Christianity's relationship with witchcraft

This article is a transcript of the podcast available by clicking here.

Hello, you’re listening to the Ex-Christian Monologues, a podcast from ExChristian.Net. I’m Dave, and today’s date is April 24, 2006.

Today I want to talk a little bit about Christianity’s historic relationship with witchcraft. This is part one of a three-part podcast. Part One draws heavily on the History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff and the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Schaff’s classic work is in the public domain and freely available on the Internet.

Most primitive cultures attributed witches with the power to supernaturally injure crops, animals, health, and possessions. Many ancient cultures created laws to punish the offense. As in other cultures, the ancient Hebrews condemned witchcraft, as expressed in the Mosaic Law (Deut 18:10 & Exodus 22:18). Following in Judaism's footsteps, the early Christian Church believed in and condemned witchcraft Acts 19:19, Acts 8:9. (Click here for Moree examples).

Belief in witchcraft never disappeared, but it wasn’t always severely persecuted. The Synod of Reisbach in 799, for example, formally mandated penance as a punishment for women convicted of witchcraft, but prohibited any capital punishment. For a time the official rhetoric of the Church even tried to tone down belief in magic or witchcraft, labeling it as either false superstition or delusion.

For centuries Christianity had taught that God was in HIS heaven, far removed from human society. The Church encouraged people to be content with their miserable, medieval lot in life. Poverty and sickness were considered gifts of God that helped people remain holy by focusing their minds away from this world and on to the next. Physical pleasures should be shunned — this life was to be endured, but not necessarily enjoyed. Common people weren't easily convinced to meekly adopt this philosophy — many hung on tenaciously to a belief in magic. They thought magic could empower them to deal with the some harsh realities of their lives. Belief in magic, instead of subsiding, actually grew.

Some so-called heretical groups, and some well meaning churchmen, doubted that witchcraft was anything more than illusions of the Devil. Most were convinced that witchcraft was a real power, fueled by the denizens of hell.

Witches were reportedly transporting people through the air and holding meetings, or sabbats, where they indulged in lust-filled orgies with demons. Mention is given to these activities in the The Bishop’s Canon, which appeared first in the 10th century and was later incorporated by Franciscus Gratianus, a lawyer from Bologna, in his collection of canon law in 1150. Women confessed to flying through the air, but Gratianus considered the women delusional. English author, diplomat and bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury, felt the stories illusions propagated by the Devil. But, his contemporaries, such as Englishman Walter Map, reported that the wild orgies were real, with the Devil appearing on the scene in the form of a tom-cat.

According to Philip Schaff, the daughter of a count was carried through the air every night, one night even escaping the arms a Franciscan monk who tried to hold her back. In 1275, a woman of Toulouse, under torture, confessed she had indulged in sexual intercourse with a demon for many years and had given birth to a part wolf, part serpent, monster. She added that she sustained the creature by feeding murdered children to it.

Pope after pope called upon the Inquisition to root out and punish witches alongside the heretics they were already persecuting. Pope Gregory IX issued a bull in 1231 invoking the use of civil punishment against witchcraft. Dominican theologians spread the belief that incubi and succubi were mating with people—a belief that was rooted in Augustine’s “City of God,” xv23., as well as in the Genesis account of angels mating with humans.

In 1233, Pope Gregory IX asserted that the Devil was making appearances in the forms of a toad, a pallid ghost and a black cat. His papal bull, the “Vox Rama,” shockingly and graphically detailed what was taking place during witch's satanic, sexual orgies, and with the stroke of his pen launched an official, large-scale persecution of witches.

In 1274, Thomas Aquinas supported the claims that humans were cohabitation with demons, and even declared that old women could inject an evil essence into young people with just a glance. I suppose that's where the evil eye myth was born.

Jean Gerson, the leading theologian of his age, said it was heresy and impious to doubt the practice of witchcraft, and Pope Eugenius IV spoke in detail about those who made pacts with demons and sacrificed to them.

