The Necessity of Atheism (Brooks)/Chapter XII
Better that a man's body should be destroyed than his soul. The worst death of the soul is freedom to err. St. Augustine.
It would be hard to calculate the perilous import of so treacherous an utterance, an utterance the latent sentiment of which has been responsible for I know not how much human agony. Menacing indeed to human happiness was such a claim, and in the course of time when the corporate body of the church became all-powerful in Christendom, it put into tyrannical practice what had been but a theological theory. Llewelyn Powys
It is the purpose of this chapter to trace the origin of witches, wizards, and devils, the widespread belief in them at the time of pagan Rome, and the manner in which these were incorporated into Christian theology.
With the rise of Christianity and the gain of political power by its adherents, the perverted pagan idea of witchcraft became the source of the most terrible persecutions in the bloody history of religion. The numerous references to witches and devils in both the Old and New Testaments established the authority for the organized religious mania that scourged both Roman Catholic and Protestant Europe, and extended its tentacles into the New England colonies.
Instigated by ecclesiastics, and carried into effect by the intellectual serfs, their adherents, hundreds of thousands of "witches" were tortured and burned during the sway of the Witchcraft Delusion. With the Bible as an inspiration, the clergy inflamed the superstitious minds of the masses of that time with the conception of a ceaseless strife between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan for possession of their souls and their bodies.
We of the present age may readily wonder how such a belief could have had so firm a grasp on the minds of our ancestors. Perhaps we will be tempted to attribute it to the ignorance of that time, particularly to the ignorance of the untutored masses. On the contrary, this does not approximate the actual situation. History reveals that the greatest minds of that age, men eminent in law, letters, and philosophy, not only defended this conception strenuously, but even engaged in the extermination of "witches."
That men of such superior intellect could defend such a barbaric institution, which today is revolting to our senses, necessitates the conclusion formulated at the end of this chapter.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that it was possible by supernatural means to inflict evil on their fellowmen, and all the sects of philosophers admitted this, with the exception of the Epicureans, who denied the existence of evil spirits. The magicians, in Greece and Rome, were at times punished because they injured men and not because they offended the gods. During the latter period of pagan Rome, some of the emperors passed laws against the magicians, if it was proven that by casting the horoscope the magicians had ascertained what was, according to their belief, the most auspicious time to start a rebellion against their rule. The emperors, however, notably Marcus Aurelius and Julian, were the patrons of magicians who foretold coming events to them. The public methods of foretelling the future, such as the oracle of the gods, formed part of their religion.
When the first Christians came into Rome and spread Christianity throughout the empire, they were inspired by an intense religious enthusiasm. They thought much less of the civil than of the religious consequence of magic, and sacrilege seemed much more terrible in their eyes than anarchy.
The Christians found in Rome a vast polytheistic religion in contrast to their own in which the entire world was divided into the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan. For them the world seemed to be teeming with malignant demons, who had in all ages persecuted and deluded mankind. "According to these Christians, the immediate objects of the devotions of the pagan world were subsidiary spirits of finite power and imperfect morality; angels, or, as they were then called, demons, who acted the part of mediators, and who, by permission of the Supreme and Inaccessible Deity, regulated the religious government of mankind. The Christians had adopted this conception of subsidiary spirits, but they maintained them to be not the willing agents, but the adversaries of the Deity; and the word demon, which among the pagans, signified only a spirit below the level of a Divinity, among the Christians signified a devil." (Lecky.)
"This notion seems to have existed in the very earliest period of Christianity; and in the second century, we find it elaborated with the most minute and detailed care. Tertullian, who wrote in that century, assures us that the world was full of these evil spirits, whose influence might be descried in every portion of the pagan creed. If a Christian in any respect deviated from the path of duty, a visible manifestation of the devil sometimes appeared to terrify him. The terror which such a doctrine must have spread among the early Christians may be easily conceived. They seemed to breathe an atmosphere of miracles. Wherever they turned they were surrounded and beleaguered by malicious spirits, who were perpetually manifesting their presence by supernatural arts. Watchful fiends stood beside every altar, they mingled with every avocation of life, and the Christians were the special objects of their hatred. All this was universally believed, and was realized with an intensity which, in this secular age, we can scarcely conceive. The bearing of this view upon the conception of magic is very obvious. Among the more civilized pagans, magic was mainly a civil, and in the last days of the empire, a political crime. In the early church, on the other hand, it was esteemed the most horrible form of sacrilege effected by the direct agency of evil spirits. It included the whole system of paganism, explained all its prodigies, and gave a fearful significance to all its legends. When the Church obtained the direction of the civil power, she soon modified or abandoned the tolerant maxims she had formerly inculcated; and in the course of a few years, restrictive laws were enacted, both against Jews and heretics." (Lecky.)
Constantine, after his conversion to Christianity, enacted laws against the magicians. These were made more rigid under Constantius, his son, but suspended under Julian. These persecutions were renewed by Valentinian, spasmodically carried on to a slight extent, and then lapsed. During the period that elapsed between the sixth and thirteenth centuries the executions for sorcery were comparatively rare.
