Note: this article focuses solely on the role of antisemitism during the witchcraze and the subsequent impact on Jews. This is in no way to say that antisemitism was the only factor contributing to the persecution of witches. Anti-Romani racism, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, class, ableism, and more were all factors.
Witches flew into a rage at any mention of the witch-craze of Europe but would turn around and perpetuate antisemitic tropes and stereotypes that have been used to commit genocide against Jews for centuries.
What struck me was the complete irony of white witches screaming about oppression while having a complete lack of education on the history of antisemitism and witchcraft.
What many modern witches fail to realize is how much of the history they so frequently reference was intertwined with antisemitism and hatred of Jews, particularly Jewish women. The things used to identify witches were commonly associated with the Jewish community, leading scholars to understand that the "Renaissance constructions of witchcraft owed much to the fifteenth-century typological construction of Jewish “heresy” and the nature of its persecution". (1).
Indeed, Yvonne Owens, the author of The Saturnine History of Jews and Witches goes as far as to theorize that "the prosecution of witches [was] stylistically rooted in earlier persecutions of Jews".
"For the most part, witches and Jews were persecuted interchangeably. Both witches and Jews were perceived traitors to Christian society who must be eradicated".
This quote comes from former history professor, Dr. Anne Llewellyn Barstow, from her book, "Witchcraze".
The witch-craze of Europe spanned from "the 14th century until 1650, [during which] continental Europeans executed between 200,000 and 500,000 witches, 85% or more of whom were women" (2). This number is debated, with estimates as low as 12,000. Scholar N. Ben Yehuda claims the above number, while others like Dr. Anne Llewellyn Barstow estimate around 100 thousand deaths by execution. Before this period, "witchcraft was regarded as a routine, day-to-day (almost personal) technology [and] until the 14th century, witches were classified as good or bad, depending on the objective of their magic" (2). It is important to make clear that these distinctions were commonly theoretical---a good witch in a story, an evil witch as a plot device. People did not often self-identify with the label witch as they do today.
This radical change in belief was aided, in no small way, by the association with witches and Judaism.
"Women as a gender group suffered a special liability in that they had begun to be identified with Jews. Both groups suffered from being associated with magical practices: making potions and poisons, wearing amulets, possessing the evil eye, sticking pins in dolls, having abnormal knowledge about dreams, fortune-telling, or the magic properties of gems". Dr. Anne L. Barstow, Witchcraze
Germany was the worst offender in regards to the murder of witches, with other continental European states trailing behind them in death tolls.
Antisemitism was by no means a new concept. What allowed these killings was centuries of dehumanization against Jews through the association of Jews with the Devil and/or Satan.
“The Christian notion of a relationship between the Jews and the Devil and of a perpetual curse afflicting Jews and distinguishing them from Gentiles has its origins firm in the New Testament, mainly Matthew 27:24-25 (“his blood is on us and on our children”) and John 8:44 (you belong to your father, the devil”). The medieval period witnessed what Joshua Trachtenberg accurately described in 1943 as a normalization of the representation of the Jew as a "alien, evil, antisocial, and anti-human creature, essentially subhuman, "a demonic Jew who "was born of a combination of cultural and historical factors peculiar to Eastern Europe in the later middle ages. " (7)
Collectively, the Jews became a physically repulsive and disgust-inducing “other”. Much of this iconography would go on to become the very same imagery we associate with witches..
As a whole, Jews became a "physically repulsive and disgust-inducing “other” (7). Much of the iconography created to demonize and dehumanize Jews would go on to become the very same imagery modern culture associates with witches.
Elongated, crooked, broken or hooked noses, warts, unruly black hair, dark eyes, and sallow or olive-toned skin were all associated with Jews, though now common in depictions of witches.
However, it is noted that there is a small lull in the creation of these images after the medieval period because according to Thomas A Brady Jr, “the need for caricatured noses was presumably less if Jews could be visibly distinguished in paintings and illuminations by means of symbols (such as yellow circles) worn on their clothing or distinctive headgear like the “Jewish hat”, that many were compelled to wear in parts of Europe, especially in the Holy Roman Empire (described as the Judenhut in German or the pileus cornets in Latin). (7).
Jews were often forced to identify themselves by clothing. Armbands, hats, belts, hats--even at times regulating the colors of clothing that Jews were allowed to wear.
