20.6.13

The Witchcraft Acts and the End of the Witch-Hunts

In a few days (or more precisely on June 22nd), it will be the sixty-second anniversary of the official end of the witch persecutions! :D I thought it would be appropriate to say a word or two about how they even came to be because, as you know, Witches were hunted down for centuries. We can take the year 1484 as the official beginning of the persecutions because it was in this year that Pope Innocent VIII delivered his bull in which he clearly stated that he supports witch hunts. Two years later, the famous book entitled Malleus Maleficarum was published. It turned out to be quite important since it was used for a long time as a sort of witch hunters' manual.

Though, in this post, I would prefer to stick to England since the Witchcraft Acts primarily tell us what happened there and no so much about what was happening on the continent. They are important to Wicca because after they were repealed, it was possible to "publically", or better said freely practice witchcraft in the twentieth century. Among the people whose life was made easier when this happened was Gerald Gardner (the founder of Wicca) who, up to that point, had to keep his beliefs a secret and publish books under pen names and under the guise of novels. 

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
The year with which I would like to begin our story is 1547 when King Edward VI (reigned 1547-53) repealed the Witchcraft Act from 1541 which his father, King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47), had passed. This was, therefore, the first Witchcraft Act. 

In 1562/63 (depending on the source), this Act was reinstated "thanks to" Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603), who just so happened to be Henry VIII's daughter. This was the second Witchcraft Act. Now, this Act was quite mild in comparison to previous regimes. For a person who was a first-time offender, the sentence was only being put on the pillar of shame. But if a person were to be accused of the same crime three times, they would have been put to death. The persecutions in England are thought to be the most gruesome during her reign, although they were, as I said, mild compared to what was going on on the continent because torture was illegal in England at that time. On the continent, torture was a normal part of any confession for practically any felony, and especially for dabbling in witchcraft.

But then came one book which calmed the situation down - The Discoverie of Witchcraft whose author is Reginald Scot. It was among the first works which took on a rational attitude lead people to question their superstitious notions of witchcraft. Though it didn't have a long reputation since King James IV of Scotland (who became the king of England in 1603 and took on the title of James I of England) ordered every copy to be burnt. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots was all for death penalties for Witches and realized her ideas by killing about 200 Witches per year (in Scotland that is). His mother's ideas influenced him and obviously had them in mind when he gave out the aforementioned order. That same James wrote a treatise on demonology and witchcraft, after which he became the patron to witch hunters.

A portrait of King James I
The next, or rather the third Witchcraft Act already came into force in 1604 (only one year after King James I succeeded the throne). It is thought that the annual number of killed Witches was about 500 during the first eighty years of the seventeenth century. But keep in mind that we're still talking about England alone, which means that this number doesn't include the number of victims on the continent!

In time, people started believing less and less in the verity of all the negative allegations regarding Witches, but they also started doubting their existence. Though there were a few individuals such as Joseph Glanvil who tried to prove to people that Witches really did exist and that they were malicious. He wrote these ideas in his book entitled Sadducismus Triumphatus. Proof of this disbelief is the trial of Jane Wenharn from 1711. This woman was accused of witchcraft, but the judge acquitted her of all claims. This case is thought to be the last witchcraft trial in England.


A portrait of King George II
Soon enough, George II succeeded the throne (reigned 1727-60). It was during his reign that the fourth Witchcraft Act was passed (1735). But this one was different from the previous ones. All the accumulated suspicion in the existence of Witches reached its peak in this historical moment because this Act stated that Witches in fact do not exist and therefore, no one can be punished for being a Witch. Although, people could be trialed as charlatans because that's the only thing they could be if they were pretending to be a Witch.

Little by little, people got a bit more serious about witchcraft. Proof of this is the book Del Congresso Nottorno delle Lammie (On the Nocturnal Meetings of Witches) whose author is Girolamo Tartarotti. This book was revolutionary because it was the first one ever to look at witchcraft as a tradition. What Tartarotti claimed in his work was that Witches are actually descendants of an ancient cult of the goddess Diana, but he managed to ruin this compliment by connecting this cult to some branches of ceremonial magick which, as he claims, dabbled in invoking demons.

