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April 22, 2010: Witch Trials---Then and Now

            I confess to spending lots of time listening to the Great Courses series from the Teaching Company.  Do try them out (listed under websites).  Currently, I'm listening to Professor Teofilo Ruiz of the University of California (The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition).  I get the impression most students who take Prof. Ruiz's university classes come to hear about the witch trials.

           The witch trials were an ugly period of history.  People struggled with the instability of their time and found an easy excuse to turn on individuals (mostly women) who lived at the edges of society.  I suspect very few of those killed as witches--if any at all--worshiped the devil. Witch trials hunted down those who still practiced pagan beliefs, or who were simply eccentric and social misfits.  (Surprise! Mother-in-laws who were widowed were the most vulnerable to accusations.)

           Listening to Ruiz's lecture today drags up painful memories from a past lifetime of mine. It's hard enough dealing with memories of one lifetime; some days I'd prefer a personal history that didn't extend so far through time (multi-tasking for the multidimensional).

          In the lifetime I'm remembering now, I was never brought up on charges of witchcraft. I did live through a witch craze where normally sane and kindhearted people turned on one another, where people tried to establish their own innocence by pointing fingers at someone else.

          The memory still haunts me.  There I am, standing in a crowd and listening to the charges that condemn my closest friend to death by hanging. The trumped-up charge of devil worship is an outright lie. She has done no more or less than I have, and--if the townspeople knew--we would both be standing with ropes about our necks.  

           How has it come to this? The townspeople know her well enough.  She hasn't a malicious bone in her body.  She loved nature and the secrets hidden within nature. Those who realize the truth stand silent, afraid of the crowd's frenzy. The townspeople are no longer rational.  They are looking for scapegoats, not truth.

              Her eyes search the crowd, stopping when she catches sight of me. For a moment her eyes widen and I see a brief moment of desperation. Then she refocuses her resolve, glaring intently at me, willing me not to take action.  It has barely been a week since we both made solemn vows that -- should one of us be accused -- the other would remain silent. To defend a friend accused of witchcraft in a climate like this would only end in two deaths.  Better to have one of us survive, able to quietly pick up the obligations of the other once the crowd settled down and life resumed some semblance of normalcy. We had talked about it in depth, but it did not make reality of this moment any easier.

              Reliving the incidence made little sense to me at the time, other than to explain the deep sense of protection that I felt upon first meeting Amy in this lifetime. Historically, the incident seemed inaccurate; I assumed all witches were burned.  I'm a bit surprised in today's lecture to hear that, while witches were burned elsewhere, England had laws against burning people at the stake.  The English hung their witches.

              Looking back at the memory today, my skeptical nature will still question whether this was truly a past life memory or something dredged up from my unconscious. Certainly when I go through a past life experience, it seems real.  I've experienced incidents which match nothing in my current knowledge or background, and which I cannot confirmed as historically accurate until ten or twenty years later. Most days I chose to accept these incidents as valid past life memories, though I continue playing with psychological options.

               Perhaps it doesn't much matter which explanation people chose to believe about my experiences, or about their own. The way I balance my life is by focusing on the bottom line -- the emotional response brought up into consciousness.

            Two emotions have to be addressed here.  One is the guilt that I could have or should have done something differently, that then perhaps a loved one would have survived.  It does not matter that I could not have reached their side, that I could not have anticipated the accident or illness, or that my actions would not have change the outcome. I struggle with the parts of life which I cannot control.  Letting go of that which I cannot control is an exercise that gets easier each time I face the issue; yet it amazes me to discover situations in which the emotion still arises.

            The second issue is my fear of modern-day witch hunts. Throughout history, societies create tailor-made definitions for scapegoats, systems for removing those who challenge traditional beliefs and practices. Always though history, there are people who feel better in uncertain conditions if they can blame problems on an outsider. There are always leaders who seize on social insecurities as a means of increasing political power. In today’s world of media-saturation, it seems easier than ever to whip the villagers into a frenzy and send them out with pitchforks and torches.                

             I feel concern and sadness watching today’s fundamental religious groups (turned political), so determined to push their religious rules on everyone else. This “Us versus Them”-attitude is far removed from a truly spiritual life. If the great religions of the world have anything in common, it is the concept of doing onto others as you would have them do onto you, of showing love and compassion for others.

           Why should it be necessary to have everyone else around you following the same lifestyle, practicing the same religious belief system?  A spiritual life should focus on bringing the divine into your heart and living your life accordingly, on becoming a light in the darkness that strangers and acquaintances notice. We should let them come to us and ask, “How did you find such happiness, such balance in your life?”  We should share, with no demands or expectations that they will follow the same path.

           I watch the witch-hunt mentality growing once again. I’m sure it’s part of basic human nature to insist, “My dog’s better than your dog,” but the human race needs to evolve spiritually and psychologically---especially in uncertain times.

       I recommit myself to addressing my own fears, replacing them with love and good-will toward mankind. This may not make a major change in the world, but it will change my position in that world. It will change what I contribute to those around me.  That is a beginning.

Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 08:06AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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