Witch Trials In The Early Modern Period

560px-Schiltach_Flugblatt

1533 account of the execution of a witch charged with burning the German town of Schiltach in 1531

The witch trials in the early modern period were a period of witch hunts between the 15th and 18th centuries,[1] when across early modern Europe[2] and to some extent in the European colonies in North America, there was a widespread hysteria that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom. Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshippers of the Devil, who engaged in such acts as malevolent sorceryat meetings known as Witches’ Sabbaths. Many people were subsequently accused of being witches, and were put on trial for the crime, with varying punishments being applicable in different regions and at different times.

While early trials fall still within the Late Medieval period, the peak of the witch hunt was during the period of the European wars of religion, peaking between about 1580 and 1630. The witch hunts declined in the early 18th century. In Great Britain, their end is marked by the Witchcraft Act of 1735. But sporadic witch-trials continued to be held during the second half of the 18th century, the last known dating to 1782,[3] though a prosecution was commenced in Tennessee as recently as 1833.[4][5][6]

Over the entire duration of the phenomenon of some three centuries, an estimated total of 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed.[7]

Among the best known of these trials were the Scottish North Berwick witch trials, Swedish Torsåker witch trials and the American Salem witch trials. Among the largest and most notable were the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631).

The sociological causes of the witch-hunts have long been debated in scholarship. Mainstream historiography sees the reason for the witch craze in a complex interplay of various factors that mark the early modern period, including the religious sectarianism in the wake of the Reformation, besides other religious, societal, economic and climatic factors.

Background

Three developments in Christian doctrine have been identified as factors contributing significantly to the witch hunts: 1) a shift from the rejection of belief in witches to an acceptance of their existence and powers, 2) developments in the doctrine of Satan which incorporated witchcraft as part of Satanic influence, 3) the identification of witchcraft as heresy. Belief in witches and praeternatural evil were widespread in medieval Europe,[8] and the secular legal codes of European countries had identified witchcraft as a crime before being reached by Christian missionaries.[9] Scholars have noted that the early influence of the Church in the medieval era resulted in the revocation of these laws in many places,[9][10] bringing an end to traditional pagan witch hunts.[9]

Throughout the medieval era mainstream Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, condemning it as pagan superstition.[11] Notable instances include an Irish synod in 800,[12] Agobard of Lyons,[13] Pope Gregory VII,[14] and Serapion of Vladimire.[15] The traditional accusations and punishments were likewise condemned.[16][17] Historian Ronald Hutton therefore exonerated the early Church from responsibility for the witch hunts, arguing that this was the result of doctrinal change in the later Church.[9]

However, Christian influence on popular beliefs in witches and maleficium (harm committed by magic), failed to eradicate traditional beliefs,[18] and developments in the Church doctrine of Satan proved influential in reversing the previous dismissal of witches and witchcraft as superstition; instead these beliefs were incorporated into an increasingly comprehensive theology of Satan as the ultimate source of all maleficium.[19][20] The work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was instrumental in developing the new theology which would give rise to the witch hunts,[21] but due to the fact that sorcery was judged by secular courts it was not until maleficium was identified with heresy that theological trials for witchcraft could commence.[22] Despite these changes the doctrinal shift was only completed in the 15th century,[23] when it first began to result in Church-inspired witch trials.[24] Promulgation of the new doctrine by Henricus Institoris met initial resistance in some areas,[25] and some areas of Europe only experienced the first wave of the new witch trials in the latter half of the 16th century.[26][27]

Magic and witchcraft

Further information: European witchcraft, Christian views on magic, Medieval magic, Renaissance magic, and Shamanism in Europe

During the Medieval period, there was widespread belief in magic across Christian Europe, and as the psychologist Gustav Jahoda noted, “the new world as people saw it [in the medieval] included witches, devils, fairies and all kinds of strange beasts … magic and miracles were commonplace.”[28] The Mediaeval Roman Catholic Church, which then dominated a large swath of the continent, divided magic into two forms: natural magic, which was acceptable because it was viewed as merely taking note of the powers in nature that were created by God, and demonic magic, which was frowned upon and associated with demonology, divination and necromancy.[29] This idea of malevolent magic, or maleficarum, was mentioned by historian Robert W. Thurston, who stated that “One of the most persistent features of European world views … was the presence of humans who used magic to help or hurt their neighbors.”[8]

During the Late Middle Ages and early modern period, magical practice was roughly divided into two forms. The first of these, folk magic, was the form of popular practice widely found amongst common people, consisting largely of simple charms and spells. There were various professionals who performed folk magic in a professional capacity, including charmers, astrologers, fortune tellers, and most importantly, cunning folk. These were believed to “possess a broader and deeper knowledge of such [magical] techniques and more experience in using them” than the average person, and it was also believed that they “embodied or could work with supernatural power which greatly increased the effectiveness of the operations concerned.”[30] One of the primary purposes of the cunning folk was in removing curses and other bewitchments that their clients believed that they had suffered, and in this manner cunning folk were in most cases working actively against witchcraft, using such methods as the witch bottle in order to do so.[31]

The other form of magic was ceremonial magic, followed by those who adhered to philosophies like Hermeticism and the Qabalah. Whilst the Church disapproved of demonic magic, which was practiced by both certain cunning folk and ceremonial magicians, and condemned it in Early Medieval texts, they did little to actively suppress those that they believed practiced it, not believing them to be any significant threat to Christendom.[citation needed]

A late-sixteenth-century illustration of a witch feeding her familiars from England. A number of historians believe that the familiar spirit is a pre-Christian idea.