A depiction of the "Horned God" in the
cave of the Trois Frères, France
The situation continued to progress and by 1848, Modern Spiritualism was born and already on its feet. Allan Kardec introduced the western world to the concept of reincarnation in 1857 and in the next century, Dr. Margaret Alice Murray came onto the scene (who is probably familiar to you if you have read some of my previous posts on the blog). She published several books in 1921: The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches. In a  way, these books are the descendants of Tartarotti's work in the sense that they claim that Witches aren't something new, but they, on the other hand, don't connect Witches to demons in any way. In these two books, Margaret Murray claims that witchcraft is a remainder of ancient European Pagan religions and that the Horned God, who Witches worship, was the first God to be depicted in the history of humankind. That is, she identifies him with the horned entities depicted in cave drawings. If you want to learn more about this subject, then I recommend you read an interesting article entitled "The Psycho-Anthropological Unity of Sapiens" which deals with depictions such as those in the cave of the Trois Frères.

Don't forget that the last witchcraft Act is still effect all this time, even though it's all hush hush. Witches aren't mentioned all that much, there aren't any trials or punishments because society became much too skeptical when it came to Witches and managed to forget all about the tragedies that had happened throughout the centuries. But someone had to remind them, and that someone was Gerald Gardner who published a book entitled High Magic's Aid in 1949 under the pseudonym of Scire. In order to avoid breaking any laws or trials, he covered his real name up with this pen name and he wrote the book as if it were a novel, even though it contains complete instructions for carrying out some rituals which are practiced to this day in Wicca. As an example of this, I would like to take a quote form this book in which the procedure of opening the circle is described.
"Upon the altar-table lay the athame, the magic sword, the burin and the sprinkler, also materials for their work; four iron discs, two-and-a-half inches in diameter, already purified by fire, had been prepared previously. There were writing materials, lengths of cord, some black cloths and a scourge, laid ready. Before the bench were two stools. The inner circle, seven feet in diameter ... was already drawn on the floor; surrounding it was a double circle eight feet in diameter, with names of power between the two. Thur took the magic sword and retraced all the markings with its point, for the painted circle has no power of protection, which comes from power of the magic sword or the athame. It but serves as a guide to the latter, to ensure they draw the circle perfectly."
Gerald Gardner, a clip from an interview
Two years after this book was published (that would be 1951), the moment all Witches had been waiting for finally came! The Witchcraft Act from 1735 was repealed! In its place came the Fraudulent Mediums Act. The word "medium" in this phrase refers to a person who conveys messages between this world and other worlds. To elaborate, this law actually acknowledged the ability to see into the future, spiritual communication, psychic powers and everything else that goes with this, but it was aware that not everyone possesses these "powers". Only the people to pretended to possess them had to be punished and it was all the worse if they charged a fee for their services. Gardner was now free to publish books under his real name, and he did so in 1954 with his work Witchcraft Today. This was the first book which described who Witches really are and what they do and what is said in it is authentic because Gardner himself simply wrote down his own experiences in it.

Now you know how it is that we can practice our beliefs so freely today, even though they may be different. I for one am grateful to all those souls who died so many years ago and sacrificed themselves for their beliefs. I also mourn those that were wrongly "accused". I hope that you will take at least a minute of your time on June 22 and think about the freedom you have, about all these people and meditate on what freedom of thought, beliefs and action means to you.

It this topic has intrigued you and you want to read more, you can read the following books in which you can find more information:
Marion Gibson - Witchcraft and Society in England and America 
Gerald Gardner - The Meaning of Witchcraft 
Raymond Buckland - The Witch Book; the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca and Neopaganism

Enjoy the next few days! Tomorrow (June 21) is the summer solstice and June 22 isn't just the anniversary of the end of the witch trials but also a night of the full moon. So, time for an Esbat! Although this full moon isn't just any full moon; on this night it will be closest to Earth and thus the largest full moon in all of 2013! Some call it a "super moon" but the official term for this moon phase would be a perigee moon.

Gather your energy for the next few days and I'll write to you again soon. :)

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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