(image: German Jews of the twelfth century. From Herrad von Landsperg, Hortus deliciarum)
Despite Judaism's requirements for ritual washing and bathing, the “notion that Jews, both male and female, possessed a repulsive smell, the supposedly distinctively “Jewish stench” (foetor iudaicus)” was extremely common (7)
In fact, “Franciscan preacher Berthold of Regensburg (1220-1272) scolded his Christian listeners for their poor religious observance by noting that “now you see very well that a stinking goatish Jew whose odor is offensive to all, honors his holy day better than you. Bah! As a Christian, you should be ashamed of yourself that you do not trust in G-d as much as the stinking Jew”. (7)
As comical as such an idea is, the xenophobic idea of stinking held a far more sinister note. The stench was associated with the goat and the pig. The associations of the horned goat became associated with the devil as early as 447, where the Church council of Toledo Spain “described the devil as a creature with animal attributes including horns, cloven feet, and sulfurous smell.” Jews were also frequently portrayed with these animals. There is even a term for certain portrayals called the Judensau (the Jews sow) which features Jews riding female pigs, suckling from their udders, kissing the animals anus, or eating their feces. From the 14th century on, they were extremely popular. There are even carvings at the Church of Wiggenberg and the choir stalls of the Cologne Cathedral (7).
St. Augustine, a Catholic saint that lived in 400 AD, asserted that Saturn was the God of the Jews, which is backed by a "tenth-century treatise by Alcabitius, “which claims for Saturn ‘the faith of Judaism.’ (1)
When the witchcraze began, "[t]he association of melancholic, disaffected women with cannibalistic Saturn (the planetary deity to whom the “affliction” of melancholic humor was attributed in elite discourses), may have intensified official persecutions of witches, and the same baleful planetary affliction was associated with Jewishness through a number of tropes, including humoral theories and theological depictions of Jews’ mordant or “putrid” blood. To the late medieval perspective, the Jews’ cannibalistic tendencies arose from a craving for the salvic benefits to be gained through consuming Christian blood. Indeed, only Jews and witches were considered capable of the atrocities of cannibalistic infanticide, and the only planetary deity who would condone it was Saturn."(1).
But there was another aspect of Saturn that linked Jews as a whole with witchcraft. I make the distinction here that the authors are writing about cisgender men and women. The articles written on the topic that will be quoted did not make a distinction, nor was the distinction mentioned at the time.
Jewish “male menstruation” or that Jewish cis men suffered from periods and bloody outbreaks of hemorrhoids. Caesarius of Heisterback (1180-12;40), offered that Jews suffered from a “bloody flux’ on Good Friday as punishment for the crucifixion of Christ…. Thomas of Cantimpre (1201-1272) believed that this was a fulfillment of the chapter of Matthew mentioned earlier (7).
“Both Jewish women and men, like witches, were associated with menstruation, and the benighted, “melancholic” influences of Saturn implied both spiritual pollution and the witting commission of maleficium. Jewish men were supposedly inherently guilty of witchcraft due to their purported contamination by the “pollution” of “passive” feminine reproductive physiology, and were popularly feminized by association with “dark,” “melancholic blood” and menstruation. In De secretis mulierum, the commentator reminds the reader that the term “menses” is understood to refer to: natural menses, such as the menstrual periods of cisgender women; supernatural menses, such as the Jews experience; and the way that is “against nature,” (1).
This was so common that Christians used it as a means of getting out of debt to Jews. “Nuremberg had been a center of anti-Semitic activity since the local merchants sought the expulsion of Jewish moneylenders, to whom they were in debt, in 1499. Treatises detailing the evils of the Jewish character, physiological nature, “womanlike” laziness, vagrancy, and “menstrual pollution” found supportive foundations in Nuremberg's publishing industry” (1)
It was also believed that the '“miracle of God” whereby Jewish men are stricken with the “Curse of Eve.” Jews' “natural” timidity is again rehearsed in this text, as a “contingent property” of melancholics. The “black and putrid” blood of Jews also served as a comparison to the typically “venomous” blood of normatively concupiscent, “disobedient” females in blood discourses."' (1)
Menstruation was associated with women and thereby any association of men with the experiences of womanhood made that man lesser, evil, or even demonic. To quote, “In a Christian society and warlike culture that placed a premium on military prowess and valor, the idea of periodic bleeding by Jewish men making to women menstruation evidently feminized the Jew, rendering him even more ignoble and worthy of contempt” (7). This added layer of misogyny being applied to Jewish men meant that while women suffered an especially heinous fate during the witch trials, Jewish men were included in it at times.
