Attitudes to witches

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Tue Feb 24 10:54:31 EST 2004


Jon wrote:

>I am always
>annoyed by the neo-pagan belief that there was a
>golden age when Goddess worshipping witches were
>respected members of society.

I had for a while a friend who had made a very
determined effort to find any evidence he felt in
the least convincing or even faintly plausible for
such a society having existed anywhere at any time.
It was practically a life-work; he even took a
sabbatical year to carry out his research.

Not only could he find none, he could find nothing
indicating that there had ever anywhere been worship
of what we might call "The Goddess", a female Yahweh
equivalent, a monotheistic system in which the One
God was female.  As far as he could make out, this
idea didn't exist before about 1899, when it was
invented for what he described as "a literary spoof",
which was then taken seriously by (among others)
Margaret Murray.  (I think that was the thing he
was talking about when he said that, but he may have
meant the "hereditary witch" business, for which he
also failed to find any coherent evidence.)

For a fine example of Literary Spoof Taken Seriously,
see David Langford's book *An Account of a Meeting
with Denizens of Another World 1871*, which is
*fiction* but has been quoted as true source in at
least one book purporting to be a serious work of
research into UFOs and the rest of it.

See also the "crop circles have been around for
centuries" literary/mystical industry apparently
undaunted by either the complete lack of any evidence
for them prior to the 1970s, or the inventors of the
whole idea repeatedly saying, in interviews, "It was
a joke."  "No, really, it was a practical joke." and
showing anyone who asks them to precisely how it is
done.

>The church's acceptance of persecution of witches came
>about partly, i believe, from popular pressure from
>the masses (although I doubt if there is any
>documentation to back this up) and partly as
>Work-for-the-tithe scheme for unemployed inquisitors.

M'yes.  Trevor-Roper argues that it is almost
impossible for a ruler to cause pogroms or suchlike
unless they also have the support of the generality of
the people.  It's only after the whole thing has got
completely out of hand that the hundreds and thousands
of small folk who didn't say much in public sneak away
home and leave the ones who were the figureheads to
carry the blame for the appalling results.

>This is certainly backed up by documentation showing
>witch trials growing out of heresy trials.
>Were witch trials in England Church trials or secular
>ones?

[because the Roman law allowing torture wasn't brought
back into use here as it was on the Continent of
Europe after 1486] "England alone escaped from the
judicial use of torture in ordinary criminal cases,
including cases of witchcraft".  That implies that
witchcraft came under secular rather than under canon
law, and that in turn is backed up by there being
statutes from the reign of each monarch after Henry
VII, with varying burdens of proof and penalties.  I
have all of those somewhere, but they are a b*gg*r to
decipher and make sense of.  I think there are a
couple earlier than that, too, but I never had copies
of them.

>Who was the first "good witch" in literature? the
>earliest I can think of is in Baum. Are there any
>earlier?

Baum.  !900?

I think good witches were usually called "wise women"
in for instance Perrault and Grimm and Lang.  Either
that or both sorts were called "fairy", good or bad:
the good ones quite often show up disguised as old
women who ask for help, then suddenly turn into a
beautiful fairy when the youngest son has been a kind
boy and carried their shopping.

Minnow


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