Obsessive belief in witches, witch-hunt, burning of witches - to today's people hardly conceivable, that this terrible incidents happened only three generations in the past. But it's true: Until the end of the 18th century the stakes burned, innocent women were burnt to death.

One has remained: The fascination of the supernatural. How else it can be explained, that Charmed, Sabrina, Buffy and Angel could become cult series long ago? On the other hand celebrated Josef cardinal Ratzinger his 75th birthday in 2002. He is today's boss of the former medieval Inquisition, which isn't abolished until today. The topic witches regains topicality again: Young woman are looking for novice apprenticeships in the Internet chat; professional witches offer their services for money.

The fascination of the supernatural is as old as mankind. Modern scientists assume that already the Neanderthal men of the Paleolithic Age, that means men living almost 100,000 years ago, practiced ritualistic customs. Of the Cro Magnon of the Neolithic, who painted fantastic cave pictures 15,000 years ago, we know that for certain: Both in the cave of Lascaux and Les Trois Frères representations of magicians are found:

Representation of a magician in Les Trois Frères

The Bible reports in Exodus (Ex 7,11) of the magicians in the ancient Egypt and warns in the book Levi (Lev 19,26) to imitate this. Also the apostle Paulus considered it necessary to warn of sorcery in his epistle to the Galatians (Gal 5,10). That's no wonder, because the Romans living at that time had already six different expressions for witches. Their meanings covered the whole area between the extremes saga = wise woman and malefica = damage magician.

But why not until the Middle Ages the organized witch-hunt came up?

Let's imagine going back into a time, when the night wasn't made to day by electricity yet. A smoking pinewood spill, a flickering oil lamp or a crackling campfire illuminates meager the very next surroundings. Several meters remotely twilight begins. The flame throws flickering shadows, breathes a mysteriously twitching life into dead objects. Behind this the pitch-black darkness lies with all its dangers and frights.

Then it happens: A child dies completely unexpectedly, the calf urgently necessary for surviving the family is born deformed and dies, hailstorms destroy the harvest.

People don't simply submit to their destiny, they want explanations. Good events could be explained as the beneficial work of God, bad incidents may be a rightful punishment. But why did it happen also to righteous, good people again and again? The devil had to have a finger in the pie here!

Because God as a Spirit is that exceedingly grand and that little cognizable, people chose a woman, St Mary, to their mediator. And because the devil as a profoundly bad Spirit also isn't cognizable, people chose a woman as a mediator again: The witch.

At first the church opposed the belief in witches vehemently. St Bonifatius called the belief in witches and demons "unchristian". By the holy synod of Paderborn in the year 785 it was still prescribed, that people who claim in their pagan belief there would be witches, should be punished with the penalty of death and be burned at the stake. Within not quite 500 years it came, however, to a radical about-turn: In 1264 the first witch became officially sentenced.

Where did this swing of opinion come from? By the year 1000 heretical sects arose in all European countries. So the church felt forced to change their point of view on the belief in witches bit by bit. When in 1090 in Freisingen 3 so-called Wettermacherinnen (weatherwomen) were burned, the church still opposed this. But only 60 years later burning at the stake got the usual punishment for heresy.

Another 30 years later, on the Lateran council the church called upon the worldly powers for fighting the heresy. This call fell on a fertile soil: The belief in the supernatural was the breeding ground and inexplicable bad experiences were the fertilizers that the seed of the Inquisition needed for germinating. That time had plenty of both.

In 1227 Pope Gregor IX set up Inquisition courts. In 1251 the Inquisition had expanded to all of Italy already. In 1251 torture as a method for finding the truth was appreciated and thus, as already mentioned, in 1264 the first witch could be sentenced officially.

