1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Witchcraft
WITCHCRAFT, a term often used of magical practices of all sorts, but here confined to the malevolent (“black”) magic of women. It should, however, be noted that the male witch occasionally appears in folklore, while “white witchcraft” is common; the practices of the witch of Endor are akin rather to spiritualism than witchcraft. The German term hexe was not originally applied to human beings at all, but to child-devouring demons, corresponding to the Roman lamia; and it is used in this sense till the 14th century, it does not appear in literature in its present sense till some time in the 13th century.
The modern European conception of the witch is perhaps the result of the fusion of several originally discrete ideas. In some countries we find the distinction made between conjurers, witches and sorcerers; the former were supposed to raise the devil by means of spells and force him to do their will; the witch proceeded by way of friendly pact with an evil spirit; a third class produced strange effects, without the aid of spirits (see Magic), by means of images or forms of words. We also find a distinction drawn between diviners, ‘’’mathematici’’’ (= astrologers), crystal-gazers, necromancers and others; but it must be remembered that our knowledge for the earlier period is rather of learned ideas than of the actual popular beliefs, and for the later period of the popular belief sophisticated by ecclesiastical subtleties. In present-day belief the witch is, like the savage magician, initiated by another or herself performs ceremonies believed to give her magical powers. She possesses a familiar (see Lycanthropy; Magic), whose form she can assume; she can ride through the air in some cases and is equally adept at all kinds of magic. Sir A. C. Lyall maintains that the witch is a person who works magic by her own powers, not by the aid and counsel of supernatural beings; but this view, though it may be true of poisoning and similar features formerly reckoned a part of witchcraft, does not apply to the European witch. Witchcraft and possession are found in close relation in the psychical epidemics of the middle ages, but are otherwise unrelated.
Witchcraft among Primitive Peoples.—Although magical powers are everywhere attributed to women, witchcraft as here defined is by no means universal; in Europe alone is the woman the almost exclusive repository of magical powers; in the Congo the muntu ndongo may be either a man or a woman, and in fact the sexes are said to be engaged in magical pursuits in approximately equal numbers; in Australia men are much more concerned with magic than women, but the latter have certain forms peculiar to themselves in the central area, and, as in medieval Europe, it is largely concerned with sexual matters. At the present day the European witch is almost invariably old, but this is not characteristic of the female magician of primitive peoples, or not to the same extent; it must be remembered that the modern idea of witchcraft is largely a learned product - the result of scholastic and inquisitorial ingenuity, mingled to a greater or less extent with genuine folk beliefs. In India, among the Agariyas of Bengal, the instruction in witchcraft is given by the old women; but the pupils are young girls. The Indian witch is believed to have a cat familiar; there, as in Europe, many tests are applied to witches; they may be thrown into water, or their identity discovered by various forms of divination; or they may be known by the fact that beating them with the castor oil plant makes them cry out. As a punishment the witch may be shaved, made to drink dirty water, or otherwise ill-used.
Witchcraft in Classical Times.—Our knowledge of witchcraft in pagan antiquity is slight, but Horace has left us an elaborate description of the proceedings of two witches in the Esquiline cemetery. At the new moon they steal into it to gather bones and noxious herbs, their feet bare, their hair loose and their robes tucked up. So far from aiming at secrecy, however, they alarm their neighbours with their cries. Making a hollow in the ground they rend a black lamb over it to summon the dead. Then taking two images, one of wool representing a witch, one of wax representing the man whose infidelity she wishes to punish, a witch performs magical ceremonies; the moon turns red, hell hounds and snakes glide over the spot. Then they bury the muzzle of a wolf and burn the waxen image; as it melts, so fades the life of its prototype. In Greece Thessalian women had the reputation of being specially powerful witches; their poisons were famous and they were said to be able to make the moon descend from the sky.
