The old crone leaned over the bubbling cauldron and poured in more toads. She cackled as she did so and rubbed the wart on her long, crooked nose with her long, claw-like fingers.
'I'm hungry,' growled the demon who squatted beside her on the hearth. 'I want a Christian child to tear apart and devour bit by bit.' He drooled at the thought and his fangs flashed.
'Shut up,' snapped the witch, bringing her spoon hard down on his head. 'I'll get you one, my evil friend. All in bad time; you'll suck the blood of one soon.'
The black cat spat and its eyes glowed red.
A typical witch's domestic scene. Witches have never enjoyed a good press, although the television series of the 1960s, Bewitched
, did a lot for their cause, especially amongst male members of the family. The more witches were seen to be embracing the American Way, the more their image improved.
Demons have been less lucky. In Ancient Greece, they were considered to be creatures that existed somewhere between humankind and the gods. Whereas the gods were far above human emotions, demons were considered to be as full of passion as humans although enjoying god-like powers. In this role, they were not considered inalienably hostile. Indeed, Socrates spoke of his personal demon that drove him relentlessly to seek the truth through his philosophical enquiries.
Socrates was speaking allegorically but, nevertheless, demons were taken seriously as creatures of the spirit world, each having specific characteristics and, perhaps surprisingly, responsibilities. There would be a demon of the local stream, for example, or of the local wood, or even a demon of the household. They were considered mischievous certainly, because if the stream were in spate and swept the bridge away, that could be interpreted as the demon being angry and playing tricks. If your house burnt down, you had failed to keep your demon even-tempered and happy with you; and mentally-ill people were routinely considered to have been taken over by a demon – this despite Hippocrates' assertion that both mental illness and epilepsy were diseases.
The early Christian Church, although it looked upon demons as a superstition, nevertheless lived with them. It was not unusual for individuals of the Middle Ages to attend Christian services but still undertake pagan ceremonies of their own to placate the neighbourhood demons. The Bible, although it had made clear there was only one God, had not pronounced on demons although it had certainly admitted of the character of Satan. Later on, this view, where local beliefs were seen as irritations, gradually segued to outright opposition. Saint Augustine had pronounced against rituals to do with demons but his statement nevertheless did demonstrate that he considered them as real and anti-Christian. He further believed that 'witches' – that is, those who practiced the old superstitions – were the product of demons mating with humans. Oddly enough, a few women did complain about being forced to sleep with demons; that, no doubt, helped explain an otherwise inexplicable pregnancy.
Around the year 800, early laws were passed against the practice of the old creeds and the Church attempted to wean people away from its ways. The Church's approach was subtle in that it took onboard some of the older habits and customs and adapted and modified them, weaving them into their formal worldview. The big change in this generally tolerant outlook occurred around the mid-11th century, when the Crusades opened contact with Arabian civilisation and to the pursuits of alchemy and astrology, and to what was termed 'natural magic' – the forerunners of today's sciences – and this coincided with a growing social discontent amongst the Medieval peasantry which partly found an outlet in anti-establishment beliefs and customs. The Church considered this as a challenge to its authority – and the Church was in a strong position to deal with such waywardness and it increasingly began to identify pagan practices and witchcraft with heresy and secularism. God had made the world and God was good, preached the Church, and therefore any disharmony had to be caused by the forces of the Devil and his followers; more and more 'witches' began to be put to death.
Talking of the people of that time, Edward Gibbon wrote: 'They felt, or fancied, that on every side they were incessantly assaulted by daemons...'. The final moments of life were thought to be especially crucial as it was held true that demons lurked about the dying waiting to seize the soul as it departed the body; the last rites were the soul's defence.
A Papal Bull of 1320 did not help rationality by defining magic, and consequently giving credence to it, in terms of making pacts with the Devil: the records of the Inquisition from this period start telling of 'Black Masses', 'upside down crosses', and 'perverted prayers'. The Inquisition had come into formal existence around 1230, and had been sanctioned to use torture since 1252. Its most famous victim was Joan of Arc, whose sole crime was to have taken on men, and Englishmen at that, and beaten them at their own game. Joan was duly burned to death as a heretic in 1431.
The obsession with witchcraft, however, reached an apex in 1484, when Pope Innocent VIII launched a powerful assault upon it and authorised two friars, Kraemer and Sprenger, to eradicate the practice in Germany. These two, in turn, published the Malleus Maleficarum –
later to be known as The Hammer of the Witches
. Through this report's influence many, if not millions, were put to painful and horrific deaths – men, women, children and, even, cats. This book formalised the theory of witches, attributing their powers to carnal relationships with the Devil and his various demons. It did not give the innocent (and all were) much chance. If you were accused of witchcraft by two or more persons, you were in trouble.
