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I'd recommend Huysman's novel, "Là-Bas", published in 1891 and a glorious, over-sensationalised, mess of a book about modern-day (for the day) occultism and black magic in Paris. Being French, he opens the book with a harangue about modern literature and the school of Naturalism 😀

A rather stodgy 1928 English translation here:

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14323/14323-h/14323-h.htm

"Certainly if naturalism confined one to monotonous studies of mediocre persons and to interminable inventories of the objects in a drawing-room or a landscape, an honest and clear-sighted artist would soon cease to produce, and a less conscientious workman would be under the necessity of repeating himself over and over again to the point of nausea. Nevertheless Durtal could see no possibilities for the novelist outside of naturalism. Were we to go back to the pyrotechnics of romanticism, rewrite the lanuginous works of the Cherbuliez and Feuillet tribe, or, worse yet, imitate the lachrymose storiettes of Theuriet and George Sand? Then what was to be done? And Durtal, with desperate determination, set to work sorting out a tangle of confused theories and inchoate postulations. He made no headway. He felt but could not define. He was afraid to. Definition of his present tendencies would plump him back into his old dilemma.

"We must," he thought, "retain the documentary veracity, the precision of detail, the compact and sinewy language of realism, but we must also dig down into the soul and cease trying to explain mystery in terms of our sick senses. If possible the novel ought to be compounded of two elements, that of the soul and that of the body, and these ought to be inextricably bound together as in life. Their interreactions, their conflicts, their reconciliation, ought to furnish the dramatic interest. In a word, we must follow the road laid out once and for all by Zola, but at the same time we must trace a parallel route in the air by which we may go above and beyond.... A spiritual naturalism! It must be complete, powerful, daring in a different way from anything that is being attempted at present. Perhaps as approaching my concept I may cite Dostoyevsky. Yet that exorable Russian is less an elevated realist than an evangelic socialist. In France right now the purely corporal recipe has brought upon itself such discredit that two clans have arisen: the liberal, which prunes naturalism of all its boldness of subject matter and diction in order to fit it for the drawing-room, and the decadent, which gets completely off the ground and raves incoherently in a telegraphic patois intended to represent the language of the soul—intended rather to divert the reader's attention from the author's utter lack of ideas. As for the right wing verists, I can only laugh at the frantic puerilities of these would-be psychologists, who have never explored an unknown district of the mind nor ever studied an unhackneyed passion. They simply repeat the saccharine Feuillet and the saline Stendhal. Their novels are dissertations in school-teacher style. They don't seem to realize that there is more spiritual revelation in that one reply of old Hulot, in Balzac's Cousine Bette, 'Can't I take the little girl along?' than in all their doctoral theses. We must expect of them no idealistic straining toward the infinite. For me, then, the real psychologist of this century is not their Stendhal but that astonishing Ernest Hello, whose unrelenting unsuccess is simply miraculous!"

He began to think that Des Hermies was right. In the present disorganized state of letters there was but one tendency which seemed to promise better things. The unsatisfied need for the supernatural was driving people, in default of something loftier, to spiritism and the occult."

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

I wouldn't be surprised if they take it up now that Scott's posted about it. There will probably have to be a few intervening posters/twitterers given how unpopular Scott is with the social-justice left, but the BDSM jokes write themselves.

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The last question (why do smart people believe in witches) is something that I think I have some small amount of experience with, given that I dated a girl whose family members had been accused of witchcraft and who had accused others of being witches in turn. Her family lived in semi-rural Nigeria, and witchcraft accusations are both common and taken incredibly seriously there.

As far as I can tell, witchcraft accusations in Nigeria seemed to be an excuse to do something terrible to the other person. It was a sort of casus belli in a world in which the law was incredibly unreliable and also didn't reflect societal norms. So, a guy who regularly doesn't pay his workers could be called a witch, and then it'd be societally appropriate to run him out of the village. Or, if a woman sleeps with your husband, she's a witch, and then you can go to her house with your relatives and start shit.

What was especially weird from my perspective is that everyone kind of knew it was bullshit, but it was really convenient. Also, people who did what we would normally consider witchcraft, like curses for hire or prognostication, rebranded themselves as prophets in the Christian tradition and so didn't get in trouble.

I had a really hard time convincing my then girlfriend that the whole witchcraft thing was terrible societally, even though she didn't believe in it (although she believed in the existence of black magic/Satanic stuff more broadly). I think mob justice is honestly just a really useful way of getting shit done, and in the absence of fact finding/depositions, it's tough to prove things even if you know it's true. Like, if you catch a person red-handed stealing, you don't need to call them a witch. You just grab them, haul them out in public, and tire them. It's horrific but it stops people from stealing.