Medieval Witchcraft.—We know less of early and medieval witchcraft than of modern savage and popular beliefs; our knowledge of it is drawn partly from secular sources - the laws against, and in later times the trials for the offence - partly from ecclesiastical sources; but in each case the popular creed is filtered through the mind of a writer who did not necessarily understand or share the belief. For the earlier period we have penitentials, decisions of councils, discussions as to the possibility of the various kinds of witchcraft, as to their exact relation to the sin of heresy or as to the mechanism by which the supposed results were achieved; at a later period the trials of witches before the Inquisition are of great importance; but the beliefs of this period must be sharply distinguished from those of the earlier one. Finally we have a great mass of material in the secular trials of the 16th and two following centuries.
There are marked differences in the character of the witchcraft beliefs of different countries, due perhaps in part to the influence of the Inquisition, which reacted on the popular conceptions, in part to real differences in the original folk beliefs. In northern countries the witches’ Sabbath never seems to assume any importance; in Germany, in the form of the Brocken assembly on May Eve, it is a prominent feature, and in England we may bring it into relation with the belief that at certain periods of the year demons and spirits are abroad and have special powers; in south Europe the idea of the Sabbath seems to owe much of its prominence to the association of witchcraft with Heresy and the assemblies of the Waldenses and others. Again, the “Evil Eye” (q.v.) is especially associated with the south of Europe; and the “ligature” (production of impotence by magical means, often only with reference to a specified individual) has always played a far larger part in the conception of witchcraft than it has in the less amorous northern climes, and it is doubtless due to this in great part that woman in this part of Europe is so prominent in magic; in the north, on the other hand, we find the storm-raising woman, hardly yet extinct in the north of Scotland, already famous in pre-Christian times; we may perhaps connect the importance of woman in Germany in part with the conception of the Wild Hunt and the spirits who fly by night, though doubtless other factors played their part.
Development of Ideas.—In the history of European witchcraft we may distinguish three periods: (1) down to AD. 1230, in which the real existence of some or even all kinds of magic is doubted, and the various species are clearly held asunder in secular and ecclesiastical writings; (2) from 1230 to 1430, during which, under the influence of scholasticism, the doubts as to the possibility and reality of witchcraft gradually vanish, while side by side with this theoretical development the practice of the Inquisition instils the new conception into the popular mind and produces the impression that a great recrudescence of witchcraft was in progress; (3) from 1430 onwards the previously disparate conceptions became fused, at any rate in literature, and we reach the period of witch persecution, which did not come to an end till the 17th or even the 18th century.
In the first of these three periods we find (1) the conception of the malefica, who, in common with her male counterpart, uses poison, spells and waxen images, produces tempests, works by means of the Evil Eye and is regarded as the cause of impotence, a feature which continually called the attention of theologians and jurists to the question of magic by the problems raised by suits for divorce or nullity of marriage. (2) Side by side with her, we find, this time without a male counterpart, the striga, frequently embodying also the ideas of the lamia and larva; originally she is a female demon, in bird form (and in many parts of the world female demons are specially malignant), who flies by night, kills children or even handsome young men, in order to eat them, assumes animal form, sometimes by means of an ointment, or has an animal familiar, rides on a besom, a piece of wood or an animal, and is sometimes brought into connexion with the souls of the dead. This latter feature arises from the gradual fusion of the belief in the striga, the Unholde, with the kindly suite of Frau Holde, the souls for whom the tabulae fortunae were spread. The flight through the air is so common a feature in the savage creed that the demon-idea of the striga in Europe can hardly be a genuine folk-belief; or, if it is, it must have existed side by side with a similar witch-belief, of which no traces seem to exist in the earlier literature. The same remark applies to belief in transformation. Although the development of the sexual element is mainly of later date and contemporaneous with the evolution of the Sabbath idea, the concubitus daemonum was certainly not unknown to the period before 800. This intrusion of the incubus in the domain of witchcraft was probably due to the attitude of the church towards magic.
