The Mark of the Witch

And quick! As long as the iron is red hot! This is the next instalment of this series of meaning with the Red Letters. You can jump in without having read anything previously (but it can’t hurt either). Since today, 496 years ago the Reformation was kicked off, and since today is also Halloween, this part will be a tad gruesome. Brace yourself.

Theistic Phobocracy

Old Europe was an unpleasant place to live in the Early Modern Period (ca. 16—18th century), the period that saw the Puritans as well as the Gunpowder plot.

This time, I hope to explore a bit how meanings change and what all this symbology meant in practice by giving a tapestry of the times. It is not merely historical backdrop. Our ancestors at the time were like you and me. History could tell us a lot about how we (as humans) tick. The general populace at the time was perhaps simultaneously more pious than ever, while it also lost faith in their traditional beliefs, and found itself surrounded by a rapidly changing world–like it is today.

Phobocracy: Greek phóbos (Φόβος), “morbid fear” and kratos (κράτος), “power” or “rule”: rule by fear or power through fear.

Burning Witches

Competing information flew in swarms out into the streets from the printing presses and hit upon minds that weren’t familiar with such a storm of symbology. The art of writing was arcane and magical, where we already saw some examples and possible (non supernatural) mechanisms. Words can have a strong effects on consciousness. The traditional symbolic culture was challenged, and collapsed and probably left people without orientation. Amidst this situation, the Catholic Church, the big bad of human history, tightened its iron grip on their flock.

It was the advent of science, though early developments often brought more harm than good. Gunpowder came into widespread use in the many wars across Europe and in the colonies that slowly grew in importance. Physicians with very incomplete and often erroneous “knowledge” – still severely hampered by religious beliefs – tended the wounded who where wheelbarrowed in with blown off limbs, a novelty, while anaesthetic was practically more about getting as drunk as possible.

Cities became crowded and ordinary folk alternatively died, if not on some battlefield, in various epidemics or fires. Though allegedly, in the Great Fire of London (in 1666) officially only 9 people were killed, as opposed to around 70,000 who perished in the last Great Plague of London only few months prior.

Epidemiologists consider the historical Black Death to be identical with the Bubonic Plague, caused by a bacterial infection through fleas (from rodents, especially rats) and flies attracted by the hygiene conditions in the growing cities of the time. Around 2/3 of the infected did not survive. Alas, the Great God in heaven failed to mention washing hands. Such basic hygiene standards could have saved the lives of millions. Only in the 1840s, Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that washing hands was a real life saver, just a few years before the publication of Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”  (published 1850).

The Jewish religion happened to observe some better hygiene standards, and their community was often walled off in ghettos, which anyway raised suspicion. As a result Jews were affected lesser by epidemics and together with the rampant Christian-infused anti-Semitism of the time were then blamed for the disease. There is also a genetic component:

Tay–Sachs disease, horrible genetic disorder, predominantly found in Ashkenazi Jews. What you wind up getting there is, full blown version, complete cortical failure, partial Tay–Sachs disease, and you’re resistant to tuberculosis. […] There is a genetic explanation [for beliefs against Jews of having poisoned the well] which is, the trait for Tay-Sachs disease, in its partially expressed form, protects from tuberculosis” – Prof. Dr. Robert Sapolsky (lecture, @ 4:45)

The common Christians rationalized their hatred of Jews as justified anyway, since they saw Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, as the archetypical Jew.

Spong’s conclusion is that early Bible authors, […] augmented the Gospels with a story of a disciple, personified in Judas as the Jewish state, who either betrayed or handed over Jesus to his Roman crucifiers. Spong identifies this augmentation with the origin of modern Anti-Semitism. – Judas Iscariot on Wikipedia

In the Early Modern Period, nobody understood the causes of disease, thus deterioration of public health was commonly attributed to “poisoning the well”. As a result, whenever the Black Death swept over the lands, the Christians sought “revenge” and killed Jews outright or burned them at the stake.

Today’s Christians tend to blame the great tragedy of the holocaust (shoah) in the 20th century on Atheism and “Hitler the Atheist”. Such claims are wrong on many levels, and Atheists are busy with dispelling the myths. With all the relentless claiming and dispelling it gets overlooked which belief system sowed this evil seed over centuries; not to mention that the majority of Germans at the time were Christians, and Hitler was a Catholic.

