“Witch”

“Witch”

 

The Random House College Dictionary derived “witch” from medieval English wicche, formerly Anglo-Saxon wicca (masculine), or wicce (feminine): a corruption of witga, short form of witega, a seer or diviner; from Anglo-Saxon witan, to see, to know. Similarly, Icelandic vitki, a witch, came from vita, to know; or vizkr, clever or knowing one. Wizard came from Norman French wischard. Old French guiscart, sagacious one. The surname Whittaker came from Witakarlege, a Wizard or a Witch. The words “wit” and “wisdom” came from the same roots.

There were many other words for witches, such as Incantatrix, Lamia, Saga, Maga, Malefica, Sortilega, Strix, Venefica. In Italy a witch was a strega or Janara, an old title of a priestess of Jana (Juno). English writers called witches both “hags” and “fairies,” words which were once synonymous. Witches had metaphoric titles: bacularia, “stick-rider”; fascinatrix, “one with the evil eye”; herberia, “one who gathers herbs”; strix, “screech-owl”; pixidria, “keeper of an ointment-box”; femina saga, “wise-woman”; lamia, “night-monster”; incantator, “worker of charms”; magus, “wise-man”; sortiariae mulier, “seeress”; veneficia, “poisoner”; maliarda, “evil-doer.” Latin treatises called Witches anispex, auguris, divinator, januatica, ligator, mascara, phitonissa, stregula.

Dalmatian witches were krstaca, “crossed ones,” a derivative of the Greek Christos In Holland a witch was wijsseggher, “wise-sayer,” from which came the English “wiseacre.” The biblical passage that supported centuries of persecution, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18), used the Hebrew word kasaph, translated “witch” although it means a seer or diviner.

Early medieval England had female clan-leaders who exercised matriarchal rights in lawgiving and law enforcement; the Magna Carta of Chester called them iudices de wich (judges who were witches). Female elders once had political power among the clans, but patriarchal religion and law gradually took it away from them and called them witches in order to dispose of them. In 1711. Addison observed that “When an old woman begins to doat and grow chargeable to a Parish, she is generally turned into a witch.”

Reginald Scot remarked that the fate of a witch might be directly proportional to her fortune. The pope made saints out of rich witches, but poor witches were burned. Among many examples tending to support this opinion was the famous French Chambre Ardente affair, which involved many members of the aristocracy and the upper-class clergy in a witch cult. Numerous male and female servants were tortured and burned for assisting their masters in working witchcraft; but in all the four years the affair dragged on, no noble person was tortured or executed.

Illogically enough, the authorities persecuted poor, outcast folk as witches, yet professed to believe witches could provide themselves with all the wealth anyone could want. Reginald Scot, a disbeliever, scornfully observed that witches were said to “transfer their neighbors’ corn into their own ground, and yet are perpetual beggars, and cannot enrich themselves, either with money or otherwise: who is so foolish as to remain longer in doubt of their supernatural powers?” Witchcraft brought so little profit to Helen Jenkenson of Northants, hanged in 1612 for bewitching a child, that the record of her execution said: “Thus ended this woman her miserable life, after she had lived many years poor, wretched, scorned and forsaken of the world.”

“Women which be commonly old, lame, blear-eyed, pale, foul, and full of wrinkles; poor, sullen, superstitious, and papists; or such as know no religion; in whose drowsy minds the devil hath gotten a fine seat; so as, what mischief, mischance, calamity, or slaughter is brought to pass, they are easily persuaded the same is done by themselves . . . They are lean and deformed, showing melancholy in their faces, to the horror of all that see them. They are doting, scolds, mad, devilish; and not much differing from them that are thought to be possessed with spirits.”

Persecutors said it was heretical to consider witches harmless. Even in England, where witches were not burned but hanged, some authorities fearfully cited the “received opinion” that a witch’s body should be burned to ashes to prevent ill effects arising from her blood. Churchmen assured the arresting officers that a witch’s power was lost the instant she was touched by an employee of the Inquisition; but the employees themselves were not so sure.

Numerous stories depict the persecutors’ fear of their victims. It was said in the Black Forest that a witch blew in her executioner’s face, promising him his reward; the next day he was afflicted with a fatal leprosy. Inquisitors’ handbooks directed them to wear at all times a bag of salt consecrated on Palm Sunday; to avoid looking in a witch’s eyes; and to cross themselves constantly in the witches’ prison. Peter of Berne forgot this precaution, and a captive witch by enchantment made him fall down a flight of stairs – which he proved later by torturing her until she confirmed it.

