Lore

The Burning Times Myth

1st December, 1998

If you were to visit the alt.religion.wicca or alt.pagan newsgroups on any given day, there would undoubtedly be a posting or two with "Burning Times" in the heading.

For those of you not familiar with the term, Burning Times is used by many Pagans, especially Witches, to describe the period in early modern European history when the witchcraft craze trials occured.

It is quite popular and often unchallenged within the Pagan and, particularly, the Witch community to see the Witchhunts as "our" Holocaust. That the entire episode was a systematic attempt by the increasingly powerful Christian church and its emerging supporting secular governments to wipe out the remanants of the Pagan folk religions of ancient and early modern history.

I do not ascribe to this view, for several reasons. Firstly, I think that any view that ascribes one causal factor to such a far-reaching, long and dramatic historical event is simplistic and ignores the often complicated background to these events.

Secondly, there is little if any evidence to support this contention. Thirdly, while it may have been the aim of the witch-hunters to find and destroy Satan and his witches, were there any witches to find?

Were there Witches?

This brings us to another popular belief about the time. That in fact many of those who died were in fact witches. This is another contention that I do not agree with. Many of those that died went to their deaths pleading innocence and begging the aid of the Christian God to save them. Those who died did not believe themselves witches. Who are we to argue with this? While many undoubtly practiced forms of folk medicine and folk beliefs, this doesn't make them witches. There were many Pagan survivals adopted by the Christian Church and probably many Pagan survivals amongst the peasent population, but this doesn't make them members of an underground Pagan religion.

How Many Died?

The other bone of contention in relation to the Witchcraft Craze of Early Modern Europe is the number of people who were killed. A common number bandied about in the Pagan community is 9 million. I think this number is way too high. Even considering the number of years, indeed centuries, over which the craze lasted, I doubt that anywhere near that number were killed. Personally, I believe the number more in the 100,000 to 300,000 range.

It is impossible to accurately calculate the numbers killed. There are incomplete written records, there were the underlying motives of those who conducted the hunts (wishing to show their piety and faith by exagerating the number they killed), there is also the sporadic nature of the way in which the hunts were conducted and the important difference between the number tried and convicted and the actual number executed. It also seems unlikely that the population of Europe would have been able to support such a large loss without adverse affects.

While the whole event was a tragedy of epic proportions, I think that the tendency of some members of the community to dwell on these events is holding us back from creating a more positive, forward-looking mythology, relevant to the modern world. While not forgetting the past, we should not dwell in it and play the role of victim.

Some Useful Resources for Studying the Witchcraft Craze


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