Attitudes to witches (was Re: The Potterverse)

minnow at minnow at
Sun Feb 22 11:14:52 EST 2004


>> >1) Witches are servants of the devil - the official Christian line for
>> >of Christianity's history (not so sure about now!)
>> Less than half of Christianity's history, I suspect.  Is there any mention
>> before 1000AD of *witchcraft* as opposed to heresy of one sort or another?
>Oh, yes. There's 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'  right back in
>Exodus, and the witch of Endor somewhere in one of the Samuels, I think. And
>of course the New Testament has its very own witch in Simon Magus. And there
>are Anglo-Saxon laws against witchcraft. I guess it only became glamorous
>with the *Malleus Maleficarum* (sp?) though!

The Witch of Endor I've talked about in a different post...

What Simon Magus is most noted for is not acts of witchcraft, no details of
which are given in the book and which he presumably gave up when he was
christened (which is the point of the story), but trying to buy the power
of the Holy Ghost -- hence simony for trying to buy preferment in the

>(Taking 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' though: to be fair, I've
>heard the Hebrew word can actually be translated differently, as 'poisoner'.
>Oh for a Hebrew translator! (hint))

There are texts in the bible about almost anything, and if we choose to
emphasise them they are there ready for use: Paul for instance is widely
quoted at the moment as condemning homosexuality, but almost never quoted
as forbidding women to speak in church (except when there is a row about
women priests going on), and I have *never* heard him quoted as forbidding
people to plait their hair, which he also did. (1 Peter 3,3, if anyone is
interested: it's thrown in as adornment along with jewels and fine clothes,
but I can see how some sect could use it as "women with their hair in
braids are unGodly!", or it could be used to condemn Rastafarians if
someone felt that way inclined).

So what I'm interested in is not whether the texts exist, but whether they
were being used at the time to any great purpose.  "Mention" was the wrong
word, certainly, because *everything* can be taken as having been
"mentioned" -- and if it wasn't, it can be taken as having been considered
too terrible to mention.  It's whether the thing was being taken seriously
and not only legislated against but actually used to bring prosecutions.  I
suspect that a woman was in more trouble for wearing men's clothing, much
of the time, than she would have been for witchcraft: cross-dressing is
easy to prove, whereas witchcraft isn't unless one is prepared to torture
people until they confess to whatever they are told in order to get killed
and stop the torture.

Oh, and "servants of the Devil".  That's surely more an attitude that arose
during the "witch-craze" in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when
popes and theoretically "enlightened" and educated men seem to have gone
somewhat doolally on the subject.  Witches had traffic with spirits, and
muttered spells, and all like that, in early beliefs, but the Satanism
aspect seems to have been a later accretion.  What Trevor-Roper says,
talking about "witch-beliefs" as opposed to "witchcraft", is "in general,
the Church, as the civilizer of nations, disdained these old wives' tales.
They were the fragmentary rubbish of paganism which the light of the Gospel
had dispelled".  Not something to legislate against, and not much
suggestion of specific diabolical inspiration for it, more something to
decry as stupid and unchristian.  St Boniface in the eighth century is
quoted as saying "to believe in witches and werewolves is unchristian".
Charlemagne decreed a death-penalty for anyone who burnt supposed witches,
because to burn people was "a pagan custom".  T-R quotes canon law in the
ninth century as simply saying that for someone to believe in witches at
all was a sign that the person doing it was "beyond doubt an infidel and a
pagan"   The text cited is called the /canon Episcopi/ or /capitulum
Episcopi/.    Witches according to the Church *didn't really exist*, so it
wasn't witches who were being condemned but people who believed in them.

The codification of witchcraft, and the change in attitude from "witches
don't really exist" to "witches are a dangerous menace and there are
*thousands* of them *everywhere*" seems to have really got going in the
1480s and 1490s, with a papal bull /Summis Desiderantes Affectibus/
authorising the extirpation of witchcraft (which until not-so-long earlier
hadn't existed in the doctrine of the Church) in Germany, and then the
/Malleus Maleficarum/ written by the two people authorised in the bull to
do that job.

It seems that there was a difference, in the official line of the Church,
between looking down on the old, silly beliefs that country-folk clung to
and which were all rubbish and not worth worrying about, and becoming
afraid of the new witchcraft-as-heresy business designed as far as I have
ever been able to make out *by* Dominicans *for* Dominicans, because they'd
been created as an order to deal with heretics like the Cathari and the
Albigensians and the Manichean business in general, and by say 1450 they
had pretty-much *done* that and had nothing left to be getting on with.  So
they started to look for new heresies to combat, because if they had
nothing to do to justify their existence then their Order might fade into
insignificance.  Guess what?  They found them!  Isn't that surprising...

(If I mention any modern example of the same sort of thing, it gets
political, so I shouldn't, but I'd be very surprised if none of the
intelligent people on this list at this point mutters "oh!  that sounds a
bit familiar... now who could Minnow possibly have thought of suddenly at
that point?" and comes up with the same horrid present-day parallel that I
just have.)

By the way, don't feel too pleased with the Spanish Inquisition for being
less horrible to witches than people were elsewhere: it wasn't that they
didn't have it in for "witches" just as the other Dominicans did, it was
just that they had so many Moors and Jews on their particular patch that
they hardly had time to be bothered with the witches as well.  They had no
need to go out looking for victims because they had plenty already, is what
their merciful attitude amounts to.  (Once they had decided that "heretics"
included everyone of any religion other than Christianity, rather than just
meaning as it originally had "the wrong sort of Christian", anyhow.)

Anyhow, I'd suggest that 1450-2000 is less than half the history of
Christianity.  To hark back to my original niggle.

obDWJ, she did of course know that the penalty for witchcraft in England
was never burning, but in her invention of the split-off England of *Witch
Week*, it was introduced after 1605, from the continent, as a terrible
response to the terrible reality.  She apparently considered the matter
quite carefully and decided that it was more appropriate for her story.  I
can only grovel for having been so stupid as to think she wouldn't have
checked her facts!


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