In 1346 when the plague raged in all of Europe, people needed an explanation once more. Besides the Jews also the witches were to blame again and thus Inquisition spread like the plague before. In 1431 the Virgin of Orleans, Jeanne d' Arc, ended on the stake. Gutenberg invented the letterpress with mobile characters in 1456. Now writings against heretics and witches could be produced cheaply and got a far spreading. The famous "Hexenhammer" (witch hammer, Malleus Maleficarum) was published 1487. This book regards the woman as the main enemy of the church. It contains detailed instructions for the court procedure and became a standard reference of the witch judges. Now obsessive belief in witches also had reached Germany to its full extent. Single voices against this, like the one of doctor Johannes Weyer, who 1563 denounced the blackmailing of confessions by torture as terrible faults in his book "Über Wunder der Dämonen, Beschwörungen und Vergiftung" (about wonders of the demons, conjurations and poisoning), faded away unheard. Instead sad records occurred increasingly: The archbishop of Trier let 1585 burn so many woman as witches, that in two villages only two woman each were left. The bishop of Gent let die the death of the stake more than 600 persons within only six weeks. In Würzburg the bishop in 1630 had 1,200 men and women burned; his colleague in Bamberg had 600 in the same year.

The method was simple, but effective. The verdict was always certain before the beginning of the process already. For accusation the evidence of one arbitrary person was sufficient, without any attention to their reliability or past. Popular motives for informing were hating competitors, envy, jealousy, avarice but also religious fanaticism. A physical or intellectual abnormality as a charge's reason often already sufficed.

The real trial took place in a worldly court. Before the "painful questioning", that means torture, the women were undressed and completely shaved. Then followed questions about devil appearances, sex with the devil, damage magic, child sacrifice etc., until the defendant gave up because of the physical and mental pain and became "confessing". As a "reward" for her confession she was then beheaded or strangled before the stake was put into flames.

If a woman was exceptionally equal to all tortures, one still could find the truth by "witches' ordeals". With the water test the witch was tied up and thrown into the water. Witches are very light, you see, so they can ride on their broom through the air. So if the woman stayed on the surface of the water she was a witch and gets burned. If she sank and drowned, her innocence was proved. Unfortunately she could not enjoy this. In 1435 the inhabitant of Augsburg Agnes Bernauer lost life that way. Also other tests, like the tear test or the needle test were always designed in a way, that, no matter how the result turned out, there wasn't any escape.

If, by way of exception, a woman was released, she was a cripple by torture and emotional stress for the rest of her life.

The renaissance fortunately started spreading from Italy at the end of the 16th century. Slowly but surely it reached all of Europe. A critical rationalism regained importance. So the time got ripe for a man, whose book "Cautio Criminalis" rang in the end of the burning of witches.

Can you imagine that somebody had written a book against persecution of the Jews in the Third Reich? Friedrich von Spee at that time has done something very similar to that. He was a priest in the Jesuit Order and it was his duty to look after witches as their father confessor in prison and to accompany them on their last way to the stake. Although absolutely believing in witches, this gruesome service let him realize: These women were innocent all! So he published anonymously his book, in which among other things he writes "I bet, that every bishop and even the pope will confess to be a sorcerer, if only tortured correctly". You are mistaken, if you think to have never heard something from Spee yet! Impressed by the suffering of this woman he wrote the Advent song "O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf" (O Savior tear up the heavens), a desperate request to God to bring this horrible bustle to an end. The first verse says "reiß ab, wo Schloß und Riegel für" (tear up where lock and bolt are at) and the last verse starts "Hier leiden wir die größte Not, vor Augen steht der ewig Tod" (we suffer the greatest misery here, the eternally death in front of eyes).

Obviously his wish was fulfilled. It wasn't granted to himself, to become a witness of the end of the witch trials, because he died in 1635. But shortly before his death he wrote the Christmas carol "Zu Bethlehem geboren" (born in Bethlehem). Perhaps this is a sign that he already had found hope again and foresaw the end of the stakes?

1684 at all events the burnings of witches in England ended, 1745 in France, 1777 in Germany, 1782 in Switzerland and 1792 in Poland.

A sad chapter in the history of Europe ends - and my report ends too.

Marianne S. Köhler   (translated by Franz Köhler)