Witches in History

History of WitchcraftIn a rationalistic society, the concept of witches has no place. If only we knew what witches were. Sadly fascinated by the unfortunate—evil would be the more appropriate word—victimization of women in the late Middle Ages as partners of the Devil, I read Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander’s time-honored study, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. With its bold pentagram on the cover, I’d been afraid to take this on the bus, and so it sat in my reading pile until I figured out a way of keeping the cover from view while I perused the contents. The authors wisely spend the introduction with definitions. We define our world through lenses. For the most part, people today use the lens of science, as if that were the only way to view the universe. Still, even with that polished glass in hand, we have a difficult time knowing what “witch” is supposed to designate. Russell and Alexander suggest that it changes over time.

No doubt, witches still exist. The recognition of Wicca as an authentic religion (for tax purposes, the only true measure of a religion’s bona fides) demonstrates that. The problem is that Wicca is not in any sense a direct continuation of the witch hysteria that swept Europe, and parts of New England, centuries ago. As A History of Witchcraft demonstrates, this was a religion practiced by no one, but imagined, and feared, by many. Particularly men. Particularly religious men who had problems with women harboring hidden powers. It was a full-blown and horrible fantasy that led to many thousands dying for a religion that didn’t even exist. Modern witchcraft began in the 1930s and has become a nature religion that sees itself connected to that past, but which really only touches at the very edges.

Witchcraft was a way of looking at the world that saw all things as intimately connected. Russell and Alexander point out the similarity to chaos theory with its butterfly effect. We do see effects at a distance. Science tries to make them less spooky. Those who practiced witchcraft in ancient times, before the Middle Ages could even be dreamed, tried to bring such forces under human control. If some anthropologists are to be believed, some may have succeeded. This idea pulls at our darkest fears. Can we accept a world where we are manipulated by others in unseen ways? It happens every day. Not by spells or incantations, but by forces far more powerful than that. You don’t need to be a witch to see it. You only need to open your eyes.