Divine Extortion

The catholic Christian beliefs before the Reformation (1517 onwards) were extraordinarily grim, and far more evil in itself than the Witch Hunts, Crusades and other token “anti-theist” talking points combined that were mere symptoms. In fact, the beliefs exerted such a psychological terror that half of Europe slipped through Rome’s iron grip, and the Reformation was in the Zeitgeist. However, as we will see, the weakened authority didn’t make things necessarily better. Most gruesome atrocities were committed by ordinary Christians, at times against the statements of the Church leaders.

Every ailment, rotten teeth or tooth was seen as part of the divine plan and God’s punishment. The afflicted could not hope for betterment after their death. On the contrary, they knew their suffering would continue in the afterlife until God was satisfied and their souls sufficiently cleansed — an idea known as Purgatory. Its fires were thought to be a temporary station for the soul, whereas Hell was considered permanent for those who were irredeemable. Everyone had to pass through Purgatory, even those who could hope for a spot in heaven.

The Christians (that is Catholicism) had an excellent idea from a corporate point of view. The believers could not only shorten their own soul’s duration in purgatory by being more pious and supporting the Church (we might call this customer loyalty), they could also help those already roasting by doing so. If your child died early, or maybe your parents passed away, you could find consolation in the idea that you, personally, could help them a little, and shorten their suffering in afterlife – for a hefty fee, of course. The Catholics called this concept “indulgence”.

Like printing money. An actual indulgence, which prompted Martin Luther to kick off the Reformation. It says: “With Authority of all-holy and with mercy for you, do I remove from you all sin and waive all punishment for ten days, Johann Tetzel” (translation mine).

Like printing money. An actual indulgence, of the kind which prompted Martin Luther to kick off the Reformation. It says: “With Authority of all-holy and with mercy for you, do I remove from you all sin and misdeeds and waive all punishment for ten days, Johann Tietzel” (translation mine).

The mechanisms are familiar and shared by all charlatans. First they invent some need, and then they offer exactly the thing that would satisfy the need (ideally something that can be produced effortlessly). In practice they might tell people they are ill and need exactly their remedy. It can be flipped around and claimed someone’s real capabilities were hampered in some way and that their medicine would “unlock” powers. It is always the same and will probably always remain  the same trick. Christianity perfected it by having both at once with heaven and hell. Scientology works the same way by claiming the inner Thetan is held down by extra-terrestrial parasites. Advertising and marketing is built on similar mechanics but regulations and laws against fraud prevent them from cranking it up to eleven as religions routinely do.

Christianity popularized the idea that the soul could be ill and dirty, much like the body. It was probably already known that dirt causes illness of some sort, even though nobody understood the relationship. However “unclean, ill soul” was easy enough to understand for everyone. As you have to take care for your body, you also have to take care of your soul. It was even more important as life at the time was, in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”.

Compassion Christian Style: with Torture

If you died with an unclean soul, it would have to go through the cleansing fire and that was a terrifying prospect, as dying in such a state would cause unspeakable suffering, thus everyone was extorted into joining and supporting the Church and this scheme. On a community level it was enhanced by peer pressure and the workings of conformity.

At least, they thought, their earthly pain and suffering would give them some discount in the cleansing fires. Suffering must be good for something? Unfortunately this view had a perverse side effect: the pious believed inventive and most gruesome torture was an act of love and mercy, a thinking along the lines of “we torture you now into a slow death for a few days, but see it positively! You can skip some hundred years in purgatory and get earlier into heaven!”

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” – Steven Weinberg

The common belief that the Inquisition was particularly heinous is, however, not true. It makes it more terrible, not less as torture was carried out by ordinary Christians. In the Roman Empire torture was “only” allowed on slaves and later against ordinary civilians when they committed “lèse majesté”, insulting the emperor. When the Catholic Church essentially took over the Roman Empire it was against all forms of torture at first, but the opinions changed during the late Middle Ages in the conflicts with other beliefs Catholic authorities regarded as heretical. The authorities were often appalled what their ordinary Christians would do, yet they still let it happen.

