For this Halloween, I wanted to do something special. I’ve already talked a bit about the history of Halloween, but now I’m going to delve into the history of witchcraft. To be clear, this is not about Wicca or any kind of Neopaganism. Rather, this is about the beginnings of how Medieval Christianity perceived witchcraft, and the connection to mythology.
The witch trials in Europe reached their peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, most especially after the tumult of the Protestant Reformation, which Martin Luther (inadvertently) kicked off in 1517. However, this witch fervor is not spontaneous. It had been brewing for a while. The Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Against the Witches) was published in 1487, which was (sadly) one of the more popular manuals for dealing with not just the question of witchcraft, but how to deal with them.
I need to take a moment to point out that the Catholic Church officially banned the Malleus. Their position was that witchcraft didn’t actually exist, and that those people who believed they were witches had been deceived, and need to be taught what was correct to bring them back to the truth.
Even with the Malleus, the question of witchcraft was not new. The idea of witchcraft had been around for hundreds of years, likely from the earliest days of Christianity. We look now to the Canon Episcopi:
“It is also not to be omitted that some unconstrained women, perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to fly over vast tracts of country, and to obey her commands as their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on other nights.”
This passage has a lot going for it. First, that women have been “seduced” into “believ[ing] and openly profess[ing].” This clearly indicates not that witchcraft is real, but that people have been deceived into believing it is real. The full text of the canon goes on to elaborate on the idea of being deceived into believing in acts of witchcraft having an effect on the physical world. So, yes, the Catholic church, through Canon Law, denounces that witchcraft actually exists. It is only an illusion and deception, a trick of the devil to lead people astray. At its worst, it is regarded as a form of heresy, which needs to be recanted, or excommunicated, but not destroyed.
More fascinating (to me) is that we have a clear mythological connection. The Roman goddess Diana is mentioned by name in a document hundreds of years after the Christianization of Rome. Why her, specifically? Why not Jupiter (Zeus) because of his many affairs and challenge to the sovereignty of God? Why not Venus (Aphrodite) and her promiscuous ways? Why not Bacchus with his drunken orgies and self0sacrifice in mockery of Christ? Why not simply talk about all the pagan gods instead of singling Diana out?
Before we can get into the specifics, we need to know that Diana is the Romanized version of the Greek goddess Artemis, and she maintains many of the same aspects and attributes in the Roman version. So we have a basis to understand the idea more fully, but I’m going to refer you back to my previous writings on Artemis to better understand her nature. I’m going to be referring back to those conclusions.
Diana, given her nature, has always been a focus for women. It’s only natural since she is a goddess of childbirth. Moreover, she limits herself to female attendants, which explains why the Canon specifically mentions “a countless horde of women . . . to be summoned to her service.” So she is an icon of strength to women. But this still isn’t enough. Again, Venus would also suffice, as would many of the other pagan goddesses, so we have to delve deeper.
Diana, as goddess of the hunt, lives outside of society, already making her a target. This makes her at once wild and independent. She exists outside of normal rules governing society, making her an enemy to established order. The idea of women, acting independently for their own desires would have been viewed as something aberrant, even dangerous to the early Church. People were expected to follow the rules and act with humility. Living outside of the rules of society and acting independently was a form of rejection of Christian teachings.
While Zeus had numerous affairs, he was also about civilization and the rule of law. Aphrodite was also a wild goddess, but in becoming assimilated by the Romans, Venus was much more sedate, and simply a goddess of romantic love, which was seen as a good thing that should be restrained, but not chided. Diana’s wild nature was a danger in inspiring women to cast off their established role in Christianity in favor of independence away from society.
If these reasons were not enough, we come to what is arguably my wildest theory, but one I think with merit. Diana has sworn off sexual contact in order to remain an eternal virgin. This in itself is not outrageous. Nuns and priests were expected to remain chaste (thankfully the awful period where everyone was to remain chaste had passed [how, exactly, did they expect Christianity to survive without giving birth to a new generation?]). That’s no big deal. However, nuns and priests are servants to the church, icons of what people should aspire to be by giving over their entire lives to Christ.
That ain’t Diana. Moreover, Diana is recognized as a central religious figure, not just some random woman who decided not to have sex. She is as central and important in Roman paganism as Mary is in Christianity. I think that the real danger of Diana is that she would be seen as a parody or corruption of Mary’s divine virginity. Nuns are expected to follow Mary’s example of purity and devotion to God and Christ.
Diana, however, is not about service to others, but to herself. Her virginity is not about staying pure so she could be an icon of virtue, of being worthy to give birth to one such as Christ. Diana serves her own interests and lures women away from civilization to get them to indulge in their own desires (possibly Sapphic). This would be a greater perversion than the worship of other pagan deities, and would be seen as something more corruptive, especially to women.
There’s not a lot in terms of records regarding the continued worship of Diana in early Christian Europe, but it’s not hard to see that there would be an appeal to women who wanted something more than a life of humble obedience. I think the perpetual virginity in the service of personal desires would have been a problematic and persistent lure to certain groups, as well.