They are also phallic. Witches sabotage fertility in a hungry world.

The witch craze disproportionately targeted old women. In "Religion and the Decline of Magic," Keith Thomas describes the prototypical witch. A poor, old woman knocks at a door and begs for a cup of milk. The householders decline. Later, the family cow goes dry. Those who refused beer can no longer brew beer. A girl threw stones at an old woman; afterward the girl began to defecate stones; normal bowel movements returned only after the witch was killed.  

Folklorist Alan Dundes argues that traditional people associate the life force with liquids like breast milk, blood, and semen. Old women no longer produce breast milk, menstrual blood, and, in traditional European society, a single old woman would no longer cause men to ejaculate. By the Pagan logic of sympathetic magic, the very presence of old women is a threat to village fertility.

Contrary to Mount Holyoke's absurd comment, none of this is found in Exodus, nor is it Biblical. The Bible repeatedly adjures believers specifically to take care of widows, and threatens God's vengeance on those who mistreat them. "You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry," warns Exodus. The Canon Episcopi, from the early tenth century, in line with Biblical teaching, insists that belief that witches can work magic on victims is a Pagan belief. "'All things are made by him, and without him nothing is made,'" it reads, quoting the Bible. "Whoever, then, believes anything can be made, or any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or resemblance - except by the Creator himself who made all things, and through whom all things are made - is an unbeliever beyond doubt and worse than a Pagan."

Some scholars advance a purely economic, Darwinian motive for the focus on old women. Males and the young are more productive economically. Whereas Christian ethics helped end female infanticide in the Classical world, Christians, hungry and scared during the Little Ice Age, selected older women for death because they were less productive economically.

Emily Oster, in "Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe," graphs trials and temperatures between 1520 and 1770. As temperatures go down, witch trials increase. In "Witch Trials: Discontent in Early Modern Europe," Chris Hudson relates witch trials to temperature, income, and business cycles. Dylan Grice and Marc Carlson relate witch trials to inflation.

We've already seen that not every country in Europe succumbed equally to the witch craze, with Germany leading the way in trials and number of deaths. Surely the Little Ice Age affected England and Ireland equally as Scotland, Poland as well as Germany. Why, then, the vast differential in number of victims between England and Scotland, and between Germany and Poland?  

On October 31, 1517, a Catholic priest, Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses to a church in Wittenberg. This date is widely regarded as the start of the Reformation. An unintended consequence of the good intention of reform was roughly two hundred years of war. The Catholic Church had been close to a monopoly in Western Europe for a millennium. There was property, law, custom, and power to be struggled over. These wars of religion were devastating, with sickeningly large death tolls. Brothers fighting against brothers produce spectacular atrocities. Countries like Poland, where the Reformation had a lesser impact, were less affected by the social chaos and horror of these fratricidal wars. Germany, ground zero for the Reformation, was strongly affected, and it produced the most witch trials.

More than just the horrors of war accompanied the Reformation. Catholicism is famously a "smells, bells, and spells" religion. Catholicism is sensuous. One smells Catholicism in incense; touches Catholicism in holy water, rosary beads, hair shirts, scapulars, and holy oil; hears Catholicism in Latin, a language reserved for ritual, and bells at six ringing for the Angelus; tastes Catholicism in the Eucharist and fish on Friday; sees Catholicism in vestments, altar fixtures, stained glass windows. The Catholic Church's official position has never been that these sensuous features are magic, but people experienced them that way. The water daubed on newborns and oil on the dying were experienced by many as magical amulets protecting the devout from demonic forces.

Protestants insisted on "sola scriptura." All you need is the Bible. The sensuous trappings of Catholicism were condemned. Protestants embarked on an aggressive spate of iconoclasm. Stained glass windows were smashed. Statues were burned. Protestants are correct; Jesus never said that you need a certain type of clothing or a certain type of bell to enter into Heaven. But the abrupt ripping away of what felt, to many, like a security net holding believers away from demonic forces left Christians feeling insecure and more vulnerable to Satanic attack.