Among all the papal and other documents on witchcraft, perhaps the place of pre-eminence is held by the papal bull, Summis desiderantes issued by Innocent VIII in 1484. The pontiff wrote, “…by their incantations, charms, and conjurings… they cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth… and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that, moreover, they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith… at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes.”

Witchcraft was now classified a heretical cult. Not only that, but it was considered heretical to not believe in the power of the Devil. The punishments against witchcraft were carefully laid out, as well as the methods for detecting and trying witches. The hitherto sporadic cases of witchcraft were now to be viewed as a cohesive group that had been marshaled together by Satan to attack and destroy Christianity.

In view of this calamitous assault on Christ, the pope commissioned Henrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, educated Dominicans who occupied high positions at the University of Cologne, to systematically bring witches to trial and punishment. They carried out their assignment with a vengeance. ref

Pope Innocent’s immediate successors followed his lead and anyone who opposed the repressive measures could be considered in league with the witches. In the case of Venice, the entire state was threatened by Leo X if it did not obey the Inquisition in apprehending witches. Venice bowed to the Pope's threat, and within a year Venice had sentenced 70 witches to the flames.

The Witches Hammer, the Malleus maleficarum, is the most important and nefarious legacy the world has on witchcraft. Published in 1486, it was written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Their book is divided into three parts: the first proves the existence of witchcraft; the second sets forth the forms in which it manifested itself; the third describes the rules for its detection and prosecution. It states that the world in the last quarter of the 15th century was more given over to the devil than in any preceding age. It appeals to the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church and especially to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for support. Witches and sorcerers are described as meeting at weekly sabbats and do the devil homage by kissing his ass. Satan appears among them as a tom-cat, goat, dog, bull or black man while demons of both sexes swarm at the meetings. During these sabbats, baptism and the Eucharist are ridiculed and the cross trampled upon. After an abundant feast the lights are extinguished and at the devil’s command of "Mix, mix," the participants celebrate with a lewd orgy. The devil, however, is a strict disciplinarian and applies the whip to errant members. Further, the book states that witches are supposedly transported through the air, they kill unbaptized children, and later they eat them. There is a very frequent mention of sexual intercourse. To quote: "…it is common to all of them to practice carnal copulation with devils.” Interestingly, there are two full chapters devoted to this topic alone.

For evidence of the reality of their charges, the authors cite their own extensive experience and declare that, in 48 cases of witches brought before them and burnt, all the victims confessed to having practiced abominable whoredoms for between 10 to 30 years.

Among the precautions which the book prescribed against being bewitched, are the Lord’s Prayer, the cross, holy water and salt, and the Church formulas of exorcism. It also adds that inner grace is a preservative.

The directions for the prosecution of witches, given in the third part of the treatise, are set forth in great detail. Public rumor was a sufficient cause for an indictment. The accused were to be subjected to the indignity of having the hair shaved off from their bodies, especially the more secret parts, lest perchance some imp or charm might be hidden there. Careful rules were given to the inquisitors for preserving themselves against being bewitched. If someone too zealously defended the witch, then that was taken as evidence that he was himself under the same influence. One of the devices for exposing guilt was a sheet of paper the length of Christ’s body inscribed with the seven words of the cross. This was to be bound on the witch’s body at the time of the mass, and then the ordeal of torture was applied. This measure almost invariably brought forth a confession of guilt. The ordeal of the red-hot iron was also recommended, but it was to be used with caution, as it was the trick of demons to cover the hands of witches with a salve made from a vegetable essence which kept them from being burnt. Such a case supposedly happened in Constance, the woman being able to carry the glowing iron six paces and thus going free.

The Witches Hammer was printed in many editions. It was issued 13 times before 1520 and 16 more times from 1574–1669.

That concludes part one of a three part series on Christianity’s fascination with witchcraft. You’ve been listening to the Ex-Christian Monologues, a podcast from ExChristian.Net.

Ref: Shaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge | History of the Christian Church | The Malleus Maleficarum

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