Numerous stories depict the persecutors’ fear of their victims. It was said in the Black Forest that a witch blew in her executioner’s face, promising him his reward; the next day he was afflicted with a fatal leprosy. Inquisitors’ handbooks directed them to wear at all times a bag of salt consecrated on Palm Sunday; to avoid looking in a witch’s eyes; and to cross themselves constantly in the witches’ prison. Peter of Berne forgot this precaution, and a captive witch by enchantment made him fall down a flight of stairs – which he proved later by torturing her until she confirmed it.

Numerous stories depict the persecutors’ fear of their victims. It was said in the Black Forest that a witch blew in her executioner’s face, promising him his reward; the next day he was afflicted with a fatal leprosy. Inquisitors’ handbooks directed them to wear at all times a bag of salt consecrated on Palm Sunday; to avoid looking in a witch’s eyes; and to cross themselves constantly in the witches’ prison. Peter of Berne forgot this precaution, and a captive witch by enchantment made him fall down a flight of stairs – which he proved later by torturing her until she confirmed it.

Any unusual ability in a woman instantly raised a charge of witchcraft. The so-called Witch of Newbury was murdered by a group of soldiers because she knew how to go “surfing” on the river. Soldiers of the Earl of Essex saw her doing it, and were “as much astonished as they could be,” seeing that “to and fro she fleeted on the board standing firm bolt upright . . . turning and winding it which way she pleased, making it pastime to her, as little thinking who perceived her tricks, or that she did imagine that they were the last she ever should show.” Most of the soldiers were afraid to touch her, but a few brave souls ambushed the board-rider as she came to shore, slashed her head, beat her, and shot her, leaving her “detested carcass to the worms.”

From ruthlessly organized persecutions on the continent, witch-hunts in England became largely cases of village feuds and petty spite. If crops failed, horses ran away, cattle sickened, wagons broke, women miscarried, or butter wouldn’t come in the churn, a witch was always found to blame. Marion Cumlaquoy of Orkney was burned in 1643 for turning herself three times widdershins, to make her neighbor’s barley crop rot. A tailor’s wife was executed for quarrelling with her neighbor, who afterward saw a snake on his property, and his children fell sick. One witch was condemned for arguing with a drunkard in an alehouse. After drinking himself into paroxysms of vomiting, he accused her of bewitching him, and he was believed.

A woman was convicted of witchcraft for having caused a neighbor’s lameness – by pulling off her stockings. Another was executed for having admired a neighbor’s baby, which afterward fell out of its cradle and died. Two Glasglow witches were hanged for treating a sick child, even though the treatment succeeded and the child was cured. Joan Cason of Kent went to the gallows in 1586 for having dry thatch on her roof. Her neighbor, whose child was sick, was told by an unidentified traveler that the child was bewitched, and it could be proved by stealing a bit of thatch from the witch’s roof and throwing it on the fire. If it crackled and sparked, witchcraft was assured. The test came out positive, and the court was satisfied enough to convict poor Joan.

Witches were convenient scapegoats for doctors who failed to cure their patients, for it was the “received” belief that witch-caused illnesses were incurable. Weyer said, “Ignorant and clumsy physicians blame all sicknesses which they are unable to cure or which they have treated wrongly, on witchery.” There were also priests and monks who “claim to understand the healing art and they lie to those who seek help that their sicknesses are derived from witchery.” Most real witch persecutions reflect “no erotic orgies, no Sabbats or elaborate rituals; merely the hatreds and spites of narrow peasant life assisted by vicious laws.”

Witches provided a focus for sexist hatred in male-dominated society, as one writer pointed out:

“The spirit of the Church in its contempt for women, as shown in the Scriptures, in Paul’s epistles and the Pentateuch, the hatred of the fathers, manifested in their ecclesiastical canons, and in the doctrines of asceticism, celibacy, and witchcraft, destroyed man’s respect for woman and legalized the burning, drowning, and torturing of women . . . “Women and their duties became objects of hatred to the Christian missionaries and of alternate scorn and fear to pious ascetics and monks. The priestess mother became something impure, associated with the devil, and her lore an infernal incantation, her very cooking a brewing of poison, nay, her very existence a source of sin to man. Thus, woman, as mother and priestess, became woman as witch. . . . Here is the reason why in all the Biblical researches and higher criticism, the scholars never touch the position of women.”

Men displayed a lively interest in the physical appearance of witches, seeking to know how to recognize them-as men also craved rules for recognizing other types of women from their physical appearance. It was generally agreed that any woman with dissimilar eyes was a witch. Where most people had dark eyes and swarthy complexions, as in Spain and Italy, pale blue eyes were associated with witchcraft. Many claimed any woman with red hair was a witch.

