In early Christianity, the devil had played a relatively minor role. But early in the 14th century, Satan became a very definite and prominent figure in religious dogma, with detailed appearance, habits and intentions. He was viewed as the immortal enemy of God, exclusively occupied in trying to mislead men into denying or perverting Christian morals and practices. Various lesser demons were described as the members of the devil's staff of subordinates, all organized in a hierarchy very similar to that of the Church. Not only were Satan's chief lieutenants given names, the exact number of his army of demons was calculated: 7,405,926. The devil frequently engaged in those forbidden sexual acts that were prohibited to man and in some accounts he is described as having a forked penis, so that he could commit fornication and sodomy at the same time. The Devil was both insatiable and sadistic, sometimes demanding intercourse 50 and 60 times a night. Though he lives in the bowels of the earth, mid fire and brimstone, he was often described as icy cold to the touch—especially his sexual parts. The clergy had an explanation for this iciness that was, if nothing else, ingenious: "Having no semen of his own, he gathers up that of mortal men wasted in their night dreams or masturbations, storing it up in his own abhorred body for later usage." The devil's demons were either male (incubus) or female (succubus), and could change from one to the other at will. Griffith writes, "Practicing this quick-change artistry was, in fact, a favorite trick of the hellish visitors: often a man would be locked in amorous embrace with a succubus...when the devil would transform [herself] to a male incubus, with attendant complications which the demon found hilarious. The reverse also took place, when the female witch, at the height of her abominable ravishment, found her hellish gallant had gone aglimmering, leaving her in the arms of a succubus." The subconscious fears of homosexuality in such imaginings is obvious. The devil, who was "Prince of the Air" as well as of the Darkness, could also make himself invisible and thus have intercourse with his converts in the very presence of the godly.
In order for the Church to undertake these "witch hunts," it was necessary to reverse a position held for several centuries: the Church had previously declared that witchcraft was a baseless superstition. In 785 the Synod of Paderborn had ordered death to anyone who killed another for being a witch; Charlemagne confirmed this ruling and the Canon of Episcopi ordered bishops to combat the belief in witchcraft and to excommunicate anyone who persisted in such beliefs. An Irish council had ruled, "Whoever, deceived by the devil, believes in the fashion of the heathen that anyone can be a witch and burns her on this account is to undergo punishment of death." John of Salisbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, displayed remarkable psychiatric perception for his time when, in the 12th century, he stated that "some falsely believed that what they suffered in imagination...was real and eternal. We must not forget that those to whom this happens are poor women or simple and credulous people."
The change from this enlightened view started with John XXII, who—gathering together all the wildest fragments of superstition—issued the Bull Super illius specula, which formulated the new attitude. His quite maniacal campaigns against the new sin helped to develop in the people a paralyzing sense of dread and danger. A papal bull issued by Pope Lucius III instructed the bishops to investigate heretics, forcing persons "found marked by suspicion alone" to prove their innocence or be punished. Officers of the law who did not cooperate were excommunicated. Further enactments followed in 1374, 1409, 1418, 1437, 1445 and 1451, and the witch-hunting craze became a dominant reality throughout Europe.
Prominent theologians wrote fervent appeals to the public (Sprenger and Kramer actually coerced the Senate of the University of Cologne into endorsing their Malleus Malleficarum).
It was finally asserted that to deny the reality of witchcraft was heresy. The ecclesiastical courts elicited the cooperation of the civil courts, for the Church did not wish the responsibility of shedding blood itself; the religious court turned the hapless person accused over to the civil authorities with the sanctimonious recommendation to avoid the shedding of blood, and the state then usually hanged or burned the victims, since this did not involve bloodletting, in the strictly literal sense.
It was during this period that the civil courts consented to recognize copulation with the devil as a capital crime. The proposition that witches engaged in night flights became dogma in 1450: this made it possible to argue that accused persons committed sinful witchcraft many miles away without being seen en route or having to rely on customary means of transportation.