It is to be borne in mind, then, that magic as existing in pagan Rome was part of the religious conceptions of the Romans. The oracle as well as the various demons, which to them signified what the word "angel" signifies to us now, formed an elaborate system of mythology and idolatry. The early Christians coming into contact with these conceptions, at first found an insurmountable difficulty in spreading their beliefs among the rural inhabitants of the Roman empire. Polytheism was dominant while their monotheism was as yet a persecuted belief. The road of least resistance was compromise, and so this vast system of polytheism was perverted, while seemingly accepted into their beliefs, by making these "angels," "demons," as we now understand the word. Since the early Christians were dominated by a belief in constant Satanic presence, these demons were said to be the "Hosts of Satan." It was firmly believed that the arch-fiend (Satan) was forever hovering about the Christians, but it was also believed that the sign of the cross, or a few drops of holy water, or the name of Mary, could put him to an immediate and ignominious flight.
"In the twelfth century, however, the subject passed into an entirely new phase. The conception of a witch, as we now conceive it, that is to say of a woman who had entered into a deliberate compact with Satan, who was endowed with the power of working miracles whenever she pleased, and who was continually transported through the air to the Sabbath, where she paid her homage to the Evil One first appeared. The panic created by the belief at first advanced slowly, but after a time with a fearfully accelerated rapidity. Thousands of victims were sometimes burnt alive in a few years. Every country in Europe was stricken with the wildest fever. Hundreds of the ablest judges were selected for the extirpation of this crime. A vast literature was created on the subject, and it was not until a considerable portion of the eighteenth century had passed away that the executions finally ceased. The vast majority of those accused of witchcraft were women, and again the Bible furnished the authority for the belief that women were inherently wicked. That the Fathers of the Church believed this is exemplified by the statement of Chrysostom in which he said that women were a 'necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a painted ill.'" (Lecky.)
At this period the conception of a witch is radically different from that which was prevalent in the era prior to this one. The popular belief of the witchcraft ages, a belief sanctioned by most of the learned men of the time, was that the earth swarmed with millions upon millions of demons. They multiplied by reproduction in the usual way, by the accession of the souls of wicked men, of women dying in childbirth, of children stillborn, of men killed in- duels. The air was filled with them, and one was always in danger of inspiring them with the air, of swallowing them in food and drink. Most Christian writers and legendists said that there were so many of them they could not be counted, but Wierus took a census of them and reported that there were only 7,505,926 divided into seventy-two companies, each commanded by a captain or prince. They could make themselves hideous, or beautiful, as suited their purposes, and assume any shape. While capable of appearing at any time, they preferred the night between Friday and Saturday. Any human being who gave up to them his immortal soul could command their services for a certain time. Occasionally general conferences took place, at the pleasure of Satan, which were attended by all the demons and all the witches.
"These 'sabbaths' were held on the Brocken or other high mountain. Upon the spot where they met, nothing would ever grow afterwards, as their hot feet burnt all the fecundity out of the soil. In France, England, and the American Colonies, it was supposed that witches made their trips on broomsticks; in Spain and Italy it was believed that they twirled on the back of the Devil himself, who, for the occasion, transformed himself into male goat. On no account would a witch, when starting for a sabbath, go out through the open door or window; she would pass through the keyhole or up the chimney. While they were gone", inferior demons assumed their shape, and lay in their beds, feigning illness. Assembled on the Brocken, the Devil, as a double-headed goat, took his seat on the throne. His subjects paid their respects to him, kissing his posterior face. With a master of ceremonies appointed for the occasion, he made a personal examination of all the wizards and witches, to see if they had the secret mark about them by which they were stamped as the Devil's own. This mark was always insensible to pain, and it was the sure proof of witchery when found by the inquisitor. Any witches found by the Devil not so marked received the mark from him then and there, also a nickname. Then they all sang and danced furiously. If a stranger came to be admitted, silence reigned while he denied his salvation, spat upon the Bible, kissed the Devil, and swore absolute obedience to him. Singing and dancing was resumed, a mythical formula being used in the singing. When tired, they sat down and told of their evil deeds; those who had not been bad enough were scourged by Satan himself with thorns and scorpions until they could neither sit nor stand. Then came a dance by thousands of toads who were conjured out of the ground and standing on their hind legs kept time to the music Satan evoked from bagpipes or a trumpet. They could all talk, and asked the witches to give them the flesh of unbaptized babes for food. The witches promised to do so. The Devil told them to remember and keep their word and then stamped his foot, and the frogs disappeared instantly into the earth. Next came a most disgusting banquet, except for a few of the most wicked witches, to whom were given rich viands on golden plates and expensive wines in crystal goblets. Then came more dancing; those who did not care for that amused themselves by mocking the sacrament of baptism. For this purpose the toads were again called up and sprinkled with filthy water, the Devil making the sign of the cross, while the witches repeated a formula as absurd as that used in ordinary baptisms. Sometimes the Devil made the witches take off their clothes and dance before him, each with a cat tied around her neck, and another dangling behind as a tail. Sometimes, again, there were lascivious orgies. At cockcrow, all disappeared; the sabbath was over." ("The Story of the Inquisition" Freethought Press Association.)
