Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Burning Times

When Christians first left the Roman Empire for the rest of the known world (Europe and northern Africa), the people they encountered were reluctant to convert to Christianity. They were loyal to the deities their ancestors had worshiped for an unknown number of generations.

At first the priests were somewhat tolerant of the other religions, but began a subtle smear campaign against them. The Christian parishioners were told that witches were evil and meant them harm, even accusing Witches of devil-worship. Meanwhile, they began incorporating traditions from the religions they lived near. Sometimes it was decorations, sometimes it was holy days or festivals. At least once they compromised and turned a deity into a Saint.

While some might have fallen for the ruse that this new religion was just like their own, most didn't. They stubbornly refused to abandon their Gods. That's when the religious leaders in Protestantism and Catholicism began to allow the torture of Witches with intent to save them.

The Witch hunters came up with ways to falsely accuse Witches. Some had a pin that, when pressed, would collapse. They would say that, because the accused didn't react to the "sharp" object, that was proof she was a Witch. Others had the theory that if a Witch was thrown in the water and survived she was guilty and would be hung, but if she drowned she was innocent. Still more admitted guilt to save their lives, but were never released. They died in prison.

Some people were accused because they were healers whose patients died, especially mid-wives. Others were accused because the herbs they used to heal people were misunderstood as Witchcraft. It didn't matter to the people that no harm was meant, these people were still labeled as "evil".

The causes of the Witch Trials are varied. At first, it may have begun as part of the previously mentioned smear campaign on the part of the churches. Some were likely accused for the sole reason that their neighbors wanted their land, and intended on buying it from the city once it was forcibly taken away from the original owner. Ergot, which is a fungus that grows on grains, may also have been a factor. For those of you that don't know, Ergot is a hallucinogenic that, when eaten, gives the infected an LSD-like reaction. People in Europe, and later in Salem Village, Massachusetts, may have baked Ergot into their bread without knowing the side-effects.

No one knows now many people died in Europe and North America during this time, but it's an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 dead. Some say it was 9 million, but I believe they are wrong. A German in the 18th century calculated the number dead by selecting a specific amount of time, then multiplied it by the entire time of the trials. Unfortunately, he picked an extremely violent one that skewed the numbers to an unlikely amount.

The term "Burning Times" is also wrong. It is true that some burned, and at least one was crushed to death. But the vast majority of those found guilty were either hung, or died in prison. And no one was sentenced to burn in Salem Village, Massachusetts. If anyone was burned on the accusation of being a witch there, it was not a lawful execution.

It can't correctly be called the "Witch Trials", either, as most were not Witches. In the first century or two of the trials, it's likely that some of the accused really were followers of the Old Religions, but most, probably over 90% of the accused, were devout Christians.

Another error is that the Christian churches were responsible. But, other than the smear campaign against other faiths, they did very little. The trials themselves were held in town halls by lawyers and judges, not priests or monks.

It's my hope that, with time, the myths about this dark era will be forgotten and only the truth will be remembered.

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