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HomeBeginning Wicca, Favorites, The Tree, Witch The Burning Times Myth


The Burning Times Myth

Other Author

(Note from Daven:  Let me be clear; this is NOT my article.  I have reprinted it here with the original author’s permission.  I think this is one of the best articles of this type that I know of, and it points a lot of facts out to us all.  I advise that everyone read this, read this, read this.  The original article can be found at http://www.anglo-saxon.demon.co.uk/Skvala/burning.html)


by Arlea Æðelwyrd Hunt-Anschütz

witch burning

 “Never again the burning times!” This familiar motto recalls a modern myth popular in Wicca and Witchcraft circles that tells how millions of Goddess worshippers practicing “the Old Religion” in were hunted down, tortured and burned during the 15th-18th centuries by a Christian Church desperate to eliminate the last remaining Pagans in Europe. This myth, or various permutations of it, continues to be taught as “well known historical fact” in many Wicca 101 courses and Intro to Witchcraft lectures. It is frequently referred to in books and articles written by Wiccans for Wiccans. These days, the theory that the victims of the Great Witch Hunt were Pagans is given about as much credence by academic historians as the theory that aliens from another planet built the pyramids. But although it’s rejected by those who have actually analyzed the evidence, the Burning Times Myth continues to be unquestioningly accepted by many modern witches, and must therefore serve some psychological or sociological purpose. But could this same purpose be better served by discarding the myth in favor of the truth?

The major source of The Burning Times Myth is Margaret Murray’s 1921 book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe in which she attempted to use evidence from (mainly Scottish) witch trials to reconstruct the rites and rituals of a European witch cult, which, she claimed, was a survival of a ancient Pan-European Pagan religion. Over the past 75 years, academic historians have criticized Margaret Murray’s methodology and conclusions and have proved many of her assertions to be blatantly false. She altered her witch trial data to suit her pre-conceived ideas, ignoring evidence that didn’t fit, and she completely disregarded other sorts of historical data that were directly relevant to her claims.

Some of the faults with Margaret Murray’s historical research are summarized in The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton (p.303)

Dr Murray’s ignorance of ancient Paganism in Western Europe prevented her from realizing that the rituals imputed to early modern witches were not antique rites but parodies of contemporary Christian ceremonies and social mores. Her failure to study Continental sources obviated the need to wonder why the Great Witch Hunt was confined to certain places and certain times, and why the ‘witch cult’ failed to persist in areas in which it was never persecuted. But even her limited information and sphere of interest should have driven her to ask why it was that, out of a genuine popular religion, it was almost always the female devotees who were arrested. Or why the Devil at the covens, whom she insisted was a mortal man in disguise, was never once apprehended.

Hutton goes on to state that (p.306): “During the past two decades a score of detailed local studies of the Great Witch Hunt, spanning Europe, have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that its victims were not practitioners of an Old Religion.” The lengthy footnote attached to this statement references 20 books and articles on the subject.

So what’s the real story with the “burning times”? The 40,000 or so victims of the Great Witch Hunt, which took place in the midst of religious battles between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, weren’t witches, or Goddess-worshippers, or Pagans of any sort. They were Church-going Christians. They tended to be old widowed women who were perceived as a burden on the community, out-spoken younger women who were perceived as a threat to the authorities, sexually promiscuous women, or women whose socio-economic power was a source of envy or fear. The form of “witchcraft” these women were falsely accused of was Satanic, not Pagan. The most popular accusation was that they fornicated with the Devil. Under torture, they often admitted to participating in forms of “the black mass” as fantasized by Christian zealots.

witch riding with devil

The Great Witch Hunt was not an effort by Christian authorities to stamp out Paganism. For all intents and purposes, that had been accomplished long before. In her book Witchcraze, Anne Llewellyn Barstow theorizes over the real motivation behind the Great Witch Hunt and finds its source in the strongly patriarchal and misogynist social structure of early modern Europe. In the final chapter she writes:

I conclude that ruling-class European men looked at and treated their women basically as they did their African slaves and Indian serfs and as they had treated Jews and heretics before them, namely, with increasing violence. Viewing women as property, husbands became more authoritarian, a role no less oppressive for being disguised as paternalism. Just as slavery produced the myth of the good master, so patriarchy created the myth of the benevolent ruler of the family. Viewing women as dangerous (doesn’t the master come to fear the slave?), judges and priests devised a satanic conspiracy theory to punish women who might step out of line. As the sociologist Richard Horsely observed, accusations of witchcraft were “a highly effective means of social control.”

The Witch Trials resulted in an atmosphere of fear which was a very effective way of “keeping women in their place.” Women living in areas where witch-hunts occurred knew that if they asserted themselves in any way which offended the sensibilities of male authorities, religious or secular, they could be falsely accused of being in league with Lucifer and tortured until they admitted it. If a woman’s friend or relative were accused of witchcraft, and she dared to stand up for them in court, she would run the risk of being accused of being a fellow witch and tortured until she confessed that both she and her loved one were guilty.

witch trial

“The Burning Times” have nothing to do with the persecution of Pagans by Christians. Rather, they are an extreme example of the persecution of women within a patriarchal society. Feminists, and anyone who believes in justice and equality for all, should be outraged by the Great Witch Hunt, just as they are outraged about all instances throughout history of the institutionalized oppression of one group of people by another. Remembering those women who were tortured and killed for “stepping out of line” during the 300 years of Witch trials can serve as an inspiration to us to continue to fight for equality of women today in societies around the world.