This conception of a witch continued from the twelfth century to the time witch-burning ceased. With this idea of a witch being constantly instilled into the minds of their listeners, the clergy set loose fervidly religious mobs to scourge the countries of innocent women. With the entire world divided into the "Hosts of Heaven" and the "Hosts of Satan," with witches abounding in the air, in the water, and in the food, and with their immortal souls at stake, the frenzied population found evidences of withcraft in all manner of happenings.
"Pope after pope set the seal of his infallibility upon the bloody persecutions. At length came Innocent VIII who, on the 7th of December, 1484, sent forth his bull Summis Desiderantis. Of all documents ever issued from Rome, imperial and papal, this, doubtless, first and last, caused the greatest shedding of innocent blood. Yet no document was ever more clearly dictated by conscience. Inspired by the scriptural command, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ Pope Innocent exhorted the clergy of Germany to leave no means untried to detect sorcerers, and especially, those who by evil practice destroy vineyards, gardens, meadows, and growing crops. These precepts were based upon various texts of scripture, especially upon the famous statement in the Book of Job; and to carry them out, witch-finding inquisitors were authorized by the Pope to scour Europe, especially Germany, and a manual was prepared for their use, the Witch-Hammer, Malleus Maleficarum." (White: "Warfare of Science.")
Another important and much discussed department was the connection between evil spirits and animals. That the Devil could assume the form of any animal he pleased, seems to have been generally admitted, and it presented no difficulty to those who remembered that the first appearance of that personage on earth was as a serpent, and that on one occasion a legion of devils had entered into a herd of swine. Saint Jerome also assures us that in the desert St. Anthony had met a centaur and a faun, a little man with horns growing from his forehead, who were possibly devils, and at all events, at a later period, the "Lives of the Saints" represent evil spirits in the form of animals as not infrequent. Lycanthropy, however, or the transformation of witches into wolves, presented more difficulty. The history of Nebuchadnezzar and the conversion of Lot's wife were, it is true, eagerly alleged in support of its possibility; but it was impossible to forget that St. Augustine appeared to regard lycanthropy as a fable, and a canon of the Council of Ancyra had emphatically condemned the belief. On the other hand, that belief has been very widely diffused among the ancients. It had been accepted by many of the greatest and most orthodox theologians, by the inquisitors who were commissioned by the popes, and by the law courts of most countries. The evidence on which it rested was very curious and definite. If the witch was wounded in the form of an animal, she retained that wound in her human form, and hundreds of such cases were alleged before tribunals. Sometimes the hunter, having severed the paw of his assailant, retained it as a trophy; but, when he opened his bag, he discovered in it only a bleeding hand, which he recognized as the hand of his wife.
A French judge named Boguet, at the end of the sixteenth century, devoted himself especially to the subject and burnt multitudes of lycanthropes. He wrote a book about them and drew up a code in which he permitted ordinary witches to be strangled before they were burnt, but excepted lycanthropes who were to be burnt alive.
Now let us examine on what authority the popes and afterwards the reformers so rigorously persecuted the "witches." Both the Old and the New Testaments are riddled with references to witches, wizards, and devils. For example, this passage from Exodus XXII 18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
From Matthew VIII 28-32, "There met him two possessed with devils coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way. And, behold, they cried out, saying, 'What have we to do with thee, Jesus, Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?' And there was a good way off from them a herd of many swine feeding. So the devils besought him, saying, 'If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. And he said unto them, 'Go!' And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine. And behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea and perished in the waters."
The Old Testament, therefore, definitely commands its adherents to kill, and the New Testament gives a brilliant example of its chief magician, Jesus, exorcising devils from men and driving them into swine. There are numerous passages of the Bible which speak of the Devil, the Devil and his angels, spirit of an unclean devil, dumb spirit, foul spirit, unclean spirit, evil spirit, witch, witchcraft, wizards, necromancers, satan, the tempter, prince of the power of the air, prince of devils, etc.
These passages in the Bible were at once the chief source and sanction of the terrible atrocities which extended over several centuries and have come to be known, taken collectively, as the "Witchcraft Persecutions." The Devil, with his subordinate demons and the human beings who sold their souls to him, were supposed to be both capable and guilty of blighting the crops; causing the lightning; bringing destructive storms; withholding the rain; drying up cows; killing domestic and wild beasts; afflicting the nations with pestilence, famine, and war; causing all manner of diseases; betwitching men, women, and children; planting doubts in the mind and weeds in the fields; and in brief, doing about everything that was disagreeable to man in general, or that offended the priests as a caste.
Thus buttressed by the Bible, and with the nearly entire current of Church literature setting in the same direction, it is no wonder that the witchcraft delusion became one of the most appalling, if not the most appalling, fact in the development of the Christian religion.
There is extant no other record of destruction and cruel slaughter growing out of such beliefs in supernatural persons and powers that can ever begin to tell such a story of degradation and mercilessness as the record made by the Christian Church. Theologians laid stress especially upon the famous utterances of the Psalmist that "All the gods of the Heathens are devils," and St. Paul, "The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to the devils."