'Witches' were not allowed any defence, they had no legal rights and were routinely tortured until they admitted their guilt. Little effort was made to check and corroborate evidence − and such evidence ranged from the absurd to the fantastic: '12,000 witches darkened the skies as they flew over the Atlantic'; 'Thousands of witches are gathering in Paris to mark the witches Sabbath'. Judges solemnly advised husbands who denied their wives had ever left their side that a demon had taken the guise of the wife whilst the wife flew about the countryside on her broom.
No consideration was given to the possible ulterior motives of the accusers. The fact that the disgusting torture in itself would force individuals to admit to any crime was likewise ignored. Those who raised such possibilities were considered to be attacking the Church. Critics of the never-ending witch-hunts – and there was a brave few – risked being burned at the stake themselves. Prominent amongst those voices of dissent was the physician Johann Weir of Brabant in the Netherlands, who lived from 1515 to 1588; in a treatise in 1568 he described witchcraft as the ramblings of mad old women and demanded an end to torture and the death penalty. He was joined in this view some 80 years later by the Jesuit Priest, Freidrich Spee of Cologne ((1591-1635), who strongly (and at some risk) argued against witch-hunts: 'Torture,' he said, 'has the power to create witches'.
The strongest attack against witch-hunts though came from the Englishman Thomas Ady (his actual dates are not known), who published A Candle in the Dark
in 1655/56 and who supported scientific method and a rational approach. He condemned the belief in witchcraft as a belief in 'horrible lies and impossibilities'. He saw that the endorsement for the existence of witchcraft by the authorities of the day as part of a deliberate policy of deluding the people. Voltaire, in France, was another powerful voice against the belief in magic and witchcraft and such was his influence that, unlike the German lands, England and Scotland, the lid was kept tight on such things there.
These common-sense views, and others like them, were slowly to change attitudes and ultimately bring about the end of such persecutions. Yet the witch mania continued well into the 18th century. In what was to become Germany, whole villages of 'witches' were to be wiped out. The tortures used in these hunts and trials were obscene even by normal torture standards. Amongst the more describable was the ritual of putting a suspect's foot in an iron boot and then filling it with hot lead. Much of the tortures used had sexual overtones and the torturers were, in reality, perverted sadists. Pubic hair was shaved as the examiners sought the Devil's mark in the most intimate of places. These marks were interpreted as any blemishes on the skin where a demon was supposed to have supped the witch's blood. There were even those who claimed to be able to see 'invisible' markings on the skin of the supposed witch.
Some witches confessed without torture being applied; but being arrested, beaten up, perhaps raped, kept without food in appalling conditions, was enough to constitute torture and the confessions were often simply to avoid more of the same.
Disgracefully and sadly, Scotland was the country that probably tormented, mutilated and killed the highest percentage of its population as witches than any other country bar only Germany. The 'probably' is necessary because not all records are intact and many witches were put to death without any formal trial or record. The tests for a witch included the infamous one where suspects were thrown in a deep pond or stream. If they drowned, they were considered innocent; if they floated, they had obviously used their powers to stay alive – so they went to the flames later.
Other tests included 'pricking', where accusers stuck needles into suspects to see if they felt pain and were punctured. If they did not react and their skin remained unbroken, they obviously were witches. The prickers saw to it that they did not react. Using needles that withdrew into the hollow handle under the slightest pressure, the impression given was that the needle had penetrated deep into the suspect. One Scottish pricker was found out cheating with this method and sent to the stake himself, but not before he had confessed to entrapping over 200 victims at the price of 20 shillings a time.
And it all was about cash. Accusers could expect to receive financial compensation and reward for singling out a witch, and the inquisitors and their associates were well paid for their efforts – including receiving bonuses for the number of witches taken. Since most victims of their torture were encouraged to name others, the lucrative business was never-ending and the servants of the Inquisition lived the good life. As the years advanced, the prey of this folly moved up the social scale as there was more money to be made out of higher-ranking witches than working-class ones.
