Modern Age and pagan cults: witchcraft in Western society.


The word 'witch' ('bruja' in Spanish) has an unsure etymological origin. Some researchers think pre-Roman period, because of the similarities with Catalan language bruixa or Galician bruxa. . However we only know about its use and extension in Middle Ages. If we go to Ancient Times, latin was used to defined witches as maleficae term, which was spread in Europe during Middle Age and part of Modern Age. There are even more equivalent terms in other languages as English, witch in Italian strega, in German Hexe and in French sorcière. This last word, feminine of sorcier, comes from vulgar Latin sortiarius (which means "speaker of fortune) and classic Latin sors, sortis (which first mentions a clairvoyance procedure and then later meant destiny or fate).

But, what are the witches? To answer this question I will use words from the mathematician and theologist from XVI century, Pedro Sánchez Ciruelo which are the faithful image of witches we really have in mind:

The art that the Devil taught to 'bruxas' or 'xorguiñas' belong to this necromance, they can be men or women and they made a deal with the Devil by spreading oinments and saying specific words They travel throught the night sky and walk far away to the land to make certain curses» ( Manuel Fernández Álvarez, 2002.)

First, Ciruelo relates witchcraft with deals with the Devil. It is an essential fact if we remember that Pope John XXII, in 1326, excommunicated them, considered them as heretic and allowed persecution to Inquisition based on those alleged deals. From the result of this devilish links, witches had a pale and reddish mark in their skin (close to their genitals) which was considered a clear sign of witchcraft. In addition, all of them should honour their master and lord so they carried out osculum obscenum, which consisted on kissing the buttocks, anus or genitals of the devil showing their respect.

But the witch would not have had so much rejection if she were not accused of making oinments, each one more repulsive than the next. For example, a recalled treatise of 1460. Johannes Tinctoris accused witches of creating an oinment made of toad's meat, killed children's blood and bones from exhumed bodies and menstrual blood. Without a doubt an intriguing combination.

Ciruelo mentions witches that «go at night» since inquisitor Bernard Gui mentions in his manual, written in 1326, the idea of investigating women who «go out at night». But he is not the only one who relates night and women, unsettling the senses. In fact, according to Nevill Drury (2005), a treatise from the same age written by a franciscan Englishman gives some very interesting details about the area experienced by these women:

But I wonder, what we must say about those unfortunate and superstitious ones who state that see beautiful queens and ladies along Diana and guiding the dances with the pagan goddess. Our language call them elfs and believe that transform men and women in other beings and take them to Elvelond, where now, as they say, live the powerful paladines Onewone and Wade, ghosts of the evil spirits. Since when the devil has subdued the mind of anyone to these monstruous belief. He transforms into an angel, sometimes a man, or a woman, sometimes on foot others as a horseman in a tournament or joust, others in dances or sports As a result of all these things, that mean guy can trick their minds (Neville Drury, 2005)

Any case, the fact that Ciruelo states that witches «walk far to the land to make some curses... » help us to get close to the concept the inquisitors had about magic. They did not understand it as an alternative method to the usual ones in order to avoid danger, illness or obtain certain purposes (more or less fair). They only saw it as an intention to practice evil, always wanting to help demons or other dark forces.

It is true that men and women were persecuted by the Inquisition, accused of making deals with the devil. The treatise Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of witches) focuses on them because,

« it was believed that superstition was found in women, and most of the sorcereres were women because they were more gullible, more prone to evil and deceitful by nature» ("Witches hammer, in order to hit witches and their heretic behaviour with the powerful mace. Malleus Maleficarum

This treatise was published in 1486 by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger and others important demonologist used it as the Italian inquisitor Bernardo Rategno da Como (1450-1513), Spanish-Belgiam Jesuit Martín del Río (1551-1608) and the French jurist Jean Bodin. This treatise allowed more growth to misoginy already established in that age. (1529/30-1596)

Most of these trials against witches were carried out in Europe during the Modern Age, specially violent between 1560 and 1660 at the same time (by coincidence or not) with tension between protestant and catholic people. Lutero's quote "They should be burnt as heretic because of their deals with the Devil" (6th May 1526) or Biblic quote from Exodus 22, 18 "You shall not permit a sorceress to live" can be very illuminating in order to understand how they thought about them.

Inside accusations against witches there are more that Ciruelo did not mention, but they are very interesting about countryside environments: witches were accused of bringing mice and locust plagues, illnesses for farm animals and specially they were guilty of the bad weather which messed up harvests and innocent celebrations of the peasants. The story written by Manuel Fernández Álvarez in his book can be very illustrative Married, Nuns, Whores and Witches (2002) which comes from Malleus Maleficarum previously quoted.

"Like this, for example, in Baldshut small town, from German diocese from Constanza. An old woman (who is already called witch) is not invited to a wedding, she decides to revenge by summoning Satan in order to bring a strong strailstorm in the ball, ruining the peasant party. This way the victims could accuse the witch whose end will be the stake (...)"

As we can see in History, witches are again related to the devil and there is a new element: envy. A feeling that is the common thread of many of our traditional tales and main strengh of the witch. For example, in Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault (1628-1703), related to the German version Little Briar Rose by Jacob Grimm (1785- 1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) and with Talia, Sun and Moon by the Italian Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), a maleficent fairy, offended because she was not invited to the celebration for the newborn princess, casts a curse against the baby. She curses her to die by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday. The similarity between both stories is clear.

