Although accusations of witchcraft seem to have been most commonly made against older women who lived on the margins of society and who may have become socially troublesome, there is also evidence that women who were too powerful could become targets as well. Joan of Arc is one famous example of a woman who achieved a great deal but was then burned as a witch for her trouble.
Joan of Arc, who has become the patron saint of France, was a peasant girl who experienced mystical visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret during the Hundred Years War which convinced her that she was destined by God to lead the French to victory over the English invaders.
In 1429 she convinced the dauphin Charles VII to let her demonstrate that she had the ability to match her ambitions and she led French forces to liberate the city of Orleans from an English siege. She was eventually taken prisoner by the Burgundians, allies of England, and turned over to the English who burned her at the stake as a witch on the argument that herclaims of direct communication with God were heretical and an act of disobedience to the Church.
Not until June 16, 1456, did Pope Callistus III declare Joan of Arc to be innocent on the charges of heresy and witchcraft. It can be difficult for powerful institutions to admit error of any sort, but especially when the errors involve grave injustices that cause the suffering and death of innocent people. Everyone likes to think of themselves are pure of heart and doing good work, even when they are hurting others. Sometimes the need to justify one’s actions leads one to justifications of brutality, cruelty, and violence in general — and thus a betrayal of whatever moral principles they thought they held to begin with.
Burning and hanging were the most popular forms of execution for accused witches in medieval Europe. Burning seems to have been most common in continental Europe while hanging was more common in Britain — and thus also in the American colonies later as well. The death penalty was imposed on a wide variety of crimes in this era, but witchcraft in particular was punished by death on the basis of Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and Leviticus 20:27: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones.”
The heretics who were the earlier targets of the Inquisition were almost never executed at first. They typically had a chance to repent and submit to the Church; only after relapsing intoheresy did they generally become subject to execution. Even then, they might still be given another chance to repent. Witches received almost the exact opposite treatment: execution was typically applied after the first accusation and only rarely were accused witches allowed to go free after repenting.
This helps demonstrate the level of threat which the Church made out ofwitches and witchcraft. Witches couldn’t be allowed to live no matter what — not even if they were willing to admit all that they were accused of and fully repent. Their evil was too much of an existential threat to Christian society and they had to be completely excised, not unlike cancer which has to be cut out lest it kill the entire body. There was simply no tolerance or patience for the witches — they had to be eliminated, whatever the cost.
Some have claimed that as many as nine million women were executed as witches, even though few could possibly have been truly guilty of witchcraft, and that because this represented a deliberate attempt to kill women generally it should be dubbed a “Women’s Holocaust.” More recent research demonstrates that many accused witches were men, not just women, and that number of those executed is far lower. Estimates today range from 60,000 to 40,000. Even if we are especially pessimistic, we probably can’t go higher than 100,000 people killed across all Europe and over an extended period of time. That’s obviously very bad, but not quite a “Holocaust.”
As most Americans know, witch hunts also affected the American colonies. The Salem witch trials pursued the Massachusetts Puritans have entered American consciousness as being much more then just the killing of witches. They, like the trials of Europe, have become a symbol. In our case, the witch trials have become a symbol of what can go wrong when mobs of ignorant people go crazy, especially when egged on by just as ignorant and/or power hungry leaders.
The Salem story began in 1692 when a few girls, who had become friendly with a slave woman named Tituba, began acting very strangely — hysterical screaming, falling into convulsions, barking like dogs, etc. Soon other girls began acting in a similar manner and of course they all must have been possessed by demons. Three woman, including Tituba, were promptly accused of witchcraft. The result was much like the European experience, with a chain-reaction of confessions, denouncements, and more arrests.
In an effort to help combat the witch menace, courts relaxed traditional rules of evidence andprocedure — after all, witches are a terrible menace and must be stopped. In place of the normal rules and methods, the courts used what was common among Inquisitors in Europe — scouring the womens’ bodies for marks, numb spots, etc. Also accepted were “spectral sources” of evidence — if someone had a vision of a woman being a witch, that was good enough for the judges.
The people who were mostly killed were not those who submitted quickly and obediently to authorities. Only those who were defiant or hostile were put to death. If you admitted being a witch and repented, you had a very good chance of living. If you denied being a witch and insisted that you had rights which must be acknowledged, you were on a quick path to execution. Your chances were also bad if you were a woman — especially if you were an older, deviant, troublesome or somehow disorderly woman.
In the end, nineteen people were executed, two died in prison and one man was pressed to death under rocks. This is a better record than what we see in Europe, but that isn’t saying very much. The religious and political authorities clearly used the witch trials to impose their own ideas of order and righteousness upon the local populace. As in Europe, violence was a tool used by religion and religious people to enforce uniformity and conformity in the face of dissent and social disorder.
Jews and heretics were often treated as scapegoats for other social problems and witchesended up no different. Regions with the most social and political unrest also happened to be those with the greatest problem with witches. Every social, political, and natural problem was blamed on witches. Crop failure? Witches did it. Well gone bad? Witches poisoned it. Political unrest and rebellion? Witches are behind it. Strife in the community? Witches are influencing people.
Lest anyone imagine that the persecution of witches has been relegated to the distant past, it must be noted that witch hunts — and killings — continue well into our own “enlightened” times. The church’s creation of witchcraft and devil worship has exacted a heavy and bloody toll on humanity which still has not yet been fully paid.
In 1928, a Hungarian family was acquitted of killing an old woman they thought was a witch. In 1976, a poor German woman was suspected of being a witch and keeping familiars, so people in the small town ostracized her, pelted her with stones, and killed her animals. In 1977 in France, a man was killed for suspected sorcery. In 1981, a mob stoned a woman to death in Mexico because they believed that her witchcraft incited an attack on the Pope.
In Africa today, fears of witchcraft cause the persecution and death of people on a regular basis. Parents who fear that their children are possessed or are witches either kill them or turn them out into the streets. Government authorities have tried to put a stop to such nonsense, but they haven’t had much luck. Both traditional African religion and Christianity contain enough to feed people’s superstitious fears and this leads to others being harmed.
It’s not just allegations of witchcraft which causes people to behave like this. Many other things can become the object of hysterical persecutions and prosecutions. Sometimes the alleged threats are genuine and sometimes they are not; in either case, the threats are magnified to such a degree that people no longer feel bound by traditional standards of justice or morality in order to confront their enemies. The consequences are almost always violence and suffering pursued in the name of good and God.
Author unknown,source: http://atheism.about.com/ Flame