Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thoughts on the "Burning Times"

This was posted to my forum Tristatevodou in response to a question about exactly how many witches were murdered during the "Burning Times." Since I had earlier made a disparaging comment about the "100 million Witches burned for worshiping the Goddess," I thought I should clarify my position. My intent was not to deny that people were killed for being Witches but to question the idea that there was an organized witch-cult which was targeted by Evil Christians. And so I produced this rather wordy commentary:


First: we don't know exactly how many people were executed for witchcraft during the medieval and Renaissance era in Europe. We can only rely on surviving records, which are fragmentary at best and sometimes non-existent.

The "Burning Times" legend conflates two separate campaigns, the wars against witchcraft/sorcery and the much larger and bloodier war against heresy. The Albignensians, Bogomils, Hussites, etc. were not witches, but Christian sects whose beliefs deviated from the norm and who posed a political threat to the established order. There were definitely major atrocities and genocidal campaigns committed against nonstandard variants of Christianity -- and later, during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Catholics and Protestants merrily
killed each other across Europe for decades. But these people never identified as "witches," "pagans," "sorcerers" or anything other that Christians -- more precisely, as orthodox Christians who were practicing the true Faith as opposed to the heretical and corrupt version practiced by the other guys.

The wars against "witchcraft," by contrast, generally were aimed at poor and marginalized individuals. There were tens of thousands of people, mostly women, burned as witches. But there were many, many more people murdered for heresy. The best comparison I can think of is today's "Satanic panic," which has ensnared quite a few innocent schoolteachers and daycare center workers vs. our feelings about Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. This is not to diminish the horror of what happened during the European witch panics. Any unnecessary death caused by stupidity and mob fear is a tragedy. But let us call the tragedy what it is, rather than co-opting it for our own political ends.

As a practitioner of a faith that venerates the ancestors, I feel obligated to give respect to those heretics who died for what they believe. They did not die in the name of a Mother Goddess or in support of a pre-Christian nature religion (which was long gone by the time most of them went to the stake, and which never resembled Wicca or modern neo-Druidism anyway). They died for their Christian (or, in many cases in Spain and elsewhere, their Jewish) faith. To redefine their suffering is to take away the meaning of that sacrifice. It's as repellent, to me, as trying to claim that 100 million witches were stolen from Africa and sold into slavery during the Middle Passage, or that 6 million witches were killed by the Nazis and went to the gas chambers chanting passages from Starhawk.