“The logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic. The power of the witch sprang from the demonic pact and was therefore evil, whether it was used for healing or harming.”
1. The Witch Hunts and the Christianization of the European Peasantry
For those unfamiliar with Christina Larner, the following is from the Forward (available here online) to Larner’s book Witchcraft and Religion, a posthumous collection of her writings published in 1984 (the Forward is by Alan Macfarlane):
At the time of her tragic death at the age of 49 in April 1983, Christina (Kirsty) Larner had already established her scholarly reputation in a number of ways. She was the foremost expert on the history of witchcraft in Scotland. She was thought to be one of the most important social historians of Scotland.
Her work was one of the most interesting examples in the cross-disciplinary field of historical sociology. Finally, she had contributed significantly to legal history and archival history through her study of Scottish records and court processes. All this had been established on the basis of one book, Enemies of God, The Witch-hunt in Scotland
, published in 1981, a duplicated Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft
compiled with Christopher Lee and Hugh McLachlan (Glasgow, 1977) a number of articles, unpublished lectures and an unpublished doctoral thesis ….
One of the striking features of Dr Larner’s work is a sceptical attitude towards simple and universal explanations. Yet, in the last chapter of Enemies of God, tentative suggestions are made concerning the necessary, if not sufficient, causes of the witch-hunt. The preconditions are a peasant economy, a witch-believing peasantry, and an active belief in the Devil among the educated. Four more proximate causes explain the specific timing of witch- hunts
, was a judicial revolution, consisting of a shift from restorative justice’ (where the case is brought by the injured) to retributive Justice’ (where it is brought by the state), applying general and abstract standards. Second
, there was the rapid development of printing and literacy. Third, what is termed the ‘Christianization of the peasantry’
, that is to say the move from a largely animistic and ritual world to one where personal salvation and Christian belief became predominant. Finally, there was the rise of the Christian nation state.
The witch-hunts coincided exactly with the period of the Godly state, when Christianity became the official ideology of the new-born nation state. The fruitful ideas hinted at towards the end of Enemies of God
became central themes in the Gifford lectures which constitute the second half of this volume. Although these factors do not work particularly well in explaining English witchcraft prosecutions, they throw a great deal of light on the horrendous mass witch-hunts on the Continent.
Below is an excerpt from Christina Larner’s essay James VI and I and Witchcraft, which makes up the first chapter in Witchcraft and Religion:
In primitive societies two types of witchcraft are identified: white witchcraft or the craft of healing, and black witchcraft or maleficium.
This distinction was known to Roman law, and dominated all dealings with witchcraft accusations in Europe until the late fifteenth century. It is also common ground in most studies of contemporary primitive societies. Historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries however have to add a third witchcraft which existed only from the fifteenth to the early eighteenth century and which has no contemporary equivalent. It differed from the simple concepts of black and white witchcraft in its origins. Far from being an experience of village life, it was evolved by churchmen and lawyers from Christian theology, canon law, and certain philosophical ideas. It differed also in content. Christian witch theorists gave a central position to the idea of the demonic pact. The witch became a witch by virtue of a personal arrangement with the Devil who appeared to his potential recruit in some physical form. At this meeting, in return for renunciation of baptism, services on earth and the soul of the witch at death, the Devil promised material advantages and magical powers. In addition, an integral part of the Christian witch theory was that the witch did not operate alone. Witchcraft involved midnight meetings to worship the Devil, to receive his orders and to have sexual intercourse with him or his subordinate spirits.
The development of this theory in Europe, and its application in witchcraft trials, had a drastic effect on the rate of prosecutions. The change from the isolated local harrying of individuals to a widespread crusade against witchcraft, to a recognisable mania and persecution, began fairly abruptly in northern Italy and southern Germany in the late fifteenth century, and spread widely through the Continent during the following century. There are three main reasons why the introduction of the Christian witch theory had such a catastrophic effect. The firstis that it was developed by the ruling classes
. If we except the traditional vulnerability of rulers to soothsayers and astrologers, there had previously been a fairly sharp contrast between village credulity and intellectual scepticism. Now the power of the local witch was heavily reinforced by the conviction of the authorities
that her power was real and to be feared. At the same time, the capacity to punish her was intensified by the codification of the laws
against witchcraft, both in canon law and later in the statute law of Protestant countries. The other reasons are connected with the theory itself. The logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic. The power of the witch sprang from the demonic pact and was therefore evil, whether it was used for healing or harming.
This meant that the village healer was as likely to be prosecuted as the local scold.
2. Christianization and the literal demonization of African Traditional Religions
In Africa, the traditional attitude toward magic has survived to this day. Like any other natural force, “spiritual power” (every African language has its own highly developed vocabulary for religion and magic) can be beneficial or harmful, and those who know how to work with such power can be responsible for wealth and progress or for disease and death. Richard Dowden has this to say on the subject of this “sense of spiritual power” in his Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles:
In Africa, every event has a spiritual cause or actor. Success in exams or football games, and disasters such as disease or death, all have agents, human or divine. There is no such thing as chance. Wealth and progress are obtained with the help of spirits or magic medicine. A Big Man has power, and that power cannot be challenged or questioned because behind his wealth or position lies spiritual power that enables him to accrue wealth and an important job. That sense of spiritual power is common to almost all Africa.