Those suspected of heresy and witchcraft must confess; they were to be tortured, until they did confess. This made suspicion equivalent to confession and conviction. In the witch "trial" the victim must not only incriminate herself but her accomplices, or all whom she "knew" to be in partnership with the Devil. She was bound to be tortured until she had given the names or described the persons, of those she had seen at the "witches' sabbath." Then they would be put to the torture and the process repeated. It was not in human nature long to bear the awful pain; soon the leading questions of the inquisitors would be answered as they wanted them answered. It would be incredible were it not attested by such a multitude of witnesses, that men could honestly believe that testimony so extorted had the slightest, value. But it is indisputable that hundreds of thousands of human beings were sent to a cruel death on this utterly worthless "evidence."
As few people realize the degree in which these superstitions were encouraged by the Church that claims infallibility, I may mention that the reality of this particular crime was implied and its perpetrators anathematized by the provincial councils or synods of Troyes, Lyons, Milan, Tours, Bourges, Narbonne, Ferrar, Saint Malo, Mont Corsin, Orleans, and Grenoble; by the Rituals of Autun, Chartres, Perigueux, Evreux, Paris, Chalons, Bologna, Troyes, Beauvais, Meaux, Rheims, etc., and by the decrees of a long series of bishops.
The infection was everywhere Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, England, Scotland, and even America was scourged. It has been estimated that one hundred thousand perished in Germany from the middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth century.
Pope Gregory IX wrote a great mass of nonsense to the bishop and other chiefs urging stringent methods against the Stedingers, Frieslanders, inhabiting the country between Weser and Zeider Zee. He wrote, "The Devil appears to them (the Stedingers) in different shapes, sometimes as a goose or duck, and at other times in the figure of a pale, black-eyed youth, with a melancholy aspect, whose embrace fills their hearts with eternal hatred against the Holy Church of Christ. This Devil presides at their sabbath when they all kiss him and dance around him. He then envelops them in total darkness, and they all, male and female, give themselves up to the grossest and most disgusting debauchery."
The infallible pope of Rome!
The result was that the Stedingers, men, women, and children, were slain, the cottages and woods burned, the cattle stolen and the land laid waste. The pope's letter is a fair example of the theological literature of the time; the slaughter of the Stedingers an average illustration of the evangelistic methods of the Church.
Millions of men, women, and children were tortured, strangled, drowned, or burned on "evidence" that today would be accepted nowhere unless by a court and jury composed of the inmates of a lunatic asylum, if even by them. It is unnecessary to say that the more severe the persecution, the more widespread did witchcraft become. Every person tortured accused others and whole communities went mad with grief and fear and superstition. No amount of human evidence establishing the actual whereabouts of the accused at the time they were asserted by the witness on the rack to have been at the sabbath would avail. The husbands were told that they had seen or held only the devil-created semblance of their wives. The originals were with Satan under the oak. The confessions of tens of thousands of witches are to be found in Europe's judicial records of the period of the Inquisition.
"The Protestant Reformers zealously seconded the exertions of Rome to extirpate witchcraft; they felt that they must prove that they were as orthodox as the Catholics, and were as loyal to the Bible. No one urged their fundamental ideas more than did Luther, Calvin, Beza, the Swedish Lutherans, Casaubon, Wesley, Richard Baxter, the Mathers, all stood loyally by Rome." (Lecky.)
At Lisbon, a horse whose master had taught him many tricks, was tried in 1601 and found guilty of being possessed by the Devil, for which he was burned.
The witchcraft mania proper in England began in the sixteenth century and reached its climax in the early part of the seventeenth century. Sir Matthew Hale, the great jurist, sanctioned the delusions and passed sentences of death by burning.
Joan of Arc, the noblest of all the victims of this belief, perished by English hands, though on French soil, and under the sentence of a French bishop.
In Scotland, during the sixteenth century, as well as the seventeenth, were seen the most horrible examples of what domination of superstitious minds by ecclesiastics could do.
"Nothing was natural, all was supernatural. The entire course of affairs was governed, not by their antecedents, but by a series of miracles. Going still further, they claimed the power (the clergy) not only of foretelling the future state, but also of controlling it; and they did not scruple to affirm that, by their censures, they could open and shut the Kingdom of Heaven. As if this were not enough, they also gave out that a word of theirs could hasten the moment of death, and by cutting off the sinner in his prime, could bring him at once before the Judgment Seat of God.
"The Scotch clergy preached that, 'Hell was created before man came into the world. The Almighty,' they did not scruple to say, 'having spent his previous leisure in preparing and completing this place of torture, so that, when the human race appeared, it might be ready for their reception.
"Of all the means of intimidation employed by the Scotch clergy none was more efficacious than the doctrines they propounded respecting evil spirits and future punishment. On these subjects, they constantly uttered the most appalling threats. The language which they used was calculated to madden men with fear and to drive them to the depths of despair.
"It was generally believed that the world was overrun by evil spirits who went not only up and down the earth, but also lived in the air, and whose business it was to tempt and hurt mankind. Their number was infinite, and they were to be found at all places and in all seasons.