But, if a building collapses and your brother dies, you can get together with your relatives, decide who to blame (the owner? the engineer?), then mutually decide there's some kind of witchcraft and feel fully justified in beating the shit out of him. This would also make it difficult for his relatives to retaliate unless they can prove he wasn't a witch/didn't deserve the beating. I figure there was probably a similar thing going on in rural England in the 1500s.

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"Magic, Explanations, and Evil: The Origins and Design of Witches and Sorcerers", Singh 2021 https://www.gwern.net/docs/sociology/2021-singh.pdf

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

A guy I knew from Ghana told me that his sister was killed by a witch. Evidence: his sister's leg got swollen and, lacking the money for the hospital, they took her to a witch doctor. The doctor pulled pins out of her leg (worth pointing out this is a classic of sleight-of-hand street magic) and said they'd been put there by a witch. She died a bit later, in her 30s. He concluded the story by saying "I know you don't believe in witches" and I was like it's not like I don't believe in witches, I just think it sounds more like her leg was infected and he was like maybe, but there was no money for the hospital, so what difference does it make? And I was like, damn, good point.

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it makes a huge difference.

I doubt he is in any hurry to fund hospitals if y'know, a witch did it.

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"Fund hospitals"? This is Ghana, not a ballot prop in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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Ghana has the 10th highest GDP in Africa. They do fund hospitals — though not in rural areas, according to my quick googling.

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Still, it doesn't take the Mayo clinic to be able to say "Hey, your wound is infected, here's some antibiotics". I don't have any medical training whatsoever but I like to think I could practice medicine at that sort of level.

Antibiotics aren't prohibitively expensive in Africa either according to this paper I spent thirty seconds reading https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6946586/

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Even so, a country that believes in infections will act differently than a country that believes in witches; and on a personal level, one might avoid wasting money on pin-pulling and instead spend some on disinfectants or cleaning the wound.

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I think you will find very different levels of witchcraft in rural and urban Ghana.

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That is a story my late mother told me years ago about her father. When he was a boy, he struck or hit or kicked or otherwise meddled with a black dog (see here for why that is a bad idea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_dog_(folklore)

His leg swelled up and he was confined to bed. I don't know if his parents tried seeking a doctor, but anyway they did get the local cunning man/quack doctor in. He said something over the leg (charms, prayers, who knows?) and took 'things' out of it - yes, your basic psychic surgery as above.

Grandad got better. Since the witch tradition is weak in Ireland, this wasn't considered witchcraft nor the practitioner a witch; he was the 'quack doctor', that is, the local wise man with cures for things conventional medicine couldn't touch, like being fairy struck.

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My wife has an interesting story from living in Ukraine. Her Grandmother told her she was a practicing witch, but one of the good ones. My wife doesn't really believe in her stories, but her witchcraft is one of the only things she got from her grandmother, so she hasn't abandoned it completely.

And as far as the Grandmother being a witch, one, it was probably past down to her similarly, and two, she lived through both the Holocaust and Holodomor. She couldn't practice her religion, so it's not surprising she clinged to something spiritual.

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For a more or less contemporary response (okay, less, it was published in 1584, a century later), I recommend Reginald Scot's _The Discoverie of Witchcraft_. It's just as detailed, just as carefully researcher, and just as fascinating in is coverage of beliefs about magic and witchcraft. But Scot takes some of the devout Christianity, and some of the belief in magic (he thinks astrology is legit), and mixes in a strong streak of recognizably modern skepticism. So against the idea that Kramer is just a reasonable person going along with what seem like reasonable beliefs at the time, there's the example of Scot. He has basically the same set of evidence to work with and some of the same baseline beliefs, but he correctly reasons his way to the conclusion that a lot of "witchcraft" accusations are just people acting out their prejudices against women who have done nothing worse than being poor and socially isolated.

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good recommendation!

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

Please stop with the claim that this was some sort of feminism/patriarchy thing. In some places the victims were mainly women, in some places (most well known is Muscovy) they were mainly men.

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The vast majority of people accused of witchcraft in England were also men IIRC. But, obviously feminists wanting to craft a narrative about suppression of women's power don't really care about those.

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Well, the Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Witch_trials_in_the_early_modern_period says about the victims that "roughly 80% were women" and cites a source for it.

