SCG Daily – The Folklore of Magic #12

Adam continues his Folklore daily series with a look at witchcraft in Magic.

Sometimes, misunderstanding historical context can completely warp the way we interpret an event, and nowhere is this as evident as in the popular theories about prosecutions for witchcraft. Because the study of witch-hunts involves so many frequently unrelated fields of history, it is an incredibly difficult thing to get right. An expert in the legal history of Western Europe and the American colonies will be capable of writing knowledgably about what happened to accused witches in the courtroom; a political historian will have the skill to analyze the practical and non-religious concerns which may have convinced rulers to tolerate witch hunts; a social historian will know all about the economic pressures and lives of hardship that domineered Early Modern Europeans; and a folklorist like myself will be able to talk for days about both the beliefs of the accusers and those accused of witchcraft. I might dip into social history every so often in my writing. And why not? Although this field is not my specialty, I presume to have learned a bit about it in passing. After all, it is not easy to read books about Early Modern Europe whatever their specific foci without picking up shreds of social history along the way. It might be rash and I might be getting out of my depth to write about social history altogether, but at least, this is so general a topic that I have a fighting chance of getting my facts right. On the other hand, it would be crazy for me to try to write about courtroom procedures and the specifics of Early Modern law. In order to write about that in an even vaguely correct manner, I would have to do significant research outside of my own field. Luckily, I am aware of this fact, and it is an easy fact to be aware of since one need only ask me, “What was the process of officially charging a witch?” before I realize that I am completely ignorant about it.

But ask the average social, political, or legal historian, “What is a witch?” and you will probably get an answer. Everyone, it appears, knows what a witch is, just as everyone knows the truth about fairies. Like fairies, witches are too ridiculous even to contemplate. No sane man could ever have believed in such things, so those who accused innocent men and women of witchcraft must have either been insane or using witchcraft as a cover-up for ulterior motives. So, the game becomes one of “guess the origin of the insanity or the ulterior motives.” Were people persecuted because they were independent women living in misogynistic, patriarchal societies? Because their neighbours had caught encephalitis? Because they were enlightened pagans who refused to worship the oppressive Christian god? The possibilities are endless.

Without giving credence to any particular claim, Brian A. Pavlac’s beginners’ or students’ guide to the subject offers Ten General Theories about the Origins and Causes of the Witch Hunts. Only one of these theories, “The (Mistaken) Conspiracy Theory” takes its base in folkloric reality, that is, in the possibility that people actually believed in evil witches, and even this theory assumes top-down, elite control of witch hunts, something which was not always the case and, anyway, does not account for the initial accusations made by peasants against their fellow peasants. Furthermore, Pavlac asks, “But how could a rather minor idea [that of an organized Satanic cult], with so little supporting evidence, lead to such enormous efforts by so many people, especially those with little to gain?” As Pavlac sees it, the main flaw in this theory is, then, that it – absurdly – assumes belief in witches. Yet we know that people believed in witches, Satan, and the whole caboodle. Even people who pre- or post-dated the witch hunt heyday that stretched from the mid-15th to the mid-18th Centuries, who had nothing whatsoever to do with them believed in these things. And if you sincerely believed that your neighbour was cooperating with Satan in order to destroy all that was good in the universe and that the only way of preventing this dastardly crime was to kill the perpetrator, you would probably have few scruples about doing right by God. People of the past cannot be held by today’s standards. Still, as we shall see, ideas about witchcraft were not uniform.

Although witch-hunts occurred in both Catholic and Protestant regions, they were most common amongst Protestants, partially for theological reasons and partially, it would seem, because the Protestant churches were decentralized and lacked the restraining influence of Rome. Witch-hunts exist in Magic outside of either Protestant or Catholic influence. It is interesting though to note that in Magic, Witches are Black, are spreaders of plague and evil. From the point of view of the Early Modern witch-hunters, however, the goodness or badness of deeds performed by magic is irrelevant since practitioners of any magic could only have received their powers from Satan. Thus, had well-meaning Wizards, Shamans, and even a good number of Clerics from Magic decided to appear in Jacobean England or Inquisitorial Rome, they would have done well to keep low-profiles.

