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Published in 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was the most popular handbook for witch hunters during the great witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, until Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress began circulating in 1678, only the Bible sold better! The Malleus was written by two German friars, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (known also as Henry Institor), who were prosecutors of heretics in the Rhineland and northern Germany. Although their own behavior inspired protests to the pope, in 1484 the recently elected Innocent VIII endorsed their activities.

 

 

The Malleus gave theological approval to every grotesque superstition concerning diabolism and witches, and resulted in the torture and death of thousands of innocent people – particularly women. The book addressed such questions as “Why it is that women are chiefly addicted to evil superstitions?”, and concluded that “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable . . . wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils.”

Witches supposedly exercised great power over the sexual act, and they were often held responsible for causing inappropriate infatuations, impotency and sterility. Cementing the pact with the devil usually involved sexual intercourse, as well as eating newborn babies and making ointments from their remains. Once the contract was made, the witch’s magical acts, such as sprinkling water to produce rain or injuring a wax image of a person, were a sign to the demons, who then made the intended event happen. The witch’s familiar, or demon, helped her in everything. If the witch wanted to steal milk, for example, she pretended to milk a knife thrust into the wall, while telling her demon to milk a particular cow. The demon collected the milk, took it to the witch and released it through the knife.

Accused witches were generally tortured until they confessed, but the Malleus also recommended that confessions be obtained by promises of mercy – not mercy for the witch herself, however, but for society, whose interests were best served by the destruction of the witch. People who believed such promises and confessed to witchcraft were invariably disappointed.

 

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Great mystery surrounds the Druids, the priestly caste of Celts in Gaul (modern-day France) and Britain, who served as judges, teachers, healers and soothsayers. The little we know about them was reported by Greeks and Romans writing between the second century BC and the fourth century AD.

The Roman writer Pliny recorded the Druid ritual of harvesting mistletoe from their sacred tree, the oak. On the sixth day of the new moon, a white-robed priest would climb an oak and cut mistletoe from it with a gold sickle. Caught before it touched the ground, the mistletoe was used in a fertility ritual. Echoes of this rite survive in English-speaking countries in the Christmas custom of kissing under hanging sprigs of mistletoe.

Druidism was a form of nature worship, and its deepest secrets were known only to initiates who studied their craft for as long as 20 years. Rites were held in sacred groves and forests, where Druids were thought to practice magic powers – changing the weather, appearing in animal form, foretelling the future and becoming invisible. By using a ‘serpent’s egg’ or crystal ball, they were said to disperse death hexes. The wizard Merlin of Arthurian legend may have been a Druid.

Julius Caesar reported that anyone suffering from a serious disease, or about to face the perils of battle, would offer, or vow to offer, a human sacrifice, which would be carried out by Druids. One method was for victims to be burnt alive in huge wicker baskets. Usually criminals were chosen for sacrifice, but if there was a shortfall, the Druids did not hesitate to round up innocent people too. But the conquering Romans had long ago banned the practice of human sacrifice in their homeland, and considered it ‘barbarous’ when they discovered it among the Druids. When, in AD 60, Roman troops invaded the Druids’ religious center on the Celtic island fortress of Mona (today’s Anglesey), off the coast of Wales, they slaughtered all the Druid priests they could find and also destroyed their sacred oak groves.

The Druids’ New Year Feast of Samain, when supernatural spirits were said to roam the earth, is thought to be the origin of today’s Halloween. And the custom of saying ‘touch wood’ for good luck may be a relic from the Druids’ reverence for sacred trees. Modern Druid groups, although not related to the ancient, still celebrate seasonal pagan festivals in Britain and the U.S.

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