"At their head was Satan himself, whose delight it was to appear in person ensnaring or terrifying every one he met. With this object, he assumed various forms. One day he would visit the earth as a black dog, on another day as a raven, on still another day he would be heard in the distance roaring like a bull. He appeared sometimes as a white man in black clothes, and sometimes he became a black man in black clothes, when it was remarked that his voice was ghastly, that he wore no shoes, and that one of his feet was cloven. His stratagems were endless. For, in the opinion of divines, his cunning increased with his age; and having been studying for more than 5000 years, he had now attained to unexampled dexterity. He could, and he did, seize both men and women and carry them away through the air. Usually he wore the garb of laymen, but it was said that, on more than one occasion, he had impudently attired himself as a minister of the Gospel. At all events, in one dress or other, he frequently appeared to the clergy, and tried to coax them over to his side. In that, of course, he failed; but out of the ministers thus tempted, few indeed could withstand him. He could raise storms and tempests. He could work, not only on the mind, but also on the organs of the body, making men hear and see whatever he chose. Of his victims, some he prompted to suicide, others to commit murder. Still, formidable as he was, no Christian was Considered to have attained to a full religious experience unless he had literally seen him, talked to him, and fought with him.
"The clergy were constantly preaching about him, and preparing their audiences for an interview with their great enemy. The consequence was that the people became almost crazed with fear. Whenever the preacher mentioned Satan, the consternation was so great that the church resounded with sighs and groans. They believed that the Devil was always and literally at hand; that he was haunting them, speaking to them, and tempting them. The clergy boasted that it was their special mission to thunder out the wrath and curses of the Lord. In their eyes the Deity was not a Beneficent Being, but a cruel and remorseless tyrant. They declared that all mankind, a very small portion only excepting, were doomed to eternal misery.
"The Scotch clergy taught their hearers that the Almighty was sanguinary, and so prone to anger that he raged even against walls and houses, and senseless creatures, wreaking his fury more than ever, and scattering, desolation on every side.
"The people, credulous and ignorant, listened and believed.
"For in Scotland as elsewhere, directly the clergy succeeded in occupying a more than ordinary amount of public attention, they availed themselves of that circumstance to propagate those ascetic doctrines which, while they strike at the root of human happiness, benefit no one except the class which advocates them; that class, indeed, can hardly fail to reap the advantages from a policy which by increasing the apprehensions to which the ignorance and timidity of men make them liable, does also increase their eagerness to fly for support to their spiritual advisers; and the greater their apprehension, the greater the eagerness." (Buckle: "The History of Civilization in England")
James I of England had become imbued with the idea of witchcraft while in Scotland, and he believed that his stormy passage on his return from Denmark was due to witches. This storm was the origin of one of the most horrible of the many horrible Scotch trials on record. One Dr. Fian was suspected of having aroused the wind and a confession was wrung from him by torture which, however, he almost immediately retracted. Every form of torture was in vain employed to vanquish his obduracy; the bones of his legs were broken into small pieces in the boot. All the torments that Scottish law knew of were successively applied. At last, the king (who personally presided over the tortures) suggested a new and more horrible device. The prisoner, who had been removed during the deliberation, was brought in and "His nails upon his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument, called in. Scottish a 'turkas,' which in England we call a 'payre' or 'pincers' and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads. So deeply had the devil entered his heart, that he utterly denied all that which he avouched," and he was burnt unconfessed.
And this from a king of England!
The methods of obtaining a confession were as follows: If the witch was obdurate, the first, and it was said, the most effective method of obtaining confession was by what was termed "waking her." An iron bridle or hoop was bound across her face with four prongs which were thrust. into her mouth. It was fastened behind to the wall by a chain, in such a manner that the victim was unable to lie down, and in this position she was sometimes kept for several days, while men were constantly with her to prevent her from closing her eyes for a moment in sleep. Partly in order to effect this object, and partly to discover the insensible mark which was the sure sign of a witch, long pins were thrust into her body. At the same time, as it was a saying in Scotland that a witch would never confess while she could drink, excessive thirst was added to her torments. Some prisoners have been "waked" for five nights, one it is said, even for nine.
The physical and mental suffering of such a process was sufficient to overcome the resolution of many, and to distract the understanding of not a few. But other and perhaps worse tortures were in reserve. The three principal ones .that were habitually applied were the "pennywinks, the boot, and the caschielawis." The first was a kind of thumbscrew; the second was a frame in which the leg was inserted, and in which it was broken by wedges driven in by a hammer; the third was also an iron frame for the leg, which was from time to time heated over a brazier. Fire-matches were sometimes applied to the body of the victim. We read in a contemporary legal register, of one man who was kept for forty-eight hours in "vehement torture" in the caschielawis; and of another who remained in the same frightful machine for eleven days and nights, whose legs were broken daily for fourteen days in the boots, and who was so scourged that the whole skin was torn from his body. This was, it is true, censured as an extreme case, but it was only an excessive application of the common torture.
The witches were commonly strangled before they were burnt, but this merciful provision was very frequently omitted. An Earl of Wear tells how, with a piercing yell, some women once broke half -burnt from the slow fire consuming them, struggled for a few moments with a despairing energy among the spectators, but soon with shrieks of blasphemy and wild protestations of innocence sank writhing, in agony amid the flames.
But just picture this scene for a moment! The horror of such a scene! What a crime for one human to commit against another! A burnt offering to the gods! How well pleased the Almighty God must have been with the stench of , burning human flesh rising to his nostrils. And how well he must have rewarded his faithful servants, for was this not done in His name? "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
As Lecky points out in his famous work on the "History of European Morals," such incidents are but illustrations of the great truth that when men have come to regard a certain class of their fellow creatures as doomed by the Almighty to eternal and excruciating agonies, and when their theology directs their minds with intense and realizing earnestness to the contemplation of such agonies, the result will be an indifference to the suffering of those whom they deem the enemies of their God, as absolute as it is perhaps possible for human, nature to attain.