Various historians, notably Carlo Ginzburg, Éva Pócs, Gabor Klaniczay and Emma Wilby have theorised that many elements of early modern witchcraft were based upon, or even a continuation of, pre-Christian religious beliefs about visionary journeys that had connections with both shamanism and animism. In early modern Europe, there was often a belief that witches (and in many cases also cunning folk) were aided in their performance of magic by supernatural entities known as familiar spirits, who appeared in many different forms, usually taking the appearance of either humans or animals.[32] As historian Ronald Hutton remarked, “It is quite possible that pre-Christian mythology lies behind this tradition”,[33] an idea supported by other historians, such as Wilby.[34]

In the early modern period, it was also widely believed by the prosecutors that the witches traveled to a nocturnal meeting known as the Witches’ Sabbath where they worshiped the Devil, feasted, and committed various Christian sins. Although some historians believe that this was entirely a fictional idea created by the witch hunters, others, having studied the first hand reports given by self-professed or accused witches, have come to the conclusion that these trips to the Sabbath were genuine visionary journeys that some witches believed that they went on. Emma Wilby compares these to similar claims made in the early modern period by certain cunning folk that they traveled on a visionary journey into Fairyland, where they found an assembly led by the King and Queen of the Fairies, feasted, and danced. After making various comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological examples of shamanism in Siberia and North America, she came to the conclusion that both the witches’ Sabbath and the Fairyland journeys were visionary experiences undergone by various magical practitioners that likely had their origins in earlier, pre-Christian shamanic ideas.[35]

Some historians have traced the idea of a visionary nocturnal journey from the early modern period into earlier periods of European history that were closer to the pre-Christian era. The fact that such nocturnal journeys containing praeternatural entities have been found across Medieval and early modern Europe, from the Benandanti of sixteenth-century Friuli in Italy to the supposed werewolves of early modern Hungary[36] has led historian Carlo Ginzburg to believe that they were a part of an “ancient stratum of beliefs” in Europe, that had been found in pre-Christian paganism.[37] Indeed, historian Robert Thurston noted that in the tenth century document, the Canon Episcopi, the author (likely a Christian monk) described that there were women who, due to a trick of the Devil, had visions that made them think that they met other women at nocturnal meetings to ride in processions led by the goddess Diana across “great spaces of the earth”. Thurston notes that it was these descriptions of women’s nocturnal travels which were “clearly the cultural forerunner of the witches’ sabbath.”[38] According to these historians therefore, the idea of the witches’ sabbath, along with the similar idea of familiar spirits and the cunning folk’s journey to Fairyland, were not developments of the witch hunters but were genuine visionary traditions amongst the European populace, ones with their origins in pre-Christian religion.

Satan

The Obscene Kiss, an illustration of witches kissing the Devil’s anus from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608).

It was also during the Medieval period that the concept of Satan, the Biblical Devil, began to develop into a more threatening form. Around the year 1000, when there were increasing fears that the end of the world would soon come in Christendom, the idea of the Devil had become prominent, with many believing that his activities on Earth would soon begin appearing. Whilst in earlier centuries there had been no set depiction of the Devil, it was also around this time that he began to develop the stereotypical image of being animal-like, or even in some cases an animal himself. In particular, he was often viewed as a goat, or as a human with goat-like features, such as horns, hooves and a tail. Equally, the concepts of demons began to become more prominent, in particular the idea that male demons known as incubi, and female ones known as succubi, would roam the Earth and have sexual intercourse with humans. As Thurston noted, “By about 1200, it would have been difficult to be a Christian and not frequently hear of the devil … [and] by 1500 scenes of the devil were commonplace in the new cathedrals and small parish churches that had sprung up in many regions.”[39]

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the concept of the witch in Christendom underwent a relatively radical change. No longer were they viewed as sorcerers who had been deceived by the Devil into practicing magic that went against the powers of God, as earlier Church leaders like Saint Augustine of Hippo had stated. Instead they became the all-out malevolent Devil-worshiper, who had made a pact with him in which they had to renounce Christianity and devote themselves to Satanism. As a part of this, they gained, new, supernatural powers that enabled them to work magic, which they would use against Christians. It was believed that they would fly to their nocturnal meetings, known as the Witches’ Sabbath, where they would have sexual intercourse with demons. On their death, the witches’ souls, which then belonged to the Devil, subsequently went to Hell.[40]

History

Medieval persecution of heresy

Main article: Medieval Inquisition

Whilst the witch trials only really began in the 15th century, with the start of the early modern period, many of their causes had been developing during the previous centuries, with the persecution of heresy by the Medieval Inquisition during the late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, and during the Late Medieval period, during which the idea of witchcraft or sorcery gradually changed and adapted. The inquisition had the office of protecting Christian orthodoxy against the “internal” threat of heresy (as opposed to “external” military threats such as those of the Vikings, the Mongols, and the Saracens or Turks).

