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Devil Worship and Great European Witch-Hunts in the Middle Ages

Devil Worship and Great European Witch-Hunts in the Middle Ages
© Photograph by Jennifer Lind

Devil worship brought the chaos and upheaval that characterized European society in the Middle Ages and served as a breeding ground for many peculiar ideas and events. One of the most interesting is undoubtedly the explosion of witch-hunts and related activity. This “witch mania” eventually spread throughout most of the continent leaving behind it a trail of death and distorted ideas that made an impression upon the popular opinion which is still felt in the twentieth-century.

The scope of this subject is so wide that it cannot be satisfactorily discussed in an article this size; therefore, it will be necessary to narrow the area of concentration. Devil worship was a very common element in much of the witchcraft controversy of this period, and it is this topic that we will confine our inquiry.

At this point, it would be helpful to define exactly what is meant by “the devil.” For our purposes, the concept will be confined to the devil, the “Satan” of Christianity. The reason for this is that it is in relation to the Christian idea of a god that the devil became such a symbol of iniquity.

The reasons set forth by scholars for the epidemic of Devil worship are many and varied. One of the most popular is that witchcraft and devil worship could be traced to pre-Christian Europe’s ancient religious practices. As Christianity spread in the years following the disintegration of Greco-Roman practices, it is thought that it did not fully penetrate outlying areas for some centuries. In many cases, Christianity was observed simultaneously with the old nature religions. Elements of the two fused and hybrids such as Dualism (which will be discussed in detail later) emerged which were considered heretical by the Church, and called “Devil worship.”

Another reason for the witch craze and resulting Inquisition given by some scholars recently is that the whole Devil worship idea was fabricated by the Church in order to control pockets of heretics, and/or to increase Church or state land holdings as a result of confiscating the property of convicted Devil worshippers. This is an interesting idea, but not very convincing. Why? Because although the Church and state did stand to gain quite a bit from the possessions of such groups as the Templars, this did not hold true in all cases. Also, that idea discounts the fact that belief in God during this period was extremely intense, and anything seen as contrary to Church doctrine (which, in many places, was the strongest source of order) was looked upon as a threat to the status quo.

Probably the most reasonable explanation of the Devil worship phenomenon at this time is a combination of both of these hypotheses. Lingering ideas of pre-Christian cults of Diana and the Horned God became entwined with the doctrine of the Catholic Church concerning evil. Church officials perceived these as both evil and a threat to the tenuous state of order in medieval society. It is from this that the crisis sprang. According to an expert in the area: “one can perceive that European witchcraft is best viewed as an irreligious cult of the Devil, built on the foundations of low magic and folk traditions but formed and defined by the Christian society within which it operated.”

The group given credit for initiating the spread of pseudo-Devil worship in the Christian world are Gnostics. Their dualist theory of the universe included reversals of Christian belief, such as the idea that the world is really hell, and that mankind was created by a race of rebel angels known as Archons. (Since the world is evil it could not have been created by a good God.) The supreme Archon was identified with the God of the Old Testament, whom the Gnostics saw as savage and cruel. Still, other groups of Gnostics believed that the world was created by seven fallen angels, led again by the Old Testament God. It is he who inspired the prophets to lead mankind astray. Astray from whom? The Devil, who was a good angel in opposition to the evil God of the Jews. Strangely enough, many of them saw Jesus Christ as a saviour who was to liberate humans from the evil God who had led them astray. This was not enough to convince Christians that they were not worshipping the Devil, however, and the Church Fathers sought to warn good Christians to steer clear of these heretics. It also did not help the Gnostics to believe, in some cases, in a reversal of Judeo-Christian moral values.

It is the reversal of the Christian concepts of good and evil that make genuine Satanists an anathema to members of the Church. If God in the Christian model is bad and Satan is a good and benevolent deity, it logically follows that denial of the Judeo-Christian moral code and any rules based upon it is almost necessary. Actions usually condemned as evil are cherished for their mystical effects. It has been said that Devil worshippers get “perverse pleasure in doing things which are felt to be evil combined with a conviction that doing these things is really virtuous.”

