Stereotype of the witch

At the end of the Middle Ages, the recurring beliefs about witches were:

  • The ride by night
  • The pact with the Devil
  • The formal repudiation of Christianity
  • The secret nocturnal meeting
  • The desecration of the Eucharist and crucifix
  • The orgy
  • Sacrificial infanticide, and Cannibalism

Witches also appear as villains in many 19th- and 20th-century fairy tales, folk tales and children’s stories, such as “Snow White“, “Hansel and Gretel“, “Sleeping Beauty“, and many other stories recorded by the Brothers Grimm.

Such folktales typically portray witches as either remarkably ugly hags or remarkably beautiful young women. In the classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, witches from both ends of this spectrum play important roles.

The Malleus Maleficarum (1486) declared that the four essential points of witchcraft were renunciation of the Catholic faith, devotion of body and soul to evil, offering up unbaptized children to the Devil, and engaging in orgies which included intercourse with the Devil; in addition, witches were accused of shifting their shapes, flying through the air, abusing Christian sacraments, and confecting magical ointments.

Ironically, it must be observed that the same crimes were reproached to the early Christians.

In chapters 6-11 of the Octavius, Caecilius, the pagan opponent of Christianity, accuses Christians of rejecting ancestral beliefs and of failing to imitate the piety of the Romans (chap. 6), of failing to understand the communication of gods with humans (chap. 7), of denying the existence of many gods and accepting only the dregs of society, the most shameful people, into their assemblies and organizing dreadful, nocturnal, secret meetings (chap. 8). They practice indiscriminate sexual activity, worship the head of an ass, worship the genital organs of their priests, and initiate novices by making them kill infants and cannibalize them (chap. 9). Their rites are held in secret, and they have no temples (chap. 10). Finally they are a subversive sect that threatens the stability of the whole world (chap. 11).