Witches by Hans Baldung Grien (Woodcut, 1508).

During the High Middle Ages, a number of heretical Christian groups, such as the Cathars and the Knights Templar had been accused of performing such anti-Christian activities as Satanism, sodomy and malevolent sorcery in France. While the nucleus of the early modern “witch craze” would turn out to be popular superstition in the Western Alps, reinforced by theological rationale developed at or following the Council of Basel of the 1430s, what has been called “the first real witch trial in Europe”,[41] the accusation of Alice Kyteler in 1324, occurred in 14th-century Ireland, during the turmoils associated with the decline of Norman control.[42]

Thurston (2001) speaks of a shift in Christian society from a “relatively open and tolerant” attitude to that of a “persecuting society” taking an aggressive stance towards minorities characterized as Jews, heretics (such as Cathars and Waldensians), lepers or homosexuals, often associated with conspiracy theories assuming a concerted effort on the part of diabolical forces to weaken and destroy Christianity, indeed “the idea became popular that one or more vast conspiracies were trying to destroy Christianity from within.”[43] An important turning-point was the Black Death of 1348–1350, which killed a large percentage of the European population, and which many Christians believed had been caused by their enemies. The catalog of typical charges that would later be leveled at witches, of spreading diseases, committing orgies (sometimes incestuous), cannibalizing children, and following Satanism, emerged during the fourteenth century as crimes attributed to heretics and Jews.

Witchcraft had not been considered a heresy during the High Medieval period. Indeed, since the Council of Paderborn of 785, the belief in the possibility of witchcraft itself was considered heretical. While witch-hunts only became common after 1400, an important legal step that would make this development possible occurred in 1326, when Pope John XXII authorized the inquisition to persecute witchcraft as a type of heresy.[44]

By the late fourteenth century, a number of “witch hunters” began to publish books on the topic, including Nicholas Eymeric, the inquisitor in Aragon and Avignon, who published the Directorium Inquisitorum in 1376.[45]

Beginning of the witch hunts during the 15th century

1533 account of the execution of a witch charged with burning the German town of Schiltach in 1531

While the idea of witchcraft began to mingle with the persecution of heretics even in the 14th century, the beginning of the witch-hunts as a phenomenon in its own right become apparent during the first half of the 15th century in south-eastern France and western Switzerland, in communities of the Western Alps, in what was at the time Burgundy and Savoy.

Here, the cause of eliminating the supposed Satanic witches from society was taken up by a number of individuals; Claude Tholosan for instance had tried over two hundred people accusing them of witchcraft in Briançon, Dauphiné by 1420.[46]

Soon, the idea of identifying and prosecuting witches spread throughout the neighboring areas of northern Italy, Switzerland and southern Germany, and it was at Basel that the Council of Basel assembled from 1431 to 1437. This Church Council, which had been attended by such anti-witchcraft figures as Johann Nider and Martin Le Franc, helped to standardize the stereotype of the Satanic witch that would be propagated throughout the rest of the trials.[47]

Following the meeting of the Council and the increase in the trials around this area of central Europe, the idea that malevolent Satanic witches were operating against Christendom began spreading throughout much of the Holy Roman Empire and several adjacent areas. According to historian Robert Thurston, “From this heart of persecution the witch stereotype spread, both through a flood of new writings on the subject and through men who had been at the Council of Basel and now went elsewhere to take up new assignments in the church.”[48] The most notable of these works was published in 1486, written by the German Dominican monk, Heinrich Kramer—allegedly aided by Jacob Sprenger—known as the Malleus Malificarum (The Hammer of the Witches) in which they set down the stereotypical image of the Satanic witch and prescribed torture as a means of interrogating suspects. The Malleus Malificarum was reprinted in twenty-nine editions up till 1669.

On December 5, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull in which he recognized the existence of witches and gave full papal approval for the inquisition to move against witches, including the permission to do whatever necessary to get rid of them. In the bull, which is sometimes referred to as the “Witch-Bull of 1484”, the witches were explicitly accused of having “slain infants yet in the mother’s womb” (abortion) and of “hindering men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving” (contraception).[49]

Peak of the trials: 1580–1630

The height of the European trials was between 1560 and 1630, with the large hunts first beginning in 1609.[3] During this period, the biggest witch trials were held in Europe, notably the Trier witch trials (1581–1593), the Fulda witch trials (1603–1606), the Würzburg witch trial (1626–1631) and the Bamberg witch trials (1626–1631).