This may have been because red-haired people are usually freckled, and freckles were often identified as “witch marks,” as were moles, warts, birthmarks, pimples, pockmarks, cysts, liver spots, wens, or any other blemish. Some witch-finders said the mark could resemble an insect bite or an ulcer.

No one ever explained how the witch mark differed from an ordinary blemish. Since few bodies were unblemished, the search for the mark seldom failed. Thomas Ady, one of the few 17th-century English debunkers of the witchcraft craze, author of A Perfect Discovery of Witches (1661), recognized this, and wrote: “Very few people in the world are without privy marks upon their bodies, as moles or stains, even such as witchmongers call the devil’s privy marks.” But no one paid attention to this.

Trials were conducted with as much injustice as possible. In 1629 Isobel Young was accused of crippling by magic a man who had quarreled with her, and causing a water mill to break down. She protested that the man was lame before their quarrel, and water mills can break down through neglect. The prosecutor. Sir Thomas Hope, threw out her defense on the ground that it was “contrary to the libel,” that is, it contradicted the charge. When a witch is on trial, Reginald Scot said, any “equivocal or doubtful answer is taken for a confession.”

On the other hand, no answer at all was a confession too. Witches who refused to speak were condemned: “Witchcraft proved by silence of the accused.” Sometimes mere playfulness “proved” witchcraft, as in the case of Mary Spencer, accused in 1634 because she merrily set her bucket rolling downhill and ran before it, calling it to follow her. Sometimes women were stigmatized as witches when they were in fact victims of unfair laws, such as the law that accepted any man’s word in court ahead of any number of women’s. A butcher in Germany stole some silver vessels from women, then had them prosecuted for witchcraft by claiming that he found the vessels in the woods where the women were attending a witches’ Sabbat.

Sometimes the accusation of witchcraft was a form of punishment for women who were too vocal about their disillusionment with men and their preference for living alone. Historical literature has many references to “the joy with which women after widowhood set up their own households, and to the vigor with which they resisted being courted by amorous widowers.” The solitary life, however, left a woman even more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, since men usually thought she must be somehow controlled.

Those who tortured the unfortunate defendant into admitting witchcraft used a euphemistic language that showed the victim was condemned a priori. One Anne Marie de Georgel denied making a devil’s pact, until by torture she was “justly forced to give an account of herself,” the record said. Catherine Delort was “forced to confess by the means we have power to use to make people speak the truth,” and she was “convicted of all the crimes we suspected her of committing, although she protested her innocence for a long time.” The inquisitor Nicholas Rémy professed a pious astonishment at the great number of witches who expressed a “positive desire for death,” pretending not to notice that they had been brought to this desire by innumerable savage tortures.

The extent to which pagan religion, as such, actually survived among the witches of the 16th and 17th centuries has been much discussed but never decided. Dean Church said, “Society was a long time unlearning heathenism; it has not done so yet; but it had hardly begun, at any rate it was only just beginning, to imagine the possibility of such a thing in the eleventh century.” In 15th-century Bohemia it was still common practice at Christmas and other holidays to make offerings to “the gods,” rather than to God. European villages still had many “wise-women” who acted as priestesses officially or unofficially. Since church fathers declared Christian priestesses unthinkable, all functions of the priestess were associated with paganism. Bishops described pagan gatherings in their dioceses, attended by “devils . . . in the form of men and women.” Pagan ceremonies were allowed to survive in weddings, folk festivals, seasonal rites, feasts of the dead, and so on. But when women or Goddesses played the leading role in such ceremonies, there was more determined suppression. John of Salisbury wrote that it was the devil, “with God’s permission,” who sent people to gatherings in honor of the Queen of the Night, a priestess impersonating the Moon-goddess under the name of Noctiluca or Herodiade.

The Catholic church applied the word “witch” to any woman who criticized church policies. Women allied with the 14th-century Reforming Franciscans, some of whom were burned for heresy, were described as witches, daughters of Judas, and instigated of the Devil. Writers of the Talmud similarly tended to view nearly all women as witches. They said things like, “Women are naturally inclined to witchcraft,” and “The more women there are, the more witchcraft there will be.”

Probably there were few sincere practitioners, compared with the multitudes who were railroaded into the ecclesiastical courts and legally murdered despite their innocence. Yet it was obvious to even the moderately intelligent that Christian society deliberately humiliated and discriminated against women. Some may have been resentful enough to become defiant. “Women have had no voice in the canon law, the catechisms, the church creeds and discipline, and why should they obey the behests of a strictly masculine religion, that places the sex at a disadvantage in all life’s emergencies? Possibilities for expressing their frustration and defiance were severely limited; but voluntary adoption of the witch’s reputation and behavior was surely among such possibilities.