Ecclesiastical and Civil Law.—For the attitude of the church to witchcraft there are three factors to be considered: (1) the Biblical recognition of its reality; (2) the universal belief in demons and magic; and (3) the identification of these demons with heathen deities. The orthodox view fluctuates between the theory that witchcraft is idolatry, a recognition of real powers, and that it is disobedience, a superstitious following of nonexistent gods. The Biblical conception of a witch is a person who deals with familiar spirits (Lev. xx. 20), and the express provision that a witch should not be suffered to live (Ex. xxii. 18) could have left no doubt that the crime was a real one in the Mosaic law. Although the familiar plays but a small part in this early period, we find that the church early came to the conclusion that witchcraft depended on a compact with demons; in the synod of Elvira (A.D. 306) it was pronounced to be one of the three canonical sins — apostasy — and punished by the refusal of communion, even on the death-bed. Augustine lays down (De doct. chr. II. xx.) that witchcraft depends on a pact with the devil; at Worms in A.D. 829 the Frankish bishops declared that the devil aided both sexes to prepare love potions, to cause storms and to abstract milk, fruits of the field, &c.
It must not, however, be supposed that all kinds of witchcraft were equally recognized. The inmissores tempestatum and the poisoners by magical means were commonly recognized as real; but the striga was usually regarded as a pure superstition. An Irish synod (c. A.D. 800) pronounces a Christian to be anathema, who ventures to believe in the possibility of flight through the air and blood-sucking; Stephen of Hungary (997—1038) likewise distinguishes the malefica from the striga; Regino of Prüm (c. 906) concludes that the flight by night with the devil and the goddess Diana is a delusion, the work of the devil. Burchard of Worms (d. 1025) prescribes two. years’ penance for the belief that the Unholde kill Christians, cook them and eat their hearts, which they replace by a piece of wood, and then wake them. Agobard and others even express doubts as to the reality of weather-making. For those who took this view, and even for others who, like John of Damascus, accepted the striga, a mild attitude, in strong contrast to the later persecutions, was the accepted policy. The Synod of Reisbach (799) demands penance for witchcraft, but no punishment in this life. John of Damascus, Agobard, John of Salisbury and Burchard are equally mild.
For the church witchcraft was a canonical sin, or superstition; for the civil law it was a violation of the civil rights of others, so far as real results were produced. Consequently we find the legal distinction between the malefica and the striga is equally marked. The Frankish and Alemannish laws of A.D. 500 - 600 accept the former but regard the latter as mere superstition. The Lex Salica indeed punished the striga as a murderess, but only exacted wergeld. Rothar forbade judges to kill the striga, and Charlemagne even punished the belief in them. The Alemanni (A.D. 600) forbade private torture of women suspected of witchcraft or strigism. But although witchcraft was criminal, and we find occasional laws against sortiariae (Westfranks, A.D. 873), or expulsions (from Pomerania, 1124, &c.), in this period the crime is unimportant save where maleficium is combined with treason and the person of the king is aimed at.
Further Development.—In the second period (1230 - 1430) we have to deal with two factors of fundamental importance: (1) the elaboration of demonology and allied ideas by the scholastics, and (2) the institution of the Inquisition to deal with the rising flood of heresy. At the beginning of this era the prevalent view of the striga seems to have been that she really existed; Caesar of Heisterbach (c. 1225) recognizes the female monster who kills children; William of Paris (c. 1230) agrees that lamiae and strigae eat children, but they are allied to the dominae nocturnae; that they are real women is a foolish belief. Scholastic ingenuity, however, soon disposed of rationalistic objections to human flights through the air; the ride of disembodied spirits, led by the devil, Diana, Herodias (the Aradia of modern Italy), &c., became the assemblies of witches to do homage to the devil. But this fusion was not the work of the scholastics alone; for the church, witchcraft had long consisted in the recognition of demons. The new sects, especially the Cathars, who held that the influence of the devil had perverted the teachings of Christianity, were, like the early Christians, the object of unfounded charges, in this case of worship of the devil; this naturally led to the belief that they were given to witchcraft.
