Brian Levack considers a realistic estimate to be 110,000 witch trials resulting in 60,000 executions. Although many cultures believe in the existence of individuals more or less analogous to the European witch, the historical episode known as “the great witch hunt” arose suddenly and was largely unprecedented.
Prior to the fifteenth-century, the Western Christian world thought in terms of heretics, maleficium (black magic), and demons; however, there was not a single composite category “witch.” Contrary to popular understanding, many in the ranks of the Church denied the existence of witchcraft. Such non-believers are specifically described in the texts of witch theorists, including the most famous of these works, the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ or ‘Hammer of Witches’, published in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer.
Along with the new category of “witch,” a new group of theologians arose, referred to as “witch theorists.” Witch theory was primarily the realm of the literate and ruling elites. While peasants believed in the reality of witchcraft, the demonological theories of the witch theorists were probably incomprehensible to them.
Levack speculates that peasants were likely not as frightened of witchcraft as were the theologians. Witch theory was predicated on a new understanding of the Devil. Early modern theologians, including Kramer, had a sort of dual understanding of the Devil’s power: the Devil was at the same time a source of transcendent evil and yet relatively powerless in the affairs of daily life. Therefore, they concluded that the Devil could actually do very little without the aid of a witch.
The evil done by witches was known as maleficium. In Kramer’s work, maleficium does not refer simply to black magic; it is occult harm that can be wrought only through the cooperation of a witch and a demon through a contractual relationship. Additionally, many witch theorists believed that the Devil commemorated these pacts by leaving a distinctive mark on the witch. This mark was the only empirically observable evidence to support a witch’s confession. Structurally, it is identical to the various implants and scars discovered by abductees.
As Stephens observes, witchcraft was regarded as inherently sexual. Kramer believed that witchcraft and sexual immorality were necessary complements to each other. The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ states that sexual congress with demons is a categorical requirement for being a witch: “Mark well, too, that among other things [witches] have to do four deeds for the increase of the perfidy, that is, to deny the Catholic faith in whole or in part through verbal sacrilege, to devote themselves body and soul [to the Devil], to offer up to the Evil One himself infants not yet baptized, and to persist in diabolic filthiness through carnal acts with incubus and succubus demons.”
Note that actually casting maleficium is not a requirement, but intercourse with demons is. Further, Kramer speculates that through witches, the world is now becoming full of demon/human hybrids. This, too, has an analogue with modern alien mythology and conspiracy theories about creating transgenic hybrids.
Who exactly are these demons that fornicate with witches? Hans Peter Broedel suggests that the incubi and succubi of Christian tradition were almost certainly demonized forms of nature spirits, poltergeists, and house spirits. Greek pagans referred to such intermediary beings as daimons. Classical myth is replete with stories of sexual congress between mortal and divine beings. The transition from daimon to demon can be seen in City of God, where Augustine states that angels and demons are not capable of “sexual union.” By this, Augustine appears to have meant procreation: he still describes incubi ravishing mortal women, but presumably, these unions could not produce offspring.
Thomas Aquinas continued to pick at this problem in ‘Summa Theologiae’. Christian demonology still had to account for a story in Genesis wherein angels impregnate mortal women, begetting a race of giants called the Nephilim. His solution added two important tenets to the early modern understanding of demons. First, he argued that demons were incorporeal but could form temporary bodies by inspissating air. Incidentally, a similar theory was arrived at by an abductee who commented that in order to perform an abduction, aliens must first transform into a physical body, “which is very painful for them.”
Second, Aquinas suggested that incubi and succubi are actually a single order of beings that can switch genders at will: incapable of creating their own semen, they extract it from men in the form of a succubus and then create a male body in order to deposit sperm into a woman as an incubus. The supernatural speed of demons allowed them to perform this feat before the semen lost its potency. Levack adds that this tenet of demonology explains confessions from witches in which the phallus and semen of the Devil are described as cold. He rejects the work of earlier historians who interpreted this detail as a reference to actual events in which stone phalluses penetrated witches — perhaps left over from a pagan fertility rite.
This new take on demons circumvented the obstacle created by Augustine — human beings could once more claim carnal knowledge of divine beings. However, this move came with a price: unlike the ancient Greeks, early modern theologians believed that only a diabolical entity would deign to interact with a mortal physically.