Satanic Panics

Okay, Bridgett, I have totally failed to come up with relevant questions about witchcraft, but here’s what’s been nagging me.  In the book I’m reading, it’s kind of clear that the definition of “witch” can be as loose as “someone who’s in league with the devil,” whether or not they practice magic.

And it’s clear that we’ve had a few good Satanic panics in our time–from the “satanists run my nursery school” to “satanists play all the music my kids like.”

I wonder if we can look at the kinds of anxieties reflected in the satanic panics of the witchcraft scares and if we see similar anxieties in our own times?  I think we do.

If we see heavy metal as appealing primarily to young poor white boys, we see that same anxiety about poor people, the same anxiety about proper male-to-male inheritance (how can you leave what you have to a satanist, after all, and still preserve God’s order?).  And with the day cares, again, it seems like you might read that as “See what happens, moms, when you work outside the home?  Satanists molest your babies.”

What do you think?

15 thoughts on “Satanic Panics

  1. My brain is fried. I read the title of this “Satanic Picnics.” (which made me wonder what would be on the menu, beyond deviled eggs…)

    I guess it depends on where you see these things emanating from (social and cultural causes, perceived violations of religious taboos, actual attempts to consort with Evil). While it’s really hard (and unwise) to make big transhistorical transcultural statements, I can hazard that societies turn to metaphysical arguments (Old So-and-So is a witch! God wants it to be like this here because He told me so!) when they think the legal/social order needs violent and immediate realignment that can’t be accomplished by just following an ordinary legal/social/cultural logic. (After all, the legal and social system in Salem allowed the wrong people to inherit and buy land and survive King William’s War and whatall.) Sometimes this is an anti-colonial reassertion or reinvention — like when the Shawnee Prophet insists “hey, the Master of Life says that we need to stop owning livestock because that’s what white people do and so cows are witch-bearers” — but it seems to me that many of the witch scares I’ve been reading about lately are as depending on laying claim to an invented history (appeals to a bogus past that did not exist and a false nostalgia for the recovery of “traditional” social forms that are always more socially and sexually conservative than what the society is doing at the moment) as anything. Sort of creating a metaphysical empire by controlling the meaning of the past…

    We always want to think that the past was safer and more morally upright than it was. This urge to call people to the straight and narrow by showing them that they’ve changed for the worse goes back further than Jeremiah. Humans just don’t handle social change very well — we’re anxious apes.

  2. Any sort of social change can prompt wierd social outbursts, of which witchcraft panics are just one kind. But there is a particular flavor to accusations of witchcraft that distinguishes it from panics about heretics, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, etc. For instance, no one, however overwrought they get about illegal immigration, accuses immigrants of sacrificing babies. Witches and religious minorities, however, may be accused of this. OTOH, religious and ethnic minorities may be accused of taking jobs, which witches (AFAIK) aren’t. And so on: there’s a lot of overlap, but each group has its distinct flavor of accusation, so to speak.

    Now, the perceived problem/change in a particular society at a particular time may have ramifications or implications that make one group or another the preferred target. The perception that babies are in danger may lead to charges of witchcraft,* the perception that jobs are in danger may lead to charges of uppity ethnic out-groups, the perception that the existing system of gov’t is in danger may lead to calls for spiritual renewal. So it’s not as simple as saying that people see Satanism at times when traditions are challenged.

    Still, the impulse to find a group to blame for a perceived problem, to generalize that blame to the entire group, and to then attack the group far out of proportion to any demonstrable harm done (whether or not by the group) is very human. Some of the most suggestive and influential work in this regard (though many of his specific conclusions, especially with reference to witchcraft) was done by the late Norman Cohn, whose death last month was announced yesterday.** His book Europe’s Inner Demons has changed the way a couple of generations of historians have viewed witch-crazes, and The Pursuit of the Millennium is still required reading on the practice of milennial utopianism.

    *The fact that anti-choice folks don’t accuse women who have had abortions of witchcraft leads me to believe that despite what they say they are perfectly well able to distinguish between embryos and babies.

    **Which, I suppose, is what prompted this long comment.

  3. How about the recent story of the “home exorcism” in which a Mexican-American grandpa was interrupted in the act of trying to choke the demons out of a toddler? The coverage on that (particularly in the southwestern media) merged racism, anti-Catholicism, anti-immigrant hysteria, fear of the occult.

  4. Oooh, that’s backwards. Babies are supposed to be victims of witches, not witches themselves.

    Fortunately, the xenophobes here have neglected to add it to their tizzy.

  5. Kat, the name of the book that B is reading is *Devil in the Shape of a Woman* by Carol Karlsen. I’m hosting a thread where we’re pooling the “greatest hits” of witchcraft studies from various fields more or less because Halloween is coming and there will be people who are interested in that sort of thing. I’m slowly adding to an annotated bib about colonial British American witch panics, American Indian witch outbreaks, and colonial Spanish American witch prosecutions. nm will be doing some stuff on early modern and Gerald may (if he has time) add some materials on in pre-colonial and colonial Africa. With school starting back up, this is one of those projects that will be evolving until mid-October, so you’ve got plenty of time to jump in if you feel so inclined.

  6. Thanks,

    I do feel so inclined. But I guess I’m needing some clarification. Are we talking mostly about the history of witch panics or are we also talking about the Craft as an indigenous pre-Christian practice?

