Thoughts on the Occasion of the October Moon
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
(A classic column from 1992)
Halloween approaches, the day when many an American parent will suit
up the little ones in black robes, matching 17th century conical
hats, and oversized warty noses, sending them off to delight the
neighbors with this impersonation of a witch, as traditionally
represented from 17th century Austrian paintings of the Hexensabbat
right up through Disney's "Snow White."
Even the newspapers generally play along, running the results of
polls that ask Americans how many actually believe in such
mythological creatures as ghosts, trolls and witches.
But witches are not mythological creatures, of course. They were the
very real practitioners of a religion which pre-dated Christianity in
Europe, and which had coexisted quite peaceably with the new
Christian church for more than 1,000 years, from the Council of
Nicaea until the fateful year 1484 A.D., under the quite sensible
rule of the Canon Episcopi, which instructed Christian clerics
through all those years that -- in cases where sorcery or commerce
with the devil was charged but could not be proven -- it was the
accuser, not the accused, who was to suffer the penalty for those
Needless to say, this held false charges to a minimum.
All that changed after 1484, when an ambitious but ethically
challenged Dominican friar and embezzler by the name of Heinrich
Kramer managed to convince Pope Innocent VIII to set the Holy Office
of the Inquisition onto the witches, using torture to extract
confessions, authorizing anonymous accusations without any right for
the accused to face her accuser, and granting the soon-busy
witch-hunters the rights to seize and divide the estates of the
accused (who were always found guilty), an invitation to systematic
legal looting so foul that it was never allowed again in Western
history ... until our current War on Drugs, of course.
Millions of persons -- some doubtless practitioners of the Old Craft,
but many, especially in later years, just as doubtless falsely
accused -- were burned or hanged before the burning times faded away
with a kind of embarrassed shrug in the early 1700s.
The crime of which they were accused? Worshipping a female deity, a
goddess of the earth, and her male consort, the goat-horned male god
Christian clerics, themselves mostly illiterate, called this female
deity "the abomination," which has subsequently been interpreted to
mean the horned devil of Hebrew tradition. But practitioners of a
fertility cult would have had little reason to mock the late-comer
Christianity by hanging crosses upside down or reciting masses
backwards. "Satanism," to the extent that it ever existed (and I
suspect more black masses were chanted on London film sets in the
1960s and '70s than anywhere in the four centuries preceding), is a
very different thing.
Why should we care about the fate of the witches? For starters, it
appears the witches stressed not the superiority of either sex over
the other, but rather a balance between male and female principles --
an obvious notion for early agriculturalists trying to come to a
metaphorical understanding of the germination of crops in the
"mother" earth thanks to the intervention of those primeval "male"
agencies, the sun and the rain.
But the culture which destroyed the witches was not merely
male-dominated. The history of our European ancestors of the 16th and
17th centuries presents a spectacle of bloodthirsty intolerance, a
perverse catalogue of self-flagellation and repulsion at sexuality
which found outlet only in the frenzied drive to conquer and enslave
both the natural world and any other culture that presented itself.
No matter how we may celebrate their competitive superiority from a
safe distance, this was clearly a bunch of sick puppies.
Was it the plagues, which quite often left the continent literally in
the hands of teenagers? Whatever the reason, using their superior
technology of sail and cannon, and helped mightily by bacteriological
allies to which they had developed at least partial immunity, the
Europeans didn't merely conquer the indigenous populations of the
Americas, they ruthlessly eradicated whole cultures, and with them
any medical or other knowledge they might have had to offer, sweeping
all aside as the "spawn of the devil."
Meantime, European women were being stripped of their property and
other rights (many "witches," curiously, were widows of independent
means), at precisely the time when their presense in the councils of
church and state might have maintained some semblance of sanity.
The Europeans of the time adopted little of our hypocritical
modern-day pretense of being horrified at "drug use" per se -- they
happily imported coffee, tobacco, opium, and cocaine. In fact, they
forced the opium trade on China when it proved to be the only thing
for which the Chinese would trade silver bullion.
But while they reveled in novel forms of drunkenness, what did
horrify those brave conquerors was the use of any hallucinogenic
substance as a means to religious revelation, a superstitious dread
of alternative paths to spiritual enlightenment which still hangs on
in our aforementioned and thoroughly irrational "War on Drugs."
(Which drug is involved in more incidents of spouse battery and
inter-family murder by a factor of millions-to-1: alcohol or LSD?
Which will get you 20 years in the federal pen, while the other now
comes in convenient "wide-mouth 12-packs"?)
The wholesale eradication of the cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas
was justified not because of their practice of slavery and ritual
slaughter -- Pizarro and Cortes would have found those familiar
enough -- but because they were found to be using peyotl,
hallucinogenic mushrooms, and ololiuhqui (a variety of morning glory
seed) in their religious rituals, sure signs of "witchcraft," and
coincidentally a method of seeking direct revelations from the gods
which really delivered the goods -- hardly fair competition for the
modest little Spanish communion wafer.