“We would gladly burn a hundred if just one of them was guilty.” – attributed to Konrad of Marburg (1195—1233)

In 1252 the ironically named Pope Innocent IV authorized “limited and defined” torture as a method for electing confessions from heretics, in the Ad Extirpanda. The same pope, however, ordered that copies of the Jewish Talmud should “only” be censored instead of burned. Up until early modernity, the Church leaders only agreed to limited forms of torture that would not permanently damage a suspect. However, gradual change of the Christian beliefs and convictions of ordinary people were very different from the beliefs in the ivory tower of the Holy See. Lofty goals didn’t hold up against the “War on Satan”. From their perspective, they couldn’t afford a lenient attitude. Once it was deemed allowed, and the people gradually believed to be sabotaged by a satanic conspiracy, most brutal and inventive forms of torture emerged.

In the Christian mindset of the age, all other beliefs were regarded as workings of the devil in order to mislead the good Christians. The devil grew in importance from 1000 onwards, in lockstep with Jesus as an age old perhaps typical human dualism of Good and Evil emerged. Translation errors and interpretation made Satan the main antagonist, who provided a vehicle through which Christians could understand all the other symbolic cultures around them. He acquired his thousand names and was regarded as the Ape of God, as a wannabe deity that tries to emulate the “great achievements” of the Christian god and who merely apes the “true religion” as a form of mockery. Let’s backtrack a little to see how witches enter the picture.

Origins of the Witch

Old mythological systems provided a way to structure thoughts with very complex symbols of rich meaning. You probably noticed that gods and goddess were often concept-like. The God of War, the Goddess of Love, and so on. People felt intuitively that certain concepts go together and so you have Eris, the Goddess of Strife as a sibling of Ares, the God of War. Gender was was assigned according to the common views at the time. The Greek pantheon was a bit more like a sitcom, whereas the Roman was more conceptual (in a way, they were more advanced than the Christian monotheism).

“there are male and female deities at every level. We generally find men associated with the above, the sky, and women associated with the below, with the earth, water of the underground, and the chthonic deities.” 
— Teresa del Valle in Gendered Anthropology (via Chthonic, Wikipedia)

We might guess why this is. The earth brought out the crops, and “gives birth” and other aspects might have brought people to make such associations. Once they mapped various dualism onto each other (i.e. sky/male, earth/female) whatever they observed might have had an influence back on their gender roles. We know that ancient farmers and hunter gatherers rather lived in egalitarian societies.

Perhaps they observed that the weather had a profound impact on how the crops grow, if they wither from too much heat, or foul from too much rain. And storms and thunder are still today one of the most impressive “everyday” spectacles of nature. I think it is reasonable to assume that the “Father Sky” won in the long run over “Mother Earth”, perhaps in lockstep with what happened between the genders (I don’t think it mono-causal, like belief informed gender roles, or gender roles were fixed in beliefs. I think there was an interplay of both).

Hecate. Alexander S. Murray, Manual of Mythology (1898), found here

Hecate by Alexander S. Murray, Manual of Mythology (1898), found here

Before patriarchal beliefs were common, the goddess Hekate was a powerful force that governed the sky, earth and sea with “far reaching” powers. She originated in Anatolia (today’s Turkey) and used to be a benevolent goddess that also reigned over all the thresholds of life, birth and death. She was seen as a caring mother goddess. Her cult was influential enough that she entered the Greek mythology where she changed gradually, where she became obscure and thus occult. More on the relationship between public and secret, seen and unseen, public religion and secret is in the next part, here.

Once something was regarded as powerful, but non-public, it first acquired the meaning of being “secret” in a fairly neutral sense and then connotations of conspiracy develop that make the secret seem dangerous and evil. Like “they’re doing something clandestine and it’s going to hurt us, who don’t know what they do”. Public religion, however, was controlled by authorities, who of course don’t like that some secret group might be more powerful than they are and who secretly follow some other belief system.

Hekate went through such a transformation. Since she was associated with thresholds, her domain shifted towards ghosts and spirits and everything spooky. She was also the goddess of the cross-roads (thresholds in a sense) and with the developing gender dualisms, was associated with the moon (she kept some of the sky, and got some elements from Selene). You can almost see the imagery: a ghostly woman at a lonely cross-road at night with a full moon shining. We take “spooky” and all the theme-park associations for granted, but at the time these images had to emerge first.

William Hogarth, Credulity, Superstition and Fanatacism. A Medley, 1762 A Hogarthian critique of the English fascination with folklore, superstition and the supernatural (found here)

“William Hogarth, Credulity, Superstition and Fanatacism (detail). A Medley, 1762. A Hogarthian critique of the English fascination with folklore, superstition and the supernatural” — Source

All of that imagery eventually went into the stereotype of the witch, as a women who deals in secret with supernatural forces, which were in Christian beliefs almost universally satanic (in contrast to the public religion, which was about Jesus).