Comparing a map of the Protestant Reformation at its peak, and a map of witch trials, one sees a great deal of overlap. Places where the Protestant Reformation had little impact also tend to be places where the witch craze had little impact. The Catholic Church needed reform and the Reformation brought many gifts. The problem is one of unintended consequences.

The fake witch narrative tells us that in the Middle Ages the misogynist Catholic Church burned women. In fact the Middle Ages produced some remarkable women who wielded real power: Catherine of Siena, Christine de Pizan, Empress Theodora, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegard von Bingen, and Hrotsvitha, to name a few. And, for the most part, it wasn't the Catholic Church doing the burning. It was secular governments. Brian A. Pavlac, professor and priest, writes, "many secular governments hunted witches for essentially non-religious reasons … None of these persecutions could have been carried out without the permission and cooperation of secular governments." That it was secular governments burning witches does not exculpate the Church, Pavlac adds. "Secular princes often hunted witches on the advice of the clergy."

The work of Oxford historian Lyndal Roper shows that contrary to the fake witch narrative depicting Catholic priests armed with torches, "the real villains were the neighbors." "Witch hunts were a collaboration between lower-level authorities and commonfolk succumbing to garden-variety pettiness, vindictiveness, superstition and hysteria … a pattern that recurs over and over again in various forms throughout human history, whether or not an evil international church or a ruthless patriarchy is involved," writes reviewer Laura Miller. The witch craze was not about one, overarching authority forcing common people to do bad things. The witch craze was about the erosion of authority in the chaos of the Reformation. Roper writes, "The very fragmentation of political and legal authority in Germany made it possible for panics to get out of hand."

Roper describes cases where local clergy tried to dissuade secular authorities from conducting a witch hunt, to no avail. Think of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," where every citizen in an entire village insists that they must murder one of their innocent neighbors. During the witch craze, women turned against each other. Young, married mothers accused solitary, old women. Young, fertile women believed that old women envied them, and that that envy harmed them. This is the evil eye, a belief found in a variety of cultures worldwide. It's not Christian, and it's certainly not Biblical. Perhaps two thirds of "witchcraft quarrels began between women." In one study, "women took action against other women" in 61% of cases. "On a village level, witchcraft seems to have been something peculiarly enmeshed in women's quarrels." "To a considerable extent, village-level witch-hunting was women's work," write scholars James Sharpe and Deborah Willis.

Oxford scholar Diane Perkiss mercilessly skewers the fake witch narrative in the opening pages of her book, "The Witch in History: Early Modern and Late Twentieth Century Representations." Perkiss dismisses the claim of Barbara Ehrenreich and Teofilo Ruiz, who theorized that midwives were the primary victims of the witch craze, because midwives were feminists who used Pagan Goddess lore to help women acquire birth control and abortions. In fact, Perkiss points out, puncturing this fantasy, "midwives were more likely to be found helping witch hunters."

Tellers of the fake witch narrative want you to believe things that aren't true, and they don't want you to be aware of significant truths. They don't want you to know about Friedrich Spee, a German Jesuit priest. Spee was present at the Wurzburg witch trials, one of the deadliest outbreaks. Spee published Cautio Criminalis in 1631. The book offers a passionate argument against the use of torture in legal proceedings. Spee had accompanied accused witches to their deaths. He was convinced, he wrote, of their innocence, and that any "evidence" against them was merely a "fable" or the outcome of torture. People will say anything under torture, he insisted. Cautio Criminalis helped bring witch trials to an end. Spee's own life ended through his self-sacrifice. He ministered to plague victims, and then succumbed himself. Spee's life would make a fabulous, big-budget bio-pic. I'm not holding my breath. Celebrating a heroic Jesuit priest who helped to end the witch craze is not going to be high on the priorities of the Hollywood elite.

They don't want you to know about Alonso de Salazar Frias, "The Witches' Advocate." Salazar was a Spanish Inquisitor. Contrary to the fake witch narrative circulated by both the Nazi Albert Rosenberg and bestselling author Dan Brown, Salazar used the Spanish Inquisition, significantly, to save lives and suppress witch hunting. Salazar was a careful investigator. He interviewed accused witches and their alleged magical potions. He found their stories to be inconsistent and their potions to be unimpressive. He concluded that charges were without merit. He did all this as a Spanish Inquisitor, allegedly the poster child for irrationality and the rejection of empiricism.