In light of these ideas, it is obvious that medieval churchmen and anyone else interested in preserving order would do everything within their power to curb this disintegration of the organization. Starting with the Gnostics and similar groups in the first few centuries after Christ, the Church was faced repeatedly with what they perceived as threats to Christendom; these came both from outside of Europe by Muslims, and from within by heretics. It is by surveying various outbreaks of heresy that we are able to see the progressive development of the concept of Devil worship on the part of Europeans in the Middle Ages.

One of the first groups accused by the Church of worshipping Satan in the traditionally accepted way were the Paulicians. They were a group of Armenians who lived in the Southeastern part of the Empire, out of the direct control of the Armenian Church. At a synod in 719, John of Ojun, who headed the church in that area, declared that Paulicians were “sons of Satan.” He asserted that they gathered at night in order to “commit incest with their own mothers” as well as put infant blood in a Eucharist-like mixture. Also, he said that they paid homage to Satan while prostrating themselves and foaming at the mouth. These ideas were to become a model for later descriptions of the activities of Satanists for they form an integral part of the conception of the Black Mass.

According to Norman Rufus Colin Cohn in his book ‘Europe’s Inner Demons’, Western Christendom had been troubled far less than the East by religious dissent. In the year 1022, however, a group of heretics in the French city of Orléans were among the first in western Europe to be executed for their crimes. For the first time since the mass executions of maligned Christians by Pagans in that area 800 years before, cannibalism and incest were rumoured to be a part of religious worship.

These heretics, which included the queen’s former confessor, nuns, and others, lived a simple and pious life, and this is probably how they attracted followers. The problem was, according to contemporary reports, that they were tricked into worshipping the Devil by a man who gave them the ashes of unborn children to eat, and took part in ceremonies in which the Devil appeared in the form of an animal. They were also supposed to have concocted potions (probably hallucinogens), burnt babies, and had orgies. Here again, we see the elements set forth by John of Ojun which were steadily becoming fixtures in any tale of Satanic festivities.

The Orléans group also denied key elements of Christian doctrine, including the ideas of virgin birth, the Resurrection, Baptism, the Eucharist, and prayer to the saints. They did feel, however, that they were the recipients of divine grace and would be protected by the Holy Spirit, even while being burnt at the stake for heresy.

After the Orléans heretics had been taken care of, another sect took root in essentially the same area. This movement, known as Catharism, was a blend of Greek and Persian dualist ideas fueled by the dualist elements in Christianity itself (such as the separation of the divine and material worlds, the superiority of the flesh to the spirit). By 1150, Catharism was present in most of Southern France, as well as Flanders and parts of Germany. There was even a Cathar Bishop in Northern France and travelling missionaries in Northern Italy.

Cathars believed, as did the Gnostics, that the God of the Old Testament was the Devil, who created this world. He was lord of the physical body, death, and the material world. In true Dualist fashion, most Cathars believed that he existed as an equal rival of the true God, and would continue to be for all eternity. Morally, they offended Christians by believing that it was a sin to procreate because the command to be fruitful and multiply was given by the evil God of antiquity. Higher-ranking Cathars abstained from all forms of sex, violence, lying, property holding, oath-taking, and food of animal origin. They were held up as embodiments of Christ.

Lower echelons of the Cathars, however, believed that they were enslaved by the Devil and that nothing that they did could possibly hurt them. In addition to encouraging vice in this way, Cathars also denounced the Church and their Baptism at the time of initiation. This was seen as such a threat by the Church that Pope Innocent III preached a Crusade against the Albigensians, as the Cathars of Southern France were called, in 1208. By 1230, the Albigensians were no longer seen as a threat to the Church. Catharism did last a bit longer in other areas, but the Inquisition wiped out most of what was left. No one can really say if the Cathars actually worshipped the Devil in earnest, but the idea that the Devil was, in fact, the God of the Old Testament, coupled with the fact that most had been raised to worship this God might have resulted in Devil worship. But whether or not these individuals worshipped Satan, their importance in the area of European Devil worship lies in the fact that the Church said that they did, and persecuted them for doing so in many areas of the continent, thus spreading the conceptions inherent in traditional Devil worship.

Also published on Medium.


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