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Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 / Fax (410) 516-5251

October 11, 1999
Leslie Rice, lnr@jhu.edu

Why Are There Witches?
For Halloween, a History of Human Belief in Witchcraft and Demons

Without the theologians, there would be no witches.

That is one of the major conclusions of Walter Stephens' forthcoming book, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and Belief (University of Chicago, 2000). Stephens, the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, has researched and published extensively on medieval and modern literature. In his latest book, he traces the first century of belief in witches (ca.1430-1530) and its relevance to the present day.

Until now, most historians have held that witch hunts, which began in earnest around the 1450s, were either a tool of repression, a form of reining-in deviant behavior, a backlash against women or a tool of the common people to name scapegoats for spoiled crops, dead livestock or the death of babies and children.

But Stephens (pictured at right), who has studied writings about sorcery and magic by theologians and intellectuals dating back to the 11th century, argues that the belief in witches filled the need for a different kind of scapegoat.

"I think witches were a scapegoat for God," Stephens says.

Until the 1400s, clerics ridiculed the belief in witches as ignorant superstition. But by the 1430s, the Christian intelligentsia had begun producing treatises that "proved" the existence of witches.

Stephens holds that theologians went to great lengths to prove that women could consort with demons because the theologians were repressing their own spiritual doubts. They couldn't find a physical means to prove that the world of spirit exists. But by "proving" that witches caused real damage, and received the power of witchcraft from their demon lovers, theologians could demonstrate the reality of the spiritual world. How can you have sex with an imaginary being? And how can a mere woman cause so much harm without demonic aid? The "reality" of witches not only explained why bad things happen, but, through witches' connections to demons, also provided inverse physical proof of the existence of God.

"Otherwise, late medieval Christians were left facing their questions as to why bad things happen," Stephens says. "In their pre-scientific, Biblically-based world view, the only alternative to witches and demons as an explanation of misfortune, is a God not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening or not good enough to try. In just about any period of history where theologians repress those questions, you tend to find witch hunts. It's very Freudian at the bottom: the thoughts that you refuse to think, you will act out in some violent, seemingly illogical way."

So how did theologians prove that women could consort with demons?


According to the Hammer of Witches (1487) the fundamental handbook of witch hunting, by confessing, witches became "expert witnesses" to the power, both sexual and magical, of demons. Historians estimate that in Europe and North America, between 1450 and 1700, at least 30,000 people, three-fourths of them women, were forced to confess participation in witchcraft or consorting with demons, and subsequently executed. And who, the defenders of witch hunting asked, would confess to impossible crimes, knowing the confession would cost their life?

Today, there are modern "good witch" movements, like Wicca. Stephens argues that voluntary participation in "witchcraft" is the same old question asked in a new way. It is another attempt, by people who find Christianity unsatisfying, to make the spirit world seem real. The difference between inquisitors of yore and modern witches is that the latter are unafraid--indeed eager--to admit their dissatisfaction with Christianity.

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