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Robert Todd Carroll

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witches and sorcerers

"Though shalt not suffer a witch to live," it says in the book of Exodus (xxii, 18). This and other Biblical admonitions and commands both defined the witch and prescribed her fate. A witch [female] or sorcerer [male] is someone in consort with Satan, the Evil One, the spirit who rebelled against God but whom God suffered to live.

Today, the typical witch is generally portrayed as an old hag in a black robe, wearing a pointed black cap and flying on a broomstick across a full moon. Children dress up as witches on Halloween, much to the dismay of certain pious Christians. Hollywood, on the other hand, conjures up images of sexy women with paranormal powers such as psychokinesis, mind-control, hexing and an array of other occult talents. "Pagan" or anti-Christian New Age religions are sometimes identified with witches and sorcerers because some pious Christians think they practice witchcraft or because those in the religions claim to practice "magick" or "the craft." Some of the members of these groups refer to themselves as "witches" and their groups as "covens." (Some are very touchy about being called "warlocks", which the dictionary defines as a male witch.) Some of the members of these groups call themselves "sorcerers" and worhip Satan, i.e., they believe in Satan and perform rituals which they think will get them a share of Satan's supernatural occult powers. (Some are very touchy about being called "sorcerers", which the dictionary defines as someone who ritually calls upon the assistance of evil powers.) Most New Age witches and sorcerers do not worship Satan, however, and are rather associated either with the occult and magick or with attempts to re-establish a kind of nature religion which their members associate with ancient, pagan religions, such as the ancient Greek or the Celtic, especially the Celtic. The neo-pagans also refer to both men and women witches as witches. One of the largest and most widespread of these nature religions is Wicca.

The witches of Christian mythology were known for their having sex with Satan and using their magical powers to do evil of all sorts. The culmination of the mythology of witchcraft came about from the 15th to the 18th centuries in the depiction of the witches' Sabbath. The Sabbath was a ritual mockery of the Mass. Witches and sorcerers were depicted as flying up chimneys at night on broomsticks or goats, heading for the Sabbath where the Devil [in the form of a feathered toad, a crow or raven, a black cat, or a he-goat] would perform a blasphemous version of the Mass. There would also be obscene dancing, a banquet and the brewing of potions in a huge cauldron. The banquet might include some tasty children, carrion and other delicacies. The witches' brew was apparently to be used to hurt or kill people or to mutilate cattle. [de Givry, p. 83] Those initiated into the satanic mysteries were all given some sort of physical mark, such as a claw mark under the left eye. The Devil was depicted as a goat or satyr or some sort of mythical beast with horns, claws, tail and/or strange wings: a mockery of angel, man and beast. One special feature of the Sabbath included the ritual kiss of the devil's ass [de Givry, p. 87], apparently a mockery of the traditional Christian act of submission of kneeling and kissing the hand or ring of the holy cleric. Numerous testimonials to having witnessed the witches' Sabbath are recorded. For example, a shepherdess, Anne Jacqueline Coste, reported in the middle of the 17th century that during the night of the feast of St. John the Baptist she and her companions heard a dreaful uproar and

looking on all sides to see whence could come these frightful howlings and these cries of all sorts of animals, they saw at the foot of the mountain the figures of cats, goats, serpents, dragons, and every kind of cruel, impure, and unclean animal, who were keeping their Sabbath and making horrible confusion, who were uttering words the most filthy and sacrilegious that can be imagined and filling the air with the most abominable blasphemies. [de Givry, p. 76]

Such stories had been told for centuries and were accepted by pious Christians without a hint of skepticism as to their veracity. Such tales were not considered delusions, but accurate histories.

Pierre de l'Ancre, in his book on angels, demons and sorcerers published in 1610, claims he witnessed a Sabbath. Here is his description:

Here behold the guests of the Assembly, having each one a demon beside her, and know that at this banquet are served no other meats than carrion, and the flesh of those that have been hanged, and the hearts of children not baptized, and other unclean animals strange to the custom and usage of Christian people, the whole savourless and without salt.

