As today, March 1, is the same day that in 1692 the Salem witch hunts began, I am inspired to delve into the subject’s history, originating in Europe in the 15th century and expanding into the Americas; and the suppression of monster worship by European churches during the late 17th century.
Throughout time and in every culture pagan religious practice was a constant. Ancient people worshiped many different gods and goddesses, hybrid creatures and mythological monsters – each of which were made responsible for good or bad things that happened in the daily lives of humans.
Enter Christianity, more specifically the movements of Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation during the 16th century. Witchcraft and witch hunts were brought to the forefront during one of the most creative and dynamic periods in Renaissance history, with each part of that period playing a role. For example, Renaissance culture contributed to the witch stereotype; and the rediscovery of ancient works on magic drew people into the world of contacting and controlling spirits.
Christian reformers knew they must spread the word of God to the uneducated rural Europeans who still practiced the old folk religions, religions the Christians considered to be satanic in origin. This missionary thrust of power was at once met with resistance and, of course led to those who would not convert to be labeled devil worshipers and witches.
By the end of the 17th century, the European churches decided enough was enough and demanded that all people stop giving attention to “monsters” from the old ways, including in art, worship and belief. This suppression thus caused a type of frustration within the people, both educated and non-educated, which could only be released by them turning their attentions on the only fanciful “monster” the church would allow them to believe in: Satan.
Focusing all their energy on condemning those who apparently worshipped and served Satan, random innocent people were accused of witchcraft, which of course led to mass hysterias, paranoid delusions and executions. Much of the ensuing finger pointing can be blamed on people’s jealousies of their neighbors and the tensions that the lives of the villagers were already fraught with (i.e., a smallpox outbreak around the same time, potential attacks from neighboring Native American tribes, etc.). This was the beginning of a 7-month horror story for Salem, leading to the deaths of 19 men and women from all walks of life.