Folklore Snippets: Witchcraft

In the most recent installment of the Jack Hansard series (Episode 6: Cockermouth), Jack doesn’t encounter any new beasties, but he does spend his time hawking occult amulets and magic potions. And seeing as he did business with a witch in Episode 5, it seems fitting that today’s Folklore Snippet should be on the subject of witchcraft.

Now, this is an immensely broad topic. Belief in magic seems to be as ancient as human society, and thus witchcraft (most simply defined as the practice of magic) has its roots spread all over the globe. ‘Witches’ may be defined as people who believe in magic and perform occult rituals or other actions to employ such power, or they may be thought of as healers and wise men and women whose knowledge sets them apart from others – in past cultures ‘wise one’ may have been synonymous with ‘witch’.

There are so many topics I could cover here it is unbelievable; I had so much trouble trying to decide whether to focus on the definitions of ‘witch’, the rituals of witchcraft, the history of it, the changing perceptions of it . . . In the end I’ve settled for a more concise angle. To try and keep this brief, we’re going to take a whistle-stop tour of some key texts that show us how witchcraft has been perceived in Western Europe.

In this region, witchcraft is closely tied to Christianity; the Bible makes a number of references to witchcraft as a manifestation of evil, the most succinct of which is: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ (Exodus 22:18). No grey area there, then. Early Germanic law codes of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD (the Pactus Legis Alamannorum and Salic law) list witchcraft as a recognised crime (punishable by death, of course). They also more reasonably instruct that a false accusation will result in a fine for the accuser. To prove an accusation is false, the ‘witch’ would need twelve people to swear an oath on their innocence, or for a relative to defend them in a trial by combat.

Things get less reasonable as time progresses. Witchcraft, being associated with the old pagan beliefs and rituals, is of course demonised by the Church as time goes on – it gains strong connotations with the Devil and sin in much more specific terms (witches considered to be consorting with demons, for example).

In 1487 the Malleus Mallificarum was published. This text offers a description of witches and witchcraft, stating the notion of witchcraft to be a real thing, and firmly establishing the relationship between witch and Devil as one defined by a pact that grants evil powers. The main purpose of the treatise is to outline procedures for prosecuting a witch, from initially identifying them and then subsequently interrogating and convicting them – through legalised torture. The torture itself was in order to gain a confession, as a witch cannot be condemned to death without one. Handily for the prosecutor, if the accused refused to give a confession under torture, then it was a clear sign they were a witch – as they must have had the help of the Devil to withstand the pain.

This work might be considered the handbook for future witch hunters. The most infamous witch hunter of England was undoubtedly Matthew Hopkins, whose career (killing spree) flourished during the Civil War in the 1640s. Torture was far from legal, but Hopkins’ methods were similarly inhumane: techniques ranged from depriving the accused of rest and forcing them to walk until their feet blistered; to throwing them into water while tied to a chair (witches, being unbaptised, would float due to the water physically repelling them). And you’ve probably heard about the practice of pricking the skin to identify a witch – birth marks, moles, anything that could be construed as a witch’s teat (for her demonic familiar to suck upon). If the pricked area did not bleed, then she must be a witch. And of course, the inquisitors were not above using cunning, retracting pins . . .

Hopkins published his own treatise on witchcraft, detailing his justifications for the above methods to identify witches: The Discovery of Witches. It’s written like a ye olde FAQ on the subject. Although Hopkins doesn’t have sole credit for developing and employing such methods, his publication of them may have helped to spur the witch hunting craze that ensued in the New England colonies. Incidentally, you’ve probably heard of the mass hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692; the English equivalent in terms of fame would likely be the Pendle witch trial of 1612 where 20 individuals were prosecuted.

I’m not sure if I should delve into modern witchcraft – the origins and philosophy of Wicca probably deserve an article of their own. In brief, modern witchcraft is a somewhat organised pagan religion, arguably founded by the writings of Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner, but also echoing plenty of long-established pagan traditions. The central tenet, as I understand it, is simply ‘do no harm’ (but as with any religion there are many branches; a number of which would probably tell me my understanding is incorrect). If you’ve read Episode 6 you’ll see that Hansard’s views of this group are less than flattering, but as for my personal views I’m more of an ‘each to their own’ kind of person. In a world full of odd religions (all of them are odd) and funny traditions, it seems you can do a lot worse for your life philosophy than ‘do no harm’.

So that’s a snippet on witchcraft. You’ve no idea how hard it was to keep this short – I thoroughly recommend following the links for more interesting reading. See you next time~

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