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Spellbound- The Origin of Witches





* Disclaimer* I am going to be talking alot today about Christianity and its affects on Witchcraft and Paganism, but wish to say I do not hold any hatred towards the above faith- I am simply discussing for my modules research how this religion helped create such fear of this practice throughout history, and am not claiming that this is what Christianity still teaches today. I hope you enjoy reading, and again ask that if you are worried about the topic today, perhaps to miss this one for now as I do not want any upset to be caused! Thank you :)*


For all my references towards the ways in which medieval and tudor people understood our world, it seems that I have as yet not discussed the spark which began this modules inspiration- Witchcraft.


When my group and I were taken to Oxford, we were lucky enough to come upon the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean museum. Within were all number of paraphanalia used for a similarly large variety of purposes- however, the one thing that bound them together, was that they all had been born of earlier people trying to comprehend the world around us, during a time without science and technology to explain things like why seasons changed, or why people got sick. In a world of extreme ups and downs, things like witchcraft it seemed were the only way to name that fear of not waking up in the morning- for these people beliefs such as this gave them a sense of control over the world surrounding them.


Witchcraft is usually said to have been derived from a religious sect that thrived in England before Christianity was brought to our shores- its name was Paganism. Derived by the belief of the sanctity and beauty of the nature surrounding us, their main god or idol was called 'The Triple Goddess' who took many forms including that of a crone, a virgin, a mother and a wise woman. She represented fertilty and wisdom, and everything that was required to keep the world alive and blooming. Sometimes called the horned one as well, its here you begin to see perhaps how christianity took on some of their beliefs, but twisted them to ensure more people followed their faith. History is indeed written by the victor, and during this time, Christianity had been successful in its plans to remove Paganism from English shores. The 'Horned One' became the devil, whose once sacred ability to produce life now came to represent lust and sin, and the goddesses ability to change form a sign of evil magic. Even the sign Pagans used to represent their faith became a sign of the devil and of the evil one- and its because of this that Witchcraft became such a thing to fear.


Suddenly, beliefs had been changed entirely- the practice of herbal magic and understanding of the natural world around us became synonymous with practices against God- that desire to manipulate the world through usage of its fundamental elements seemingly dissapeared overnight. Rather than trust the wise woman at the end of your road, you instead reviled her as a witch. Those people that had formerly offered their help and advice became hedenistic peddlers looking for trouble- in short the confusion created by changing religion so quickly across the nation, could only result eventually in anger and bloodshed. Living within such a climate of fear inevitably caused sparks to fly, and as the heat picked up over if Paganistic practices were truly sinful, by the 1400s, the fires had finally lost control. Henrich Kramer was one of the first to instigate the start of witch hunting ; after writing and publishing the 'Malleus Maleficarum' or 'Hammer Of Witches' in 1447, his teachings were soon approved by the pope himself- a motion which began the murder of countless thousands.


As time went by since its introduction, more and more hunts began- and the ways in which people were trialled became almost as evil as the sin they were trying to destroy. Ducking is one of the most well known and taught about practices to test if the accused was a witch- tying them to a chair, or even binding their fingers to their toes so they were bent backwards, the 'witch' was then thrown in a river or source of deep water, and allowed to drown. If they did die, then they were innocent and their souls would ascend to heaven. If they survived, they were witches, whose pact with the devil in exchange for power had protected them even from Death. Pricking was also a popular form of finding evidence against the accused- stripped naked, the witch in question would be prodded and pierced with extremely sharp nails and pins, until a spot was found where the person did not bleed- the devils spot, the source where all their magic was derived. Ridiculous as it seemed, the fervour around destroying witches and paganism was borne of communities riddled with fear and confusion. New faiths, new rules, new everything- as if the world were not frightening enough, suddenly the people you had gone to for help when sick became monstrous creatures who had tricked you out of mind and pocket- there was nothing stable left to depend on, so when the idea of destroying these people who had begun this chaos was suggested, lots of people joined in to bring a sense of control back into their lives.


The fact then that almost 90% of the accused in England were women, also begs the question of why it is that men mostly were able to avoid the noose or the stake for crimes related to magic. Within the 'Hammer of Witches' it is noted that Kramer did write that women were 'chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions’ and went on to blame her greed, her impressionable nature, her feeble mind and body, her slippery tongue, her jealous nature and her inherently evil disposition for her tendency to give in to the Devil’s influence. If this book were then indeed to be held within half the homes across Britiain, that might explain why it is there is this stereotype. But beyond that extremely patriarchal statement, I also believe it is again faith which comes into play here. Within Christianity, it was once believed that women were born sinful- they were the daughters of eve, who as we all know, was the woman who caused humanity to be cast from heaven through her eating of the forbidden fruit. Her weakness in being unable to avoid temptation could explain the above thoughts people like Kramer had, and therefore also could suggest that this is why the majority of people arrested for witchcraft, were female.

A medieval illumination showing Eve holding the fruit, as the devilish snake hisses temptation in her ear. As you can see, Adam stands well back- as a man he is believed to have a better judgement and therefore, a better understanding of why it is we should resist the snakes call.

As you can see, the history surrounding this subject is long, and often complicated, so today I am going to end it here, as it gives you a small view into the research I am doing, as I try to understand better how medieval and tudor people helped explain their enviroment and their lives.