It is a historical fact that in 1591, a lady of rank, Eufame Macalyane, sought the assistance of Agnes Sampson for the relief of pain at the time of birth of her two sons. Agnes Sampson was tried before King James for her heresy, was condemned as a witch, and was burned alive on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh.
It is generally said that the last execution in Scotland was in 1722, but Captain Burt, who visited the country in 1730, speaks of a woman who was burnt as late as 1727. As late as 1736, the divines of the Associated Presbytery passed a resolution declaiming their belief in witchcraft, and deploring the scepticism that was then general.
The Pilgrim Fathers brought to our shores the seeds of the Witchcraft Delusion at a time when it was rapidly fading in England, and again history furnishes us with an example of a people with strong religious instincts who, being freed from their persecutors, became in turn the most violent persecutors of those that did not profess their particular creed. It was particularly due to the preaching of Cotton Mather that a panic of fear was created through the New England Colonies. Mrs. Ann Hibbons was tried before the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, sentenced and hanged on the 19th of June, 1656. "Goody Oliver" was executed as a witch on November 16th, 1688."
There were twenty murders in 1692, and these before a civil court. The trials took place before the illegal Court of Oyer and Terminer, appointed by Governor Phipps, at the instigation of the Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice Stoughton, and Joseph Dudley, formerly governor, and the Chief Judge of the Court which, in 1688, had sent "Goody Oliver" to her death at the gallows.
Cotton Mather defended this practice in his book, "The Wonders of The Invisible World" and Increase Mather, the father of Cotton, was equally as strenuous in the "Witch Hunt." Increase Mather survived this massacre thirty years, and his son, five years longer, but there is hardly a word of regret or sympathy to be found anywhere, even in their private diaries and correspondence. These executions in Massachusetts form one of the darkest pages in the history of America.
It is not surprising that the clergy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries supported both in practice and theory the Witchcraft Delusion, but when we find the ablest minds of the laity bursting into print with a vehement defense of this belief, it is difficult for us, in the present day, to conceive, of such folly. And yet, today, we have able minds defending a precept of which the Witchcraft Delusion is but a part.
"The defenders of the belief (Witchcraft), who were men of great and distinguished talent, maintained that there was no fact in all history more fully attested, and that to reject it would be to strike at the root of all historical evidence of the miraculous." (Lecky.)
The subject was examined in tens of thousands of cases, in almost every country in Europe, by tribunals which included the acutest lawyers and ecclesiastics of the ages, on, the scene and at the time when the alleged acts had taken place, and with the assistance of innumerable sworn witnesses. The judges had no motive whatever to desire the condemnation of the accused, and as conviction would be followed by fearful death, they had the strongest motives to exercise their power with caution and deliberation. The whole force of public opinion was directed constantly and earnestly to the question for many centuries, and although there was some controversy concerning the details of witchcraft, the fact of its existence was long considered undoubted.
For many centuries the ablest men were not merely unwilling to repudiate the superstition, but they often pressed forward earnestly and with the utmost conviction to defend it. Indeed, during the period when wjtchcraft was most prevalent there were few writers of real eminence who did not, on some occasion, take especial pains to throw the weight of their authority into the scales.
St. Thomas Aquinas was probably the ablest writer of the thirteenth century, and he assures us that diseases and tempests are often the direct act of the Devil; and the Devil can transform men into any shape and transport them through the air.
Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris, and, as many think, the author of "The Imitation," is justly regarded as one of the master minds of his age; he too, wrote in defense of this belief. "These men," he wrote, "should be treated with scorn, and indeed, sternly corrected, who ridicule theologians whenever they speak of demons, or attribute to* demons any effects, as if these things were entirely fabulous. This error has arisen among some learned men, partly through want of faith, and partly through weakness and imperfection of intellect."
Bodin was unquestionably the most original political philosopher who had arisen since Machiavelli, and he devoted all his learning and acuteness to crushing the rising scepticism on the subject of witches. The truth is that in those ages ability was no guarantee against error; for the single employment of the reason was to develop, and expand premises that were furnished by the Church. And this statement is as valid today as it was three hundred years ago.
Bodin was esteemed, by many of his contemporaries, the ablest man who had then arisen in France; and the verdict has been but little qualified by later writers. Amid all the distractions of a dissipated and an intriguing court, and all the labors of a judicial position, he had amassed an amount of learning so vast and so various as to place him in the very first rank of the scholars of his nation. He has also the greater merit of being one of the chief founders of political philosophy and political history, and of having anticipated on these subjects many of the conclusions of our own day. In his judicial capacity he had presided at some trials of witchcraft. He had brought all the resources of his scholarship to bear upon the subject, and he had written a great part of his "Demonomanie des Sorciers" before the appearance of the last work of Wier.
John Wier was a physician of Cleves who had in 1563 published a work which he called, "De Praestigus Daemonum." He was quite convinced that the world was peopled by crowds of demons, who, were constantly working miracles among mankind; and his only object was to reconcile his sense of their ubiquity with his persuasion that some of the phenomena that were deemed supernatural arose from disease.
