The Witch Trials
A Look Back on the Unforgivable Accusations and Executions that Happened in the British Dark Ages
After being invaded by Christians in the 1st century, the Celts eventually started going into hiding in the enchanted forests of the British Isles. Spell-casting finally went entirely underground with the last Druid “Merlin” (Myrddin of Emrys) and it didn’t resurface again until the first Wiccan “Scire” (Gerald Gardner). The former lived in 6th-century Scotland while the latter lived in 20th-century England. The time between those two great sorcerers was the British Dark Ages. This is when society began to turn in on itself in many ways. Nonetheless, in the 14th century the whole of Europe still more or less tolerated the use of spells, believing witchcraft to be the harmless superstitions of folk medicine healers. The old pagan ways just gradually became a thing of the past as Christianity became the new status quo. However the wise old crone of the village wasn’t seen as evil in any way, and herbalist midwives were not yet suspected of serving Satan. The use of potions and charms was still somewhat commonplace and only seen as taboo if anything at all. The people that still used these things were known as the “cunning folk”.
Of course, many of the people that the witch hunters went after in the years to come would not actually be cunning folk, they were often just ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time who just got swept up in all the religious fervor. It really all began in the year 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII declared witchcraft to be a heresy that was punishable by death. Two years later the Malleus Maleficarum or “Hammer of the Witches” was published as a guidebook for which hunters. This was then translated into all the major languages of Europe and spread far and wide throughout the land. Things got so bad in some places that more people were dying than they knew what to do with, but they just kept executing more and more innocent victims. At one point the Germans burned so many suspected witches at the stake that the sides of people’s houses became coated in fat. The atrocities that took place back then are almost unimaginably horrific. Mass hysteria quickly became a widespread epidemic in one kingdom after another, and thousands upon thousands of lives were lost in a relatively short period of time. The Witch Hunts were well underway, to say the least. The gloves were off and the Church was on yet another crazy crusade to spread the Gospels of Jesus and cleanse the world of evil, only this time there was a new group of heretics to go after.
As part of this, one day while they were on their way to Denmark, King James VI of Scotland and his wife nearly died in a severe storm at sea. Then, the king had his first encounter with accused witches, in April of 1590, when two women were arrested in Copenhagen. To his shock and dismay, they confessed to having conjured up the violent wind and rain that had nearly sank their ships, in an attempt to assassinate the royal family and restore the former glory of the ancient Britons, like the builders of Stonehenge. Later, five more suspected witches were convicted of the same crime against the church and state. They were all burned at the stake as a result of this. Then, having returned to Scotland, King James believed the scourge of witchcraft had followed him home. The main instigator in all of this paranoia was a man named David Seaton. He worked as a bailiff in a small town about 10 miles east of Edinburgh. In November of that same year, he claimed that Gillis Duncan had suddenly acquired healing powers. Seaton even claimed that the woman would leave late at night to presumably enter the woods and be with her coven. The following year this was all recounted in a pamphlet which was then circulated around the community. It told of the cruel torture of Gillis whose hands were completely mangled in thumbscrews. She endured excruciating pain but refused to confess to a crime that she didn’t commit. So the sadistic bailiff then moved up from breaking fingers to crushing skulls. Wrenching was done with ropes wrapped around her head which slowly cracked her face in on itself with each tightening. The more that she resisted offering up a confession, the worse it got for her. The fact was that Seaton would stop at nothing to break her, so when he finally found the “Devil’s Mark” on her body she confessed.