This dualism also gave rise to the distinction of Black Magic (occultus, secret, hidden – and damaging) and White Magic (public religion, miracles, healing) which was later abandoned by Christianity when the term “magic” was altogether associated with satanic powers and Jesus and the saints’ magical powers were referred to as “miracles”. You see here that this the very same dualism as that between Jesus and Satan that emerged during the Middle Ages.

When those dualisms were brought together, we can see how the female was gradually associated with the satanic and corrupt, and with the material (earthly). At the time, earth was a grim a place with lots of pain and suffering and thus the body itself was seen as something corrupt (compare this to sin). The female body, menses (i.e. blood) and messy giving birth might have contributed to these associations.

In short, Western misogyny can be attributed to a large part to Christianity. I don’t know exactly where the hatred of women originates as the Bible was already very misogynist, but in addition, Greek’s chief misogynist Aristotle also had a huge influence on the development of Christianity (there is a lot more, like Scholasticism that worked out the dualisms)

The eerie noise of cats at night, who sneak around the house and other superstitions that floated about during the Early Modern Period such as about omens (more symbology) complemented the picture of the witch. People thought witches could transform to cats and sneak around the village to do their evil, occult work, where they meet with the devil and do something that hurts the community. The Jesuit theologian Martin Delrio, an “expert” on witches, wrote in the Disquisitionum magicarum libri sex (1599) that Witches could use some sort of balm that allowed them fly on brooms and other such objects. Halloween’s broom-flying witch is rooted in history.

Another contributor was perhaps that gender roles assumed that men had do the hunting and women took care of gathering. This might be responsible for the imagery of witches that make them collect all kinds of things in the forests to brew poisons. Remember the Jews, who were blamed for poisoning the wells. At the time nobody knew anything about germs and thus all the diseases had to come from somewhere. Poisons were known already, so they probably concluded that witches poisoned everyone.

Edit: Yet another, quite important aspect I missed in the first draft is the pervasive belief in the supernatural. Supernatural professions, healers and the like were commonplace. Of course, they were as effective as homeopathy and faith healers today, yet supernatural elements were part of everyday live (a theologically uniform Christian Europe probably did not exist). As long as sick people call in the healer on their peak of illness and who then get better due to their bodies’s self healing powers, with a bit of placebo effect and perhaps some herbal medicine, everything was generally fine. However when war, famine and pestilence made life miserable in such a large scale, you better run fast with a reputation of knowing supernatural powers. Then people might assume you get your powers not from God, but from the Anti-Christ, because it must be someone’s fault.

To round this off, there were many more, mundane motivations to accuse someone of witchcraft, like getting rid of someone to seize their wealth, and it did not always went against women. It is also not true that men conspired to denounce woman as a witch, for sure that happened often enough, however there are recorded cases where women accused other women to be witches.

The Devil’s Mark

If we put this into relation to the previous entries about Hester and the Puritans (and the Scarlet A) we see here again, how from an anonymous community someone is singled out, and a meaning is given to their being. They cease to be a complex human, but instead become to stand for an idea.


In these examples we see that the bad idea that must be stamped out. It takes two sides. On on side, the idea itself must be contained, or destroyed. Which means that the witches have to be burned, or everyone should know that Hester is an adulterer and everyone is warned about her. On the other side, it must be prevented that the idea spreads to other humans. Hence, we see that first, everyone must recognize. And then what everyone sees gets described with a meaning. And attaching marks onto someone, or Scarlet Letters makes this a literal process.

In practical terms, a human is singled out (made visible, recognizable), put on some sort of stage so that the gaze of the public can recognize the person. And then some authority tells everyone what it means. There is a further dimension as when this meaning is created in a large public, it also enters the symbolic culture. Someone like Guy Fawkes becomes known by everyone as a symbol (of high treason) and thereby is immortalized (even if as a villain). And having him as a symbol of high treason around can then be used to make changes in law. The road to heaven (or hell) in fact, is a Jacob’s Ladder on a public stage (I leave that for another time).

The Christians took this process quite literally. They believed that the devil leaves a mark on his followers, and thus they don’t have to do the dirty work of reducing a human to an idea, which is then ritually removed from society (of course declaring some birthmark to mean something else is the same process).

