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Description of the phenomenon

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The terms "Witch" and "Witchcraft" have over a dozen conflicting meanings. The  words are mainly used in this essay to refer to a unique belief system: that evil individuals, mostly women, sold their soul to the Christian Devil, worshiped Satan and devoted their lives to harming others. This belief was prevalent in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Many tens of thousands of individuals were called "Witches," were convicted of worshiping Satan and were executed during what are now called the burning times. Residual beliefs from that era still exist today among some groups.

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Contemporary Witches, contemporary Satanists and Renaissance Witches:

With few exceptions, historians and sociologists agree that the following three groups are unrelated to each other:

bullet A contemporary Witch probably follows Wicca or some other Neopagan tradition. They are prohibited from harming others by their behavioral code: the Wiccan Rede.
bullet Most contemporary Satanists follow the teachings of:
bullet The Church of Satan, in which case he/she is probably an Agnostic, who regards Satan as a principle, not a living entity.
bullet The Temple of Set, in which case he/she probably recognizes the ancient Egyptian deity Set as a living entity.
bullet Other similar, smaller -- and often short lived -- Satanic groups.
bullet Witches during the burning times were conceived by the Roman Catholic Church as Satan worshipers who dedicated their lives to killing and harming others through magick. There is no evidence that any such "Witches" actually existed, beyond a few delusional, mentally ill, people.

These groups are almost completely unrelated to each other. They recognize different deities, or none at all. Their behavioral rules vary considerably and are often directly opposite to each other. They share only the term "Witch." They are probably more different from each other than Buddhists are from Christians. More details.

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Links between contemporary Witches and burning time victims:

There is little consensus on this point:

bullet Margaret Murray wrote The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches. She promoted the concept that the victims of the witch hunts were Pagans who worshiped a Horned God. This view is partly supported by the Witches' Hammer and other reference books from the "burning times"  The latter said that some of the victims worshipped Diana, Oriente, Erodiade, or other Pagan deities. However, this appears to refer only to a minority of victims. Most people now believe that Murray's work is unreliable. She relied extensively on "evidence" from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, which were gained through torture by the Church and courts.
bullet In 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote their book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses." They promoted the belief that most victims of the burning times were were midwives and female healers. Although they were able to describe many cases involving healers, the latter only represented a small minority of the accused.
bullet Most victims of the burning times seem to have been a diverse group, who did not share a common factor. Many were:
bullet Midwives, 
bullet Native healers, 
bullet Single women who lived alone, and/or who owned property,
bullet People against whom neighbors had a grudge,
bullet Practitioners of ancient Pagan rituals,
bullet Innocent individuals who were accused by other victims, often under torture,
bullet People who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, trial records often represent the distorted beliefs of the judges rather than reality. The widespread use of torture, particularly in Roman Catholic countries, made testimony totally unreliable.

bullet Many contemporary Fundamentalist Christians describe:
bullet Wiccans and other contemporary Neopagans, 
bullet Satanists, 
bullet People who practice occult pastimes such as astrology, palm reading, Tarot cards, Runes, etc.,
bullet "Witches" from the Renaissance era, and
bullet  others

as Witches or Satanists. They consider these two terms to be essentially synonyms. In many ways, these Fundamentalists continue many of the beliefs of the Roman Catholic church from the 15th century. Some go further and regard other world religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism as forms of Satanism. To them, two out of every three humans in the world are, by definition, Satanists, because they are not Christians. A few go further and regard many Roman Catholics, Anglicans and non-Conservative Protestants to be Satanists as well. 

There is an extreme potential for misunderstanding when diverse groups use different definitions for term such as "Witch" and "Satanist."  

