Descent to the Underworld
Hallowe’en/Samhain approaches and the presence of the witch in our culture has never been so prevalent. Not because she is casting spells and maiming cattle, but because those accused of witchcraft - tried, tortured and murdered - are being remembered through commemorative ceremonies, their stories re-examined and pulled into the public consciousness.
The BBC recently aired a documentary, presented by Lucy Worsley, on the Scottish Witch hunts, focusing on healer and midwife, Agnes Sampson. In Scotland, since 2020, a legal campaign to pardon the thousands of mostly women who were murdered is underway. This is all part of a wider contemporary movement to seek a better understanding of this dark and nefarious part of European history. In Denmark, a museum opened in 2019 to honour those tried and murdered for witchcraft, and in Germany, among other movements, a cleric is campaigning to exonerate the 25,000 people, executed long ago. A need to remember and honour the lives of these victims has gained momentum.
But why was it in the 17th century that a lust for indiscriminate accusations of witchcraft grew into an uncontrolled frenzy? And was upheld by the law? Why didn’t this happen in the 10th or 13th century? And how did the Enlightenment take root so quickly in the next century? - for in 1735 the law was reversed, and it became illegal to accuse someone of witchcraft.
To try and answer some of these mystifying questions I began with ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’, by Keith Thomas, an 853-page tome, first published in 1971. Although a daunting read it is one of those rare gems: a history book that is un-put-down-able. It is still seen as the defining study on this subject, although ‘The Decline of Magic’, by Michael Hunter published last year, further explores one aspect of this mysterious change in cultural belief further. For while Thomas gives us a thorough and illuminating background into the social factors igniting the persecution of so-called witches, there are still huge questions remaining about why beliefs changed, and why so rapidly.
There is an immense library of works surrounding this historical conundrum and an abundance of opinions. I’ve attempted in the attached article to give a rough overview of the key historical factors believed to have contributed to the massacre of innocent women and some men [records are inaccurate but the gender divide on numbers was roughly 80/20 in the 16th and 17th centuries]. The philosophers, religious leaders and politicians who dared to stand against the prevailing winds of collective madness, voicing their disbelief at swirling lies, should also be remembered - and they were men too. Without their refusal to comply we might still be pointing fingers.