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Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West by Gordon Napier

Politics and Witchcraft

The Burney Relief, an ancient Babylonian artefact in the Britsh Museum featuring a femlae deity, often identified as Lilith. Lilith was remembered in medieval Jewish lore as a demon who prayed on sleeping men who caused epilepsy in children. She is flanked by owls, creatures with a long association with witchcraft. (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

A story with overtones of Satanism and witchcraft made the news late in 2016, possibly influencing the result of that year’s US presidential election. The email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, was hacked, and 58,660 of his emails were published on Wikileaks. In one of these, Podesta was forwarded one Marina Abramavić’s invitation to a ‘Spirit Cooking Dinner’, by his lobbyist brother Tony. Abramović, a performance artist who cultivates a witch-like persona, has previously posed covered in snakes or holding a severed goat’s head, and has scratched pentagrams into her belly as part of earlier works. (The goat is evocative of Baphomet, the ‘sabbatic’ idol envisaged by 19th century occultist Eliphas Levi, which also bears a pentagram on its brow). ‘Spirit Cooking’ originally referred to Abramović’s 1990s performance pieces involving the slopping of blood around a chamber and over anthropoid figurines, as well as the writing of messages and painting of symbols onto walls. One such message in blood invited the observer to take a sharp knife and ‘cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain’. In one photo, an inverted pentagram and ‘666’ (the biblical number of the beast) feature. In a 2013 Reddit AMA, when asked about the place of the occult in contemporary art, Abramović said: ‘If you are doing the occult magic in the context of art, or in an art gallery, then it is art. If you are doing it in a different context, in spiritual circles or in a private house... then it is not art.’

Cats were often identified as witches' familiars, and were the subject of various superstitions. (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

Interest in magic endures, in the West, and there is at least an ironical pretence of belief in the supernatural. Performance art evocative of macabre ritualism still provokes disquiet (even though the artist in question denies being a Satanist). The Podesta revelations potentially damaged the credibility of the Democrat campaign, opening it to attacks from opponents. Partisans of the Republican candidate, meanwhile, half-jokingly claimed to have used internet ‘meme magic’ to secure Trump’s victory. The cartoon frog character Pepe had been co-opted by right-wing meme-makers, and the more esoteric-minded noticed correlations with the obscure Egyptian frog god kek, who became their totem. Modern witches of Leftist leaning, loath to accept the electoral outcome, have in turn sought to cast co-ordinated spells, including an appeal to infernal demons, ‘to bind Trump and all who abet him’.

In times when magic was taken seriously by governments, such activity as #MagicalResistance would have been treated as treasonous. In antiquity and into the Tudor era it was regarded as criminal even to cast horoscopes to determine how long a ruler might live. Since ancient times plotters have turned to magicians to aid their political causes. Magical doings were part of the harem conspiracy against the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III; spells being cast to incapacitate the harem guards, and to render the intended target more vulnerable. The plot succeeded in killing Ramesses (d. 1155 BC), but not in installing the son of the secondary wife who had been at the heart of the conspiracy. The convicted plotters duly faced gruesome deaths.

Witches dancing with demons, illustration from the Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunting manual by Francesco Maria Guazzo (1608). (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

During the reign of Henry VI of England, the Duchess of Gloucester and her associate, Margery Jourdeymayne, known as the Witch of Eye, were among those convicted of a similarly sorcerous plot against the king’s life. The Witch of Eye, in 1441, became one of few convicted witches to be burned at the stake in England. (Most English witches were hanged, and that mostly in a later period. The element of treason determined the sentence in this case). In 1590, James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) oversaw a hunt for witches who were said to meet with the devil at the churchyard in North Berwick, plotting and casting spells against James’ life. James’ cousin the Earl of Bothwell came to be linked to the plot. The witches were said to have conjured storms in an attempt to sink James’s ship while he was sailing abroad, and also to have sought to get hold of intimate items of the king’s clothing to use in harmful enchantments. That James survived indicated his favoured state, for if the ‘detestable slaves of the devil’ were plotting against the life of a sovereign then it could only enhance the target’s pious reputation. James himself interrogated some of the suspected witches. The king took such an interest in witchcraft that he added his own ‘Demonologie’ to the genre of witch hunting manuals. This inspired Shakespeare to write the play ‘Macbeth’, wherein the eponymous warlord consults with witches who prophecy (equivocatingly) that he will become king of Scotland, prompting Macbeth to usurp the throne. The theme of a ruler or warrior consulting witches about his fate is familiar both from classical literature and the Bible, echoing Sextus Pompey’s meeting with Erichtho, and Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. These witches offered illicit- but irresistible- supernatural insight regarding political and military affairs.

Illustration accompanying a pamphlet titled 'Newes from Scotland' (15910), describing the Berwick witches and their supposed plot against King James VI. The witches are here shown listening to a sermon given by the devil, and a shipwreck caused by their black magic is also shown. (Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West, Amberley Publishing)

Most historical cases of witchcraft were not tied to the world of politics. Allegations of witchcraft were, however, sometimes used to remove political undesirables, and to discredit factions associated with them. Royal ladies to come under such suspicion included Jaquetta of Luxembourg and Anne Boleyn. They also included Agnes Bernauer, whose real crime seems to have been marrying above her station into the ruling house of Bavaria. Her father-in-law, during her husband’s absence, had her seized, convicted, and drowned in the Danube. In France, supposed treasonous plots involving sorcery were uncovered, from time to time, throughout the Middle-Ages and beyond. Allegations of unholy worship helped King Philip IV to demonise and destroy the Knights Templar. Some of these accusations helped to formulate the notion of the witches’ Sabbath. During the Affaire des Poisons, a later scandal, during the reign of Louis XIV, the royal mistress the Marquise de Montespin, was suspected of using poison to remove a rival for the king’s affections, and was also found to be associating with La Voisin, a society fortune-teller and notorious poisoner, who presided at black masses. The authorities lost interest in prosecuting witchcraft as the eighteenth century dawned. The ‘age of reason’, however, also saw such societies as the Hellfire Club of Sir Francis Dashwood, which may have involved mock occultism in dark places. Major political players were involved in such societies, which provided an opportunity for networking and possibly blackmail.

Modern witchcraft, or Wicca, emerged in the mid 20th century. It is not a clandestine cult involving the great and powerful, but rather a nature religion focussed on worship of its principle deities, the horned god and the mother goddess. It owes much to the writings of the likes of Jules Michelet and Margaret Murray, who saw historical witchcraft as the survival of an ancient fertility cult. ‘The Old Religion’ was supposed to stand against the Christian/patriarchal order that prevailed by the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when historical witch hunting reached its peak. Various branches of modern witchcraft were politicised in the 1970s, when causes such as feminism and environmentalism were pushed by activists. The legacy of this politicization is indicated by the spell-casting campaign targeting President Trump- who ironically had already been turned into the frog by his own fans.

Gordon Napier's book Maleficium: Witchcraft and Witch-hunting in the West is available for purchase now.