Witch History: Jews and the Witchcraze
When I dipped my toes into the online witch community, I was horrified, but not altogether surprised, by the amount of antisemitism that festered beneath the surface of the pretty spell jars and love and light facade.
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 common within Judaism and within Jewish communities, 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).
"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). 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). 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
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).
Germany was the worst offender in regards to the murder of witches, with other continental European states trailing behind them in death tolls.
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)
Several hundred years later, as the witch craze 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).
Jews were first associated with Saturn, accused of blood libel, cannibalism, and worse, were then associated with other "heretics" in the eyes of the Church. This is one association that contributed to the interchangeable slaughter of Jews and witches. Yvonne Owens, the author of The Saturnine History of Jews and Witches theorizes that "the prosecution of witches stylistically rooted in earlier persecutions of Jews" (1)
Witches Sabbaths which were thought to include: "host desecration, diabolical orgies, infanticide and cannibalism....[W]ere derived from preexisting myths and stereotypes associated with religious groups outside of Christianity such as Jews and heretics." (3) It was a well-known thought that "[c]ontrary to the day when Christians meet to pray- Sunday morning- the devil and his legions prefer the night between Friday and Saturday. " (1).
"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 Jewish Shabbat was antithetical to Christianity and was therefore demonized. It was claimed in multiple texts that while Christians took the body of Christ on their Sabbath, on Shabbat, Jews ate the bodies of Christian infants.
The Hebrew "Shabbat" became "Sabbat" in German. It was then combined with the German word for witch to become Hexensabbat. The use of the English term "witches Sabbath" was not used until the 19th century.
The modern witches Sabbats, as celebrated by Wiccans, were 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.
During the same period, the use of the word "synagogue" and it's 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.
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 the same 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 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 a race - We are not a race. Jews come in all races. Some Jews have DNA ties to specific historical Jewish groups, which is why it shows up on DNA tests, however, this does not denote race. We are an ethnoreligious group, meaning we are incredibly diverse. Claiming that Jews are one race is completely false and the experiences and identities of Jews.
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. You are forbidden from practicing Jewish practices without another Jew leading you until you have completed your conversion. 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!
Have a question? leave it below!
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