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Witches, Women, and Witchcraft

History and Background

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Witches have long been feared and hated in Christian circles. Even today, pagans and Wiccans remain a target of Christian persecution — especially in America. It seems that they long ago took on an identity which reached far beyond their own existence and became a symbol for Christians — but a symbol of what? Maybe an examination of the events will give us some clues.

As the Inquisition proceeded merrily along through the 1400s, its focus shifted from Jews and heretics and moved towards so-called witches. Although Pope Gregory IX had authorized the killing of witches back in the 1200s, the fad just didn’t catch on for while. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull declaring that witches did indeed exist, and thus it became a heresy to believe otherwise. This was quite a reversal, because in 906 the Canon Episocopi, a church law, declared that belief in the existence and operation of witchcraft was heresy.

As a result of this, church authorities tortured and killed thousands of women, and not a few men, in an effort to get them to confess that they flew through the sky, had sexual relations with demons, turned into animals, and engaged in various sorts of black magic.

The creation of the concept of devil-worship, followed by its persecution, allowed the church to more easily subordinate people to authoritarian control and openly denigrate women. Most of what was passed off as witchcraft were simply fictional creations of the church, but some of it was genuine or almost-genuine practices of pagans and wiccans.

In fact, the word “witch” from the Old English word “wicca,” which was applied to male and female members of an ancient pagan tradition which reveres masculine, feminine and earthly aspects of God. Wiccan tradition involved both heaven and earth, both the next world and this world. It also involved a tradition which was not quite as hierarchical and authoritarian, and this represented a direct challenge to the Christian church.

The additional persecution of anything which resembled feminine religiosity went to interesting lengths in that devotion to Mary became suspect. Today the figure of Mary is both popular and important in the Catholic church, but to the Inquisition it was a possible sign of overemphasizing the feminine aspect of Christianity. In the Canary Islands, Aldonca de Vargas was reported to the Inquisition for nothing more than smiling at hearing mention of Mary.

The subservience of women to men was a common theme in early Christian writings — an outgrowth of both traditional patriarchal attitudes and the extreme hierarchical nature of the church itself. Groups which did not hold to hierarchy in any form were attacked immediately. There is no shared authority between the genders in traditional Christianity, either in the church or in the home. Homosexuality would be particularly threatening to this ideology, as it raises the potential of redefining gender roles, especially in the home.

Witness how the recent attacks upon homosexuality in society has progressed hand-in-hand with the mindless promotion of vague “traditional family values,” particularly those which “put women in their place” and reinforce male dominance in the home. With a married couple of two women or two men, who exactly is supposed to be in charge and who meekly obedient? Never mind that the Christians who fear such relationships will never be asked to make those decisions themselves — the mere fact that people are making such decisions on their own rather than obeying someone else’s religious proclamations is quite enough to give them fits of apoplexy.

Sources:

  • Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History.
  • James A. Haught, Holy Horrors.
  • J.N. Hillgarth, Christianity and Paganism, 350-750.
  • Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy.
  • Edward Peters, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe.
  • R. Dean Peterson, A Concise History of Christianity.

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