The frenzied state into which many of those who made the accusations and attacks managed to work themselves can only be understood by recognizing the subconscious sexual pleasure that was undoubtedly linked to much of the sadism of the inquisitions. Only a society as sexually repressed, and consequently perverted, as the one we have described could have produced such an appalling spectacle. The accused of both sexes and all ages, from 5 to 75, were often stripped naked during the questioning. Their bodies were poked and prodded, especially the genitals, for it was believed that witches could be identified by the existence of insensitive spots on their anatomy. A long needle was sometimes used for this purpose—the inquisitors pricking every inch of skin to the bone; this was considered a form of examination, incidentally, and not torture. If a spider, louse or fly was found in the victim's cell, while he was being held prisoner before or during the trial, this was recognized to be a demon in disguise, come to visit the accused, and provided additional evidence of guilt.
"Trial by Water" was another technique for determining guilt. The accused was trussed and tossed into a river. If he floated, he was believed to be a witch and was put to death; if he sank and drowned, his innocence was established.
In The Sabbats of Satan, E.V. Griffith describes the trial and execution of a comely young woman of 24, a Hildur Loher of Wurzburg, who was typical of the many who were put to death in that period. She was a bride of a few months; her husband had been the chief witness against her and the court record is still intact; her crime was having had sexual relations with the devil.
The owner of a brothel in Bologna was condemned in 1468 for keeping a house staffed exclusively with succubi. He was sentenced to have his flesh "torn from his bones by red-hot pincers," after which he was burned and his ashes "spat upon."
In the German community of Lindheim, which in 1664 had a population of 600, 30 persons were executed. In 1589 at Quedlinburg in Saxony, a town of some 12,000 inhabitants, 133 were burned in a single day. In Toulouse the number burned in one day was 400. It was claimed that in some towns there were more witches than houses. According to H.C. Lea, "a Bishop of Geneva is said to have burned 500 persons within three months, a Bishop of Bamberg 600, a Bishop of Wurzburg 900." Eight hundred were condemned, apparently in one body, by the Senate of Savoy. Paramo, in his History of the Inquisition, boasts that in a century and a half, from 1404, the Holy Office had burned at least 30,000 witches.
Nicolas Remy (1530-1612), an inquisitor from Lorraine with 800 executions to his "credit," stated, "So good is my justice that last year there were no less than 16 killed themselves rather than pass through my hands." H. Williams, in The Superstitions of Witchcraft, writes that in Spain, Torquemada personally sent 10,220 persons to the stake and 97,371 to prison.
No one knows the total number of human beings exterminated in this manner and estimates range from a conservative few hundred thousand to several million. It may be safely assumed, however, that more persons were put to death for religious reasons by our Christian ancestors than were killed in all of the European wars fought up to 1914.
The blame, of course, does not attach itself only to the Catholic Church. The Protestant reformers were, if anything, even more fanatical and they persecuted "witches" with even greater ferocity. In Scotland, the church porches were equipped with a box built there especially to receive anonymous denunciations. Taylor reports that "Calvin, in Geneva, with crocodile tears of compunction, burned heretics of all kinds. Luther attributed all insanity to the devil."
The records include numerous confessions that were denied after the torture ceased, but this did not save the accused from death. In Spain and England, investigations into some of the trials were instituted and some real attempts were made to arrive at the truth. James I was so distressed by much of the typical "evidence" that he completely altered his previous attitude in favor of witch hunting, insisted on fair trials for the accused, exposed false confessions and accusations, and saved the lives of five women charged by a hysterical boy. In Spain, when Salazar was sent to investigate a wave of accusations in 1611, he reported that among 1300 persons accused, there was not a single genuine case. After he made this report, the preaching of sermons on witchcraft was prohibited and from that time forward, little more was heard of the subject in Spain.
But the overall impression one is left with is not that of a gradual emergence from honest error to enlightenment, so much as a sudden awareness of the mass madness that had dominated European life for so long and that stands as a horrifying monument to the effect extreme sexual repression can have upon a society and the form that it can take when church and state are one.
In the 10th installment of "The Playboy Philosophy," which appears next month, Editor-Publisher Hugh M. Hefner completes his analysis of the history of religious sexual suppression and begins a consideration of the effect this tradition of guilt and shame has had upon contemporary society.