"Wier," said Bodin, "had armed himself against God. His book was a tissue of 'horrible blasphemies.' For the word of God is very certain that he who suffers a man worthy of death to escape, draws the punishment upon himself, as the prophet said to King Ahab, that he would die for having pardoned a man worthy of death. For no one had ever heard of pardon accorded to sorcerers."
Such were the opinions which were promulgated towards the close of the sixteenth century by one of the most advanced intellects of one of the leading nations of Europe at that time; promulgated, too, with a tone of confidence and of triumph that shows how fully the writer could count upon the religious sympathies of his readers: the "Demonomanie des Sorciers" appeared in 1581.
With a man of the caliber of Bodin writing the above, it is not to be wondered at that the mobs were so active in the "Witch Hunt." For as Lecky cites, "Although the illiterate cannot follow the more intricate speculations of their teachers, they can catch the general tone and character of thought which these speculations produce, and they readily apply them to their own sphere of thought."
In 1587, Montaigne published the first great sceptical work in the French language. The vast mass of authority which those writers loved to array, and by which they shaped the whole course of their reasoning, is calmly and unhesitatingly discarded. The passion for the miraculous, the absorbing sense of diabolical capacities, have all vanished like a dream. The old theological measure of probability has completely disappeared, and is replaced by a shrewd secular common sense. The statements of the witches were pronounced intrinsically incredible. The dreams of a disordered imagination, or the terrors of the rack, would account for many of them; but even when it is impossible to explain the evidence, it is quite unnecessary to believe it. "After all," Montaigne said, "it is setting a high value upon our opinions to roast men alive on account of them."
"It was the merit of Montaigne to rise, by the force of his masculine genius, into the clear world of reality; to judge the opinions of his age, with an intellect that was invigorated but not enslaved by knowledge; and to contemplate the systems of the past, without being dazzled by the reverence that had surrounded them. He was the first great representative of the modern secular and rationalistic spirit. The strong predisposition of Montaigne was to regard witchcraft as the result of natural causes, and therefore, though he did not attempt to explain all the statements which he had heard, he was convinced that no conceivable improbability could be as great as that which would be involved in their reception." (Lecky.)
Thirteen years after Montaigne, Charron wrote his famous treatise on Wisdom. In this work he systematized many of the opinions of Montaigne.
Voltaire treated the whole subject with a scornful ridicule and observed that, "Since there had been philosophers in France, witches had become proportionately rare."
In 1681, Joseph Glanvil, a divine who in his day was very famous, took up the defense of the dying belief. "The Sadducismus Triumphatus," which he published, is probably the ablest book ever published in defense of the superstition, and although men of the ability of Henry, More, the famous philosopher Casaubon, the learned Dean of Canterbury, Boyle and Cudworth, came to his defense, the delusion was fast losing ground. Lecky points out that by this time, "The sense of the improbability of witchcraft became continually stronger, till any anecdote which involved the intervention of the Devil was on that account generally ridiculed. This spirit was exhibited especially among those whose habits of thought were most secular, and whose minds were least governed by authority."
But the belief did not become extinguished immediately. In France, in 1850, the Civil Tribunal of Chartres tried a man and woman named Soubervie for having caused the death of a woman called Bedouret. They believed she was a witch, and declared that the priest had told them she was the cause of an illness under which the woman Soubervie was suffering. They accordingly drew Bedouret into a private room, held her down upon some burning straw, and placed a red-hot iron across her mouth. The unhappy woman soon died in extreme agony. The Soubervies confessed, and indeed, exulted in their act. At their trials they obtained the highest possible characters. It was shown that they had been actuated solely by superstition, and it was urged that they only followed the highest ecclesiastical precedent. The jury recommended them to mercy, and they were only sentenced to pay twenty-five francs a year to the husband of the victim, and to be imprisoned for four months. In 1850! !
A great many may remember the "Hex" murder case near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1930! This is scarcely different from an incident which had occurred in 1892 in Wemding, Germany: An hysterical woman was "exorcised" by the Capuchin Father Aurelian, who accused a peasant woman of bewitching him.
The foregoing has shown that witchcraft is not an isolated incident in the history of Christianity, as the ecclesiastics would have us believe, but is a vital part of their religion. Witchcraft bears' the same relation to Christianity that an arm bears to the body; neither can be removed without destroying the symmetrical aspect of the whole.
Witchcraft is an integral part of the Christian religion, but its falsity has become so obvious that even the most devout have had to abandon it. Yet the other precepts are still maintained; and in the Bible which is claimed to be infallible, something is forgotten and discarded, something is declared to be ridiculous. And yet they call the Bible infallible. Again, if witchcraft is given up, why not the chief witch of the Bible, the Devil? Yet if this be yielded, then the idea of Atonement, the central doctrine of the Christian Church, must also go.
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." If this be God's word, did God err when He said it? If He erred, He probably did so in many other things; if He did not Christians must either still maintain the Witchcraft Delusion or deny the Bible Delusion.
