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Some version of the word witch is found in all languages and cultures and it generally refers to a person, often female, who is thought to affect people and the material world through benevolent or malevolent magic.

The problem for the word in American and European usage is that it is so laden with connotations of malevolence and mischief that it actually aids in the mis-understanding of non-American, non-European witchcraft, which was often only benign shamanism or herbalism.

Which witch to pursue? Since most readers are familiar with the European witch, that is the witch I’d like you to think about.

The European witch had her heyday in the calamitous fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries when, as British scholar Norman Cohn definitively showed in his remarkable book Europe’s Inner Demons, no witch actually existed in Europe, except as a fantasy of ecclesial brains.

There had been precedent in earlier Christian centuries for official incredulity concerning witches. And yet by the 1400s witch belief was growing in Europe.

According to Cohn, Christian ecclesiastics of the witch centuries dreamed the whole witch thing up, even the bit about witches flying on broomsticks. (How else would thousands of women discreetly travel to forest groves miles and miles from their villages for a Thursday night debauch at a witches’ sabbath, including sexual intercourse with the devil, and then get back home for Friday morning chores? Note: the phallic properties of the broomstick were not lost on ecclesiastics.)

Dubbed the witchcraze, this three-centuries-long mass hysteria and mass delusion is truly one of history’s mysteries. How, in that period of Europe, did one hundred thousand witches, who were not even witches at all, get executed for being that which they were not?

Here are five scholarly explanations:

  • ‘Witches’ were targets of villainous villager envy or revenge. A mere accusation of witchcraft could destroy a person and get them out of the way.
  • ‘Witches’ were targets of compassion fatigue since many ‘witches’ were old beggars, and a charge of witchcraft would certainly thin society of its beggars.
  • ‘Witches’ were tortured and forced to name names of others they saw at the witches’ sabbath. They named many other innocent people, and this is how the number of executed multiplied to 100,000—a conservative estimate.
  • ‘Witches’ were targets of misogyny aimed at strong women who were called ‘scolds.’ Any woman who was articulate and opinionated might be a witch. The witchcraze terrorized these women to keep them in their place. A thick, pseudo-scholarly witch-finder manual called the Malleus Maleificarum (containing a Papal Bull from Pope Innocent VIII confirming the existence of witches) was in continuous print for nearly 300 years, providing guidance for the identification, torture, and execution of witches. One famous section delineates why women more so than men were especially susceptible to the devil’s wiles. That book has been called the most misogynist work ever written.
  • ‘Witches’ were victims of an idea—not the idea of the witch but the idea of the devil, the idea that God has an opponent who at every stage tries to thwart the good intentions of God. And this opponent enlists human co-conspirators in an effort to derail God’s plans. In the Christianity of this period, any religious dissent was not merely error;  it was malevolent error and the work of the devil.

Yes, the devil made them all do it—witches and witch finders alike. The ferocious three-hundred-year European witchcraze, with its faint echo in America’s Salem, can be traced like a white rope across the black sand of a Hawaii’s Punalu’u beach and right to the foot of ‘Satan,’ in which case we see why the three-hundred year witchcraze has also aptly been called the satanic panic. Not one of the executed witches was a witch, wicked or otherwise, though each was perceptibly, conspicuously, clearly, and without a doubt, the work of ‘Satan.’

Orthodox keepers of the totalizing system that Christianity had become during these centuries feared the disintegration of the totality, even when no credible threat presented itself. And so paranoid ecclesiastics and theologians, nervously protecting the edifice of orthodoxy, conjured up the existence of witches, and they imagined that each witch made a conspiratorial pact with the devil to overthrow Christendom.

This was a classic move on the part of those holding power: target a minority to support the integrity of the power structure. The targeted minority could be external, as was the case in the centuries-long singling out of Jews and Muslims as enemies. But with witches, the enemy was ‘the enemy within,’ from inside Christian civilization, from your city, your town, your hamlet, your church, which was even scarier.

The intellectual elite of Europe—Popes, Protestant leaders, kings, university professors, and judges—all agreed that the enemy in their midst was the witch. The highly educated believed in witches for hundreds of years, and the uneducated peasants believed in witches because witch belief had been foisted upon them by educated elites.

And then all of a sudden, as if overnight, hardly anyone believed in witches anymore. To the thinking class, and even among the peasantry, a witch became a laughable idea, suitable only for little girls in Halloween dress up.

When was it that witches became incredible? It was the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, the so-called Age of Reason. Some of the first skeptics about witches were judges presiding at the witch trials. Doubting the existence of witches was one of the very first steps the West took on its path to secularization. The move was on—from credulity to incredulity, and witchcraft was the impetus.

You may be among those who doubt the West has become secularized, maybe because religion still seems muscular to you, and you’ve even heard stories that religious zealots still believe in evil witches and preachers still publicly burn evil books.

Compare the present to the past. Consider a witchcraze that began in the 1400s and for three hundred years drew everyone into its macabre orbit of belief—uneducated peasants and artisans and also university graduates from Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Balogna, Padua, Naples, Pisa, Florence, Vienna, Valladolid, Palencia, Toulouse, Siena, Dublin, and Heidelberg.

Now consider the present. Count up the number of university professors and medical doctors and well-educated friends and acquaintances you know who believe in maleficent witchcraft. Among these, note the people who have college degrees from anywhere, but especially from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Colombia, Dartmouth, Brown, Penn, MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. Add to this list smart people you know with just a high school diploma who believe in wicked witches. Count all of these up. What’s the number? There won’t be many on your list. There likely won’t be any. Do you want proof that the West has been secularized? Ask yourself, whither the witches?

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...