Wiccaphobia, or fear of witchcraft, was once a societal norm throughout much of Christian Europe and the United States. The period from the 14th century Inquisition through the witch trials of the 17th century was known as the "Burning Times," in which witchcraft was a capital offense tried through the courts. Today, pagans and witches are granted religious freedom in most countries, but fears remain. Modern wiccaphobia may be connected to xenophobia, or fear of those who are different, as well as religious concerns.
The Burning Times began with the 1487 release of the Malleus Maleficarum, or Witches' Hammer. The book, which detailed how to convict and kill a witch, was popular in Europe through the late 17th century. Fear of witches also carried over to the English colonies in North America, where witchcraft was considered a capital offense. The most famous witch hunts occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, but a trial in Virginia brought the mass hysteria to light.
In 1706, Grace Sherwood faced charges of witchcraft in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her trial, held at the dawn of the Age of Reason, brought to light the conflict between science and superstition. Witnesses testified that Grace caused ghosts to attack people, but the court was unconvinced by what it termed "spectral evidence." It is unknown exactly what happened during that trial, as the records burned in a later fire, but Grace Sherwood is known to have lived to old age. Shortly after the trial, spectral evidence was officially banned from trials.
What Caused the Burning Times?
Witchcraft fever could be seen as a sort of mass hysteria. A deep misunderstanding of the nature of earth religions, coupled with plagues, droughts and other hardships, likely led to the hysteria. As scientists began to make sense of the world around them, and education among the average population improved, the situation died down.
Satanic Ritual Abuse
The 1980s saw the resurgence of another type of "witch hunt," this time under the guise of satanic ritual abuse (SRA). The crisis began with the 1980 publication of an autobiography entitled Michelle Remembers. According to psychoanalytic thought, repression is a coping mechanism that we sometimes employ to deal with painful experiences.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, repressed memories were being explored in psychotherapy, often through the use of hypnosis. At the time, whatever memories were uncovered were often unquestioningly accepted as truth. Michelle Remembers was one of the first mainstream books to examine the phenomenon, but it was the content of Michelle's memories that fueled the witch hunts. According to the now-discredited work, Michelle's therapist uncovered hidden memories of ritualized abuse perpetrated by Satanists.
Soon a firestorm erupted. Parents began accusing daycare workers and teachers of ritual abuse. Through coercive questioning techniques, social workers and counselors extracted fanciful stories from children, many of which were reminiscent of the "spectral evidence" that had been banned in England in the early 1700s.
By the early 1990s, over 12,000 people had been accused of being part of a secret international cult of Satanism. The cult allegedly kidnapped children, participated in cannibalism, and employed "brood mares" to bear children for sacrificial rituals. Sexual and physical abuse was highly ritualized, often including elements of torture.
In the mid-1990s, belief in satanic ritual abuse began to decline. New methods of questioning child witnesses led to a sharp decrease in the number of accusations. Further research into repressed memories demonstrated that these memories are rarely complete or accurate. While there may be some therapeutic value in unquestioningly accepting a client's memories, they may not be accurate enough to serve as evidence in court.
Your therapist may want to explore the root of your fear. Does your church teach that witchcraft is a sin, as many Evangelical Christian churches do? Are you afraid that you might be a witch, and if so, why? Do you believe that witches have the power to cause harm? If your fear is religious in nature, your therapist may want you to undergo spiritual counseling with your chosen religious leader in addition to or instead of traditional therapy.
Some modern witchcraft fears are rooted in xenophobia, or the fear of those who are different. If you were raised in a small town, you may never have encountered someone who practices Wicca or another pagan religion. You may be afraid of their customs and practices or, more likely, the customs and practices that you assume they follow based on depictions in popular culture.
Although the earth-based religions are generally benign, they have been negatively depicted for more than 1,000 years. Wiccaphobia is generally complex, and may not be easy to treat. Successfully overcoming a deep-rooted fear of witchcraft requires an honest exploration of your own religious and philosophical background, personality and childhood experiences.
Look for an open-minded therapist who is willing to delve into your past and seek assistance from religious leaders. Research both ancient and modern-day earth-based religions, talk to those who practice those faiths, and try to remain open minded. Although you may never become fully comfortable with the practices of witchcraft, over time you can learn to overcome your fear.
Grace Sherwood: The Witch of Pungo. Retrieved June 30, 2010 from http://www.carolshouse.com/witchReligious Tolerance.org: Satanic Ritual Abuse. Retrieved June 30, 2010 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/sra.htm
Loftus, Elizabeth. "The Reality of Repressed Memories." American Psychologist. 1993. Vol. 48, pp. 518-537. Retrieved June 30, 2010 from http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/lof93.htm