The claims made in books such as de l'Ancre's and the depictions of Sabbath activities in works of art over several hundreds of years were not taken as humorous fictions or psychological manifestations of troubled spirits. These notions, as absurd and presposterous as they might seem to us, were taken as gospel truth by millions of pious Christians. What is even more strange is that there are many people today who believe similar stories about child-eating and ritual killing of animals, combined with sexual abuse and satanic influences.

I will leave it to the Freudians to interpret these persisting myths of satanic creatures with horns, big red tails and huge sexual appetites; of kidnapping and sexually abusing, mutilating or killing children; of women who put long sticks between their legs and rub on a magic unguent and fly to a sexual liaison with a demonic he-goat; and of creatures with supernatural powers such as metamorphosis. My guess is that witchcraft and sorcery, especially their Sabbath was for the most part brewed in the cauldron of sexual repression and served up as a justification for the public trading in art and literature, if not in life, of Church created, sanctified and glorified pornography.

To be sure, there was undoubtedly some persecution of those, especially in the countryside, who maintained a connection with their pagan past. But it is difficult to believe that the descriptions of witchcraft wrenched from tortured and mutilated victims century after century were not mostly created in the imaginations of their tormentors. The inquisitors' power was so great, their tortures so varied and exquisitely sadistic, that they had thousands of their victims deluded into believing they were possessed and wicked. The cruelties and delusions went on for centuries. Witchhunting was not abolished in England until 1682. The hunt spread to America, of course, and in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen witches were hanged. The last judicial execution of a witch took place in Poland in 1793. The last injudicial attempted execution took place in Ireland in 1900 when two peasants tried to roast a witch over her own fire. [Smith, p. 295]

Whatever the psychological basis for the creation of an anti-Church with witches and sorcerers joined with Satan to mock and desecrate the symbols and rituals of the Church, the practical result was a stronger, more powerful Church. No one knows how many witches, heretics or sorcerers were tortured or burned at the stake by the pious, but the fear generated by the Inquisition must have affected nearly all in Christendom. Being accused of being a witch was as good as being convicted. To deny it was to prove your guilt: of course a witch will say she is not a witch and that she does not believe in witchcraft. Throw her in the river! If she sinks and drowns that will prove she is not a witch; if she swims, we will know the devil is assisting her. Pull her out and burn her to death, for the Church does not like bloodshed! In truth, the Church ran a Reign of Terror the superior in many ways to those of Stalin or Hitler. Their Terrors lasted only a few years and were restricted to limited territories; the Church's Terror lasted for several centuries and extended to all of Christendom. The Church's Terror was also aimed mainly at women. Thus, it is not strange that those religions today whose members call themselves witches or sorcerers should be anti-Christian, pagan and woman-centered, or satanic. It is not strange that these New Age religions exalt whatever the Church condemned (such as egoism and healthy sexuality in adults whether homosexual or not) and condemn whatever the Church exalted (such as self-denial and the subservient role of women). Who could blame them?

See related entries on magick, miracles, pagans, satan and wicca.

further reading


The Witches: Myth and Reality by Adrian Nicholas McGrath

Carus, Paul. The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1974), unabridged reproduction of the original 1900 edition.

de Givry, Grillot. Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy, trans. J. Locke (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1971), an unabridged republication of the Houghton Mifflin edition of 1931 by a man of incredible gullibility.

Hicks, Robert D. In Pursuit of Satan : the Police and the Occult (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 7 and ch. 24 "The Demon-Haunted World," (New York: Random House, 1995). Chapter 24 is written with Ann Druyen and contains a synopsis of Friedrich von Spee's Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors) (1631), which details the irrational and sadistic methods of the witchhunters.

ęcopyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll

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Last updated 11/24/98

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