Thursday, October 21, 2010

Witchcraft In The Elizabethan Era

“Witchcraft itself is better characterized than defined, for it has varying creedal, liturgical, psychical, magical, moral, and historical dimensions.”

- Donald Nugent

Homo sapiens have always been fearful of the unknown. Millions of years of evolution have rightfully taught us to be wary of what we don’t understand. However, there is a downside to the safety this cautiousness affords us. When we classify anything as evil, simply because we do not fully understand it, we sacrifice an opportunity to find out something about our universe. The parallel to this of course, is what happens when man embraces the same forces he does not fully understand and goes beyond the point of no return. This is the sort of paradox that’s been intertwined with human history from when our very first prehistoric ancestor decided to pick up a bone and go bash something’s brains out with it. Since something in our superior brains switched on and allowed us to start using tools as technology, the human race has struggled in dealing with its ability to shape the world around it. After all, what is technology if not just a means to an end? As times have changed, we still grapple with what rights and responsibilities go along with man’s unique power. Ultimately, there is no guidebook on how far is too far with technology. The only way to judge the present is to look to the past. In the debate over man’s use of technology in the modern world, a hindsight view of witchcraft in the Elizabethan era may shed light on contemporary scientific divisions. The issues over which are argued may have changed, but the reasons for those opposing viewpoints have remain constant for the 500 years separating the time of witches and today. An understanding can only be gained after the realization is reached that witchcraft half a century ago raised the same social dilemmas as modern technology does today. A comparison of competing ideologies in modern science to those held by both “good” and “bad” witches of the Elizabethan era will prove that witchcraft was not inherently evil as we perceive it in current times, and that it was truly just a primitive form of technology that reflected the either helpful or hurtful intentions of it’s human wielder.

In an effort to prove that witchcraft and those who preformed it were not necessarily wicked, we must first understand the conditions during the Elizabethan era that would act as evidence for the development of this incomplete viewpoint. The renaissance fractured the climate of the medieval ages in Europe and brought and paradigm shift to the way we explain the laws of or universe. Where once magic was an acceptable answer, this revolution in thought now demanded reason and evidence. Thus was gained the recognition of science in Europe. In the midst of this transition lay witchcraft. As an art of rituals that was rooted in mysticism, witchcraft was certainly shrouded in magic and forces beyond that of the physical universe. The reverse of this was the science in witchcraft that gave legitimacy to its power. For every superfluous ounce of deer’s blood added to a witch’s brew, equal quantities of actual poisons or opiates or hallucinogens may have been present. In her article, All Was This Hind Full Fill’d Of Faerie, Lauren Kassel gets to the crux of witchcraft’s place in this era. “The age of oracles had passed, miracles had ceased, protestant clerics had rejected the rituals of Rome, spirits and fairies had vanished, yet witches and conjurors were granted the abilities to command these obsolete powers.” ( Kassel) Essentially, witchcraft was caught between the doubts founded in reason and the anger born from religion. Nevertheless, witchcraft was able to stay afloat through this time of change and two contrasting branches of thought on the matter were able to form. This archetypical duel between those who wish to use their power for good and those who's intent was far more devious, played out in the theories of white and black witchcraft. Another excerpt from All Was This Hind Full Fill’d Of Faerie, proves that despite or modern view on European witchcraft, the populace of that era was fully aware of this distinction. “The wise women and the witches ‘were believed to be two separate species’ by the common people.” ( Kassel ) In order to see how the two types of witches represent opposing views on modern science the mysteries about their differences must be cleared up.

It is best to start from a point of common knowledge. When we hear the term witch, and our minds immediately jump to Satan worshippers and long black robes, what we are in fact imagining is only half of Elizabethan witchcraft. These nefarious workers of the night are what was considered black witches and were purveyors of the dark arts. These individuals brewed potions to manipulate the mind and trick the senses. They carried out bizarre ceremonies and were known to cast spells to harm others. Arguably, most black witches were less evil and more misunderstood. Old, poor, and widowed women were usually the targets of these claims and their problems were usually results of their surroundings. Regardless, there were those who used both the application of black witchcraft and they’re reputations as witches to overpower others. As Donald Nugent said in the Renaissance And/of Witchcraft, “Witchcraft relates to the will-to-power and has probably been more reactionary than anything.” He furthers the point be adding, “Perhaps the demonic is present wherever power is exalted over compassion.” ( Nugent ) Realistically, paranoia in a time of superstition meant many false claims of dangerous witchcraft. However, when focusing on only those who were truly black “witches” we must recognize that they used their power for personal gain at the expense of others.

