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Halloween History: All About Witchcraft

Although dressing up as a witch may be one of the more popular options for Halloween costumes today, there was a time when being thought to be a witch could be fatal. The beliefs of Witchcraft extend back into ancient history, beginning with a misapplication of Biblical translations. People active in churches during these times sought out witches, and often condemned the accused to death. Eventually the witch hunts ended as people gradually adopted a more tolerant attitude toward others with different beliefs.

Biblical Condemnation of Witches

A number of biblical scriptures include references to witches. A passage in Exodus instructs that witches should not be allowed to live. A passage in Leviticus states that witches should be stoned to death. Errors in translation are likely, making the literal translation of these scriptures wrong. Examination of the entire scriptural context shows instruction to Jews about maintaining their own religion and not adopting beliefs of others.

St. Augustine's Arguments Against Witchcraft

Saint Augustine was an important theologian. He presented arguments against witchcraft, stating that only God had the power to exceed the standard laws of the universe. Saint Augustine rejected magic and the powers of witchcraft. With his influence, the late medieval church did not investigate witchcraft allegations.

The Connection Between Satan and Evil

Pope Innocent III was instrumental in a shift regarding how people perceived Satan. Prior to 1208, people thought Satan was merely mischievous. After the Pope's attack on Cathar beliefs, Cathars were thought to be worshipping Satan. The Pope sought to discredit the Cathars, and people began believing Satan to be evil.

Thomas Aquinas Believes in Demon Temptation

Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk. He was instrumental in the development of the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Aquinas taught that the world was full of evil demons. Under Aquinas' influence, a connection between sex and witchcraft was created. Aquinas believed that demons were actively trying to tempt people.

Witchcraft Trials Occur in Europe

Papal inquisitions began against Cathars regarding their alleged heresies. Investigators tortured defendants who were suspected of magical misconduct. The torture resulted in confessions about flying on poles and satanic assemblies involving animals. These confessions led to the formation of witchcraft as a crime.

The Publication of Malleus Maleficarum

Pope Innocent VIII requested a report from two friars regarding suspected witchcraft activities. The friars wrote Malleus Maleficarum, which means "Hammer of Witches." This report denounced earlier beliefs about witches being powerless, and it instituted an obligation of Christians to hunt down and kill witches. The report included specific instructions for investigators for finding and prosecuting witches.

The European Reformation

Witchcraft hysteria spread through Europe during the 1500s and 1600s. During these centuries, it's estimated that between 50,000 and 80,000 people suspected of witchcraft were executed. Approximately 80 percent of these people were women. Reformation created a division between Protestants and Catholics; however, both churches actively pursued witches during this period.

Witch Hunts in Scotland

After storms disrupted the wedding of King James of Scotland and Princess Anne of Denmark, King James blamed witches. He began actively prosecuting witches, and he authorized the torture of people suspected of witchcraft. Many witches were burned at the stake under King James' direction. Later, King James realized errors in the prosecutorial process, and witch hunts decreased.

Macbeth Performance with Witches

Witches and witch hunts were running rampant throughout Europe. William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606. The story of Macbeth included bearded witch-like characters, who were prominent in the play. Macbeth includes references to cauldrons, cats, poison, toads, and incantations.

Witch Hunts Decline

Witch hunts in France between 1643 and 1645 were significant, including about 650 arrests in just Languedoc. Wars going on in several European countries during the 1600s created more unrest regarding witches. Slowly, however, the unrest abated and tolerance replaced it. By 1648, many countries were adopting new laws, and witchcraft punishments were ending.

Final Witch Execution in England

The final person ever executed for witchcraft was Temperance Lloyd. Lloyd was a senile woman in England. After this execution, Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis North investigated the prosecution. North pronounced the conviction flawed. After this criticism, witch hunts in Europe ended. The hysteria then shifted to America with the witch hunts of Salem.

Witchcraft Resources