The Witchcraft Delusion is denied and forgotten, and no one thinks of quoting, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." But the Bible Delusion despite all manner of ecclesiastical sophistry still maintains that man was created miraculously some 6000 years ago from the dust of the earth, that woman was made from a bone taken from the side of man, that language came into existence in the course of a single night, that God instituted a horrible massacre of the people by drowning because they did not come up to his expectations. It maintains miracles, virgin births, resurrections from the dead, and a literal heaven and hell.
Again, in the New Testament, Matthew tells how the chief magician of the New Testament, Jesus, exorcised the devils from men and drove them into swine. What could be more explicit? If men were possessed of devils in Jesus' time, what has happened to these devils now? Surely, Jesus could not misinterpret his own words or deeds, if the religionists contend that we are now misinterpreting the Bible? If they state that his recorders were in error, then they admit the error of the entire Bible, for it is illogical for one part to be true and another to be false, when both are components of an infallible statement.
"But they who abondon belief in maleficent demons and in witches as also, for this follows, in beneficent agents, such as angels, find themselves in a serious dilemma. For to this are such committed: If Jesus who came that he might destroy the Devil, and who is reported, among other proofs of his divine ministry, to have cast out demons from the 'possessed human beings,' and in one case, to have permitted a crowd of infernal agents to enter into a herd of swine; if he verily believed that he did these things, and if it be true that the belief is a superstition limited to the ignorant or barbaric mind, then what value can be attached to any statement that Jesus is reported to have made about the spiritual world?" (Edward Clodd: "Pioneers of Evolution")
The old adage that a chain is just as strong as its weakest link is very apt in this case. A belief in witches is part of the Bible; and if the civilized world rejects that concept, it must reject the Bible, for it is no longer infallible, since it is in error.
Disregarding the internal evidence which declares the Bible to be spurious, and the scientific advances which have proven the Bible to be a myth and a fable, if man still insists on "revealed religion" he must admit that sorcery and witchcraft are an integral part of the Bible teaching. He must still either believe in witchcraft or disbelieve all of the Bible. For again, one part cannot be true and another false of an infallible statement.
I thoroughly and emphatically agree with John Wesley who, in 1769, wrote, "The English in general, and indeed most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives' fables. I am sorry for it, and I willingly take this opportunity of entering my solemn protest against this violent compliment which so many that believe in the Bible pay to those who do not believe it. I owe them no such service. I take knowledge that these are at the bottom of the outcry which has been raised, and with such insolence spread through the land, in direct opposition, not only to the Bible, but to the suffrage of the wisest and best of men in all ages and nations. They well know (whether Christians know it or not) that the giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible"
Lecky, in that masterful work, "The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe," from which I have so freely quoted, states, "A disbelief in ghosts and witches was one of the most prominent characteristics of Scepticism in the seventeenth century. Yet, for more than fifteen hundred years it was universally believed that the Bible established in the clearest manner, the validity of the crime, and that an amount of evidence, so varied and so ample as to preclude the very possibility of doubt, attested its continuance and its prevalence. . . .In our own day, it may be said with confidence, that it would be altogether impossible for such an amount of evidence to accumulate around a conception which has no substantial basis in fact."
And yet today, in the twentieth century, we do have an amount of "evidence" accumulated around a conception which had no substantial basis of fact. What a perfect analogy presents itself between one precept of revealed religion and religion in its entirety. In the seventeenth century, scepticism confined itself to a disbelief in witchcraft, one particular of revealed religion; in the twentieth century, scepticism expands and reveals the absurdity of all revealed religion. Just as when we read the annals of witchcraft today we sicken with the horror of this insane conception, so will posterity in the none too distant future, perhaps three more centuries, do for all religion what three centuries did for witchcraft. Just so will they regard revealed religion in its entirety as we look upon the one factor, the Witchcraft Delusion.
Men came gradually to disbelieve in witchcraft because they learned, gradually to look upon it as absurd. This new tone of thought Appeared first of all in those who were least subject to theological influences, and soon spread through the educated laity, and last of all, took possession of the clergy. So shall it be with all religions.
A belief that was held for 1500 years, in the comparatively insignificant period of 100 years, sinks into oblivion; for the last judicial execution occurred in Switzerland in 1782; and the last law on the subject, the Irish Statute, was repealed in 1821. It is not, therefore, too much of a stretch of the imagination to conceive what the inhabitants of this planet will think of all religion 300 years from now. We have the sterling example of the Witchcraft Delusion before us. Yes, despite the otherwise brilliant men of today who still maintain the Bible Delusion, and the "Hedgers," that group of religious apologists who form those various sects, such as the Unitarians, the Humanists, etc. They are but the middle ground; they are but the intermediate between the delusionists and those that maintain the philosophy that eventually must triumph, the philosophy ot atheism. When we think back to that group of capable men headed by Bodin, Gerson, and Joseph Glanvil, who turned their ability and learning to the defense of the Witchcraft Delusion, we find the answer to that everpresent response which the confused of- this age give when confronted with the incompatabilities in their religion, namely, "Oh, well, more brilliant men than I believe in this delusion."
Bodin, Gerson, and Glanvil could not bolster up a dying belief; and the Bodins, Gersons, and Glanvils of today cannot long bolster up the dying belief in all religions ... no matter what their ability or capacities may be. The handwriting is on the wall; the past teaches us what the future may be, but there is still much work to be done.