The question of how much truth there is in this belief in witchcraft, held by so many nations, and persevered in during so many centuries, has never yet been fully answered.
It is hardly to be presumed that during this long period all men, even the wisest and subtlest, should have been completely blinded or utterly demented.
Many historians as well as philosophers have looked upon witchcraft as a mere creation of the Inquisition. Rome, they argue, was in great danger, she had no new dogma to proclaim which would give food to inquiring minds, and increase the prestige of her power; she was growing unpopular in many countries heretofore considered most faithful and submissive, and she was engaged in various dangerous conflicts with the secular powers.
In this embarrassment, her Inquisitors looked around for some means of escape, and thought a remedy might be found in this new combination of the two traditional crimes of heresy and enchantment. Witchcraft, as a crime, because of the deeds of violence with which it was almost invariably associated, belonged before the tribunal of the secular judge; as a sin, it was to be punished by the bishop, but as heresy it fell, according to the custom of the day, to the share of neither judge nor bishop, but into the hands of the Inquisition.
The extreme uniformity of witchcraft from the Tagus to the Vistula, and in New England as in Old England, is adduced as an additional evidence of its having been “manufactured” by the Inquisition. Nothing is gained, however, by looking upon it as a mere invention; nor would such an explanation apply to the wizards and witches who are repeatedly mentioned and condemned in Holy Writ. Witchcraft was neither purely artificial, a mere delusion, nor can it be accounted for upon a purely natural basis.
The essential part in it is the magic force, which does not belong to the natural but to the spiritual part of man. Hence it is not so very surprising, as many authors have thought it, that thousands of poor women should have done their best to obtain visions which only led to imprisonment, torture, and death by fire, while they procured for them apparently neither comfort nor wealth, but only pain, horror, and disgrace. For there was mixed up with all this a sensation of pleasure, vague and wild, though it was in conformity with the rude and coarse habits of the age.
It is the same with the opium eater and hasheesh smoker, only in a more moderate manner; the delight these pernicious drugs afford is not seen, but the disease, the suffering, and the wretched death they produce, are visible enough.
The stories of witches’ sabbaths taking place on certain days of the year, arose no doubt from the fact that the prevailing superstition of the times regarded some seasons as peculiarly favourable for the ceremony of anointing one’s self with narcotic salves, and this led to a kind of spiritual community on such nights, which to the poor deluded people appeared as a real meeting at appointed places. In like manner, there was nothing absolutely absurd or impossible in the idea of a compact with the Devil.
Satan presented himself to the minds of men in those ages as the bodily incarnation of all that is evil and sinful, and hence when they fancied they made a league with him, they only aroused the evil principle within themselves to its fullest energy and activity. It was in fact the selfish, covetous nature of man, ever in arms against moral laws and the commandments of God, which in these cases became distinctly visible and presented itself in the form of a vision. This evil principle, now relieved from all constraint and able to develop its power against a feebly resisting soul, would naturally destroy the poor deluded victim, in body and in spirit. Hence the trials of witchcraft had at least some justification, however unwise their form and however atrocious their abuses.
The majority of the crimes with which the so-called witches were charged, were no doubt imaginary; but many of the accused also had taken real delight in their evil practices and in the grievous injury they had done to those they hated or envied. Nor must it be forgotten that the age in which these trials mainly occurred was emphatically an age of superstition; from the prince on his throne to the clown in his hut, everybody learnt and practiced some kind of magic; the ablest statesmen and the subtlest philosophers, the wisest divines and the most learned physicians, all were more or less adepts of the Black Art, and many among them became eminently dangerous to their fellow-beings. Others, ceaselessly meditating and brooding over charms and demoniac influences, finally came to believe in their own powers of enchantment, and confessed their guilt, although they had sinned only by volition, without ever being able really to call forth and command magic powers.
Still others laboured under a regular panic and saw witchcraft in the simplest events as well as in all more unusual phenomena in nature. A violent tempest, a sudden hailstorm, or an unusual rise in rivers, all were at once attributed to magic influences, and the authorities urged and importuned to prevent a recurrence with all its disastrous consequences by punishing the guilty authors. Has not the same insane fury been frequently shown in contagious diseases, when the common people believed their fountains poisoned and their daily bread infected by Jews or other suspected classes, and promptly took justice into their own hands? It ought also to be borne in mind, as an apology for the horrible crimes committed by judges and priests in condemning witches, that in their eyes the crime was too enormous and the danger too pressing and universal to admit of delay in investigation, or mercy in judgment.
The severe laws of those semi-barbarous times were immediately applied and all means considered fair in eliciting the truth. Torture was by no means limited to trials of witches, for some of the greatest statesmen and the most exalted divines had alike to endure its terrors.
Moreover, no age has been entirely free from similar delusions, although the form under which they appear and the power by which they may be supported, differ naturally according to the spirit of the times.
Science alone cannot protect us against fanaticism, if the heart is once led astray, and fearful crimes have been committed not only in the name of Liberty but even under the sanction of the Cross. Basil the Great already restored a slave _ad integrum, who said he had made a pact with the Devil, but the first authentic account of such a transaction occurs in connection with an Imperial officer, Theophilus of Adana, in the days of Justinian. His bishop had undeservedly humiliated him and thus aroused in the heart of the naturally meek man intense wrath and a boundless desire of revenge. While he was in this state of uncontrollable excitement, a Jew appeared and offered to procure for him all he wanted, if he would pledge his soul to Satan. The unhappy man consented, and was at once led to the circus where he saw a great number of torch-bearers in white robes, the costume of servants of the church, and Satan seated in the midst of the assembly. He obeyed the order to renounce Christ and certified his apostacy in a written document.
The next day already the bishop repented of his injustice and restored Theophilus in his office, whereupon the Jew pointed out to him how promptly his master had come to his assistance. Still, repentance comes to Theophilus also, and in a new revelation the Virgin appears to the despairing man after incessant prayer of forty days and nights–a fit preparation for such a vision. She directs him to perform certain atoning ceremonies and promises him restoration to his Christian privileges, which he finally obtains by finding the certificate of his apostasy lying on his breast, and then dies in a state of happy relief.
After that similar cases of a league being made with Satan occur quite frequently in the history of saints and eminent men, till the belief in its efficacy gradually died out and recent efforts like those recorded by Goerres have proved utterly fruitless.
Thought for the day
A person who injures another, injures himself, for each man constitutes a power which acts upon humanity, and the good or evil he does will return to himself.
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