On a more magical note, menstrual blood was also suspected in cases of manipulative “love magic”. the Church believed it was practiced by Jews and “straying gentile women”, indicating that it was Jews who started and carried the practice, with only a few “wandering Christians” taking up the practice (1).
The association of Jews with blood was only worsened by blood libel. Shortly defined, blood libel is the "accusation that Jewish people used the blood of Christians in religious rituals", particularly that of Christian children. Not only did Jews supposedly use it to make matzoh, but it was also believed it have healing properties for magical remedies. 1494, the blood of a Christian was purportedly deemed an effective remedy for male or female Jews suffering from menstruation". Essentially, they believed Christian blood could cure Jews of their demonic menstruation..In Endingen in 1470 the Jew, Mercklin, “confessed” (under torture) that Jews needed Christian blood because of its great healing power (1).
“The Jews were not normal human beings but monstrous, bloodthirsty creatures, working secretly in tirelessly in league with their Lord the devil and his other minions. Despite their small numbers, these pitiless Jews threatened not only the church but also the life of every single Christian man woman and child. These fantasies stripped Jews of any individual identity and the Jews became a malignant satanic collective residing within Christian society, consumed by hatred of Christians, enacting iconoclastic sacrilege and sometimes ritual murder." (7)
Literature did not often record the murders of Jews as a result of witchcraft because to be a Jew was crime enough in their eyes... though we should not disregard that while Jewish men were often accused, and killed, because of their association with witchcraft, women were doubly in danger--not only were they women, they were Jews.
Thomas A. Brady, JR defined witches as ‘practitioners of a counter-Christian religion of devil-worship”, but also acknowledges that this was a largely fabricated concept, just like the witch cult... In reality, witches were perceived as antithetical to the church through the practice of black magic and devil worship. The importance is in perception.
It was in the Jewish woman’s nature, while the Christian woman had turned away from the church to witchcraft. This is, in part, why you see a distinction between Jews and witches in the literature... The added label of witch didn’t need to be given to Jews because Judaism was enough of a crime in and of itself.
So what of the actual witches?
There is very little, if any, evidence that those Christians killed as witches were actually practicing anything but Christianity.
In towns where Jews had already been killed off or driven out, the societal rage that previously went into the persecution of Jews had to be turned inward. With the most popular scapegoat already gone, women were next in line.
Dr. Anne Llewelyn Barstow, the author of Witchcraze, said it best:
The witches, unlike the Jews, saw themselves as Christians, as insiders in the Christian realm. In order to prosecute for witchcraft, European Society had to turn against its own.
So what did Jews, and these people branded as witches, have in common?
According to Barstow, "For the most part, witches and Jews were persecuted interchangeably. Both witches and Jews were perceived traitors to Christian society who must be eradicated".
"Rumours circulated about their bodies that Jewish men menstruated (because they were circumcised), that Witches bore the devil's Mark, that both can turn themselves into animals, that Jewish women practice bestiality and produced animal babies and that Witches had sex the Devil and gave birth to Demons. Both were widely believed to cause storms and plagues. An especially damaging belief held against Jews was that they celebrated a travesty of the Christian mass in which they worship the devil, requiring for communion either the bodies of Christians or their own sperm. These allegations against Jews became the Sabbath of the witches, often referred to as a witch's synagogue but made even worse by the claim that which has had sex with Satan. And the Jewish synagogue, in turn, was referred to as a brothel.” (8)
"The same charges that were levied against heretics and witches were also raised against the Jewish community. These charges involved: but were not exclusive to, a pact with Satan, secret late night-rides to nocturnal meetings that later, through anti-Jewish and anti-heretical polemic, became the witches‘ Sabbath. Diabolical traditions practiced at the "Sabbath" or "Sabbat" such as orgies, host desecration, infanticide and cannibalism were allegedly witch, heretic, and Jewish "traditions" (1).