But when Wiccans use the phrase “Never again the Burning Times,” it tends to be in a context where they are discussing some instance (or perceived instance) of oppression of Neo-Pagan witches by mainstream Christian society, and not in a context where women in general are being oppressed. Now that Margaret Murray’s fantasy of a Pagan Witch Cult whose surviving members were hunted down during the Reformation has been proven to be just that –a fantasy, why do so many Wiccans persist in taking a historical example of widespread misogyny in Western society and narrowing the focus so that Pagan witches, rather than ordinary Christian women, become the victims?

Witches today are a disparate lot, with a plethora of different beliefs and practices. Wiccan organizations are subject to so much infighting that the term “bitchcraft” has come into common usage in Pagan circles. The Burning Times Myth helps to unite the Wiccan community by giving witches a common history of persecution, a common enemy, and a common goal. Gardnerians, Alexandrians, Solitaries and other varieties of witch can all see themselves as survivors of the Great Witch Hunt who need to band together against their Fundamentalist Christian oppressors to ensure that Wiccans receive equal rights and equal opportunities in mainstream society so that the Burning Times never happen again. Whenever witches are negatively portrayed by the media, whenever a Wiccan parent is denied custody in a divorce case, whenever Wiccans who wear pentagrams to work are fired under mysterious circumstances, the Burning Times Myth looms large. Wiccans band together to help put a stop to instances of prejudice and discrimination towards witches because they “know” what can happen if they let it go unchecked. The Burning Times Myth functions as a cautionary tale to motivate Wiccans toward working to achieve their goal of equal rights and opportunities for witches.

woman and devil

The goal is laudable and the motivation seems to work. So why not continue to perpetuate the Burning Times Myth? What’s the harm? One problem with the myth is that, while it inspires Wiccans to fight for acceptance by mainstream society, it helps to keep them from achieving it. A major public misconception that Wiccans have to deal with is the idea that witches worship the Christian Devil. And yet, it’s not unusual for a Wiccan being interviewed by the mainstream media to follow up a statement that witches aren’t Satanists with a statement that they were persecuted by Christians during The Great Witch Hunt. One glance at any witch trial transcript will show that the victims of the burning times were accused of, and confessed to, being Satanists. In fact, the popular modern idea that witches worship the Devil most likely has its roots in the misogynist propaganda surrounding the Great Witch Hunt. By continuing to identify themselves as practitioners of the same religion as those who were burned at the stake for engaging in sex with Satan, Wiccans themselves are guilty of blurring the line between Wicca and Satanism.

Another danger is that by repeating the myth that the victims of the Great Witch Hunt were, indeed, witches, and not simply ordinary women, Wiccans may be helping to perpetuate the very propaganda that let it occur in the first place. The horrors committed against women during the Burning Times were only allowed to continue because of the prevailing message that the victims were “witches”–evil devil-worshippers who were justly punished. This is the same sort of propaganda which was used to justify the horrors perpetrated against Jews during WWII. And yet, today, many mainstream women who are insistent that we should never forget the Holocaust, easily dismiss the Great Witch Hunt with rationalizations like: “Those witches must have done something to deserve it” or “That sort of thing could never happen today” or “That couldn’t happen to me, I’m a Christian.” If more modern women understood that the victims of The Great Witch Hunt were not witches in either the Neo-Pagan or the Satanist sense of the term, but simply women whose behavior was perceived as threatening male authority, the lesson of history might serve to motivate them to risk being labeled trouble-makers and to fight for their rights rather than put up with the daily injustices against women that are the legacy of the patriarchy.

As a non-mainstream religion, Wicca has had to deal with popular misconceptions about, and prejudice against its practitioners. As a Goddess-centered religion, Wicca has long been tied up with the feminist movement and concerned with women’s rights. These two aspects of Wicca are intimately linked, since it can be argued that many of the misconceptions and prejudices surrounding the religion ultimately result from a patriarchal society’s fears of women’s power and sexuality –the same fears that gave rise to the Great Witch Hunt. Addressing these societal fears, and advancing the cause of equal rights for women — all women, is necessarily a good thing for Wicca, since a Goddess-centred religion can only flourish in an atmosphere that encourages an appreciation of feminine qualities and a healthy respect for women. If Wiccans who have usurped “Never Again the Burning Times” as their own motto, offer it up to their non-Wiccan sisters as a feminist battle cry, they will only be gaining allies in their fight for acceptance. Thus, the truth about The Burning Times ultimately holds more power for Wicca than the myth.

 

Back to Skvala Press, and the original author's website

Published in the Spring 1999 issue of Connections Journal Connections
Published in Cup of Wonder Issue Number Two

Originally posted 2015-10-09 18:09:01. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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