While the naturalistic view of magic has persisted into the 21st century, it must now coexist uneasily with a new attitude that has been aggressively promoted by Christian missionaries starting in the 19th century. Richard Dowden has quite a bit to say on that subject:
Traditional African religions were denigrated by the European Christian missionaries and imperial rulers who frequently saw them as devil worship and tried to stamp them out.
In West and Central Africa and in South Africa these religions or their offspring sects are strong and open, but in East Africa they are hidden, not spoken of in public . . . .
While Christianity teaches that only humans have souls, African religions hold that all objects, animate or inanimate, can be moved by spirits.
Africa senses spirits in animals, trees and rocks as well as in people. So the river and the spirit of the river are one and the same. The spirit allows the substance to change, the person to become something else . . . .
Steve Biko, the South African writer and activist, wrote that religion in Africa was not a specialized function observed only on one day a week in a special building, but ‘it featured in our wars, our beer drinking, our dances and customs in general’. That is something the Western world has lost
. . . .
Given the prevalence of traditional religion, it is strange that so few prominent Africans identify with it in public. How different from Japan where Shintoism — in many ways similar to aspects of African religions — is widely practiced. In Japan respect for the ancestors is expressed by millions of Japanese visitors to ancient temples to salute the ancestors. Many Japanese proudly display in their homes the souvenirs of the holy shrines they have visited. … In Africa traditional religion may be central to beliefs but its leaders and rituals still remain in the background
. . . .
One reason that African traditional religion and beliefs are hidden is that in many parts they are still associated with evil.
Today hardly a week goes by without some report from Africa about witchcraft or the killing of witches. Africa’s local press is full of them, the details reported as factually as a politician’s speech or the football scores.
For more on Dowden’s book, here are three reviews:
The attitude of Christian missionaries to African culture has been, and continues to be to this day, little, if any, different from that expressed by Duarte Pacheco Pereira, a late fifteenth-century Portuguese explorer, who said of the Kingdom of Benin: “The way of life of these people is full of abuses and witchcraft and idolatry.” (D.A. Low, “Converts and Martyrs in Buganda”, in C.G. Baeta, ed., Christianity in Tropical Africa, p. 257)
Elizabeth Isichei, in her A History of Christianity in Africa, describes the view toward traditional African culture by late 19th century missionaries like this: “There was a natural tendency for those writing in missionary periodicals to stress the darker side of African society . . . . Some, both Catholic and Protestant, described African society as demonic.” [p. 82]
Isichei provides two quotes from the writings of missionaries as examples:
(1) “May many come willingly to labour in pulling down the strongholds of Satan’s kingdom, for the whole of the Ibo district is his citadel.”
(2) “All those who go to Africa as missionaries must be thoroughly penetrated with the thought that the Dark Continent is a cursed land, almost entirely in the power of the devil.”
Isichei also remarks on how the missionary attitudes toward African culture included even condemnation of the practice of building round houses instead of proper, Christian rectangular houses!
In a word, conquest and conversion taught Africans to systematically despise and reject every aspect of their own cultures. Not just their evil religion, whose priests were “sorcerers” and whose wise-women were “witches”, but their clothes, their food, their languages, their architecture, and so forth. They were also taught to hate their own leaders and elders, unless these were appropriately compliant both to the colonial authorities and to the church.
The unrestrained contempt of Europeans for African culture held steady, or even increased, throughout the years of colonialism. Isichei cites the 1949 case of “an exemplary Nigerian priest” (as he was described by the Irish bishop who wrote his letter of recommendation, in vain, as it turned out) who sought admission to a Cistercian monastery, but was refused not due to any personal fault or failing, but simply because no “coloured men” were allowed. [p. 87]
3. Summary and Conclusions
The word “Witch” has always been ambiguous, in that the range of its meanings has always included both (1) “wise women”, “cunning folk”, healers, soothsayers, and other practitioners of beneficial magic, and (2) those who are capable of and willing to use magic to cause harm to others.
To speak as plainly and as clearly as possible, if anyone claims that “Witch” has historically been synonymous with malefica, “evil-doer”, then the person making such a claim is either:
(1) woefully ignorant of the most basic facts well-known to every historian who has studied Witchcraft and Witch Trials in European history, or
In the specific case of a professional historian who equates ‘Witch” with malefica (especially if said historian claims expertise in the subject of European Witchcraft and Witch Hunting) then this can only be seen as an act of scholarly malpractice, or of intellectual depravity, or, most likely, both.
And what is true of English is also true of other European languages, so that what has already been said about the word “Witch” can also be said about “Hexe”, “Strega”, “Sorcière”, “Bruja”, “Bruxa”, “Heks”, etc.
In non-European, or, more to the point, non-Christian cultures the same ambiguity is found. For example, those who are labeled as “Witches” by Christians in Africa may or may not be involved in harmful magical workings. They could just as easily be healers or fortune tellers as perpetrators of maleficia. In fact, those accused by Christians of practicing Witchcraft can, and often are, the very people who are sought out for magical protection against curses.
Today there are still some who try to equate Witchcraft with “attempting to harm others by magical means”, as Ronald Hutton has done and continues to do. All those who do so not only carry on a truly malevolent tradition based firmly in the ideology of the Christian Witch-Hunters of the past, but they also ally themselves with those today in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere who are actively engaged in that most virulent form of cultural genocide known as “Christianization.”