In 1590, the North Berwick witch trials occurred in Scotland, and were of particular note as the king, James VI, got involved himself. James had developed a fear that witches planned to kill him after he suffered from storms whilst traveling to Denmark in order to claim his bride, Anne, earlier that year. Returning to Scotland, the king heard of trials that were occurring in North Berwick and ordered the suspects to be brought to him—he subsequently believed that a nobleman, Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, was a witch, and after the latter fled in fear of his life, he was outlawed as a traitor. The king subsequently set up royal commissions to hunt down witches in his realm, recommending torture in dealing with suspects, and in 1597 he wrote a book about the menace that witches posed to society entitled Daemonologie.[50]

Decline of the trials: 1650–1750

Whilst the witch trials had begun to fade out across much of Europe by the mid-seventeenth century, they continued to a greater extent on the fringes of Europe and in the American colonies. In Scandinavia, the late seventeenth century saw the peak of the trials in a number of areas; for instance, in 1675, the Torsåker witch trials took place in Sweden, where seventy-one people were executed for witchcraft in a single day. In the nearby Finland, which was then under the control of the Swedish monarchy, the hunt peaked in that same decade.[3] During the same period, the Salzburg witch trials in Austria led to the death of 139 people (1675–1690).

The clergy and the intellectuals began to speak out against the trials from the late sixteenth century. Johannes Kepler in 1615 could only by the weight of his prestige keep his mother from being burnt as a witch. The 1692 Salem witch trials were a brief outburst of witch hysteria in the New World at a time when the practice was already waning in Europe. In the 1690s Winifred King Benham and her daughter Winifred were thrice tried for witchcraft in Wallingford, Connecticut, the last of such trials in New England. While found innocent, they were compelled to leave Wallingford to settle in Staten Island, New York. [51]

During the early 18th century, the practice subsided. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged. Janet Horne was executed for witchcraft in Scotland in 1727. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 saw the end of the traditional form of witchcraft as a legal offense in Britain, those accused under the new act were restricted to people who falsely pretended to be able to procure spirits, generally being the most dubious professional fortune tellers and mediums, and punishment was light.

Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738. In Austria, Maria Theresa outlawed witch-burning and torture in the late 18th century; the last capital trial took place in Salzburg in 1750.

Sporadic witch-hunts after 1750

In the later eighteenth century, witchcraft had ceased to be considered a criminal offense throughout Europe, but there are a number of cases which were not technically witch trials which are suspected to have involved belief in witches at least behind the scenes. Thus, in 1782, Anna Göldi was executed in Glarus, Switzerland, officially for the killing of her infant, a ruling at the time widely denounced throughout Switzerland and Germany as judicial murder. Like Anna Göldi, Barbara Zdunk was executed in 1811 in Prussia not technically for witchcraft but for arson.

In Poland, the Doruchów witch trial occurred in 1783 and the execution of additionally two women for sorcery in 1793, trialed by a legal court but with dubious legitimacy.[citation needed]

Despite the official ending of the trials for Satanic witchcraft, there would still be occasional unofficial killings of those accused in parts of Europe, such as was seen in the cases of Anna Klemens in Denmark (1800), Krystyna Ceynowa in Poland (1836), and Dummy, the Witch of Sible Hedingham in England (1863). In France, there was sporadic violence and even murder in the 1830s, with one woman reportedly burnt in a village square in Nord.[52]

In the 1830s a prosecution for witchcraft was commenced against a man in Fentress County, Tennessee, based upon his alleged influence over the health of a young woman. The case against the supposed witch was dismissed upon the failure of the alleged victim, who had sworn out a warrant against him, to appear for the trial. However, some of his other accusers were convicted on criminal charges for their part in the matter, and various libel actions were brought.[4][5][53]

The persecution of those believed to perform malevolent sorcery against their neighbors continued right into the twentieth century. For instance, in 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured five other members of her family after believing that they had used folk magic against them.[3]

Persecution and sometimes killing of supposed witches still occurs in Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Papua New Guinea. Saudi Arabia and Cameroon are the only countries that still have legislation outlawing witchcraft, with Saudi Arabia having the death penalty for it.

Trials

Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson

There were extensive efforts to root out the supposed influence of Satan by various measures aimed at the people who were accused of being servants of Satan. To a lesser degree, animals were also targeted for prosecution: see animal trial. People suspected of being “possessed by Satan” were put on trial. On the other hand, the church also attempted to extirpate the superstitious belief in witchcraft and sorcery, considering it as fraud in most cases.

Regional differences

The evidence required to convict an alleged witch varied from country to country—but prosecutions everywhere were most frequently sparked off by denunciations, while convictions invariably required a confession. The latter was often obtained by extremely violent methods. Although Europe’s witch-frenzy did not begin until the late 15th century—long after the formal abolition of “trial by ordeal” in 1215—brutal techniques were routinely used to extract the required admission of guilt. They included hot pincers, the thumbscrew, and the “swimming” of suspects (an old superstition whereby innocence was established by immersing the accused in water for a sufficiently long period of time). Investigators were consequently able to establish many fantastic crimes that could never have occurred, even in theory. That said, many judicial procedures of the time required proof of a causative link between the alleged act of witchcraft and an identifiable injury, such as a death or property damage.

The flexibility of the crime and the methods of proving it resulted in easy convictions. Any reckoning of the death toll should take account of the facts that rules of evidence varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and that a significant number of witch trials always ended in acquittal.

In York, England, at the height of the Great Hunt (1567–1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight “comparators”, people who were willing to swear that he wasn’t a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.[54]

In the Pays de Vaud, nine of every ten people tried were put to death, but in Finland, the corresponding figure was about one in six (16%). A breakdown of conviction rates (along with statistics on death tolls, gender bias, and much else) can be found in Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed, 1995).