So, what is a witch? One of the aspects of witch-hunts most often overlooked by non-folkloric scholars is the significance of the testimonies of accused witches. On account of some of these confessions having been produced by torture, they are frequently thought to be devoid of real value, but assuming that people of all classes believed in the reality of witchcraft even if they held different interpretations of what witchcraft meant, the testimonies are quite enlightening.

Normand and Roberts’ superbly researched Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland shows the process by which Scottish theories of witches changed over time. Prior to the 1590s, British witchcraft was:

“[A] diffuse, heterogeneous jumble of healing practices, predictions, maleficium and relationships with, and calling upon, various supernatural beings with whom the accused could form some relationship. Witches might operate in small groups, but were not thought of as gathering at large meetings. […] Some cases seem eccentric even by the relaxed standards of pre-1590 witchcraft, such as that of Tibbie Smart who was tried in April/May 1586 and who claimed that she had transformed herself into a badger in the glen of Corloy.”

As can be imagined, witches who practiced healing rituals and prophecy were not necessarily disliked or scorned by their communities although their potential to do ill could make them become objects of fear. Cases of witchcraft generally came to the attention of church authorities when the community’s fear of a witch outweighed the benefits which interaction with a witch could bring. It is important to realize here that most of the men and women accused of witchcraft seem to have believed in this charge themselves. They did go around giving people remedies for illness and saying charms; for many of them, such occupation was their livelihood, and it was an occupation that their neighbours needed to have filled.

The Scottish church, or the Kirk, dates from 1560. It was and still is Presbyterian, primarily influenced by Calvinism and far more Puritanical than the church which arose from the English Reformation. Despite this fundamentalist religious stance, the early Scottish church’s view of witchcraft did not much differ from the Catholic one, and for three decades, witchcraft continued to be merely immoral and not overtly Satanic. Normand and Roberts state that:

“Witchcraft, sorcery and enchantment appeared among ‘the horrible crymes as now abounds in the realme without any correction’ that the general assembly of the kirk complained of to Queen Mary in June 1565, and called for judges in every diocese to punish. That was two years after the passing of the witchcraft act, but when witchcraft prosecutions were still extremely rare. Witchcraft sorcery and enchantment were among sins by which the kirk depicted a state of lawlessness and moral disorder, along with ‘idolatrie, blaspheming of God’s name, manifest breaking of the Sabbath Day, [….] adulterie, incest, manifest whoredome, maintenance of Brodells, murther, reiffe, slaughter and spulzie.’ Magical activities were not connected with the devil.”

Men of religion might well have believed that witches were covertly given their powers by Satan, but this is still a far cry from the institutionalized witches’ sabbaths that we read about later.

Scotland’s 1576 case of Bessie Dunlop is often taken as the shining example of the gap between lay and clerical interpretations of fairies. Dunlop claimed to have obtained her sundry magic powers of healing, midwifery, and prophesy from the fairies, particularly from one fairy, Thom Reid, who had once been a mortal man but had apparently died in 1547. So far as Dunlop was concerned, there was nothing wrong with interacting with the fairies so long as one could get away with it, and indeed, her account of her first meetings with the fairies shows that she was cautious and only accepted their help after assurances as to her safety. Those who were in charge of trying Dunlop for witchcraft, however, did not view dealings with the fairies so lightly even though the accused was known in the community to only practice beneficial magic. Her interrogators, in a genuine effort to discover her crimes, tried to bring her rural conceptions into line with theological theories, much to Dunlop’s resistance. The Kirk did not believe that Dunlop had been associating with Satan himself, but it was convinced that her fairies were devils. Unsurprisingly, she was convicted and burnt.

It was only with the sudden, politically-charged outbreak of witchcraft during the reign of King James VI (later, King James I of England) that Scotland acquired the Continental theology regarding witches’ personal pacts with Satan. If anyone should view political factors as the primary motivations for the persecutions at this point, he would do well to consider that, in 1591, James himself wrote a treatise on devils entitled Daemonologie.


Adam Grydehøj
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