“The Witch or Devil’s mark was believed to be the permanent marking of the Devil on his initiates to seal their obedience and service to him. He created the mark by raking his claw across their flesh, or by making a blue or red brand using a hot iron. Sometimes, the mark was believed to have been left by the Devil licking the individual.”  —  Witches’ Mark (Wikipedia)

Burn, Witch, Burn

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General

Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General

Most of the witch hunts took place in the Holy Roman Empire where according to recent estimations about 30,000 were killed. In comparison “only” 5,000 were prosecuted in the remaining territories from England, to North America, France and Scandinavia. The reasons for the Witch Hunts are attributed to the Thirty Years War and French Wars of Religious and a Little Ice Age that had weakened the continent, together with the general shock and disorientation that came with the Reformation and advances in technology and sciences (and the flood of information from the printing presses).

The people apparently needed someone to blame for the excessive misery. The psychological dimension is fairly interesting and I covered possible explanations in the previous part.

Many lost their faith, as it apparently often happens in times of great catastrophe. The problem of Theodicy isn’t solved now and wasn’t solved then. Theodicy is, in short, the issue how a perfectly good God can create or tolerate a world such unfair and miserable as it was at the time. As an aside, gnostic beliefs of an demiurgic evil world-ruler deity (satan), “Hell on Earth” were contemplated to fix the issue. I assume the believers of the time simultaneously knew they weren’t as pious as they should be, and felt they partially deserved their fate, while at the same time were busy with finding scapegoats to blame.

You might have encountered this “lack of faith” in popular culture from pirate flicks (the “Golden Age of Pirates” was 30 years around 1700) and fairy-tales where highwaymen, footpads, pirates and other dubious characters sometimes exclaim they “drink with the devil”. Soldiers of the Thirty Years War trusted in magic, superstitions and quack medicine alongside to some Christian beliefs.

The printing press not only gave people access to good knowledge but – a constant through the ages – to all sorts of rubbish. As advanced in the previous part, when you can’t help but get the impression that your chosen belief doesn’t work out, given the situation, it will make you feel uneasy. The protective power you had sworn to support turns out to be powerless, while being swamped with alternative and conflicting symbols you are rightfully in a state of dread. Solomon’s lecture on Ernest Becker views on the Denial Of Death, embedded at the bottom in the previous article very well complements the picture, and I can only recommend listening to it (this is all related to the Terror Management Theory that was yet another theme that runs through the article series).

The pinnacle of Christian misogyny and among the greatest rubbish ever produced was the so called Malleus Maleficarum (1486) written by Heinrich Kramer, churchman and later inquisitor from the Roman Catholic Dominican Order. His sadistic as well as most misogynist work could circulate thanks to the printing press and was perhaps a pioneering work of sadistic pornography. Kramer died 1505, 12 years before the Reformation. But his ideas lived on and apparently fell on fertile ground, even though, in a crude irony if history, the leaders of the Church rejected it and the notions of witches.

“At the time of the writing of The Malleus Maleficarum, there were many voices within the Christian community (scholars and theologians) who doubted the existence of witches and largely regarded such belief as mere superstition. The authors of the Malleus addressed those voices in no uncertain terms, stating: “Whether the Belief that there are such Beings as Witches is so Essential a Part of the Catholic Faith that Obstinacy to maintain the Opposite Opinion manifestly savours of Heresy.” The immediate, and lasting, popularity of the Malleus essentially silenced those voices. It made very real the threat of one being branded a heretic, simply by virtue of one’s questioning of the existence of witches and, thus, the validity of the Inquisition. It set into the general Christian consciousness, for all time, a belief in the existence of witches as a real and valid threat to the Christian world.” –foreword of the re-published “Malleus Maleficarum”

Once ideas are unleashed, they are like summoned supernatural beings, numinous forces that have a large impact on our every lives. The Reformation, kicked off exactly 496 years ago at a door in Wittenberg was carried forth, changed itself many times, immortalized people like Calvin and Luther and influenced all the Evangelical Christians in the USA, who, often times still literally believe in the entities that emerged in our symbolic culture.


6 thoughts on “The Mark of the Witch

  1. Perhaps not particularily useful to people who already read it, but I have added a video and a tidbit on Tay-Sachs disease, for the sake of a more well-rounded explanation. The disease was common in Jews and in partial expressed form gives resistence to Tuberculosis. If some people are somehow unaffected by disease, they are easily blamed for having caused it.

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