    Because there’s a world of difference between Wise Women and that whole “your clitoris is the Devil’s Teat” business.

  7. Well, I think one of the things that I’m trying to understand is how and if those two groups overlap. In Karlsen’s book, for instance, she talks about how healing (in whatever form it took) was the woman of the house’s purvey. She was expected to attend to births and deaths and sicknesses. Also, that the Puritans, for example, believed in a world full of angels and demons, so that people would engage in what we might call superstitious practices to encourage the protection of one and ward off the other. And how those things that everybody did were used against certain women who had traits–like being obnoxious or disrupting clear male-male inheritance–as evidence of her being in league with the Devil.

    What I’m still having a hard time getting a feeling for is what would constitute an indigenous pre-Christian practice. Were there groups of Europeans who said to themselves, “We do these things because we’ve always done these things, even before we were Christian”? If so, could one say with any certainty whether that was true? Did those Europeans say to themselves, “I do these things in order to honor The Old Way and therefore I don’t see myself as actually being Christian, even if I have to lie and say I am?”

    That’s one thing. Is there evidence of continuous (or even semi-continuous) pagan religious practice, understood as being such, from pre-Christian times until… maybe now? Is that necessarily the same thing as being a witch?

    The other thing is whether all magical practices were considered witchcraft.

    And the third is whether witch panics are about actual witches at all. I’m anxious to see (and I think she talks about it farther along than I am) if we have any way of knowing whether some of the women considered themselves witches (“Yep, I do love Satan. You caught me.”) or if they all confessed because they hoped to spare themselves any (more) pain or torture.

  8. Aunt B, I can tell you that there were definitely groups of people – men as well as women – who believed they were practicing witchcraft: will take you to the Witches of Pendle, who are very thoroughly documented; Françoise-Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan, for thirteen years mistress of Louis XIV of France, for those thirteen years sought the services of a witch known as La Voison. They were what was/is stereotypically thought of as followers of the devil, rather than wiccans or followers of any old religion. They believed in it, themselves.

  9. All those questions are things I hope to get at over at Bridgett’s, at least in brief. Well, in very brief. Well, maybe in a paragraph. Because there is an immense literature on all of those topics.

  10. Aunt B, I can tell you that there were definitely groups of people – men as well as women – who believed they were practicing witchcraft:

    I’m a Christian mystic. I believe in the existence of the devil, of demons and evil spirits, just as I believe in the existence of God.

    I believe there have always been demons among us and those who practise the worship of the demonic.

    But I don’t think it looks anything like the witch hysteria, nor has it ever (in my opinion.)

    All the stories of “black masses” seem to be contrivances by the bored or mad–the flip side of seeing the Virgin Mary’s face burned into a piece of toast.

    The fact that all of the confessions from witch trials sound so eerily similar, and are all sexually focused is what gives me pause.

    It seems that these confessions are all designed to provide a bit of prurient titillation to the audience. (“and then we all rode on our beasts to a clearing where we had hot monkey sex for hours” is usually the highlight of most witch-confessions.)

    They believed in it, themselves.

    I still question whether they in fact DID believe or if they were mad. Being a mystic myself I tend toward believing they were mad, because a true mystical experience generally is MYSTICAL and not like everyone else’s. For instance, read the book of The Revelation to St. John. That whole thing is a mystical experience. It is largely unique in its narrative.

    But the Witch Confessions all sound the same, as though they’re borne out of some medieval magazine subscription. In that way they are not unlike the “filled with the Holy Spirit” conversions I’ve witnessed in friends at Bible Camp. Everyone is so eager to fit in with their peers that they all start repeating the same story. “Yes! That’s how it was for me, too!” and soon they all come away from partaking in a shared delusion.

    It’s hard to explain and I feel like a bad mystic for being skeptical of the supposed-mystical experiences of others. But I generally am.

  11. Ah. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak for someone else’s mystical experience; however, their intent was genuine; it was their intent to perform what they believed to be black magic; it was their intent to focus black magic ritualistically through the performance of Black Masses (again, I refer you to the Witches of Pendle, and to de Montespan, particularly, in The Affair of the Poisons.)

  12. I’m torn between the whole “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist” mindset and the pure skepticism of how all of the stories sound the same.

  13. Kat, confessions during the great witch hunts were shaped by the questions examiners asked, by public warnings about how to tell if your neighbor was a witch, and by the examiners putting examinees’ answers into the mental categories the examiners came in with. That doesn’t mean that no one thought he/she was practicing magic, or even having contact with the devil by doing so.

    Historians generally understand the sort of diabolism that Montespan allegedly dabbled in as an early modern invention; it shows no signs of having been a long-standing tradition, and it’s heavily dependent on recent inventions like tarot cards, post-Reformation/Tridentine liturgies, and the current popularization of scientific developments that gave rise to early modern alchemy and astrology. That said, there were also ordinary people who were absolutely convinced that they (or someone they knew) had the power to curse animals or humans, or had foreknowledge of (generally disastrous) events, and that these powers came from some other than divine source.

    And there were people like the Benandanti who were convinced that they were actively practicing good magic, good witches warring against bad witches and demonic powers, and therefore good Christians, until inquisitors convinced them otherwise.

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