From the 7th century onwards women and priests figure largely in the accusations of witchcraft, the latter because their office made the canonical offence more serious, the former because love potions, and especially impotentia ex rnaleficio, are the weapons of the female sex. With the rise and development of the belief in the heretics’ Sabbath, which first appears early in the 11th century, another sexual element - the concubitus daemonurn - began to play its part, and soon the predominance of woman in magic was assured. In 1250 certain bishops gave to the Dominican Etienne de Bourbon (Stephanus de Borbone, d. c, 1261) a description of the Sabbath; and twenty- five years later the Inquisition took cognisance of the first case of this kind; from the 14th century onwards the idea was indissolubly connected with witchcraft.
In the first half of this second period, witchcraft was still superstition for the canon law, a civil wrong for the secular law; later, although these ideas still persisted, all magic was held to be heresy; its reality and heretical nature was expressly maintained by Thomas Aquinas. Already in 1258 the inquisitors took cognisance of magic as heresy, and from 1320 onwards there was a great increase in the number of cases. At first the witch was handed over to the secular arm for execution, either as an obstinate heretic or as the worker of evil magic; later it was found necessary to make provision for the numerous cases in which the offender abjured; it was decided that repentance due to fear did not release the witch from the consequences of her heresy.
Towards the end of the second period the jurisdiction passed in France from the spiritual to the secular courts by a decision of the parlement of Paris in 1391. The inquisitors did not, however, resign their work, but extended their sphere of operations; the great European persecution from 1434 to 1447 was ecclesiastical as well as secular. In the third period (1430 onwards) the opening of which is marked by this attempt to root out witchcraft, we find that the work of the scholastics and inquisitors has resulted in the complete fusion of originally distinct ideas and the crystallization of our modern idea of witch. To the methods of the inquisitors must be ascribed in great part the spread of these conceptions amongst the people; for the Malleus Maleficarum or Inquisitor’s Manual (1489), following closely on the important bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (Innocent VIII., 1484), gave them a handbook from which they plied their tortured victims with questions and were able to extract such confessions as they desired; by a strange perversion these admissions, wrung from their victims by rack or thumb-screw, were described as voluntary.
The subsequent history of witchcraft may be treated in less detail. In England the trials were most numerous in the 17th century; but the absence of judicial torture made the cases proportionately less numerous than they were on the European continent. One of the most famous witch-finders was Matthew Hopkins, himself hanged for witchcraft after a career of some three years. Many of his methods were not far removed from actual torture; he pricked the body of the witch to find anaesthetic areas; other signs were the inability to shed tears, or repeat the Lord’s Prayer, the practice of walking backwards or against the sun, throwing the hair loose, intertwining the fingers, &c. Witches were also weighed against the Bible, or thrown into water, the thumbs and toes tied crosswise, and those who did not sink were adjudged guilty; a very common practice was to shave the witch, perhaps to discover insensible spots, but more probably because originally the familiar spirit was supposed to cling to the hair. The last English trial for witchcraft was in 1712, when Jane Wenham was convicted, but not executed. Occasional cases of lynching continue to occur, even at the present day.
In Scotland trials, accompanied by torture, were very frequent in the 17th century. A famous witch-finder was Kincaid. The last trial and execution took place in 1722.
In New England there was a remarkable outburst of fanaticism - the famous Salem witchcraft delusion - in 1691-1692; but many of the prisoners were not convicted and some of the convicts received the governor’s pardon (see SALEM, MASS.).
On the continent of Europe the beginning of the 16th century saw the trial of witchcraft cases taken out of the hands of the Inquisition in France and Germany, and the influence of the Malleus became predominant in these countries. Among famous continental trials may be mentioned that of a woman named Voisin in 1680, who was burnt alive for poisoning, in connexion with the Marquise de Brinvilliers. Trials and executions did not finally cease till the end of the 18th century. In Spain a woman was burnt in 1781 at Seville by the Inquisition; the secular courts condemned a girl to decapitation in 1782; in Germany an execution took place in Posen in 1793. In South America and Mexico witch-burning seems to have lasted till well on into the second half of the 19th century, the latest instance apparently being in 1888 in Peru.
