Because the veil between the living and dead is so thin his time of year, we traditionally remember the persecution of women, men, and children accused of witchcraft over the course of many centuries in Europe. We call this phenomenon The Burning Times.
We understand that despite the fact that these persecutions are not commonly taught in European history classes at any level of study, this wide-ranging and long-lasting era (before the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, and into the Enlightenment in Europe and the US) set the foundation for the modern Western world. Our current political, economic, and social systems were forged by terror--a strategy that proved highly effective in the concurrent and subsequent Western campaigns to enslave and colonize human beings and exploit natural resources.
Many questions about this phenomenon remain contested or unanswered: Who were the people tortured and killed? Specifically, what forces allowed for these brutal persecutions to extend over many centuries? How many people were impacted? And, intriguingly, were the victims in some sense real witches?
Because so little scholarly attention has been paid to The Burning Times, for many years in pagan circles, we used the number 1,000,000 (or sometimes 9,000,000): One million people, mostly women, killed over the course of many centuries. We now know that the number killed (hangings, burnings, and wildly creative methods of torture) was likely closer to several hundred thousand, and that many of the victims were men and children.
However, the impact of the phenomenon certainly feels like millions of people--in terms of the brutality; the wholesale complicity of state, legal, and religious institutions; the intimacy of accusers and accused in many cases; and, the fact that so few people spoke out for the accused and even fewer were ultimately held accountable. Millions of people were effectively terrorized.
Those persecuted during The Burning Times--including village leaders, poor families, Christian heretics, Jews, the mentally ill, and others--were sacrificed in order to establish a system of patriarchal capitalism in Europe. The impact of this era was that people were removed from land, community leaders were displaced and disgraced, and persecuted people turned against each other. These same tactics are used in other genocidal campaigns in the US and elsewhere.
But, were these victims in some sense real witches? No.
One of our pagan foremothers, Margaret Murray, a brilliant and accomplished British archeologist and anthropologist born in 1928, hypothesized about witch cults based on The Burning Times accounts. She took these persecutions seriously and poured over relevant court transcripts, ultimately theorizing that there was truth in some of the fantastical stories, that actual witches were gathering in groups in the woods to worship nature (not to perpetrate harm). She made many significant contributions to our understanding of the world, but about this she was wrong.
People in Europe did develop Earth-honoring practices--like our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world--that survived monotheism and large migrations away from the country and into factory work in the cities. These practices included the use of herbs by village healers and midwifery, divination, and other forms of helping people solve problems.
Those of us of European descent who reach back for a more resonant spirituality and way of living than is commonly available to us are legitimately connected to these traditions and revive them in our holidays and daily lives. But, that lineage is fractured and has been erased and obscured by oppression and terror. There is no single origin or line to the pre-Christian past in Europe. Our traditions are based on an agrarian lifestyle, but they’ve required reinvention and demand ongoing interpretation.
There are terrific scholars looking into these persecutions, making connections, illuminating important stories, and advancing theories--both outside and inside of the academy. Max Dashu is an independent historian and artist based in the Bay Area. Her Suppressed Histories archives is a treasure. I greatly appreciate the work of scholars Teofilo Ruiz at UCLA, Laura Stokes at Stanford, and Brian P. Levak at the University of Texas. I just finished reading historian Stacy Shiff’s epic account of the Salem witch trials, The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem, and highly recommend it.
What are the lessons of The Burning Times? Patriarchy and capitalism were established systematically in Europe through a specific type of religious terror. A deep-seated fear of brutal persecution continues to keep many of us from becoming fully liberated. Torture will make almost anyone say almost anything. Empowered women threaten existing systems of power.
But, the ultimate lesson is that we need to develop and expand our own campaigns of both Resistance and Resilience: Resistance in the forms of direct action, organizing, and spellwork to halt efforts to harm life and the living. Resilience by developing and investing in deeply alternative frameworks for spirituality, relationships, and social, political, and economic systems.
Love the Earth, honor the natural cycles, love yourself madly, live your truth, support your community, serve the cause of life, be a strong allies for others, and resist individual and global efforts to revive The Burning Times. Read the work of scholars who devote their lives to documenting atrocities and telling important stories.
At Samhain, light a candle for those who suffered and another for those who are suffering and keep working toward life, love, justice, and liberation.