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by Irving Hexham


The Invention of Modern Witchcraft

A surprising genealogy of neopaganism.

Type "burning times" into any major Internet search engine and you will be engulfed by a host of websites all telling essentially the same tale about the persecution of ancient European pagans by fanatical Christians. According to an increasingly popular tale, over 9 million witches died horrible deaths between a.d. 1000 and 1800, most of them burnt at the stake. Most of these victims were women, who, it is said, were midwives or traditional healers feared by "the Church" that loathed them because they br /ought relief to suffering without the assistance of the clergy.

Over the last 25 years, this story of Christian bigotry and persecution has become received dogma on many university campuses. It is portrayed in numerous films and television series, and is increasingly believed by large numbers of ordinary people. For example, in one of my undergraduate classes on new religions last year, over a third of the students said that they joined the class to learn more about "the persecution of witches by Christians." When I questioned them about this, they explained that they originally learned about the murder of "the 9 million" either in high school or in women's studies classes at the university, and were all convinced that it was absolutely true.

What's more, even evangelical Christians who were taking the class confessed to believing that fanatical churchmen had murdered millions of witches in early modern times. The evangelical students argued that the murders were carried out by Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic fanatics who were "not true Christians at all." Then they went on to explain that they belonged to "true churches," like the Baptists, which were also persecuted by fanatics during this period. Otherwise, a majority of my evangelical Christian students accepted the story of fanatical Christian persecution of witches and other pagans lock, stock, and barrel.

When I mentioned the reaction of my students to colleagues at a large academic conference, ...

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