The Power of Witches

Even after the kids take off their Halloween costumes, witches remain among us
Debby Reis (The Peak)

BURNABY, B.C. (CUP) — Back in high school, like many other teenaged girls, I became interested in the occult. Witches in particular held interest for me. But the image of a witch in my head went beyond that of the fairy tale hag.

My witch had a mystical beauty about her, and more importantly, she had power. I didn’t quite understand this power, but I knew I wanted it. I learned to read palms and tarot cards, and whenever I looked at someone’s hand, I felt a little bit of that power when their lines and fingertips told me about who they were.

Although reading palms has been reduced to my party trick and a way to flirt with boys, my curiosity about witches and their power lingers. What is it about the idea of a witch that instils awe and fear into little children, that caused hundreds to be burned at the stake and spawned a modern religion?
The witch craze

There are numerous theories to explain why Europe was riddled with witch accusations from the 15th century through the 17th century. Some theorists believe that the church perpetuated witch-hunts in order to subdue pagan religions and, simultaneously, line the church’s pockets with money. Others point to the emerging male-dominated profession of doctors, who wanted the people to be dependent on their own services rather than those of midwives and herbalists.

Superstition, a reaction to the Enlightenment and religious reformation, and even a response to the little ice age that affected crops during the period, are all reasons that have been used to explain the witch craze.

Don’t forget the role of the newly invented printing press, either, which made witch-hunting manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum readily available. First published in 1486, this book, and others like it, instructed inquisitors on how to spot a witch and which questions to ask in order to elicit the “right” answers.

Combined with torture — or sometimes merely the threat of torture — people confessed to doing all the things witches were thought to have done and pointed the inquisitors towards new victims.

A “confessor” would admit to committing the stereotypical witch crimes in order to stop the torture. In turn, the inquisitors would use these “confessions” to confirm the already prevalent superstitions, which would lead to further accusations. This vicious cycle enabled the witch-hunts to continue for three centuries.

It was believed that witches ate infants, using the fat as an ingredient in an ointment that was rubbed all over their bodies. This ointment rendered a witch invisible and gave her the ability to fly to secret sabbats, where numerous witches would meet.

Once there, Christian children were sacrificed, and the whole coven would feast, drink and dance. There would be indiscriminate orgies. Incest taboos, gender roles and other sex norms were disregarded. Witches were thought to have had sex with animals, demons or even the devil himself.

It was also believed that initiation ceremonies involved all of the above-mentioned acts, as well as the oath by the inductee to renounce God and Christ. The witch then promised to worship the devil instead.

After abdicating Christianity, the new witch had to kiss the devil’s buttocks or anus. The devil would then assign the witch a familiar. A familiar was not necessarily a black cat but could also be a dog, bat, toad or other creature usually thought of as loathsome. A witch’s familiar fulfilled the roles of companion, assistant in magical practices and communicator with the otherworld.

In return, the witch had to feed his or her own blood to the familiar from a teat, which could be anywhere on the body. Inquisitors would search for this mark on an accused witch as proof of having made a deal with the devil. Any mark, from a mole to a pimple to a spot insensitive to a pricking pin, would be considered a witch’s teat.

These “witches” ignored conventional social codes, and not just at their sabbats. The authorities were able to apprehend witches on the charge of practising maleficia (magic causing harm). Whenever a crop failed, a farm animal died, a person got sick or any misfortune happened, it was possible that a witch had caused it.

Their magic gave them control over nature and the weather. Storms, insect infestations and natural disasters were commonly blamed on witches practising maleficia. Their magical powers, combined with their disregard for the rules of society, made witches a threat. If everyone started acting this way, what rules would be broken next?

While there were many factors that contributed to the witch hunts of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, a belief in and a fear of witches’ powers helped to propagate the hysteria that caused hundreds of innocents to be tortured to death, hanged or burned at the stake.
Wicca and the modern witch

Modern witches are the followers of the religion Wicca. The religion’s main aspects are spiritual growth, the use of pagan deities, a respect for the environment and, in many traditions, feminine empowerment.

Wicca’s origin myth involves the history of the witch craze and the theories of anthropologist Margaret Murray. The myth claims that the people accused of witchcraft during the craze had in fact been practising the religions of pre-Christian Europe.

Although scholars have condemned Murray’s work for not being thorough enough, Gerald Gardner used Murray’s work as a basis for his new religion. Gardner claimed that in 1939 he had been initiated into one of the last remaining witch covens in Britain. Gardner, along with Doreen Valiente and others, created rituals for the burgeoning religion. Murray even wrote the introduction to one of Gardner’s books, claiming that Gardner’s claim about surviving pagan practices was proof that her witch craze theory was correct.

While this may sound like Wicca is based on a series of falsehoods, the religion’s origins are unimportant to most practitioners. Although it is difficult for many to understand, Wicca’s tenet is not one of belief, but rather, one of ritual.

Wicca is a religion free of dogma and, as a result, the sects within it are innumerable. While some traditions focus on the female deities, others stress the importance of the deity’s duality. Agnostics and atheists have been known to join because they view the religion as symbolic of the changes in the seasons and in life. There are few, if any, taboos, and each coven (and each individual) is free to create, modify or disregard a ritual.

The only tenets in Wicca that seem to have a role in nearly all sects are the use of magick (spelled with a k to distinguish it from performance magic), the “Threefold Law,” and “The Wiccan Rede.” Magick is used in rituals to induce a heightened sense of self and the world. Chanting, dreams, hypnosis, meditation and various other methods can bring on this heightened awareness.

Both the “Threefold Law” and “The Wiccan Rede” are similar to the “Golden Rule.” The “Threefold Law” is the understanding that what one does is returned to him or her multiplied by three, while the “Rede” states that “if it harms none, do what you will.” Both of these tenets provide freedom for Wiccans to do as they wish, with a reminder to consider the effects of their actions.

Wicca is a religion that gives its followers the freedom to believe what they want, to create rituals and to follow their own rules — freedoms that allow one to feel that they have power over one’s own life and destiny.

The Manitoban Online

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *