Even the newspapers generally play along, running the results of polls that ask Americans how many actually believe in such mythological creatures as ghosts, trolls and witches.
But witches are not mythological creatures, of course. They were the very real practitioners of a religion which pre-dated Christianity in Europe, and which had coexisted quite peaceably with the new Christian church for more than 1,000 years, from the Council of Nicaea until the fateful year 1484 A.D., under the quite sensible rule of the Canon Episcopi, which instructed Christian clerics through all those years that -- in cases where sorcery or commerce with the devil was charged but could not be proven -- it was the accuser, not the accused, who was to suffer the penalty for those crimes.
Needless to say, this held false charges to a minimum.
All that changed after 1484, when an ambitious but ethically challenged Dominican friar and embezzler by the name of Heinrich Kramer managed to convince Pope Innocent VIII to set the Holy Office of the Inquisition onto the witches, using torture to extract confessions, authorizing anonymous accusations without any right for the accused to face her accuser, and granting the soon-busy witch-hunters the rights to seize and divide the estates of the accused (who were always found guilty), an invitation to systematic legal looting so foul that it was never allowed again in Western history ... until our current War on Drugs, of course.
Millions of persons -- some doubtless practitioners of the Old Craft, but many, especially in later years, just as doubtless falsely accused -- were burned or hanged before the burning times faded away with a kind of embarrassed shrug in the early 1700s.
The crime of which they were accused? Worshipping a female deity, a goddess of the earth, and her male consort, the goat-horned male god of fertility.
Christian clerics, themselves mostly illiterate, called this female deity “the abomination,” which has subsequently been interpreted to mean the horned devil of Hebrew tradition. But practitioners of a fertility cult would have had little reason to mock the late-comer Christianity by hanging crosses upside down or reciting masses backwards. “Satanism,” to the extent that it ever existed (and I suspect more black masses were chanted on London film sets in the 1960s and ’70s than anywhere in the four centuries preceding), is a very different thing.
Why should we care about the fate of the witches? For starters, it appears the witches stressed not the superiority of either sex over the other, but rather a balance between male and female principles -- an obvious notion for early agriculturalists trying to come to a metaphorical understanding of the germination of crops in the “mother” earth thanks to the intervention of those primeval “male” agencies, the sun and the rain.
But the culture which destroyed the witches was not merely male-dominated. The history of our European ancestors of the 16th and 17th centuries presents a spectacle of bloodthirsty intolerance, a perverse catalogue of self-flagellation and repulsion at sexuality which found outlet only in the frenzied drive to subjugate and enslave both the natural world and any other culture that presented itself. No matter how we may celebrate their competitive superiority from a safe distance, this was clearly a bunch of sick puppies.
Was it the plagues, which quite often left the continent literally in the hands of teenagers?
Whatever the reason, using their superior technology of sail and cannon, and helped mightily by bacteriological allies to which they had developed at least partial immunity, the Europeans didn’t merely conquer the indigenous populations of the Americas, they ruthlessly eradicated whole cultures, and with them any medical or other knowledge they might have had to offer, sweeping all aside as the “spawn of the devil.”
Meantime, European women were being stripped of their property and other rights (many “witches,” curiously, were widows of independent means), at precisely the time when their presence in the councils of church and state might have maintained some semblance of sanity.
The Europeans of the time adopted little of our hypocritical modern-day pretense of being horrified at “drug use” per se -- they happily imported coffee, tobacco, opium, and cocaine. In fact, they forced the opium trade on China when it proved to be the only thing for which the Chinese would trade silver bullion.
But while they reveled in novel forms of drunkenness, what did horrify those brave conquerors was the use of any hallucinogenic substance as a means to religious revelation, a superstitious dread of alternative paths to spiritual enlightenment which still hangs on in our aforementioned and thoroughly irrational “War on Drugs.”
(Which drug is involved in more incidents of spouse battery and inter-family murder by a factor of millions-to-1: alcohol or LSD? Which will get you 20 years in the federal pen, while the other now comes in convenient “wide-mouth 12-packs”?)
The wholesale eradication of the cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas was justified not because of their practice of slavery and ritual slaughter -- Pizarro and Cortez would have found those familiar enough -- but because they were found to be using peyotl, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and ololiuhqui (a variety of morning glory seed) in their religious rituals, sure signs of “witchcraft,” and coincidentally a method of seeking direct revelations from the gods which really delivered the goods -- hardly fair competition for the modest little Spanish communion wafer.