Why did the conquistadors relate such practices to the witches back
home? Because the witches, too, in a triumph of empirical science
(Northern Europe has no reliably safe natural hallucinogens), had
found ways to turn such normally deadly poisons as henbane,
monkshood, and belladonna into an externally-applied ointment which
would promote religious revelation by inducing a sensation of flying,
followed by ecstatic visions.
(The stuff worked best when applied to the mucous membranes with a
smooth wooden rod or staff -- the "witch's broomstick" of our modern
This was the great evil of the witches, and the justification for
destroying millennia of the materia medica which they had
gathered -- the traditional folk knowledge of medicinal plants which
was largely destroyed with the Wise Women of 16th and 17th century
Europe, and which we are only painfully piecing together again today.
It's commonly held that this order of midwives and herbal healers
were a superstitious lot, rejecting the more "scientific" advances of
the academically trained doctors of their time.
The truth is just the opposite. What could be more scientific than
carefully observing and noting the effects of medicinal herbs over a
period of generations? What could be a more superstitious pile of
nonsense than the theories of the 2nd century quack Galen, whose
theory that health is dominated by the "four humours" remained gospel
for centuries, refined with the addition of harsh purgatives and the
exquisite nonsense of blood-letting?
So fatal was the standard practice of medicine in the centuries after
the witches were eliminated that most leading statesmen of the time
-- George Washington included -- died while being bled by doctors.
(Washington woke up with a sore throat at the age of 67, and died
within 48 hours after receiving a cathartic enema, being dosed with
poisonous mercury and antimony, and having literally half his blood
-- four pints -- drained from his body, all in keeping with the best
medical advice of the day.)
All three of Louis XVI's elder brothers were killed by the
blood-letting of physicians during youthful illnesses. The last
direct heir to the Bourbon throne was preserved only after the queen
mother bundled him away to a locked room and refused on pain of death
to let any of the court physicians have at him.
Superstition? Ask most modern patients whether they would rather be
injected with a purified white extract, or swallow a tea made from
the same herb, and see whether there isn't a "superstitious"
preference for the power of the magic syringe or even for surgery
over the remedy in its naturally-occurring form, even when the latter
offers better control of dosage and side effects. Chew up a bunch of
bug-eaten leaves? How primitive!
The ancient Egyptians were fighting infection with fruit molds as
early as the date of the Ebers papyrus, but thousands had to die of
pneumonia, puerperal fever and meningitis, all through the late
Middle Ages and right through the 19th century, before Fleming could
get anyone to take another look at penicillin. It was with similar
reluctance -- and not until 1795, when Napoleon seemed likely to put
them all out of business unless they got practical in a hurry -- that
the established brotherhood of "scientific" physicians finally
acknowledged that the "old wives' remedy," lemon juice, was a better
cure for naval scurvy than all their acids and caustic salts put
This is the tradition of ignorance, intolerance, and futility which
we honor when we dress up our children to ridicule warty old witches,
or when we protest (as parents groups in Le Mesa, Calif. and
elsewhere continue to do every year) that Roald Dahls' book "The
Witches" should be banned from school libraries because it "portrays
witches as ordinary-looking women."
Only the dimming effects of time -- and the fact that the Inquisition
pretty much got them all -- render this outrage acceptable. To find a
modern parallel, imagine the (fully appropriate) public outcry if it
were discovered that some small town in Bavaria, from which for some
undisclosed reason all the Jewish families disappeared in 1942, had
since decided to launch a new Halloween custom, in which many of the
town's blonde-haired little children were dressed up in yarmulkes and
artificially large beaked noses, and sent out to play pranks and
demand loot under the guise of being "nasty little Jews." Imagine
further that the more religious local townfolk demanded the removal
of certain children's books from the local library, because they
depicted Jews as "people of ordinary human appearance."
A healthy skepticism about many of our modern-day "witches" and some
of their New Age mumbo jumbo may be in order ... though surely it's
not up to us to choose which of their exotic notions it's
"acceptable" to explore.
But shall we extend our inherited intolerance to the many serious
researchers now trying to rediscover the healing properties of
plants, to overcome centuries of medical libel designed to convince
us that mild-mannered natural remedies which can take weeks to
rebuild our immunities are not worth our time, that the only valuable
medicines are purified (and thus patentable) toxins that kill "bad"
cells in a test tube, no matter how much damage they cause the "host
organism" in the process?
Excepting the odd mountain hamlet in Gwynedd, the Tirol, and the
Hebrides, our direct links to the Wise Women of old are probably lost
for good. But rediscovering their worldview, a beneficent vision of
humankind inextricably balanced in nature's mandala, is a journey
well worth beginning anew -- perhaps even on the night of the Samhain
Vin Suprynowicz, assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas
Review-Journal, is author of
Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998,"
available by mailing check or money
order for $24.95 (postpaid) to Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las
Vegas, Nev. 89127. Orders can also be placed -- with credit card
orders welcome -- by dialing Huntington Press at 1-800-244-2224. Or,
on the Internet, go to