They don't want you to know about "Witchcraft and the Papacy: An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition" by German scholar Rainer Decker. Decker discovered, "much to his surprise," that "the papacy" and "the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions" "functioned as forces of skepticism and restraint." Decker's work resists the fake witch narrative "that mistakenly portrays the papacy as fanning rather than quelling the flames of the witchcraft mania sweeping northern Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onward." Decker's book currently has zero reviews on Amazon. "The DaVinci Code," that tells the fake witch narrative, has over 8,000 reviews.

The fake witch narrative says that the triumph of science and secularism over religion ended the witch craze. Scholar Brian P. Levack addresses the end of the witch craze in his book, "The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe," and in his essay, "The Decline and End of Witchcraft Persecutions." I allow him to offer his own summary of these longer works. In an email, he wrote to me, "The trials did not end because judicial authorities stopped believing in witchcraft but because they began to realize that the crime could not be proved at law. It was a lack of sufficient evidence that led to the acquittal of accused witches and eventually the reluctance to allow prosecutions in the first place.  I call this attitude of judges and prosecutors 'judicial skepticism', as opposed to a philosophical skepticism based on rationalism or science. Judicial skeptics did not deny the existence of witches, only that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute and convict them."

In his book, "Religion and the Decline of Magic," Keith Thomas wrote, "The rationalist tradition of classical antiquity blended with the Christian doctrine of a single all-directing Providence to produce what Weber called ‘the disenchantment of the world’ – the conception of an orderly and rational universe, in which effect follows cause in predictable manner. A religious belief in order was a necessary prior assumption upon which the subsequent work of the natural scientists was to be founded. It was a favourable mental environment which made possible the triumph of technology." In other words, the religious worldview actually contributed to the decline of belief in magic.

There is, I think, a difference between my tradition and the worldview of those invested in the fake witch narrative. I acknowledge that Heinrich Kramer, one of the worst human beings who ever lived, a man partly responsible for the torture and murder of tens of thousands of human beings, was Catholic just as I am. Though the fake witch narrative mispresents Catholic culpability, I know that my church contributed to torture and death. I feel grief, horror, and shame.

I learned in Catholic school that every day I must perform a ritual called an "examination of conscience." Further, I must confess my sins to an other, and ask for, and work for, absolution.

Believers in the fake witch craze narrative, from Enlightenment philosophers to Neo-Pagans, from top Nazi Alfred Rosenberg to contemporary New Atheists, as diverse as they are, do have something in common. Examination of conscience and confession are not their rituals. Confronted with evil, rather than looking inward, they look outward. They see the world divided into light, that is, people like them, and darkness, that is Catholics like me. They hope for the day when the forces of darkness, that is people who believe as I do, are no more, and their particular version of their particular Utopia is established.

I recognize myself in witch craze accusers. Like them, I am petty, quarrelsome, and fearful. When I read witch craze accounts, I can see myself among the torturers. I believe, with Paul in Romans 3, that "no one is righteous; no, not one." I know that my tradition includes wicked people and has inspired mass murder. I know that the petty quarrels that sparked witch hunts lurk in my own heart. The difference is that my tradition contains the command to self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-correction.

Many struggle to know what to call our current moment. Are the Woke comparable to Maoist culture revolutionaries? Are they Jacobins? Are they on a witch hunt? There is a kernel of truth in all these metaphors.

The handling of the past in the fake witch narrative is a matter of concern. From Nazis to feminists, from Atheists to Neo-Pagans, people lie about one of history's worst atrocities. They insist that only people unlike them could do such bad things. That very mentality contributed to the witch craze. Unless we learn the lesson that the most common villain of the witch craze was a neighbor, rendered hysterical by changing climate, inflation, abandoned religious norms, or disintegrating central authority, we are all too close to reenacting horror.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery


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