For a thousand years or so, the official position of the Catholic Church was that there was no such thing as witchcraft. Occasionally, the Vatican would get a report about some villager who claimed a witch had spoiled his milk or caused his mule to come up lame. These reports were simply ignored.
After the Black Death wiped out a third of Christendom, people started looking for someone to blame. During the fourteenth century, belief in black magic became widespread. Those accused of witchcraft were tried and when convicted, made to spent a day or so in the stocks and then repent, a relatively light punishment. Farting in church was treated more severely.
Then in 1487, a book was published: Malleus Maleficarum, “the Hammer of Witches”, was a lengthy and laborious tome dedicated to the idea that witches, most of whom were female, were everywhere, corrupting society, defiling all that was sacred and fucking the Devil in the forests on a nightly basis. No lurid detail of the nocturnal liaisons between Satan and his whores was omitted. Pope Innocent VII issued a papal bull declaring the Malleus to be the absolute truth and ordering the secular powers to cooperate fully with the Church in rooting out and destroying all witches or face excommunication. What followed was an orgy of witch-burning that lasted two centuries.
All over the European continent, people accused their neighbors of having direct, very carnal, knowledge of the Devil, and of being his servants. The accused were tortured until they confessed and then tortured until they named other witches, a process that completely depopulated some villages. Witches who had spilled their guts and condemned everyone they knew were burned at the stake. In areas of the Rhineland, all firewood was dedicated to the burning of witches, requiring more to be carted in.
Eventually, the craze for witch-burning ran its course. People found other things to do. But why did it happen in the first place?
Any fool with an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science (Human Services) can tell you that it’s dang nigh impossible to successfully repress anything. You may be able to keep some unpleasant aspects of your psyche in the dark, out of your consciousness, but they’re still there and whether you know it or not, they’re sneaking out. I can think of several people right off the top of my head, people I know, who have all kinds of allergies, ailments and chronic disorders that don’t respond to treatment and I can see from across the room that those people are suffering the consequences of choosing not to recognize certain truths about themselves and then take the necessary steps to change how they live. I used to be one of those people. All the shit that I tried to push down just kept coming out in weird ways, so I tried harder, piling up more chemicals and defenses and avoidances until I was backed up in a hole and realized that I was gonna have to face up and do some serious work or die. Actually, I was so fucked up that I’m still working on it.
So what happens when an entire civilization tries to repress a major portion of its collective psyche? That society goes off the beam, that’s what. Under the heavy hand of the Church, Europe struggled to believe “facts” that contradicted the evidence of the senses, dehumanize humans, break nature, unfeel emotions, subjugate the best parts of their creativity and deny the pleasures of their own bodies. Add to that the fact that the institution that was selling them protection from God’s wrath was failing to protect them from God’s wrath again and again - Europe was wracked with pandemics of bubonic plague, smallpox, influenza, cholera, &c over and over – and then telling them that it was their own fault. Fuggin’ A, those poor bastards couldn’t even rub one out without the certainty of eternal damnation. It’s no wonder they were all so barking mad they were ready to accuse, condemn, torture and burn everybody in town the moment they got the chance.
What is a witch? A witch is a person – almost always a woman – who has sex with the Devil and gains powers greater than other people. In a misogynistic, Christian society, where sex was only for procreation and only those born to noble lineages had power, witches represented the ultimate in rebellion. They were everything that was anti-. From our enlightened perspective, it’s obvious that not one of the countless people tortured and burned for witchcraft ever fucked the Devil. I bet none of ‘em even played footsie with the Devil, but they burned anyway.
Would you wish you could be a witch if you lived in medieval Europe? I would. I would wish for the freedom that being a witch would provide. Sure, it came at a cost, but not a bigger one than what the Church demanded.
Still, the Church provided stability. Look around sometime; ask yourself how many of the people around you have chosen stability over freedom. If you can find one person who has made the other choice, let me know ‘cause I’d like to meet ‘em. Stability wins over freedom every time and it sure did in Europe after 1487. The Church had to be supported – it was beginning to crumble – and if people had to burn, so be it.
The witch-burning craze didn’t just fizzle out. The Church finally figured out that the strangle-hold method wasn’t working. Educated men all over Europe were making discoveries that contradicted the most basic premises of Catholicism: the Earth orbits the Sun! Jupiter has moons! Diseases are caused by tiny bugs, not daemons! The Church realized that it had to yield some ground or lose the entire field. With that loosening, the general population was able to stop burning each other.
The presenting problem went away, but the underlying issues continued on and still do. As western society became more and more secular, as the power of the One, True Church diminished, the image of the witch changed. Now, witches are Halloween decorations unless they’re naked. Either way they still represent female powers – untamed, unpredictable, magical, potentially dangerous, wantonly sexual – that are less repressed in our society, but still somewhat marginalized. We may have convinced ourselves that there is no horny Devil waiting in the shadows to leap out and drag us off to Hell, but we have not yet integrated the shadow-side of our collective Self. We have not accepted that the Earth was not created for our exploitation. We have not accepted that there are some among us who, though they are not heterosexual, are capable of love and loving relationships. We have not begun to ensure that the poorest members of society are able to get the most basic needs. We have not learned to refrain from violence. We have not stopped acting as if women were something not quite fully human. We have not stopped looking for someone else to blame. We have not even faced up to the fact that there is something seriously wrong.
We do have a lot of drugs, both prescription and street. We have mind-boggling porn. We have mass-shootings two or three times per week with the occasional mass-stabbing for variety. We have bigger, brighter wars and “God hates fags”-Baptists protesting the funerals of dead soldiers. We have Glen Beck urging us to carry concealed weapons to church. We have hydraulic fracking and radiation leaks. We have smart phone apps.
The word “witch” comes from Old English “wicce”, wise. A “wiccan” was a “wise one”; wise in her knowledge of healing.
Witches are among us, whether we recognize them or not. They can be scary old hags in pointy hats or lascivious Devil-fuckers or they can be healers. Every “we” is made up of individuals so how we choose to interpret our witches will depend on how each individual in our “we” chooses to interpret his or her own inner shadow.
The Season of the Witch is now. The Reason for the Season of the Witch is us.