The modern witches Sabbats, as celebrated by Wiccans, use the name inspired by the "hexensabbat" mentioned during the period. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, chose instead to use this as a reference to the celebration of the Celtic Wheel of the Year (4) as opposed to any other meeting. He did so by simply removing the "hexen" and keeping only the sabat.
During the same period, the use of the word "synagogue" and its translations were heavily used in regards to witches. French author Nicolaus Jacquier applied the term "synagogam fasciniorum to what he considers a gathering of witches." (5) The use of the terms, "synagogam" and "synagoga" were frequently used by Francophones during the period.
Further, the witches sabbath was a huge part of the Malleus Maleficarum. In 1487, the Malleus Maleficarum was published by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer in Speyer, Germany. Translated to the "witches hammer" this was "the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft" and was a guide to finding, discerning, and exterminating witches (2). According to Christopher S. Mackay, author The Hammer of the Witches, this document was based in an earlier text, Malleus Judeurom, or the Hammer of the Jews, written by John of Frankfurt in 1420 (9).
“Kramer, one of the authors, was directly involved in the trial of Jews at Turin in 1475, and must have been greatly influenced by the styles of both the institutional procedure and its handbook. For those concerned with the discourses fueling witch-hunting in the wake of the Malleus Maleficarum's published editions after 1486, the connections between feminine pollution, witchcraft, and Jewish “apostasy” would have seemed readily apparent.” (1)
The Malleus Maleficarum would go on to America where it would be used in the infamous Salem witch trials. Along with the romanticization of these trials, a huge factor in the disinformation around the witchcraze in spiritual communities is due to Wicca itself.
In her book, The Rebirth of Witchcraft, Priestess of Wicca, Doreen Valiente, details a pamphlet written by Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, which claimed that the “victims of the witch persecutions in Western Europe total numbers have been estimated at 9 million”.
While we acknowledge there is no definite number known of victims, the highest estime from reputable sources is at 500,000. So where did the nine million come from?
According to Valiente, in 1921, an Egyptologist who was interested in witchcraft, Margaret Alice Murray, of University College London, published a book called “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe”. Someone had suggested to her that witchcraft was and I quote, “really the remains of a pre-christian religion concerning fertility”. This theory had been spoken of, as well as written about, before her, however, Valiente specifies that it was her writing that Gardner was interested in.
The witch cult theory believed that the witch craze of Europe and persecution of witches was actually an attempt to suppress and stamp out this pre-Christian religion of witches. The theory died academically the same year as Gardner after being investigated by the academic world. By 1964, the theory was officially debunked.
But that didn’t stop Wicca from carrying it on. Because Wicca believes itself to be the receivers of the tradition of the witch-cult, they also carry on the idea that the persecution of witches was actually the persecution of would-be-wiccans. And as ridiculous as it sounds, this idea is perpetuated heavily within the witchcraft world, despite fact that some Wiccans have denounced the witch cult theory.
The larger issue is that Wicca has become the standard. It is what most witchcraft is filtered through. Unless there is a specific other path or tradition being followed, if one were to buy a book on witchcraft, chances are, it is tainted in at least some way with the Wiccan perspective.
This results in witchcraft books, blogs, and communities as a whole, perpetuating the idea that the witchcraze solely intended to be the persecution of self-identifying witches who practiced this pre-Christian tradition.
It is clear that while many non-Jewish people were persecuted and slaughtered as witches, it would be foolish to pretend that Jews, especially Jewish women, did not suffer and intertwined fate, with the application of Jewish tropes being used to incriminate those thought to be witches.
This blog only scratches the surface of the complex, rich history of the time period. There will always be more to learn in regards to our history as witches. Using the past to learn more about ourselves and keep the community free of bigotry is of vital importance.
What does this mean for modern witches?
Well, nothing. It is harrowing to think that modern witches should identify with Jews in order to not further propaganda against Jewish people, but it is important that witches understand the history of the oppression of the witches they so frequently reference. It is chillingly ironic that a modern witch should use the history of oppression of witches in Europe as a shield for their behavior as they simultaneously deploy antisemitic stereotypes and tropes.
For those interested in making the community a safer space for Jewish practitioners, and people in general here is a list of tropes and antisemitic falsehoods that are frequently used and perpetuated within the witch community.
