Modern Witchcraft, pt. 2


by Randall S. Frederick

Cont. from Modern Witchcraft, part 1

As indicated in the last entry, the origins of modern witchcraft can really be centralized to the Renaissance when ideas began to converge and synthesize. While different ideas of “witchcraft” existed before this time, more or less those instances can be considered folk religion, superstition, and pre-medical practices. We tend to aggregate a lot of “failed” ancient ideas in science, psychology, and religion as witchcraft from a Modern, post-Enlightenment standpoint with the advantage of being able to look over our shoulder at history, but each of these movements – archaic and laughable as they may seem now – were the foundation for advanced thought. Were it not for the “witchcraft” of the apothecary, the astrologer, or the ancient cult, the world would look decidedly different. But instead of delineating each of these sources now lost to us through the extermination of zealous Christians (especially Roman Catholics and Calvinists), again, we must consolidate them in some fashion through the Renaissance where I will begin again with the roles of astrology, alchemy, and magic.

Astrology and Alchemy

In the 15th and 16th centuries, especially in Italy, changes were taking place. In 1524, an alignment of planets brought widespread fear to many Europeans expecting disaster. Anti-astrological literature of the time sought to dispel these fears to no effect. Astrology had become a popular field of interest for the educated and average citizen alike, even legitimized as a real science. The astrologer, with his robe covered in stars, constellations, and pointed hat, became a fixture of the papacy and in royal courts. Astrology put forward the fundamental idea that there was a relationship between the celestial (the macrocosm) and terrestrial (the individual, the microcosm). This relationship could be located and controlled by use of amulets, stones, and other products related to birth signs. If this seems strange or an amusing superstition relegated to the dustbin of history, then we must keep in mind the popularity of Nostradamus through publication today and that Grigori Rasputin convinced the royal court of Russia, his majesty Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, that such a relationship still existed through at the turn of the 19th Century. Many Russians, even devoted adherents to religions that ban such behavior, still subscribe to some form of astrology. Newspapers across the world publish daily horoscopes, phone and internet psychics remain a constant industry, and teenagers are inaugurated into these ideas by rings and jewelry, even high school rings. What is more, the foundational ideas of Western economics put forward that a relationship exists between world events (macroeconomics) and local industry (microeconomics). The language of Christianity, especially after the Great Awakenings of the 19th Century, speak of lessening the gap between God and the individual believer, even divining God’s will through prayer – a type of incantation. Roman Catholics wear medals and medallions inscribed with prayers as a ward of protection, light candles to invoke the blessing of a saint and so on. Astrology, involving a close study of star and planetary movement, helped facilitate the work of Johann Kepler and other scientists who owed a debt to the careful plotting of movements of the planetary bodies and had developed records reaching back to help astronomers understand what they were seeing through their telescopes. In all of this, one cannot diminish the practices of religion or pseudo-science. Rather, a great debt is owed to the work of those who would soon be pushed the margins by the strident findings of science. The entire world at this time was adopting forms of superstition and “magical” thought during the Renaissance, anachronistically reading these practices into their history and passing them off as tradition reaching back to an ancient time. As discussed previously, recovery of the ancient was a cardinal idea of the classical tradition recovered during the Renaissance.

The two other strands of thought relevant to witchcraft at the turn of the 15th century, alchemy and magic, were also getting more favorable attention after a long period of dormancy. Alchemy sought far more than transmutation, the turning of baser metals into gold. Alchemy was a search for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, the central item to unlocking the secrets of the world and finding not just knowledge but also understanding. In the melange of so many new discoveries, the Philosopher’s Stone would allegedly cut through the din and reveal only what was true. Because of this, alchemy was a secretive activity. Practitioners ran the gamut from charlatans to scholars engaged in experimentation and research. Here too, we may be tempted to laugh at the primitive findings of alchemy except that because of it, we find a great many records of history, chemistry, metallurgy, even to some extent philosophy, and the preservation of documents to facilitate education across borders. The language of alchemy still presented a challenge to the advance of science in that it used language and wording elevated to religious mysticism, but as Carl Jung would later point out, the nature of alchemy involved the meeting of opposites: science and religion, the common and the valuable, the sacred and profane. The hermaphrodite was emblematic of alchemical pursuits, and complemented the advances being made during the Renaissance.

Magic, however, was another development entirely. If astrology and astronomy were following a similar track, and alchemy and chemistry another, magic was altogether a resistance to science. Put directly, with a world that now had a language for “either/or” dualism, magic was an unknown other outside the construct. It was neither religious or science, but something else entirely. Connections and contributions to science were limited, brief, fluid, and highly debatable. Unlike astrology and alchemy, it would take another 100 years or so before magic began to have a strong definition but it is hinted at here because astrologers and alchemists were, in a very true sense, “magicians” by their ability to extrapolate meaning and substance from the mysteries of the world.

