On witch panics

Catherine Brekus reflects on the role the Bible played.



Catherine Brekus reflects on the role the Bible played.


The Bible has a number of passages about witches and witchcraft. There is a passage, for example, that says that any accused witch shall be put to death. But there are not huge numbers of passages about witchcraft. So in fact, there do not seem to have been large-scale witch hunts in Christianity until about 1580. And so the peak of witch hunting in Europe took place between about 1580 and 1650. And we only have sort of fragmentary understandings of the numbers because there were so many people who were persecuted – but anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people were put to death during this panic. We think that as many as 200,000 people may have been accused.

Witchcraft in Europe, like witchcraft in America, was associated with women. It was also a response to political turmoil, to religious turmoil. The period between 1580 and 1650 overlaps with the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. And so in that setting, the Bible was used to justify the scapegoating of some people as the source of evil. When people were trying to understand, why are these bad things happening, why is God afflicting me – often their answer was, because Satan is at work in the world, and there is in fact a witch in our community.