There are particularly important differences between the English and continental witch-hunting traditions. The checks and balances inherent in the English jury system, which required a 23-strong body (the grand jury) to indict and a 12-strong one (the petit jury) to convict, always had a restraining effect on prosecutions. Another restraining influence was its relatively rare use of torture: the country formally permitted it only when authorized by the monarch, and no more than 81 torture warrants were issued (for all offenses) throughout English history.[55] Continental European courts, while varying from region to region, tended to concentrate power in individual judges and place far more reliance on torture. The significance of the institutional difference is most clearly established by a comparison of the witch-hunts of England and Scotland, for the death toll inflicted by the courts north of the border always dwarfed that of England.[56] It is also apparent from an episode of English history during the early 1640s, when the Civil War resulted in the suspension of jury courts for three years. Several freelance witch-hunters emerged during this period, the most notorious of whom was Matthew Hopkins, who emerged out of East Anglia and proclaimed himself “Witchfinder General”.[57] Such men were inquisitors in all but name, proceeding pursuant to denunciations and torture and claiming a mastery of the supposed science of demonology that allowed for identification of the guilty by, for example, the discovery of witches’ marks.

Interrogation and “proofs”

Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

The malefizhaus of Bamberg, Germany, where suspected witches were held and interrogated. 1627 engraving

Various acts of torture were used against accused witches to coerce confessions and perhaps cause them to name their co-conspirators. The torture of witches began to grow after 1468 when the Pope declared witchcraft to be “crimen exceptum” and thereby removed all legal limits on the application of torture in cases where evidence was difficult to find.[58] With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 the accusations and torture of witches again began to increase, leading to the deaths of thousands.

In Italy, an accused witch was deprived of sleep for periods of up to forty hours. This technique was also used in England, but without a limitation on time.[59] Sexual humiliation torture was used, such as forced sitting on red-hot stools with the claim that the accused woman would not perform sexual acts with the devil.[60]

Besides torture, at trial certain “proofs” were taken as valid to establish that a person practiced witchcraft. Peter Binsfeld contributed to the establishment of many of these proofs, described in his book Commentarius de Maleficius (Comments on Witchcraft).

  • The diabolical mark. Usually, this was a mole or a birthmark. If no such mark was visible, the examiner would claim to have found an invisible mark.
  • Diabolical pact. This was an alleged pact with Satan to perform evil acts in return for rewards.
  • Denouncement by another witch. This was common, since the accused could often avoid execution by naming accomplices.
  • Relationship with other convicted witch/witches
  • Blasphemy
  • Participation in Witches’ Sabbath
  • To cause harm that could only be done by means of sorcery
  • Possession of elements necessary for the practice of black magic
  • To have one or more witches in the family
  • To be afraid during the interrogatories
  • Not to cry under torment (supposedly by means of the Devil’s aid)
  • To have had sexual relationships with a demon (fornicating with the devil)

Legal treatises on witchcraft that were widely referred to in continental European trials include the popular Malleus Maleficarum (1487) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the Tractatus de sortilegiis (1536) by Paolo Grillandi and the Praxis rerum criminalium (1554) by Joos de Damhouder.

Executions

The sentence generally was death (as Exodus 22:18 states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”). There were other sentences, the most common to be chained for years to the oars of a ship, or excommunicated then imprisoned.[citation needed]

Nearly always, a witch’s execution involved burning of their body. In England, witches were usually hanged before having their bodies burned and their ashes scattered. In Scotland, the witches were usually strangled at the stake before having their bodies burned—though there are several instances where they were burned alive. In France, witches were nearly always burned alive.[61] In America people convicted of witchcraft were hanged[citation needed] (in a handful of exceptional cases, such as that of Giles Corey at Salem, alleged witches who refused to plead were pressed to death without trial). Most of the victims were never given proper burials, since they had been convicted of witchcraft, they were no longer considered people. They were often laid in unmarked graves.

The frequent use of “swimming” to test innocence or guilt means that an unknown number also drowned prior to conviction.

In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:

The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.

It has been suggested that the execution of persons associated with witchcraft resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge and folklore, which was often regarded with suspicion and tainted by association.[62]

Numbers of executions

Ever since the ending of the witch hunt, various scholars have estimated how many men, women and children were executed for witchcraft across Europe and North America, with numbers varying wildly depending on the method used to generate the estimate. In the nineteenth century, historians were still unsure as to the exact number, for instance the German folklorist Jacob Grimm claimed that the number was simply “countless”[63] whilst the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay believed that it was “thousands upon thousands”.[64] Within several decades, the American suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage had claimed that nine million women had been killed in the European trials, a figure which would be repeated by a number of later writers such as Gerald Gardner, although it has since been described as having “no rational basis whatsoever” by the professional historian Ronald Hutton.[65]

In the latter part of the 20th century, as historians began to study the witch trials in greater depth, the estimated number of executions began to be reduced, with the historian Norman Cohn, in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975) criticizing claims that they were in the hundreds of thousands, calling these “fantastic exaggerations”.[66] Attempting to come to an accurate figure, the historian Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (1987), took the number of known European witch trials and multiplied it by the average rate of conviction and execution. This provided him with a figure of around 60,000 deaths, however, for the third edition of the work (2006) he later reassessed that number to 45,000.[67] This number was criticised as being too low by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, author of Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts (1994)—a work which was derided as un-scholarly and “largely ignored by academics”[68]—who herself arrived at a number of approximately 100,000 deaths by attempting to adjust Levack’s estimate to account for what she believed were unaccounted lost records, although historians have pointed out that Levack’s estimate had already been adjusted for these.