Western Religious Development

St. Augustine of Hippo’s essay in 420 declaring that the error of pagans was belief in another spiritual power was still developing. Though it is important to note that Augustine argued witchcraft was an impossibility, he shifted denial of God to pagans with all of their folklore. He did not deny the reality of Satan or false doctrine. Rather, from a certain angle, Augustine brought about dualism – God and everything else.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III declared that Catharism, a belief in cosmological dualism, was heretical. This was an extension of St. Augustine’s statement; the Church did not see the world in terms of good and evil competing for the attention of the people. There was only God. When the Church, through the Pope, denounced the practices of the ascetic movement by calling Catharism a “Church of Satan,” this was an indictment as much as a valid declaration of their beliefs – Catharism proposed that Satan was able to rival God for the attention of humanity and in fact was doing that very thing. This was an unthinkable proposition within a tradition that recognized God alone and nothing else. The Church at that time, in 1208, tried valiantly to discredit the Catharism movement by spreading stories about the “heretics”, saying that they worshipped an evil deity (often in person) when in fact all they did was recognize that evil existed. Propagandists of the time went so far as to depict Cathers kissing the anus of Satan in a show of loyalty, even worship. As a result, perhaps indicating distrust in the role of the Church, the public’s began to adopt the Cathar’s language for the nebulous “other” in the world – evil. Satan moved from mischievous spoiler, even passive accuser, to a force of darkness. Shortly thereafter, still within the same century in fact, Thomas Aquinas “the doctor of the Church” began to push the limits of the Church by directing them towards scholasticism, or serious study to supercede the mystical spirituality that complemented prevalent illiteracy. In his work, Summa Theologica, Aquinas made a case for the existence of God that would in short order become the penultimate statement of orthodoxy for the Church. Among the numerous positions Aquinas set forth was that the world was full of evil by way of demons, who would reap the sperm of men and spread it among women. For Aquinas, sex and women were associated with demons and witchcraft. As a result, for the Church, the relationship between sex, women, and the devil would become a long-standing concern. The primary directive of demons was to lead men into temptation; women were the chief avenue to do just that.

From the time of Aquinas through the Renaissance, fear of the devil and his whores – unmarried women, older women, widows and therefore all witches – became a fixture of European thought. Given the popularity of Catharism’s dualism and the position of Augustine’s writings within the church, heresy and witchcraft trials began to erupt throughout Europe. Some tried to flee a tide of papal inquisition and migrated to Germany or France. Torture was inflicted on heretics suspected of magical pacts or demon-driven sexual misconduct. Alarming confessions were made by those under duress; defendants admitted to flying on poles, ritualistic slaughter of animals, and assemblies presided over by Satan himself appearing in the form of an animal, typically a goat. Confessions of fornication with the ritual animal or Satan became common. Many today believe, after examining records of such confessions, that such confessions came about because the collision of cultures brought about during this time caused mass confusion, even hysteria. There is nothing in scripture indicating that Satan took the form of a goat. Rather, it was Pan, the Greek god of nature, fields, mountains, and springs that most aligns with these accounts. Pan possessed a voracious sexual appetite and was located in the locations the accused “witches” were found or spoke about. How Satan came to be found in forests is perhaps symptomatic of the cultural collisions and illiteracy of the period – after all, the best known anthropomorphism of Satan is the Genesis account when he speaks through the mouth of a serpent in a garden-like environment. It is probable that stories began to be transposed through cultural colonizations. After all, Rome was known for adopting the religions of the regions they conquered. The Greek pantheon became Roman, and though Christians would deny it, the Gospel accounts were written shortly after the death of Jesus to align Jesus’ supposed lordship with the triumphal marches of a Caesar. Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist writing within a century of Jesus’ execution, records numerous “parallels” between the Gospels and familiar mythologies of the time. Martyr writes that these parallels were an attempt to convince the Roman leaders, and particularly the Emperor, that Christians were not “atheists” and dissimilar from other Roman religions favored (and allowed) by the empire. Martyr, in arguing that Christianity was not an assembly of atheists, appealed to various examples of alignment, including Aesculapius who was struck by lightening and ascended to the heavens, Dionysus and Hercules as metahuman “sons” of the gods who suffered violent deaths and were “redeemed” by their fathers to a second life. Bacchus/Dionysus has other notable parallels to Jesus, including the role of wine in worship, the use of ritual bread, and a restoration to “new life” after a tragic death. However, given the period from which he was writing and the familiarity he would have had with stories that have now been lost, Martyr’s letters are often mistrusted by Christian sources because they cannot be verified with Christianity’s version of history. This is especially true for Evangelicals who contend that the only source of information on the Early Church should be the New Testament and not supplementary materials or historical records. In their book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), authors Gary Habermas and Michael Licona write, “If we were to consider these as parallels to Jesus’ resurrection, we would also have to consider every ghost story.”

If Christians have been so inconsiderate towards historical and cultural records by adopting or blurring parallels to protect their own religion, there can be no doubt that they used similar means to justify competing religions and especially the execution of “witches” and extermination of “witchcraft.” Take what works, cast out into utter darkness the refuse. The devil and his minions, then, were the same theologically as Pan or Bacchus/Dionysus and while it would take centuries to grasp the full importance of this, Carl Jung along with modern writers on religion and cultural anthropology William James (“Varieties of Religious Experience”), Joseph Campbell (“The Hero with a Thousand Faces”), James George Frazer (“The Golden Bough”), and Karen Armstrong (“A History of God”) all testify that this is precisely what happened. The similarities are undeniable and, more, adoption of cultural is a sign of a healthy religion. Like a virus, robust religion adapts to the host of context. However, like a virus, it can also destroy cells that resist, even kill the host. We might see the sporadic witch hunts and trials in this way – panic and hysteria as a result of religious ignorance and forsaking of heritage.

Still, not all confessions were a misunderstanding. Supposed witches were not executed on the basis of religion alone. Many witches openly confessed to the craft without torture. Some admitted to casting of spells, others foretelling future events, and reliance on daemons or “familiar spirits”, controlling the weather, and sex with animals for pleasure – not as part of a sacred rite. Though there may have been a great deal of ignorance on the part of those who persecuted witches, many alleged witches proactively contributed to shaping the distinctive crime they were being accused of.

In part 3, we shall return to the idea of magic and its connection to witchcraft.

Continued in part 3

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