It is with the knowledge that witchcraft was used as a technology with the capacity for destruction in the case of black witchcraft, that we can relate it to a pessimistic view of modern science. Anyone who would develop weapons to level cities or create propaganda to reach political means is the modern day equivalent to that black witchcraft. Technology has improved as we demand more and more efficient ways of killing each other but the idea of overcoming one another to meet our goals remains the same. The reasons behind the actions can be as varied in the modern world as they were in the Elizabethan era but this existence of those who would destroy with the power there given shows that this is a human trait and not something inseparable from witchcraft.

The yin to the yang of black witchcraft, was the art of the white witches. Often referred to as healers or cunning folk these individuals where much harder to classify then there black witch peers. Richard A. Horsley explains their function in the scholarly review, Further Reflections On Witchcraft And European Folk Religion.

“The cunning folk of the English country side were the leaders and practitioners of the people's religion as well as their folk medicine. The medical, divinatory, and other religious services provided by these wise women and men possessed of special supernatural powers and religious techniques were far more important in the lives of the people than the official religion. It has been estimated that the cunning folk were at least as numerous in sixteenth-century England as the official parish clergy. The services they performed were… divination of all sorts, finding of lost objects, disclosure of thieves, healing through folk medicine and enchantments, love magic, protective magic, and often midwifery. Some were specialists. Some offered a comprehensive range of services. Sometimes they drew on Christian religious language for incantations and prayers, while at other times their practices had no relation to established religious belief.” ( Horsley )

Though the white witch’s intentions appeared to be along the lines of aiding the community and using their skills as occupation, some still viewed any witchcraft as evil.

This leaps the gap to modern times where scientists still battle with ideological opponents over the morality of their work. White witches faced this principle stated in, Magic, White and Black: The Renaissance Magician as the Master of Occult Knowledge. “Those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit.” ( Goff ) The same view is taken by some groups on the issue of stem cell research, for example. While scientists would defend their use of technology is for the greater good and general benefit of mankind, individuals who disagree with the process and not the intentions act to stop this modern day “witchcraft.” The white witches faced there on competitors and critics in their own lifetimes.

All witches faced obstacles, just as all modern scientists do. The difference in approach by both brands of witchcraft is what splits the two but is also what connects them to their present counterparts. The thread that ties all form of witches and scientists together would be their ability to shape the world around them.

In the end, the significance that we can attribute to the literal distinction between white and black witchcraft is minimal. As time trudges forward, the amount of relevant information we need to fit into our history textbooks will surely eradicate any traces of this separation of perceived good and evil. Even in modern times, common knowledge that not all witches had malicious intentions has begun to fade. Our popular media depicts witches as demonic in almost every instance and almost all children in western civilization are raised with a negative association to the word “witchcraft.” However, the true nature of this archaic division is far less trivial and unforgettable because it runs parallel to human existence. The transcendental feud between the use of control over our surroundings for either helpful or hurtful purposes is from the most primal level to the peak of human intellectuality, a divide that spans all of human history. The duality of man spawns from both his ability to shape the world around him for his own benefit, and the inherent responsibility that accompanies this power, which is that man must then also be a defender for the world around him. There were those individuals who, half a century ago, would use witchcraft to destroy, as there are those who would now use technology to destroy. The same can be said for individuals who would use their powers to save. When once we had potions, now we have nuclear bombs and what was once a healing ointment is, now a prescription drug. As the means-to-an-end changed from witchcraft to technology, and the answer to a question went from magic to science, mankind’s intentions have not. In this way, witchcraft in the Elizabethan Era cannot be classified as either beneficial or detrimental to mankind in the same way technology cannot be. If nothing else can be gained from this look into the past, then we should at least recognize the respect with which the unknown should be dealt. A sense of cautiousness should be applied alongside a natural inclination towards curiosity and most of all; judgment should be made only after adequate information is understood, for every encounter in our universe.

Works Consulted

De Blécourt, Willem. "Witch Doctors, Soothsayers and Priests. On Cunning Folk in European Historiography AndTradition." Social History 19.3 (1993): 285-303. JSTOR. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. .

"Elizabethan Age." ELIZABETHAN ERA. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. .

"Elizabethan Witchcraft and Witches." ELIZABETHAN ERA. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

Horsley, Richard A. "Further Reflections on Witchcraft and European Folk Religion." History of Religions 19.1 (1979): 71-95. Jstor. The University of Chicago Press, Aug. 1979. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. .

Kassell, Lauren. "“All was this hind full fill'd of faerie,” or Magic and the Past in Early Modern England." Journal of the History of Ideas 67.1 (2006): 107-122. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 16 Oct. 2010

"Magic, White and Black: The Renaissance Magician as the Master of Occult Knowledge." Associated Content - Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

Nugent, Donald. "“The Renaissance And/of Witchcraft”." Jstor. Donald NugentSource: Church History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Mar., 1971), Pp. 69-78Published By: Cambridge University Press on Behalf of the American Society of Church History, Mar. 1971. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. .

Witch Craft History." Untitled Document. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. .