The sad thing is that the power-hungry pervert simply got off on watching her writhe around in agony. So the way I see it, if the Devil existed at all it must have surely been in him, not in her but that isn’t the way that King James saw things. As far as he was concerned, witches were definitely after him, and guys like Seaton were the only ones who could possibly save the throne from the Crown Prince of Hell and all of his evil whores. After all Gillis Duncan had given up the names of eight other women, who in turn accused even more people of taking part in the dark arts so the snowball effect began an avalanche of allegations that targeted more than a hundred people. Many of these suspected witches were even implicated in the attempted assassination that had happened in Copenhagen all those years before, which of course got the king’s full attention. As such, in 1597 King James VI of Scotland published the book Demonology, and then he went on to become King James I of England and Ireland in 1603. A couple of years later Guy Fawkes and the gang nearly blew him up in the infamous Gunpowder Plot. This made the king very paranoid. On top of that, he had been raised as a Presbyterian who became absolutely terrified of the Devil. He also came to believe that witches were conspiring to kill him in every manner possible, particularly after having nearly been drowned by seven wicked enchantresses. King James inevitably became wholly consumed by paranoid delusions, thinking that anyone and everyone might be out to get him. As far as King James was concerned, he had successfully uncovered a cabal of Devil worshipers in an international conspiracy to seize the crown. However, in reality, he had done nothing more than offend a few of the cunning folk by spreading Christendom in the land of the Celts. Thus, the 17th century gave rise to the Witch Trials, and the Witch Hunts took on new form and meaning.
The King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611. The following year the Pendle witches were prosecuted after a nine-year-old girl named Jennet Device was made to testify against her own mother. Normally a child wouldn’t have been allowed to serve as a primary witness in court, however, King James had stated in Demonology that children should be able to testify in court as long as it was against accused witches. This set a very dangerous precedent. Then, in 1618 Dalton’s Country Justice was published. This would go on to be used in Britain as well as the British colonies by magistrates during Witch Trials. So, alleged witches were persecuted and prosecuted in both Europe and North America, only a few centuries ago. Things got really out of hand rather quickly. In fact, with a bit of poetic justice in a rather ironic twist of fate, 22 years after she had testified as the first minor to ever be a witness in the entire history of the courts of England, Jennet Device was accused of being a witch herself. A ten-year-old star witness named Edmund Robinson told a story about a bunch of witches gathered at a house, just as she had. Little did he know that he was just recounting an embellished story that he had heard, which is the tale of her case. So, he effectively used her own words against her, albeit unwittingly. She may not even have made the connection herself. Then, again, she did spend the rest of her life in jail, so she probably had time to figure a lot of things out. In the end, since the Witch Trials began to get curbed somewhat as time went on, she was not found to be a witch, but the law still required her to pay for the time that she spent in jail in order to get out. So, the longer she was there the more it would have cost to get out and she had no way to earn money. Thus, Jennet Device died behind bars, having never really been found guilty of anything at all.
To make matters worse, in 1629 King Charles I of England granted a religious splinter group permission to travel to New England where they would settle and govern a theocratic colony in the Massachusetts Bay. A generation later, the first Witch Trial in the New World happened in Charlestown in 1648. According to the historical records, a midwife named Margaret Jones was the first woman to ever be accused of witchcraft in the British colonies. She was then hanged for being rumored to be a seer, who was also found to have a “witch’s teat”. This began the practice of shaving the accused from head to toe and then searching them over for anything “unnatural”. It was believed that certain blemishes were actually something akin to a nipple, from which familiars would suckle while in animal form, and which the Devil himself would suck upon during forbidden rites of fornication. The villagers would often pierce the blemishes to see if any pain was felt or blood was drawn. If not, they assumed them to be supernatural in origin. This must have been totally humiliating in their prude society which expressed repressed sexual desires in this bizarre manner. Again, the whole thing seems rather sadistic and completely perverse. Stripping women naked, shaving their entire bodies, groping them for witch’s teats, torturing them, and then watching them be slowly strangled to death by a noose. The prudish Puritans had set themselves up for failure by pretending not to be carnal animals, and their repressed feelings took on the twisted form of trials. The sinister mob psychology was absolutely pervasive among the frenzied Puritans who had convinced themselves that they were just doing God’s work, thus blinding them to their hatred of their neighbors and the injustices that it unleashed.