The total number of victims of the witch persecutions is variously estimated at from 100,000 to several millions. If it is true that Benedict Carpzov (1595—1666) passed sentence on 20,000 victims, the former figure is undoubtedly too low.
Rise of the Critical Spirit.—It is commonly assumed and has been asserted by Lecky that the historical evidence for witchcraft is vast and varied. It is true that a vast amount of authority for the belief in witchcraft may be quoted; but the testimony for the occurrence of marvels is small in quantity, if we except the valueless declaration of the victims of torture; testimony as to the pathological side of witchcraft is abundant, but affords no proof of the erroneous inferences drawn from the genuine phenomena. If this uncritical attitude is found in our own day, it is not surprising that the rationalistic spirit was long in making its appearance and slow in gaining the victory over superstition. From the 15th century onwards the old view that transformation and transportation were not realities but delusions, caused directly by the devil, began to gather force. Among the important works may be mentioned Johann Weier’s De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563), Reginald Scott’s (c. 1538 - 1590) Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) which was ordered to be burnt by King James I., who had himself replied to it in his Daemonologie (1597), Balthasar Bekker’s Betooverde Wereld (1691), which, though it went farther in the direction of scepticism, had less influence than Friedrich v. Spee’s Cautio criminalis (1631). In France Jean Uvier defended the rationalistic view, and Jean Bodin demanded that he should be sent to the stake for his temerity.
Psychology of Witchcraft.—Although at the height of the witch persecution torture wrung from innocent victims valueless confessions which are at best evidence that long-continued agony of body may be instrumental in provoking hallucinations, there can be no doubt that witches commonly, like the magician in lower planes of culture, firmly believe in their own powers, and the causes of this seem to be not merely subjective. (1) Ignorance of the effects of suggestion leads both the witch and others to regard as supernormal effects which are really due to the victim’s belief in the possibility of witchcraft. This applies especially to cases of “ligature.“ (2) Telepathy (q.v.) seems in some cases to play a part in establishing the witch’s reputation; some evidence has been produced that Hypnotism at a distance is possible, and an account of her powers given by a French witch to Dr Gibotteau suggests that this element cannot be neglected in appraising the evidence for witchcraft. (3) Whatever be the real explanation of the belief in poltergeists (q.v.) and “physical phenomena” (q.v.), the belief in them rests on a very different basis from that of the belief in lycanthropy; exaggeration and credulity alone will not explain how these phenomena come to be associated with witchcraft. On the other hand, subjective causes played their part in causing the witch to believe in herself. (4) Auto-suggestion may produce hallucinations and delusions in otherwise sane subjects; and for those who do not question the reality of witchcraft this must operate powerfully. (5) The descriptions of witches show that in many cases their sanity was more than questionable; trance and hysteria also played their part. (6) It is uncertain to what extent drugs and salves have helped to cause hallucination; but that they had some share seems certain, though modern experimenters have been led to throw doubt on the alleged effects of some of the drugs; here too, however, the effects of suggestion must be reckoned with; we do not associate the use of tobacco with hallucinations, but it was employed to produce them in Haiti in the same way as hemp among the Bantu of the present day. (7) Hallucinations occurring under torture must have tended to convince bystanders and victims alike, no less than the acceptance of suggestions, positive and negative.
As regards the nature of the ideas accepted as a result of suggestion or auto-suggestion, they were on the one hand derived, as we have seen, from ecclesiastical and especially scholastic sources; but beneath these elements is a stratum of popular belief, derived in the main perhaps from Pagan sources, for to this day in Italy witchcraft is known as la vecchia religione, and has been handed down in an unbroken tradition for countless generations.
(N. W. T.)