Witchcraft Craze History
The Witch as Internal Other
Throughout human history, the human race has
had a tendency to define themselves by how they are the same
as or different to other people. Western society has been no
different. The character of the Witch has been perhaps the most
effectively used stereotype in Western culture and one that
shares certain characteristics with others who have been considered
"beyond the pale" at various times.
Those who inhabit the periphery of the civilized
world, have often shared many of the same characteristics. The
three most important and most often used are the practice of
cannibalism/infanticide; sexual deviancy and an equal or superior
role/place of women in society. It is a combination of these
characteristics that has often been used by the ruling institutions
of a given period or place to identify those who represent a
threat to the established order or who represent the general
concept of the Other - the Not Us/Self paradigm.
The identification of the outsider or periphery
dweller as cannibal dates back to classical times1.
This is perhaps the ultimate way to dehumanise any opponent,
by accusing them of breaking the ultimate social, the ultimate
human taboo, the literal consumption of a fellow human being.
The Other tended to inhabit the geographical periphery of any
culture. They are the ‘those just beyond us’. However, the Witch
while taking on the characteristics of the geographical Other,
represents what could be better termed the scapegoat or the
Internal Other. In the period of social, economic, political
and religious chaos that was to produce the the Witchcraft Craze
or Burning Times, individuals and institutions needed
someone or something tangible and nearby to blame their misfortunes
on - an Internal Other - who represented a social antithesis,
a root cause of evil and misfortune.
The concept of the Witches Sabbath is one of
the best examples of how all of the above characteristics came
to be effectively combined. Most accounts of these alleged gatherings
contained descriptions of cannibalistic and sexually deviant
behaviour, often led by women. One of the most potent images
used by the authorities responsible for the hunts was that of
the infant slaughtered in the name of Satan, its body used for
the abominable rights of the Sabbath, often including ritual
Another prominent group of the period to be
characterised as cannibals were the newly conquered Indigenous
peoples of the America, the classic geographical Other. They
too, once the Spanish authorities had decided there was more
profit in people and gold than in souls, were to be described
as cannibals. Perhaps the best example of the way in which Indian
and Witch were often the victims of the same propaganda is a
quote from a 16th century cleric:
I saw seven or eight old women who could
barely keep themselves standing up, dancing around the pot
and stirring the fire, so that they looked like demons in
The pot that they were stirring was said to
contain human flesh.
The second characteristic of the Other is that
of sexual deviancy. Those on the edge of civilisation are usually
portrayed as having different (and therefore worse) sexual standards
than the civilized centre. The Witch was seen as being capable
of any sexual depravity. Using the Sabbath again, many descriptions
speak of participants having sex with anyone at hand irrespective
of blood ties or gender. This breaking of sexual taboos again
strikes at a core issues of how any people define themselves.
Those capable of incest or same-sex relations are believed capable
of anything and therefore deserving of the harshest punishment.
Women were particularly vulnerable to charges
of this kind as they were seen as innately more susceptible
to carnal temptations, "All witchcraft comes from
carnal lust, which is in women insatiable"3.
The differing attitudes of the native of the Americas to sexual
matters (free from the sexual hang-ups of Judeo-Christian theology)
also left them open to similar charges.
The third characteristic is tied to the previous
two. Women were thought to play a prominent role in the Sabbath
(perhaps reflecting the once prominent role they played in the
Old faiths), this gave the authorities (even at household level)
the excuse for more strict control over the lives of women.
Women in positions of power was an extremely frightening proposition
for the authority figures of the time. This image also reflected
how deviant the world of the Witch was, that it allowed women
equal or superior status.
The characteristics of the scapegoat/Internal
Other in Western society has very often been consistent. They
have been characterized as cannibal/child murderers, sexual
deviants and were often members of sub-cultures that gave women
a place of prominence. Witch, Gay, Jew, Native Peoples have
all been subject to similar charges in order to provide a scapegoat
for authority of the day to help maintain the social status
quo and allow society to define itself and what it considers
acceptable. In the past this has led to the deaths of millions.
The fight against persecution continues, and remains a matter
of life and death.
1. see Herodotus VI 20; Strabo XV 2.14
2. Father Juan De Aspilcueta Navarro, 1550.
3. Malleus Maleficarum, p.127 in Kors, A.C and Peters, E Witchcraft
in Europe, 1100-1700: A Documentary History