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The Wheel of the Year | Annual Cycle Of Seasonal Festivals

Wheel_of_the_Year.svg

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals in contemporary Paganism. It consists primarily of eight festivals based around the solstices and equinoxes, known as the quarter days, and the midpoints between, known as the cross quarter days.

Within Paganism, many festivals are celebrated. They can vary considerably in name and date amongst specific traditions, however the eight festivals of the Wheel comprise the most adhered and important annual celebrations. They are a unifying feature of modern Paganism. The Wheel has been important to many people, both ancient and modern, and its festivals are based to varying degrees on folk tradition.[1]

In Wicca, the festivals are also referred to as sabbats /ˈsæbət/, the term being explained as passed down from the Middle Ages.

The festivals

The eight-armed sun cross represents the Pagan Wheel of the Year.

In Pagan cosmology, all things are considered to be cyclical — including the year. It is understood as a perpetual cycle of growth and retreat tied to the Sun‘s annual death and rebirth. This cycle is also viewed as a micro- and macrocosm of other life cycles in an immeasurable series of cycles composing the Universe. The days that fall on the landmarks of the yearly cycle traditionally mark the beginnings and middles of the four seasons. They are regarded with significance and host to major communal festivals. These eight festivals are the most common times for community celebrations.[1][2][3]

While the major festivals are determined by quarter and cross-quarter days, many minor festivals are also celebrated throughout the year amongst various traditions. Additionally, festivals (major or minor) may not enjoy the same level of significance from one tradition to another.

The festivals, being tied to solar movements, have always been steeped in solar mythology and symbolism, centred around the life cycles of the sun. Similarly, the esbats are traditionally tied to the lunar cycles. Together, they represent the most common and important celebrations in modern Paganism, especially in Witchcraft.[2][3]

Midwinter

Main article: Midwinter

The most universally celebrated festival is that of Midwinter. It has been recognized as a significant turning point in the yearly cycle since the late Stone Age. The ancient megalithic sites of Newgrange and Stonehenge, carefully aligned with the solstice sunrise and sunset, exemplify this.[4] The reversal of the Sun‘s ebbing presence in the sky symbolizes the rebirth of the solar god and presages the return of fertile seasons. From Germanic to Roman tradition, this is the most important time of celebration.[5][6][7]

Practices vary, but sacrifices, feasting, and gift giving are common elements of Midwinter festivities. Bringing sprigs and wreaths of evergreenery (such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, yew, and pine) into the home and tree decorating are also common during this time.[5][6][8][9]

This liminal festival marks the last month of the old year and the first month of the new year and is followed by eleven days of extended celebration in Germanic tradition.[6] In Roman tradition additional festivities take place during the six days leading up to Midwinter.[7] The celebration of Christmas during approximately the same time is the result of early Christianity‘s adaptations of popular pre-Christian festivals concerning the winter solstice.[10]

Imbolc

See also: Imbolc and Dísablót

As the first cross-quarter day following Midwinter, this traditionally marks winter‘s end and spring‘s start. It is time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life. It was historically a shepherd’s holiday[11] and among Celts associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs.[12][13]

The festival is strongly associated with Brigid, daughter of The Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann.[13]

Among Reclaiming tradition Witches, this is the traditional time for pledges and rededications for the coming year[14] and for initiation among Dianic Wiccans.[15]

Vernal equinox

Main article: Vernal equinox

The vernal equinox, often called Ostara, inaugurates the new year on the Zodiacal calendar. From this point the day overcomes the night. It is widely recognized by many mythologies as the time of rebirth or return for vegetation gods (e.g. Attis) and is celebrated as a time of great fertility.[13][16]

Egg decorating is a very common tradition in vernal celebration throughout Europe.[13][16]

The holiday is strongly associated with fertility goddess Ostara (the eastern star). She is notably associated with the fecund symbols of the hare and egg. Her teutonic name may be etymological ancestor of the words east and Easter.[13][16][17][18][19][20]

Beltane

Traditionally the first day of summer, the earliest celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also strongly associated with the Gaelic Beltane (bright fire).[21]

Since the Christianization of Europe, a more secular version of the festival has continued in Europe and America. In this form, it is well known for maypole dancing and the crowning of the Queen of the May.

Midsummer

See also: Midsummer and Summer solstice

Midsummer is one of the four solar holidays, and is considered the turning point at which summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest. Among the Wiccan sabbats, Midsummer is preceded by Beltane, and followed by Lammas or Lughnasadh.

