Who Burned the Witches?
Sandra Miesel - 8/08/09
Since the Enlightenment, rationalists have liked to cite witch burning as a prime example of medieval ignorance and religious (usually Catholic) bigotry run amok. (Leftists today still denounce it as a cynical plot by the strong against the weak.) Writing history that way was simple: Historians catalogued horrors, disparaged religion (or at least someone else’s religion), and celebrated the triumph of science and liberal government. The history of witchcraft seemed a settled issue in 1969 when Hugh Trevor-Roper published his classic essay, “The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.”
But a clamor of new voices has since reopened the controversy. Members of the growing neopagan revival — 200,000 strong in America today — claim witches burned during the great witch-hunt as their martyred forebears. In 2000, a consortium of pagan leaders demanded a special apology from Pope John Paul II on the Jubilee Day of Pardon. They mourned a “pagan Holocaust” of nine million secret nature-worshippers exterminated by Christians 500 years ago under the Inquisition.
Sixty years ago, one of the neopagan movement’s founders, Gerald Gardner, coined the term “the Burning Times” to describe this time of persecution. Although Gardner’s historical expertise has since been questioned, neopagan proponents Margot Adler and Starhawk (nee Miriam Simos) are still preaching Gardner’s teachings because, they say, “invented history is satisfying myth.”