Why did the conquistadors relate such practices to the witches back home? Because the witches, too, in a triumph of empirical science (Northern Europe has no reliably safe natural hallucinogens), had found ways to turn such normally deadly poisons as henbane, monkshood, and belladonna into an externally-applied ointment which would promote religious revelation by inducing a sensation of flying, followed by ecstatic visions.
(The stuff worked best when applied to the mucous membranes with a smooth wooden rod or staff -- the “witch’s broomstick” of our modern Halloween.)
This was the great evil of the witches, and the justification for destroying millennia of the materia medica which they had gathered -- the traditional folk knowledge of medicinal plants which was largely destroyed with the Wise Women of 16th and 17th century Europe, and which we are only painfully piecing together again today.
It’s commonly held that this order of midwives and herbal healers were a superstitious lot, rejecting the more “scientific” advances of the academically trained doctors of their time.
The truth is just the opposite. What could be more scientific than carefully observing and noting the effects of medicinal herbs over a period of generations? What could be a more superstitious pile of nonsense than the theories of the 2nd century quack Galen, whose theory that health is dominated by the “four humours” remained gospel for centuries, refined with the addition of harsh purgatives and the exquisite nonsense of blood-letting?
So fatal was the standard practice of medicine in the centuries after the witches were eliminated that most leading statesmen of the time -- George Washington included -- died while being bled by doctors. (Washington woke up with a sore throat at the age of 67, and died within 48 hours after receiving a cathartic enema, being dosed with poisonous mercury and antimony, and having literally half his blood -- four pints -- drained from his body, all in keeping with the best medical advice of the day.)
All three of Louis XVI’s elder brothers were killed by the blood-letting of physicians during youthful illnesses. The last direct heir to the Bourbon throne was preserved only after the queen mother bundled him away to a locked room and refused on pain of death to let any of the court physicians have at him.
Superstition? Ask most modern patients whether they would rather be injected with a purified white extract, or swallow a tea made from the same herb, and see whether there isn’t a “superstitious” preference for the power of the magic syringe or even for surgery over the remedy in its naturally-occurring form, even when the latter offers better control of dosage and side effects. Chew up a bunch of bug-eaten leaves? How primitive!
The ancient Egyptians were fighting infection with fruit molds as early as the date of the Ebers papyrus, but thousands had to die of pneumonia, puerperal fever and meningitis, all through the late Middle Ages and right through the 19th century, before Fleming could get anyone to take another look at penicillin. It was with similar reluctance -- and not until 1795, when Napoleon seemed likely to put them all out of business unless they got practical in a hurry -- that the established brotherhood of “scientific” physicians finally acknowledged that the “old wives’ remedy,” lemon juice, was a better cure for naval scurvy than all their acids and caustic salts put together.
This is the tradition of ignorance, intolerance, and futility which we honor when we dress up our children to ridicule warty old witches, or when we protest (as parents groups in Le Mesa, Calif. and elsewhere continue to do every year) that Roald Dahls’ book “The Witches” should be banned from school libraries because it “portrays witches as ordinary-looking women.”
Only the dimming effects of time -- and the fact that the Inquisition pretty much got them all -- render this outrage acceptable. To find a modern parallel, imagine the (fully appropriate) public outcry if it were discovered that some small town in Bavaria, from which for some undisclosed reason all the Jewish families disappeared in 1942, had since decided to launch a new Halloween custom, in which many of the town’s blonde-haired little children were dressed up in yarmulkes and artificially large beaked noses, and sent out to play pranks and demand loot under the guise of being “nasty little Jews.” Imagine further that the more religious local townfolk demanded the removal of certain children’s books from the local library, because they depicted Jews as “people of ordinary human appearance.”
A healthy skepticism about many of our modern-day “witches” and some of their New Age mumbo jumbo may be in order ... though surely it’s not up to us to choose which of their exotic notions it’s “acceptable” to explore.
But shall we extend our inherited intolerance to the many serious researchers now trying to rediscover the healing properties of plants, to overcome centuries of medical libel designed to convince us that mild-mannered natural remedies which can take weeks to rebuild our immunities are not worth our time, that the only valuable medicines are purified (and thus patentable) toxins that kill “bad” cells in a test tube, no matter how much damage they cause the “host organism” in the process?
Excepting the odd mountain hamlet in Gwynedd, the Tirol, and the Hebrides, our direct links to the Wise Women of old are probably lost for good. But rediscovering their worldview, a beneficent vision of humankind inextricably balanced in nature’s mandala, is a journey well worth beginning anew -- perhaps even on the night of the Samhain moon.