Some traditions call the festival Litha, a name occurring in Bede‘s Reckoning of Time (De Temporum Ratione, 7th century), which preserves a list of the (then-obsolete) Anglo-Saxon names for the twelve months. Ærra Liða (first or preceding Liða) roughly corresponds to June in the Gregorian calendar, and Æfterra Liða (following Liða) to July. Bede writes that “Litha means gentle or navigable, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea”.[22]

Lammas/Lughnasadh

See also: Lammas and Lughnasadh

Lammas or Lughnasadh (/ˈlnæsə/ LOO-nas-ə) is the first of the three Pagan autumn harvest festivals, the other two being the autumnal equinox (or Mabon) and Samhain. Wiccans mark the holiday by baking a figure of the god in bread and eating it, to symbolize the sanctity and importance of the harvest. Celebrations vary, as not all Pagans are Wiccans. The Celtic name Lughnasadh[23][24] is used in some traditions to designated this holiday. Wiccan celebrations of this holiday are not generally based on Celtic culture nor centered on the Celtic deity Lugh, however. This name seems to have been a late adoption among Wiccans. In early versions of Wiccan literature the festival is referred to as August Eve.[25]

The name Lammas (contraction of loaf mass) implies it is an agrarian-based festival and feast of thanksgiving for grain and bread, which symbolizes the first fruits of the harvest. Pagan rituals may incorporate elements from either festival.[23][26]

Autumnal equinox

Main article: Autumnal equinox

The holiday of the autumnal equinox, Harvest Home, Mabon, the Feast of the Ingathering, Meán Fómhair or Alban Elfed (in Neo-Druidic traditions), is a Pagan ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and a recognition of the need to share them to secure the blessings of the Goddess and the God during the coming winter months. The name Mabon was coined by Aidan Kelly around 1970 as a reference to Mabon ap Modron, a character from Welsh mythology.[27] Among the sabbats, it is the second of the three Pagan harvest festivals, preceded by Lammas / Lughnasadh and followed by Samhain.

Samhain

Neopagans honoring the dead as part of a Samhain ritual

Main article: Samhain

Samhain (/ˈsɑːwɪn/ SOW-in) is considered by Wiccans to be one of the four Greater Sabbats. Samhain is considered by some as a time to celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, and it often involves paying respect to ancestors, family members, elders of the faith, friends, pets and other loved ones who have died. In some rituals the spirits of the departed are invited to attend the festivities. It is seen as a festival of darkness, which is balanced at the opposite point of the wheel by the festival of Beltane, which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility.[23]

Wiccans believe that at Samhain the veil between this world and the afterlife is at its thinnest point of the whole year, making it easier to communicate with those who have left this world.[3]

Minor festivals

In addition to the eight major holidays common to most modern Pagans, there are a number of minor holidays during the year to commemorate various events.

Germanic

The common holidays of Heathenism (black: main names; gray: alternative names; purple: minor common holidays).

The minor holidays common in contemporary Germanic Paganism:

  • Vali’s Blot, celebration dedicated to the god Váli and to love — 14 February[28]
  • Feast of the Einherjar, celebration to honor kin who died in battle — 11 November[28]
  • Ancestors’ Blot, celebration of one’s own ancestry or the common ancestors of a Germanic ethnicity — 11 November[29]
  • Yggdrasil Day, celebration of the world tree Yggdrasil, of the reality world it represents, of trees and nature — 22 April[28]
  • Winterfinding, celebration which marks the beginning of winter, held on a date between Haustblot and Winternights (mid-October)[28][30]
  • Summerfinding, celebration which marks the beginning of summer, held on a date between Ostara and Walpurgisnight (mid-April)[28][30]

Dates of celebration

The precise dates on which festivals are celebrated are often flexible. Dates may be on the days of the quarter and cross-quarter days proper, the nearest full moon, the nearest new moon, or the nearest weekend for secular convenience.

The festivals were originally celebrated by peoples in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Consequently, the traditional times for seasonal celebrations do not agree with the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. Pagans in the South often advance these dates six months to coincide with their own seasons.[3][31][32][33]

Practice

Celebration commonly takes place outdoors in the form of a communal gathering.

Sacrifice

Romuvan ceremony (6).PNG

Offerings of food, drink, various objects, the lives of animals, etc. have been central in ritual propitiation and veneration for millennia. The most notorious of these, ritual slaughter and sacrificing of animals has historically been common in any major settings that allowed for it, as blood sacrifices were known to be the most potent of all offerings. However, its use has always been tenuous and modern Pagan practice strongly avoids sacrificing animals in favour of grains, herbs, milk, wines, incense, baked goods, minerals, etc. The exception being with ritual feasts including meat, where the inedible parts of the animal are often burned as offerings while the community eats the rest.[34][35]

Sacrifices are typically offered to gods and ancestors by burning them. Burying and leaving offerings in the open are also common in certain circumstances. The purpose of offering is to benefit the venerated, show gratitude, and give something back, strengthening the bonds between humans and divine and between members of a community.[34][36][37]

Origins

The contemporary Wheel of the Year is somewhat of a modern innovation. While many historical pagan traditions celebrated various equinoxes, solstices, and even cross-quarter days for their seasonal and agricultural significances, none were known to have held all eight above all other annual, sacred times. The modern understanding of the Wheel is a result of the cross-cultural awareness that began developing by the time of Modern Europe.

