This has been a ridiculously hard subject for me to order my thoughts on coherently. I have thought about setting it aside and doing something easier and less controversial. But I don’t think I can do that. This is a conversation that has been waiting for over a decade. That’s really long enough.
I’m sure that just about every Pagan has at some point come across the Burning Times myth. I touched on it in 2004 in my article on Revisionist History. In re-reading this article, I remember the mindset I was in when I wrote it. Back in the early 2000s we were still fighting off the satanic ritual conspiracy myths, still fighting to be recognized as valid spiritualists rather than just a group of stoned new-agers dancing in the dirt under the full moon.
The modern version of the story traces back to a book from the early twentieth century called The Witch Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray. I’m not going to go into a historical account of her work, or attempt to unravel where her information got twisted. Current historical data has disproved her theories regarding ancient matrifocal societies that covered the western world.
What I do want to explore is the intense staying power this myth has had through the growth of Paganism in North America. Witchcraft traditions really began to grow and take hold during the rise of second wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s.
It was a time of sociopolitical upheaval where young people all over the continent were standing up for the first time and demanding that their voices be heard — demanding that attitudes towards violence and war be changed. Women were gathering in rallies to demand to be heard, and for their personhood to be respected.
Religious Witchcraft had arrived on the scene to show these young people that a woman’s body was sacred rather than shameful and profane. This is the climate that allowed for the myth that 9 million women were burned at the stake for practising a matrifocal religion to spread like wildfire.
In the 1990s and early 2000s we saw a resurgence of powerful women coming to the forefront of popular culture, and that brought with it another rise for Religious Witchcraft and its entwined myth of the Burning Times. This was the atmosphere where I cut my spiritual teeth, so to speak.
By the mid-2000s, the myth had been soundly disproven, and it was cast aside by many with derision and extreme prejudice against those who chose to cling to it like gospel. It was then, and still is today, I am sad to say, used as a club against Christians and Christianity as a whole. Many wrap themselves in the mantle of victimhood, insisting that their spiritual ancestors were massacred at the hands of Christian zealots looking to wipe out anything different from themselves.
Now, when I say that the myth was disproven, I want to be clear that the Witch Trials were an actual thing. The numbers and the fact that they were women/witches are the parts that are inaccurate. The Witch Trials were also a time of much political upheaval. Science, capitalism, philosophy, and even atheism were all on the rise, and the church of the fifteenth century was losing its control of the populace. The chaos, fear and deaths from this campaign against heretics and devil worshippers lasted for three hundred years, costing roughly 50,000 people their lives.
This is something that I think deserves to be remembered. Three hundred years of people living in fear of being tortured and then burned alive because a massive institution was trying to stem the tide of change.
In my previous post on animism, I mentioned that the purpose of myths is to teach us sacred truths, and I believe it is so with the myth of the Burning Times. The easy lesson is that anyone can be a victim of prejudice, and that extreme prejudice and xenophobia leads to death. The harder truth is something that takes a lot more soul-searching to understand.
Like virtually every other instance of genocide in human history, the Witch Trials would have fizzled with far fewer deaths if it were not for the compliance of the populace. Neighbours informing on neighbours, accusations made out of spite and greed — just as every one of the victims can be claimed as a spiritual ancestor, so can every one of the informants who brought the Witch Hunters to their village over a ridiculous and petty spat; and each one of those people who were too afraid or suspicious to help the accused, they are ours as well.
In the current political climate of our world, it hits home especially hard for me every time I see people demanding that refugees be turned away or that those with darker skin or a different religion be put through extra security screenings at airports, borders or other transportation hubs.
The Burning Times myth is a tale that grew up alongside American Paganism. I don’t believe that it is something that will ever be detangled from our history. It may sound as ridiculous as the story of Noah gathering two of every creature on the earth into one boat, but I believe that we need to own it all the same. And we need to understand its truths.
Bigotry is never ok — even against those you would see as your persecutors. The other side of the coin speaks to complacency in the face of bigotry and xenophobia. Do not welcome the hunters into your village. Speak out in support of the hunted.
In the words of Ramana Maharshi:
“There are no others.”