Jews are the same as Christians - Historically, Christians of many denominations have sought to eradicate Jews. One way of doing this is by pretending that Jews are "incomplete Christians" who believe all the same things but just haven't accepted Jesus yet. When witches say "Judeo-Christian" religions when they really mean Christian, what they are doing is proving that Christians were successful in their erasure of Jews as we're now seen as an extension of Christianity, even though we have thousands of years of magic and practice that have nothing to do with anything in Christianity.
I hated being Christian, so I hate Judaism - Many pagans who leave the Christian faith find themselves left with religious trauma. While this phenomenon is not exclusive to ex-Christians, a large portion of ex-Christians conflate Judaism with Christianity because they believe what they were taught by their Church. Unpacking and dealing with religious trauma is difficult, but Judaism, and Jewish people, should not have to suffer as you do this. This is not to say that all ex-Christians have religious trauma, or that religious trauma is specific to Christianity, or that all witches were at one point Christian, but acknowledging a phenomenon of ex-Christian witches using their religious trauma to devalue and degrade Judaism, even with very little knowledge of Judaism.
Jews drink blood / use the blood of Christians / Christ - Blood is forbidden in Judaism, so much so that if an egg yolk has blood in it, we cannot use it and if that egg touched ingredients, the whole meal must be thrown out. This is why we crack eggs individually into cups to check for blood. Blood is completely unkosher.
Jews love money - This is one of the oldest antisemitic stereotypes around and it is born out of even more antisemitism. This belief system was used by the Nazis to eradicate Jews in Europe. You can read the history of this trope here.
Jews are historically antithetical to witchcraft - Jewish magic has always existed. Click HERE to read more about Jewish witches.
Jews are immoral - This is again propaganda used to eradicate Jews. Jews have historically been minorities in the places they've lived meaning our practices and beliefs were looked down on by the religious majority.
Jews run the world - The word Cabal, which stems from the name of a type of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah. This is yet another antisemitic trope that has been historically used to eradicate and commit genocide against Jews.
Jews want to murder/convert all pagans - No. Judaism forbids proselytizing and has no interest in converting everyone. In fact, in order to convert to Judaism, you must be turned away three times, and the shortest conversion/initiation can take over a year to complete. This conversion process is rigorous, strenuous, and requires study beneath a Rabbi to learn. It is done this way because we don't believe Judaism is for everyone. We don't think the whole world needs to be Jewish, nor do we want the whole world to be Jewish. It isn't meant for everyone and that is okay. While most Jews don't generally believe that Paganism is the "best/right" path, most people believe that their path is the best/right path which is why they follow said path in the first place. This does not mean that Jews hate Pagans or wish any ill will upon non-Jews in general. There are, in fact, Judeo-pagans who are both Jewish and pagan. Jewish identity is complicated!
Listen to the podcast of this blog at anchor.fm/jewitches
Yvonne Owens. (2014). The Saturnine History of Jews and Witches. Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural,3(1), 56-84. doi:10.5325/preternature.3.1.0056
Ben-Yehuda, N. (1980). The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist's Perspective. American Journal of Sociology,86(1), 1-31. Retrieved August 5, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/2778849
Climenhaga, L. (2012). Imagining the Witch: A Comparison between Fifteenth-Century Witches within Medieval Christian Thought and the Persecution of Jews and Heretics in the Middle Ages. Constellations, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.29173/cons17200
Gardner, Gerald (1954). Witchcraft Today. p. 147.
Nicolaus Jacquier Flagellum (printed 1581) p. 40
Brady, Thomas A. “The Entropy of Coercion in the Holy Roman Empire: Jews, Heretics, Witches.” Diversity and Dissent: Negotiating Religious Difference in Central Europe, 1500-1800, edited by Howard Louthan et al., NED - New edition, 1 ed., Berghahn Books, 2011, pp. 92–113. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qdf75.11.
“The Dehumanization and Demonization of the Medieval Jews.” Medieval Antisemitism?, by François Soyer, Arc Humanities Press, Leeds, 2019, pp. 45–66. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvpb3wk1.7.
Witchcraze, Dr. Anne Llewellyn Barstow
The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum
REVISED JULY 19, 2020, UPDATED FOR ACCURACY & INCLUDING NEW SOURCES