The Witch Trials always found a way to get the best of all the accused, no matter what it seemed. It turns out that people will say anything someone wants them to if they put them in enough pain. These barbaric practices were intentionally designed by the Presbyterians and the Puritans in an effort to abolish witchcraft once and for all. The backward superstitious villagers had a zero-tolerance policy for witches, including anyone that was too ugly or nosy or cranky or slutty or whatever else they didn’t like. This wasn’t just about counteracting the agents of Hell, it had profound sociopolitical implications as well. After all, the Bible does say, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” So, anyone that had anything to gain by the death of anyone else could easily arrange for the community to kill them. When the testimony seemed too weak they would even let people offer up any “spectral evidence” that they might have, as well. After all, you simply can’t prove that a spell has been cast, so what were the witch hunters to do? Thus, in 1692 if a skin tag or hairy mole couldn’t be said to be a witch’s teat, then one could always just say that someone’s spirit-form had attacked them. There were even witnesses that acted like they were being harmed right in front of the magistrate and the community. People would even come from the big city of Boston to go to see the spectacles in the village of Salem, outside the small town of Salem. The sparse wilderness settlement only had a population of 500, so by the time that 200 of them had been suspected of being witches a total of 20 of those were executed and 5 more went to jail where they eventually died. This was mass hysteria writ large, and the village just couldn’t handle it.
Still, the Puritans believed that the Devil could take on the form of any witch to make someone think that it was really just that person and not Satan. This allowed people to shape communities around certain families and particular ministers, by killing off or locking up anyone that got in their way. The supposedly god-fearing villagers were really self-serving sadists. The local lore surrounding all of this seems to have really taken off with the Boston Minister Cotton Mather. He described the behavior of accused witches and the symptoms of possessed children as well as many other outlandish things in a widely circulated book entitled Memorable Providences. The publication and dissemination of that manuscript changed the zeitgeist here in Massachusetts much for the worse. I’m actually writing this from Spencer Massachusetts which is quite progressive now, but this place was as conservative as it gets back then. Three centuries ago there was a really dark cloud that covered much of this area. Fortunately, all of those superstitious people eventually realized the error of their ways and they eventually got a handle on their hysteria. Still, more than 100,000 people were accused of being witches over the span of several centuries, most of which all happened in Europe. Ultimately, the point is that religious fervor can and still does control the lives of people all around the world. The moral of the story would seem to be that we need to have freedom of religion or no religion at all. If people can’t learn to be tolerant of the beliefs of others then spirituality may be destroyed by religiosity in the process. Contrary to what the atheists assume, this would not be a good thing. We must preserve the ethnosphere or we will do unspeakable damage to our immortal souls as a whole. That’s the opposite of the way that things are meant to be. If the whole of humanity can’t make room for everyone’s beliefs as decent civilized cosmopolitans, then we won’t last much longer. In the end, if the lessons of the Witch Trials go unlearned then all will be lost. That’s why people have to learn to coexist. So, let the bumper sticker slogan be your mantra.
As an afterthought, I feel that it’s important to understand that there has never been and will never be a well-organized group of devil worshipers anywhere in the world. This is all just the result of media hype backed by urban legends. The truth is that my wife is actually a card-carrying member of the Church of Satan which makes her a “Satanic Witch”. However, the founder of her faith, Anton LaVey, didn’t create a cult of fiends who want nothing more than to sacrifice babies. The whole notion of a secret society of devil-worshiping, demon-conjuring, spell-casting evil-doers is a total myth. In line with this, all the official Satanists that I’ve met have been fine upstanding individuals who want nothing more than to create a better world, not to destroy the only one that we have. With that being said, I strongly encourage you to help foster more diversity by having religious tolerance of those of any faith, regardless of what their religion might be. Our species simply can’t afford for witch hunts to go on any longer, so the extremists have to give in. The world is definitely big enough to accommodate all the theists and atheists alike, as well as Christians and Satanists, along with the Wiccans and everyone else too. After all, there’s no point in arguing about something that can never be proven anyway. Thanks for reading, and please be nice to each other.