Finally we complete our portrait by mentioning other three common features of the women accused of witchcraft and they can be found on the famous character from Fernando de Rojas (1474/1476-1541): La Celestina (1499). First, she lived far from the world in a An isolated house, half fallen, with a poor structure (...) . In addition, she was an old woman, who is called by her neighbours: "Fucking old woman!" An exclamation that is useful for us to comment the last common feature among the witches: their unusual relationship with sex. Celestina tells us she is a prostitute and able to repair hymens, as it is told on two fragments of the work commented by Manuel Fernández in Married, Nuns, Whores and Witches (2002): "She fixed them by the bladder or by stitches" (translated from Galician) or "She was wonderful at this, when the French ambassador came here, she told three times that the same lady was virgin (...)" As the author said, there is no doubt this ability would prove to be useful in that society, under the honor law.

The analysis of a witch is complex, however we are going to focus on developing the real engine of this hunt: fear. The magical mindset dominating Europe until the Enlightenment was based on how, where and when to find those woman and they did not doubt their existence. There were people who believed they were real and they feared them, because they thought they were a form of the devil in daily life things, something very usual if we remember that the exorcists have lasted until today in the Church.

This fear of the wickedness would have not been so powerful if there were no mysoginy, horror to the woman who broke the rules or was unconnected to the life of the that ages. Witches went out at night, only bad women dared to do that. Under the night they carried out the most terrible and sinister rituals, many of them included children. It is very controversial since the main goal of those women was to procreate, What kind of woman (apart from Medea the sorceress) could go against her maternal instinct by sacrificing a baby she could have had herself. Only a woman possesed by the devil could do that. This was what the inquisitors thought, if this was true they could speak about other rituals more ancient than Christianity and good vs evil concept.

According to Joseph Campbell in his research Goddesses (2015),a matrilineal system where the main deity was the great Mother Goddess was established between 7000 and 3500 B.C in all Europe. This deity brought the secret of life and procreation but also was death ambassador. In these type of civilizations, seeding was the main sustenance and they observed that some of the rotten sprouts had new plants, it meant that from death born new life. A very clear concept in rituals: the sacrifices as oblations could create new goods (even life). Because of that, sacrifices were very common in these civilizations and women carried them out, since they were closer to deities by sharing the possibility to give birth.

Many archeological findings confirm this matriarcal past, we can mention first the goddess Cibeles which was seen as a guardians of the secrets of the earth, giver and taker of life. Also, a feminine statue giving birth was found in Catal Hüyük, at the south of Anatolian peninsula, close to the city of Konya (before Iconium ) and 140 km closer to the volcano Hasan Dağ, in Turkey. This statue was found inside a pot to save the grain so it was related to fertility rituals. This statue was also found with cheetas, animals more or less related to witches and appear in other archeological findings with women statues. This is the case of the famouse Serpent's Goddess of Cnossos, a woman half-naked that grabs snakes in her hands and she holds a cat over her head.

In this type of societies women had a very important role, being powerful chiefs in the clans, priestesses, healers... Perhaps those old ladies who knew the secrets of the plants to fight small illnesses and promise eternal love resemble those powerful women? Were some afraid that roles could turn around and be on the place of those women? It is hard to say there was evidence about that matriarchal past on Middle Age but it is true that the lifestyle of these women "altered" the "natural order" and that is0 why they feared them. Many of them ended up in the Holy Inquisition trial.

If woman's submissions was very evident on daily life, it was also evident in sexuality. The only way to express under the moral and law was marriage. Under marriage, woman served her husband's neeeds and took care of the children. An image that confirms the case of the allegedly influenced by the demon, Elena Céspedes, whose trial was carried out in Toledo in 1588 by the following reasons written on the Papers on the Toledo Inquisition found in the National Historical Files:

«This is the justice the Holy Office of Toledo's Inquisition commands to this woman, because being married, she tricked another woman and married her. So she will be punished of lashes and locked up in a hospital for ten years, there she will help there (Manuel Fernández Álvarez (2002))

In this particular case, a woman born in Alhama de Granada, slaved and then freed,married a man that later died. Later she signs on as a man in Alpujarras war and finally she marries a woman. Someone recognises her as the slave and reports her to the Holy Office. Their doctors think she is a man (first examination) but later they retract and certify in a second examination she is really a woman. A trick only possible with the action of Devil himself. So Elena Céspedes (name of baptism)is sentenced to lashes and locked on a hospital for insulting the holy sacrament of marriage.

In a society like previously described, where christianity set the beat of life, it is easy to understand the repression could be related with the body. In witchcraft accusations, naked body exhibition of those posseseed woman was a constant. If good women were cautious with their bodies, witches exhibit them with no shame, unconnected to the terrible incitement to lust sin that this would mean. Maybe it was related with the ancient concept of female body as a magical and sacred place, worthy of respect and devotion, because only it could make life.

Nerea Castedo Alonso -

Rachel Black - Translator -

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-Drury, Nevill. Magia y hechicería. Desde el chamanismo hasta los tecnopaganos. Pensamiento y práctica. Editorial Blume, 2005.
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-Fernández Álvarez, Manuel. Casadas, Monjas, Rameras y Brujas, Editorial Espasa, 2002.
-Rey Castelao, O; Rial García, S. Historia de las mujeres en Galicia (siglos XVI al XIX), Ediciones Nigratea, 2009.

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