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The Reality of Witchcraft Beliefs in Early Modern Europe

The Reality of Witchcraft Beliefs in Early Modern Europe



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Published by Jo Hedesan
This article analyzes the change of perspective in regards to the witch hunts in early modern Europe.
This article analyzes the change of perspective in regards to the witch hunts in early modern Europe.

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Published by: Jo Hedesan on Feb 18, 2009
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 By Jo Hedesan. Published in Esoteric Coffeehousewww.esotericoffeehouse.com on 17 Feb 2009.
Everyone remembers the witch hunts of the 1500 and 1600s as an ugly chapter of Western history. Thousands of so-called witches were burned, drowned, or tortured inan attempt to get rid of what the Inquisitors called ‘devil worship’. Today, we rarely believe that the witches were in league with the devil. In fact, during the early 20
century, scholars thought that witchcraft itself was a complete invention of the witchhunters (1). Even when some reality to the phenomenon was admitted, witch beliefswere dismissed as the matter of ‘female hysteria’ or peasant superstition (2).Beginning with the 1960s and 70s, scholars began to consider witchcraft as more thana fiction of the Inquisition, and concentrated on analyzing its meaning for the peasantsociety (3), (4). Yet even this attempt was marred by a tendency of dismissingwitchcraft as pure imagination.If most scholarship believed witchcraft had no reality to it, there was one earlydissenting voice: Margaret Murray, who maintained in 1926 that witchcraft was real,and that it actually represented a European-wide pagan religion dedicated to a hornedgod identifiable as Janus or Cernunnos (5). The medieval civilization was thusdivided into the true Christians and the pagan “secret society” that adoptedChristianity only as a facade. In an era of rationalism, numerous scholars rejectedMurray’s work as pure fantasy (6).Murray may have used her imagination to embellish the facts, but this does notnecessarily mean that the whole phenomenon of witchcraft was imaginary. However,it was not until Carlo Ginzburg’s landmark studies that scholars began to reallyconsider this possibility.Carlo Ginzburg, an Italian scholar, discovered in the 1960s a previously unknowngroup of “witches” persecuted in the 1600s. The so-called benandanti (the “goodtravelers”) were a group of mostly male peasants in northern Italy (7). According totheir freely given accounts, they met four times a year to fight the evil witches (calledstregoni) in ritualistic battles. They maintained that this activity helped maintain thefertility of their lands. They further said that they traveled to their battlefield in spirit,riding on the back of hares or cats. The other side, they argued, were the evil ones;they destroyed crops and cast spell on children.Inquisitors did not know what to make of this strange story. Initially, they consideredthe benandanti a heretic group and condemned some of them to a few months in prison. Yet the trials continued on for about fifty years, and under progressive pressure, finally in 1634 the benandanti admitted they were the same with the evilwitches, and that they were actually worshipping the devil. Their confession becamestrikingly similar to the classical witchcraft descriptions of the Sabbath, includingsexual intercourses and killing of children. This case led Ginzburg to maintain thatwitchcraft was indeed a real event, except that it wasn’t the ‘demonic’ worship thatInquisitors made of it. Witchcraft was a remnant of pagan beliefs amongst the Italian
 peasantry, which was forcefully set into a ‘straightjacket’ by theology-influencedInquisitors.Ginzburg did not stop here. In a later book, he set to show how the case of benandantiwas not an isolated case, and that in fact there were many examples of the type of ‘witchcraft’ the Italian cult represented (8). Supported by the famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade, Ginzburg talked about similar ‘secret’ groups from Greece,Romania, Hungary, and Corsica (9). He then concluded that the beliefs and practicesthese groups extolled were of shamanistic origin. Shamanism had been thoroughlyanalysed in the classical work on the topic by Eliade (10). Ginzburg concluded thatthere was a structural similitude between shamanism and the benandanti and other groups. He considered that Scythians brought shamanistic beliefs from Asia intoEurope sometime around 1000 BC. He furthermore maintained that the biologicalstructure of human beings would make their religious experiences similar (11).Scholars were cautious, if generally impressed by Ginzburg’s theories (12, 13).Criticism centered on Ginzburg’s apparent failure to account for the history of witchcraft. Indeed, except for the benandanti case, he pays little attention to theindividual circumstances of the beliefs. Is it really that easy to extrapolate from the1600s benandanti to the 1900s’ recorded beliefs of Romanian calusari (horse-riders)?The similarities are indeed striking, but Ginzburg is not concerned with the way the‘shamanistic’ ideas he espouses translate into history.Still, Ginzburg’s argument about the ‘shamanistic’ elements of witchcraft iscompelling and provocative. On one hand, he opened a new discussion between the previously separate fields of folklore / mythology and history. Perhaps moreimportantly, it made us realize that European witchcraft was at least to some extent areality, rather than a myth, and that peasantry did continue to practice fertility ritualsfar into the 1700s. In fact, recent scholarship has become interested in the fact that,contrary to belief, ‘witchcraft’ did not die in the witchhunts, and that in fact itsurvived beyond the witch persecutions (14). In a way, Ginzburg’s work opened our eyes to the enduring power of popular culture.
(1) Lea, H. C. (1888).
 History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages
. New York.(2) Trevor-Roper, H. (1972).
 Religion, The Reformation, and Social Change
. London:Harmondsworth.(3) Macfarlane, A. (1970).
Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England 
. London:Routledge and Kegan Paul.(4) Thomas, K. (1977).
 Religion and the Decline of Magic
. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.(5) Murray, M. (1921).
The Witch-Cult in Western Europe
. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress(6) Rose, E. (1962).
 A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism
. Toronto.(7) Ginzburg, C. (1983).
The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in theSixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
. Baltimore.

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