THE BURNING TIMES:
Description of the phenomenon
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.
Contemporary Witches, contemporary Satanists and Renaissance Witches:
With few exceptions, historians and sociologists agree that the
groups are unrelated to each other:
||A contemporary Witch probably follows Wicca
or some other Neopagan tradition. They are
prohibited from harming others by their behavioral code: the
||Most contemporary Satanists follow the teachings of:
||The Church of Satan, in which case he/she is probably an
Agnostic, who regards Satan as a principle, not a living entity.
||The Temple of Set, in which case he/she probably
recognizes the ancient Egyptian deity Set as a living entity.
||Other similar, smaller -- and often short lived -- Satanic groups.
||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.
Links between contemporary Witches and burning time victims:
There is little consensus on this point:
||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.|
||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.|
||Most victims of the burning times seem to have been a diverse group,
who did not share a common factor. Many were:
||Single women who lived alone, and/or who owned property,
||People against whom neighbors had a grudge,
||Practitioners of ancient Pagan rituals,
||Innocent individuals who were accused by other victims, often under
||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
||Many contemporary Fundamentalist Christians describe:
||Wiccans and other contemporary Neopagans,
||People who practice occult pastimes such as astrology, palm
reading, Tarot cards, Runes, etc.,
||"Witches" from the Renaissance era, and
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
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.
||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|
||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
||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.|
||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.|
||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.|
||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
||The Inquisition did not concentrate its activity against Witches.
It was primarily interested in exterminating religious heretics.|
||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.|
||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
||Only four Witches are known to have been
killed in Ireland.
||Very few were killed in Eastern Orthodox countries -- only ten in Russia.
||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.
||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.
||Fewer than four were killed in Canada.
||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).
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:
Both hoaxes largely dissipated by the year 2000. They collapsed because of:
||The lack of any hard evidence that such crimes existed.
||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.
||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.
I.M. Carlson, "Historical Witch trial stats (revised),"
Jenny Gibbons, "Recent developments in the study of the great
European Witch hunt," at: http://www.cog.org/witch_hunt.html
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