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Details of the "Burning Times:"

The large-scale European extermination of individuals charged with Witchcraft or other heresies reached its peak between 1550 and 1650 CE.

bullet Current estimates of the total number of executions of innocent people range from 3,000 (by one Roman Catholic source) to 9,000,000 (by many Neopagan sources). The actual figure, based on the examination of court documents and estimates of the number of lost records, is probably in the range of 50,000 to 100,000. 1
bullet There have been many outrageous claims, such as a trial that resulted in the execution of 400 women in one day in France. It never happened.
bullet Prior to 1975, historians had mainly used "witch hunting manuals, sermons against witchcraft and lurid pamphlets on the more sensational trials...historians frequently used literary accounts of these cases, not the [trial documents]... themselves." 2 Unfortunately, these sources were often unreliable because their purpose was to scare the public into thinking that the witch threat was much greater than it actually was. Systematically study of the burning times, using actually court proceedings, only began circa 1975.
bullet There were a few witchcraft cases in the 14th and 15th century. But it was the period from 1550 to 1650 where most of the trials took place.
bullet The courts did not specifically target only women. The gender balance varied with location. In Iceland, over 90% of the accused Witches were men; in some countries in central Europe, over 80% were women; overall it was probably about 75% women.
bullet Most of the death sentences were passed by civil courts, not by the Catholic Church. However, the church was indirectly involved, as it provided the theological foundation for the persecution of heretics in civil courts.
bullet The Inquisition did not concentrate its activity against Witches. It was primarily interested in exterminating religious heretics.
bullet Although the church was not directly responsible for the executions ordered by civil courts, it was responsible for the beliefs which justified the arrest, torture and execution of religious minorities by those courts. One belief was that individuals whose beliefs deviated from those of the Catholic Church must be denied religious freedom. Another was the false and unsupported belief that large numbers of worshipers had sold their soul to Satan and were committing evil and homicidal acts.
bullet The severity of the persecution was not uniformly spread among all Christian countries. It was primarily concentrated in Eastern France, Germany and Switzerland, and appears to have been correlated with Protestant - Catholic friction. Many countries largely escaped the burning times:
bullet Only four Witches are known to have been killed in Ireland.
bullet Very few were killed in Eastern Orthodox countries -- only ten in Russia.
bullet In New England, from 1645 to 1662, there were an estimated 21 Europeans killed. Estimates range from 13 to 100 Native Americans charged and an unknown number killed.
bullet In New England, from 1663 to 1692, there were over 250 arrests, 19 executions, two who died of natural causes in prison and one tortured to death.
bullet Fewer than four were killed in Canada.
bullet Being accused by the courts of Witchcraft was not an automatic death sentence. Overall, about 48% of all trials ended in an execution. It was the local, community courts which had the highest rate of executions, often reaching 90% of the cases. The Inquisition usually pardoned any witch who confessed and repented.

Belief in Witches gradually dissipated during the Age of Enlightenment, as people began to question many long-held religious beliefs. This forced an end to the execution of Witches in Europe (by 1792) and the Americas (by the 1830's).

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Resurgence of "burning time" beliefs:

Belief in evil "Witches" committing unspeakable acts against children had a resurgence during the 1980's and early 1990's with the widespread belief in:

bullet The Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax, and in 
bullet the multi-victim, multi-offender ritual abuse of children in some day-cares and pre-school centers

Both hoaxes largely dissipated by the year 2000. They collapsed because of:

bullet The lack of any hard evidence that such crimes existed.
bullet Rising skepticism of the reliability of "soft" evidence of ritual abuse. This was mainly composed of adults' memories associated with Recovered Memory Therapy and Multiple Personality Disorder
bullet Awareness that the child questioning techniques in use during the 1980s and early 1990s generated false accusations. Young children were asked direct questions, repeatedly. Researchers have since found out that such questioning techniques frequently generate false disclosure of sexual and ritual abuse.

One will occasionally still hear calls by conservative Christian leaders for the extermination of "Witches." They generally promote genocide against Wiccans and other Pagans -- an form of Witchcraft that is totally unrelated to Satan worship. However, demands for mass murder is becoming quite rare today. We are aware of one appeal by a tele-minister in the mid 1990's, and another from a Baptist pastor near the Fort Hood Army base. Both are from Texas. These are the only two recent calls for religiously-based genocide of which we are aware.

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  1. I.M. Carlson, "Historical Witch trial stats (revised)," at: 
  2. Jenny Gibbons, "Recent developments in the study of the great European Witch hunt," at:

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Site navigation:

Home page > Laws & religion Genocide > Burning Times > here

or: Home page > Religious violence >   Genocide > Burning Times > here

or: Home page > World religions > Wicca > Burning Times > here

or: Home page > Christianity > Christian relations > Burning Times > here

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Copyright 1999 to 2002 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-DEC-14
Latest update: 2002-JUN-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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