Mid-20th century British Paganism had a strong influence on early adoption of an eightfold Wheel. By the late 1950s, the Wiccan Bricket Wood Coven and Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids had both adopted eightfold ritual calendars, for balance and more frequent celebrations. This also had the benefit of more closely aligning celebration between the two influential Pagan orders.[24][38]

Due to early Wicca’s influence on Paganism and their syncretic adoption of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic motifs, the most commonly used English festival names for the Wheel of the Year tend to be Celtic and Germanic.

The American Ásatrú movement has adopted, over time, a calendar in which the Heathen major holidays figure alongside many Days of Remembrance which celebrate heroes of the Edda and the Sagas, figures of Germanic history, and the Viking Leif Ericson, who explored and settled Vinland (North America). These festivals are not, however, as evenly distributed throughout the year as in Wicca and other Heathen denominations.

Narratives

Celtic

It is a misconception in some quarters of the Neopagan community, influenced by the writings of Robert Graves,[39] that historical Celts had an overarching narrative for the cycle of the year. They did not; and modern revivalists often observe only the four Gaelic fire festivals of the Celtic calendars.[40][41]

Slavic

Kołomir – the Slavic example of Wheel of the Year indicating seasons of the year. Four-point and eight-point swastika shaped wheels were more common.

Slavic mythology tells of a persisting conflict involving Perun, god of thunder and lightning, and Veles, the black god and horned god of the underworld. Enmity between the two is initiated by Veles’ annual ascent up the world tree in the form of a huge serpent and his ultimate theft of Perun’s divine cattle from the heavenly domain. Perun retaliates to this challenge of the divine order by pursuing Veles, attacking with his lightning bolts from the sky. Veles taunts Perun and flees, transforming himself into various animals and hiding behind trees, houses, even people. (Lightning bolts striking down trees or homes were explained as results of this.) In the end Perun overcomes and defeats Veles, returning him to his place in the realm of the dead. Thus the order of the world is maintained.[42][43][44]

The idea that storms and thunder are actually divine battle is pivotal to the changing of the seasons. Dry periods are identified as chaotic results of Veles’ thievery. This duality and conflict represents an opposition of the natural principles of earth, water, substance, and chaos (Veles) and of heaven, fire, spirit, order (Perun), not a clash of good and evil. The cosmic battle between the two also echoes the ancient Indo-European narative of a fight between the sky-borne storm god and chthonic dragon.

On the great night (New Year), two children of Perun are born, Jarilo, god of fertility and vegetation and son of the Moon, and Morana, goddess of nature and death and daughter of the Sun. On the same night, the infant Jarilo is snatched and taken to the underworld, where Veles raises him as his own. At the time of the spring equinox, Jarilo returns across the sea from the world of the dead bringing with him fertility and spring from the evergreen underworld into the realm of the living. He meets his sister Morana and courts her. With the beginning of summer, the two are married bringing fertility and abundance to Earth, ensuring a bountiful harvest. The union of Perun’s kin and Veles’ stepson brings peace between two great gods, staving off storms which could damage the harvest. After the harvest, however, Jarilo is unfaithful to his wife and she vengefully slays him, returning him to the underworld and renewing enmity between Perun and Veles. Without her husband, god of fertility and vegetation, Morana — and all of nature with her — withers and freezes in the ensuing winter. She grows into the old and dangerous goddess of darkness and frost, eventually dying by the year’s end only to be reborn again with her brother in the new year.

Modern Wicca and Neo-druidism

Painted Wheel of the Year from the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle.

Further information: Wiccan views of divinity

In Wicca, the narrative of the Wheel of the Year traditionally centres on the sacred marriage of the God and the Goddess and the god/goddess duality. In this cycle, the God is perpetually born from the Goddess at Yule, grows in power at the vernal equinox (as does the Goddess, now in her maiden aspect), courts and impregnates the Goddess at Beltane, reaches his peak at the summer solstice, wanes in power at Lammas, passes into the underworld at Samhain (taking with him the fertility of the Goddess/Earth, who is now in her crone aspect) until he is once again born from Her mother/crone aspect at Yule. The Goddess, in turn, ages and rejuvenates endlessly with the seasons, being courted by and giving birth to the Horned God.[3][45][46]

Many Wiccan, Neo-Druid and eclectic Neopagans incorporate a narrative of the Oak King and the Holly King as rulers of the waxing year and the waning year respectively. These two figures battle endlessly with the turning of the seasons. At the summer solstice, the Oak King is at the height of his strength. Having just defeated the Oak King, the Holly King enjoys the commencement of his reign. As the year progresses, the Holly King slowly regains his power and with the autumnal equinox, the tables finally begin turning in the Holly King’s favor. Come the winter solstice, he is vanquished by the Oak King. Over the next months, the sun waxes in power again and the Oak King slowly regains his strength. At the vernal equinox he begins to triumph until he is once again defeated by the Holly King at the summer solstice. The two are ultimately seen as essential parts of a whole, light and dark aspects of the male God, and would not exist without each other.[3][47][48][49]

The Holly King is often portrayed as a woodsy figure, similar to the modern Santa Claus, dressed in red with sprigs of holly in his hair and the Oak King as a fertility god.[50][51]

See also