Please see the general introduction to Parts 2 - 4 HERE.
More specifically, then, Part Two focuses on the phenomenon of witch hunts. In this case, it seems almost obvious that something went wrong in Western cultures at the time. The history of “witches” provides an example of one way in which a cultural insanity arose and made matters worse (when they were already bad enough). But just as what happens next in our society’s history is not foreordained (though some developments are certainly more likely than others), witch-hunting on anything like the scale that actually occurred was not something that was destined to arise from or within Xtianity, or even from the (Catholic) Church. (Many Protestants were to join in the witch-hunting but Catholic “witchcraft theorists” laid the foundation.) Instead, the nature of witchcraft as understood at the time of large-scale witch hunts was largely a relatively new invention that involved a variety of re-definitions of earlier views. Two examples: witches became much more heretical and in league with the devil (previously they just called on occult forces to do evil deeds); and the flight of witches, which was previously regarded by the Church as delusional, became real. The culturally retrograde revisions in the concept of the witch (and her craft) were developed by a specialized second-tier set of leaders in the Church—Dominican inquisitors. And a few of these inquisitors also augmented their case for new extremes in the understanding of witches by coaxing a supportive decree from a pope.
However, only slowly did their ideas spread widely among others in the empowered classes, including many secular leaders (who were wary of the Church usurping their prerogatives—including the imposition of justice—in their lands). Oddly enough, historically speaking, the largest-scale eruptions of witch-hunting very much seemed to be generated by societal leaders’ insecurities after a reduction in real threats. Large-scale witch-hunting didn’t begin until around 1560, shortly after a peace between Catholics and Lutherans in German-speaking areas. Leaders’ insecurities seem responsible in part because most witch-hunting occurred in statelets near realms professing some other variant on Xianity—where conversion of a statelet’s people, or takeover by armed forces of that other variant, was the real threat. And during some of the witch-hunting era, with the Devil seemingly running rampant and already in control of lands adhering to another variant on Xtianity (with witches as his agents), many rulers also tended to fear that the apocalypse was near at hand. Accordingly, in intervals when threats like religious war were reduced, bishops and some Protestant religious leaders, secular rulers, and even some towns also sought to impose greater conformity on their people’s behavioral mores, to better guarantee their statelet’s good standing in the eyes of their version of the deity. But in efforts to eliminate ungodly behaviors and beliefs in their society, sometimes those underlying insecurities were mentally displaced, and deflected onto people chosen as scapegoats, mostly lower-class women, that authorities (but not the masses) saw as the newer version of “witch.”
Finally, as described in Part One, today we still see considerable use of scapegoating, whether as deliberate attempts to manipulate people’s thinking, or by people culturally blinded to understanding the real sources of their or our country’s problems.
Click HERE to read about Part Three.
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An older-style Devil eating a person (center of lowest row) in the ceiling mosaic from the Baptistry building in front of the cathedral in Florence, Italy.
Photo by Jeff Koon.