The defining of a witch varied from place to place and from time to time. Without modern medicine, hygiene practices and cosmetics, some old ladies did develop what could be considered witch-like features. With humped back and long, crooked noses, probably with a wart or two, and bodily thin and emaciated through bad diet and, possibly, in the first stages of leprosy or some other disfiguring disease, there were many candidates; and old ladies liked cats and dogs − clearly devilish familiars. They were generally pointed out after something went wrong in the neighbourhood or some particular individual had a bad time of it. Witches were routinely accused of giving people the evil eye, of stopping cows from giving milk, of starting diseases, of causing deformed births. They could fly, of course, make themselves invisible and transform into fiendish shapes; and, commonplace, bring about the deaths of individuals. Witches met in covens at which the Devil would preside in animal form and they all would worship together and hatch their evil plans.
There was a truth in this (just): meetings of Devil-worshippers did take place – the most infamous location was Brocken in the Harz mountains of Germany. Probably there were numerous motivations for attending such gatherings. People did believe in magic and, no doubt, some hoped to gain material advantages from linking with the Devil; others believed they were cocking a snout at authority; yet others simply enjoyed the hedonistic atmosphere – generally orgiastic with liberal drinking and sex. Hundreds of revellers were said to attend such Sabbats, as the meetings were called. Supposedly contracts were drawn up with the Devil in blood, and crucifixes and other sacred objects were ritually desecrated.
This all suggests one of the main reasons for the attitude of authority to witchcraft. Humans have always needed someone to blame and the authorities found easy scapegoats in witches and demons. There is even evidence that some high-ranking individuals did not believe in witches any more than we do but, nevertheless, considered the persecutions necessary for the stability of society as a whole and even cultivated such beliefs as a safety valve for pent-up emotions and frustrations.
The other main, underlying reason had to do with the dominance of man in society. It was useful to keep women in subservient positions; although this was something never openly acknowledged; whilst more than a few men were indicted as warlocks it was, nevertheless, mainly women that were put to death. Any woman that became more prominent than some man thought good for him (not her) could face accusations of witchcraft and be pulled down into her place again. Katarina Kepler, mother of Johannes Keppler the astronomer, was one such example. She was, after all, rich and did dabble in herbal medicines and, after another woman fell ill after visiting her, she was duly accused of witchcraft in 1615. Despite her distinction, it took Kepler himself until a year before her death (in 1621) to obtain her release.
The notorious Salem trials of the early 1690s was one of the last outbursts of the madness. Modern research has concluded that something was, indeed, going on in Salem in Massachusetts; probably there were people who attended Black Masses and fancied they were in touch with the Devil – and, no doubt, good old sexual orgies were indulged in – but the communal madness (hallucinogenic materials may, perhaps inadvertently, have been used) led to 20 people being put to death before the state governor, William Phipps, applied common sense and halted the proceedings. Later, the entire jury at the trials made public their regret and asked forgiveness of the relatives of those put to death. Witch trials ceased after that in what was to become the United States. Holland had earlier led the way and other countries soon followed.
Scotland's last witch trial was in Dornoch in 1727, when the unfortunate Janet Horne, an old lady probably suffering dementia, was burned alive after being tarred and feathered. She made one final mistake which ensured her condemnation; being asked to recite The Lord's Prayer
(in Gaelic) she said, 'My Father which wurt in Heaven' – clear proof her father was the Devil.
Scotland finally came to its senses in 1736, when witch trials were abolished. They lingered in Germany, however, until as late as 1792. Incredibly, the Witchcraft Act (in England) was only abolished in 1951 – largely as a result of its misuse in the trial of a lady named Helen Duncan who was a medium and who had revealed (in a séance) that a certain ship (the HMS Barham) had been sunk in the Mediterranean in 1941 when that was supposed to be a classified war secret. Presumably, she made an educated guess at what had happened but she still had to serve a nine-month sentence under the Act!
People who claim to be 'white' witches still practice their beliefs to this day. Everybody walks to the sound of their own drum but witch-hunts still appear to be needed in modern society. Hitler replaced the word 'witch' with 'Jew' and Stalin and his friends chased 'Trotskyists', whilst Mao Tse-Tung saw 'Capitalist-Roaders' everywhere. Even America had its witch-hunts when Joseph McCarthy launched his specialised form of witch-hunt against alleged communists and subversives in the good ol' U S of A in the 1950s – witch-hunts that led to misery for some and even suicide for a few.
The answer to ignorance lies in education and an awareness of the customs and practices of others so that apparently strange people and foreign habits are appreciated and understood. And, perhaps, a greater awareness of our own instincts and impulses.
The old witch drooled as her spell neared completion. The cat and the demon crowded around her.
'It's Halloween night, my lovely ones,' she cackled, 'It's cold out. We'd better have this soup before we go to keep us warm.'
'Yes mum,' answered the demon, his mask already slipping from his face.
The cat returned to the fire.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow