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THE ORIGINS OF THE WITCH
THE witch, in the broader sense of the word, may be said to have existed ever since mankind first evolved an imagination, and may be expected to expire only with the death of the last woman. Given the supernatural, and sorcery must follow in some shape or other as its corollary. Whence also the witch is as ubiquitous as she is enduring. Under some form or other she exists, and has existed, in every quarter of the globe; she is as familiar to the English peasant as to the West African, in South America as in Japan. Her attributes vary, and have varied, with the racial temperament and the religious conceptions of her worshippers and persecutors, as widely as do, and have done, their gods. But it was left for mediaeval Christianity to give her the definite shape in which she is now most universally recognised, and it is to the Christian ideal of celibacy that she owes, if indirectly, the more obscene, and latterly the more grotesque, of her attributes, lifting her at first to an evil equality with the horned Devil of the Middle Ages, degrading her ultimately to the "horrid old witch" of nursery legend.
It is a far cry from this same "horrid old witch" to the pagan divinity, but there is no break in the long pedigree. It may be traced still further through the mists of antiquity — to the earliest days of human motherhood. Only, as between goddess and witch, we are confronted with a Darwinian problem. Is the witch indeed daughter of the goddess, or are both descended from a common ancestress? To my mind, the latter is the more correct line of descent, with the pagan priestess as connecting link.
"To one wizard, ten thousand witches," quotes Michelet from a forgotten writer of the days of Louis Treize; and throughout all the history of sorcery women have formed the majority of its practitioners. Our forefathers attributed this to the weakness of womankind, always curious to probe the mysteries of the Unknown, always prone to fall into the snare of evil. A more charitable — and correcter — explanation would be found in the greater quickness of her perceptions. If Eve first gave the apple to Adam, she gave with it the future of civilised humanity. The first mother gave birth to twin-daughters, the goddess and the witch, and from one or other of them came the impetus which has carried mankind to its present stage of progress, and will carry it yet nearer towards Heaven.
The primitive father was an animal, with potentialities — among animals without them. His intellect was concentrated in his activities, in providing for the material needs of himself and his family. His position towards his wife was very much what satirists would have us believe is that of the American business man to-day. His laborious days were spent in tracking his prey through the forest, his leisure in sleeping, eating, and digesting. The mother, on the other hand, was bound to the home by reason of her motherhood. Less active, she was more contemplative, noting in the order of events the best means of preservation for the small pink thing that could not live without her care, her mind always alert to the exigencies of the moment. Thus she acquired knowledge of things beneficent or harmful, of the food most apt for its nourishment, of the herbs growing around the clearing best fitted to cure its infantile complaints. She experimented, cautiously but continuously, and with each recurrent need she added a little to her small stock of wisdom. Small in itself, but vast in proportion to that of men or childless women. Little by little she "walked her hospital"; little by little she learnt the relative value of her simple potions, to whom they should be given, and how, and when. To the primitive mind this was cause for wonder, as indeed it is, almost as wonderful as the first smile of the first baby. Pain can no longer run riot unchecked. If it have not yet found its mistress, at least a protest has been entered against it — reason not only for joy and wonder, but for respect and gratitude — even perhaps for worship.
Whatever his divinity, Man worships himself. In every form of religion the worshipped tends to become confused with the worshipper. Man cannot escape his own environment. The thunderstorm frightens him; there must be a storm-demon. What is that demon but another man like himself, though uglier and wickeder and very much more powerful? Such a demon must be flattered and propitiated as an angry man of might must be. But a Primitive with his living to make cannot spare the time necessary to propitiate a worldful of demons. He deputes the duty to a weaker neighbour, one who sits at home, engaging for his own part to find food for both. Whence the first priestess — from whom later descends the first priest. For who so apt at propitiation as she who can cajole that most domesticated of demons, the ever-present Pain. So, later, when the propitiation of Evil gives place to the invocation of good, who so worthy of honour, which is to say of worship, as she who, in the dawning of the race, first relieved poor humanity of its bodily ills? Goddess, priestess, White Witch and Black — all are but variations on that oldest and most beautiful of themes, Motherhood.
To return to the first house-wife. Throughout her life she adds always a little to her store of natural knowledge, and when she dies she bequeaths it to her daughters. They in turn add to it until the time comes when to the cure of bodies is added that of minds. For Man's nascent mind begins to trouble him almost as much as does his body. Already the eternal problem of why and wherefore raises its head; already he begins his age-long struggle with the inevitable. That "all that is, is good" does not commend itself to Prehistoric Man. He knows so much better. He must often go hungry, his cattle die, drought destroys his meagre crops, his neighbour robs him of his war-spoil. He appeals to the woman, who thinks so much, for a way out. Cannot she, who with her potions drove the pain out of his body, help him in this also? Can she not cure his cattle? Can she not reason with the delinquent rain-demon, or, by making a little rain herself, move him to emulation? Best of all, can she not, out of the plenitude of her wisdom, suggest some means of outwitting that treacherous neighbour? He will reward her handsomely, especially for this last.
It is at this point that the priestess and the witch come to the crossing of the ways, henceforward to follow divergent paths. The one sister, from whom is to be born the devout priestess, is ready to do all that she can. She invokes the cattle-demon, the rain-demon; she, no more than the man, has any doubt of their invocability, but if they refuse to answer it must be because they are angry. She cannot make it rain if the demon gainsay her prayer. She is honest, acknowledging her inferiority to the supernatural. Only she claims to understand more than most the best way to approach it.
Consider the other woman — the ancestress of the witch, in the opprobrious sense. She knows very well that she cannot make rain. Probably she has made the experiment already. But — such faith in her power is tempting — so are the gifts thus easy to be earned. The man believes in her — almost she begins to believe in herself. Perhaps she tries to persuade herself that she may succeed this time. She is weatherwise, and she reads in natural signs the probability that rain may shortly be expected. If it should not — well, she must take precautions against incurring blame. She must impose conditions, and any failure must be set down to their non-fulfilment. There is a very pleasant sense of power in gulling the overgrown baby who is so ready to be gulled. She accepts the trust, commands the rain-demon to let down his showers. Her reading of the signs is justified — the expected rain comes. Her reputation is assured — until belief in the supernatural shall be no more. Her daughter and her granddaughters inherit her claims. They also command the storm, using the same form of words. Possibly they are themselves deceived — believing that there is some virtue in the form of their mother's words, now become an incantation. From the first claim to power over the elements, to the finished sorceress, and thence to the "horrid old witch" of fairy legend, is but a matter of regular evolution.
Just as the priestess was the mother of the priest, so the wizard is born of the witch. Man, though he start later — very much as the boy is slower in development than is his sister — is not content always to remain second in the race for knowledge. For a time — perhaps for long centuries — he has been content to leave things intellectual to his womenfolk. But when he starts he is not content to stay upon the threshold of knowledge, as woman, who has approached it only from necessity, has done. One day a male iconoclast rebels, pitting his awakening intellect against the woman's inherited reputation. Victorious, he yet trembles at his victory, while all Palmolithia awaits the angry fire from Heaven. But nothing happens. No lightning strikes him; no swift disease destroys him, or his children, or his cattle. A new era has begun — the wizard places himself beside the witch, slowly but surely to elbow her into the second place.
As the slow centuries pass society has been gradually forming and shaping itself. In his search for a civilisation Man has left the secluded cave wherein he wrung the empire of the world from the jaws of the cave-bear and the scythe-toothed tiger. He has built himself homes and collected them into villages; from the scattered family he has evolved the tribe, and from the tribe the nation. Having learned his own power when buttressed upon that of his neighbours, he is slowly broadening and extending it until it is little inferior to that of the divinities before whom it pleases him to tremble. He — or Nature for him — chooses out rulers, who become his gods in all but divinity; and his respect for them, if less absolute, is more immediate than for his gods. Government, making all things possible, becomes an accomplished fact.
Government, once instituted, loses no time in measuring itself against Heaven. In one form or other the conflict between Church and State — disguise it as men may — has lasted from the beginning, and must last as long as both survive. That ideal which reached the point nearest of attainment in the theoretic constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, of two rulers, co-existent and co-equal, governing one the spiritual and one the material empire of the world, was in the very nature of things doomed to remain an ideal. Either God or Man must be first. With their struggles for the mastery the fortunes of the witch, as of all exponents of the supernatural, were intimately bound up.
At first sheltering itself beneath the wings of the spiritual power, the material flourished — at its protector's expense. The realm of Nature seemed at first so inconsiderable compared to that of the supernatural, that he were a bold iconoclast who dared compare them. Only, the King was always in the midst of his people; the god, century by century, retreated further into the unscaleable skies. Slowly the civil power emancipated itself from the tutelage of the spiritual — as it is still doing in our own time — slowly and with many falterings and many backward glances, asserting itself in prosperity, appealing for help in adversity, retreating often, but never so far as it advanced.
With the first introduction of civil government the witch and the priestess finally part company, to range themselves henceforward upon opposite sides. It is true that as religion follows religion the priestess of the former era often becomes the witch of its successor, thereby only accentuating the distinction. For, in the unceasing efforts to arrange a modus vivendi between the human and the supernatural worlds, the priestess accommodates herself to circumstances — the witch defies them. The priestess, acknowledging her own humanity, claims only to interpret the wishes of the god, to intercede with him on behalf of her fellow-men. The witch, staunch Tory of the old breed, claims to be divine, in so far as she exercises divine power unamenable to human governance, and thus singles herself out as one apart, independent of civil and ecclesiastical powers alike — and as such an object of fear and of suspicion. Even so she is still respectable, suspect indeed, but not condemned. The public attitude towards her is variable; she is alternately encouraged and suppressed, venerated and persecuted — and through all she flourishes, now seductive as Circe, now hag-like as was Hecate.
Ages pass, empires flourish and decay, and slowly a great change is coming over society. Unrest is in the air; old systems and old creeds are dying of inertia, and men look eagerly for something to take their place. The spirit of individual liberty steals round the world, whispering in all men's ears. The slave, toiling at the oar, hears them, though he dare not listen, and hugs them in his heart — and a heresy, threatening the very foundations of society, spreads far and wide. Is it just possible that men are not born slave or master by divine decree?
The First Socialist is born in the East. He and His disciples preach a creed so blasphemous, so incompatible with the rights of property, that it becomes a sacred duty, if vested interests are to be preserved, to crucify Him as an encouragement to others. He proclaims, in a word, that all men are equal. It is well for Christianity that He adds the qualification, "In the sight of God," or how could either slave or master believe in anything so contrary to the senses' evidence? Vested interests notwithstanding, the new creed spreads, as any creed so comforting to the great majority, the downtrodden and oppressed, is bound to spread. But, though it preached the acceptable doctrines of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Christianity introduced with them sin into the world. All men might be equal in the sight of God, but they were all equally sinners. Humility and self-abasement were to take the place of the old pagan joyousness. To the Christian — to the Early Christian, at any rate — the world ceased to be man's inheritance, as Heaven was that of a congerie of shifting divinities — an inheritance the enjoyment of which was as blameless as it was natural. It was become a place of discipline and education, a hard school designed to prepare him for a glorious future, and one in which only the elect were to share. Everything that did not actively help towards that end was evil; all who did not work towards that end were evil-doers. The pagan and his easy-going paganism were alike accursed and tolerance a sin.
The contest between two such schools of thought — however long drawn out — could have but one conclusion. Capricious persecutions, on civil rather than religious grounds, gave the iconoclasts the one remaining impetus needed to snatch the sceptre of the world. Successful, they persecuted in their turn, systematically and with the thoroughness born of conscious virtue. In spite — or because of — such attempts to stamp out pagan and paganism together, the old order still survived in secret long after the known world was officially Christianised. Naturally enough, the Christian could only suppose that such criminal persistence was the direct work of that Evil One whom he first had exploited. Pagan rites were nothing more nor less to him than Devil worship, those who practised them the direct representatives of Satan. Some of the pagan gods had been pressed into the service of Christianity as saints, their festivals as saints' days. Those that remained were classed together, with their ministers and attributes, under the generic heading of Magic, shunned and feared at first, but as the Church more and more stepped into the shoes of the civil power, warred upon without mercy.
Faced by such forcible arguments for conversion, the Pagan witch was not long in adopting the Christian Devil as a more potent protector than the old, easy-going gods who had formerly peopled the supernatural world. Pagan or nominal Christian, she was equally anathema to the Church, if only that she was consistently Protestant, claiming to hold direct communication with the Unseen quite regardless of the proper ecclesiastical channels. And by this very independence her hold upon the imagination of her neighbours continued to increase as Christianity progressed towards universal empire. The very definite pronouncements of the Church against witches, witchcraft, and all kinds of magic served to foster the general belief in their powers. What was so forcibly condemned must of necessity exist. There was, moreover, a certain satisfaction in this same tangibility. It simplified, smoothed out the path of virtue. With witchcraft about, your duty was plain and your task easy. You had but to mention a holy name, to make a sacred sign, to sprinkle a little holy water, and victory was assured. If all assaults of the devil were so straightforward and so vincible, the path to Heaven were broad and smooth indeed.
It was, perhaps, the popular sense of victorious ability against her spells which protected the witch, per se, against over-severe persecution until towards the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Absolute confidence in the power to suppress an evil diminishes the urgency for its suppression. Here and there a witch was executed, local persecutions of inconsiderable extent occurred, but for general holocausts we must wait until the more enlightened times of a James I. or a Louis XIV. The witch of the Dark Ages might count upon a life of comparative security, sweetened by the offerings of those who, pining for present joys, acted upon the advice of Omar Khayyam rather than following that of their ghostly advisers. Meanwhile, however, a mass of tradition and precedent was growing up, to be put to deadly purpose in the animadversions of learned sixteenth and seventeenth century writers upon the vile and damnable sin of witchcraft.
By the eleventh century the witch was firmly identified, in popular as well as the ecclesiastical mind, as a woman who had entered upon a compact with Satan for the overthrowing of Christ's kingdom. The popular conception of her personality had also undergone a change. By the twelfth century there was no more question of her as a fair enchantress — she was grown older and uglier, poorer and meaner, showing none of the advantages her compact with the Evil One might have been expected to bring in its train.
The increasing tendency towards dabbling in things forbidden brought about greater severity in its repression, but it was not until the days of Innocent VIII., when witchcraft was officially identified with heresy, that the period of cruel persecution may be said really to have begun. Sorcery in itself was bad enough; associated with heresy no crime was so pernicious and no punishment too condign, especially when inflicted by the Holy Inquisition. The inquisitorial power was frequently misused; the fact that the possessions of the accused became forfeit to her judges when tried in an ecclesiastical court may seem to the sceptic to provide ample reason why the ecclesiastical authorities undertook so many more prosecutions than did the civil. But of the absolute sincerity with which all classes set themselves to stamp out so dreadful a crime, the portentous and voluminous writings of the period leave no doubt whatever. Catholic and, after the Reformation, Protestant, rich and poor, patriot and philanthropist alike, vied with each other in the enthusiasm with which they scented out their prey, and the pious satisfaction with which they tortured helpless old women to the last extremity in the name of the All-Merciful.