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Forms of Magic in Traditional Mentality
article [ Culture ]
Part III: The Witch Hunt

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by [wind ]

2003-11-13  |     | 

In her study "Witchcraft and Quakerism", Amelia Moft Gummere, points out that the aim of the witchcraft is to destroy the soul of the victim. The Puritans from England really believed in this. They considered that everything made by humans would be under the “judgement of God”. Witchcraft could not be different. The Enlightenment witnessed the most violent prosecution of sorcery.
A very important role in these persecutions had the church. Not only the Catholics were violently against witches but also the reformative cults. The following statement is attributed to Luther:
"I should have no compassion on these witches. I would burn all of them…witchcraft is the Devil’s own proper work".(qtd in Gummere).
Witchcraft was seen and condemned differently in the history. The “Synod of St. Patrick” ( 775-790 CE ) says that:
"A Christian who believes that there is vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputation upon living beings shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice to the crime he has committed".( Gibbons, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt”).
The Confesional of Egbert , around 950-1000 CE, the punishment is a little bit harsher:
"If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and uses magical philters, she shall fast on bread and water for twelve months. If she kills anyone by her philters, she shall feast for seven years"( qtd. in Gibbons).
The Black Death of 1347-1349 provoked hysteria. Witches were blamed for the misfortune of the entire country. The “plague-spreaders” had to be punished. The “Burning Times” (1550-1650) was the bloodiest period for witches or supposed witches.
The first penal action against witchcraft was enacted in 1541. Its purpose was “to seek for any that use charms, sorcery, enchantments, witchcraft, soothsaying, or any like craft invented by the Devil” (Gibbons), although witchcraft had been denounced as heresy by Pope Innocent III in 1484. It was only under King James’ rule that the Parliament made witchcraft punishable by death. In England, the last judicial condemnation took place in Hertfordshire in 1712, when a woman was accused for selling her soul to Devil. A royal pardon saved her. George II abolished the death penalty in 1736.
It is said that around 200000 witches were triturated, burnt or hanged between 1484 and 1750 in Western Europe. Anybody could have been accused of witchcraft: young or old, poor or rich, men or women. Of course, there was a pattern, too: usually woman, around 50 years of age, maybe red-haired, having a devilish tongue, aggressive, bad tempered, quarrelsome, sunken - cheeked, having a hairy lip, snuggle-toothed, assumed to have the Evil Eye, sexual deviations, or bastard children. In Scotland, the witches had a particular characteristic called “smeddum”, meaning the habit of always having the last word, which was seen as a refusal to back down. A third nipple and the possession of a cat were irrefutable proofs of sorcery.
A very famous witch hunter was Mathew Hopkins, known under the name of “Witchfinder General”. He sent 68 people to death in Bury St. Edmonds and had nineteen hanged at Chelmsford, in a single day. It is said that many towns paid him in order to find and kill the witches. He looked for Devils’ Marks (warts, moles, or even flee-bites). He used his “jabbing needle” to see if these marks were insensitive to pain. “The jobbing needle” was a three- inch long spike which retracted into the spring - loaded handle so the unfortunate woman found guilty never felt any pain.
Two principles worked in those times:
“Qui tacet, concentered”, meaning who kept the silence agreed with the accusers.
If you retort against accusation, your guilt is almost proved.
Anybody could be accused of witchcraft, but in order to protect the consciousness of the accusation, some methods to prove the innocence of the one on trial were created. For example, the witch who was to undergo the ordeal was tied with the right thumb to the left big toe and the left thumb to the right big toe and then was cast into the water with suitable prayers. If she sank she was considered innocent, if she floated she was guilty. Many women accused of witchcraft asked for undergoing this ordeal, which was conducted with solemnity under the auspices of the minister of the parish.
In England the legal method to execute a witch was hanging. After death the body was burnt and the ashes scattered.

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