Given that Kramer was clearly misogynistic, I don't think it absurd to suggest that such sentiments may have played a role. (Of course, it does not follow that witch hunts were simply powerful men hating women, case closed.)

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

I don't think that astrology counted as magic in the sixteenth century. It was considered legitimate by Galileo, Brahe, & Kepler.

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Yeah, the line between magic and science gets really blurry the further back you go. Newton messed around with alchemy, for instance. A lot of times it's not clear how, with the knowledge they had at the time, they could know astrology and alchemy were false. I mean, the moon really does affect the tides, who's to say Mars doesn't influence war or Venus love, with a prescientific knowledge base?

If you're bored you can check out Agrippa's books of occult philosophy; the poor guy's trying to draw principles from items of information, but all his information's BS.

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Augustine, in his "Confessions", sort of pauses the whole book midway through to go on a rant where he does a semi-scientific debunking of astrology ("I knew a guy who knew two kids born at the same second, yet one was a rich man's son and one a slave, and they had very different life outcomes. And even if you don't believe that story, what about twins who may have very different personalities and paths in life?").

This would have been written around the year 400 AD. He had some motivated reasoning (he wanted to discredit Manichaeans who were big on astrology), but the basic arguments against astrology were definitely available to people.

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Yeh. The twin thing is a very telling rebuttal - fraternal twins should have the exact same lifestyle, outcomes and personalities.

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Alchemy was just primitive chemistry. It had some crazy ideas but it was also mixing fluids a la chemistry.

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I mean, I basically agree. Their theory was way off, but there was no way they could have known better, and they did document some reactions.

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As well, consider that 21st century alchemy machines produce 10% of the world's electricity which is more valuable annually than the amount of gold mined worldwide

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Nuclear reactors? But that's naturally occurring alchemy, right? The uranium's radioactive, it'll change into something else without you doing anything.

I do find it amusing that after centuries trying to turn lead into gold, we find that lots of things turn themselves into lead by themselves.

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We did figure out how to turn lead into gold. It just takes a 600 MeV proton beam and the results are radioactive. And it costs more than the gold is worth by orders of magnitude. But we can do it!

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ooo, that makes me happy.

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> it’s by an slightly crazy 1920s Catholic priest

Montague Summers was never a Catholic priest. He was ordained as an Anglican deacon and later claimed to be a Catholic priest as part of a weird larp, but he was just an independent scholar and writer.

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The Catholic Church holds that demons are real, demonic possession is real, and has rites of exorcism for the latter.

This is at best loosely related to the question of whether witchcraft was practiced in early modern Europe. Historical note: Prosecutions for witchcraft were more common and intense in Protestant countries (especially Germany, England, and Scotland) than in Catholic ones, although they took place in both.

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The Vatican's chief exorcist (prior to his death a few years back, not sure who replaced him), Fr Gabriele Amorth, wrote some books branded as "from the Vatican's chief exorcist" on his experiences and beliefs in which he's fairly explicit that he believes in medieval-style witches exactly of the type described above. He also makes a big point of saying that most people who exorcists see are just mentally ill, and has some interesting Marian heresies.

Of course, as Scott slightly touches on, belief in "satanists" with very real witchy powers is extremely mainstream in right-wing American Protestantism, and there are people still imprisoned from the witch hunts of the 80s.

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As I've pointed out, belief in witchcraft by its opponents is orthogonal to the question of whether there were practitioners of witchcraft in their own self-understanding.

In anything, in the context of the 15-16th century, one would expect these two things to *positively* correlate. It is precisely a widespread cultural belief in the reality of witchcraft that would lead some to practice it, some to oppose it.

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Thank you.

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aA feminist, whose name escapes me, once pointed out - if the witches had the power attributed to them they would have been co-opted into the late medieval system. There would have been schools of witchcraft. Men would have sought them out, or taken over witchcraft.

The personal trappings of the supposed witch; the cat, the broom, the pot are all symbols of a woman who needs both companionship and an animal to catch mice, likes to keep a clean house, and has to eat.

There’s something really sad about that. These are the bare necessities of the poor. Try and keep a clean house and the b*stards will get you, and make the symbols of your genteel poverty reason to kill you.

Sometimes the cruelty of the past is exaggerated, witch hunts boil my piss though.

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There is a section in the Malleus on "archer wizards", witches (usually male in this case) who through a pact with the Devil get the power to shoot arrows very effectively. Kramer suggests that these people *have* been co-opted, and he is constantly complaining that princes keep them around to shoot their enemies and refuse to let him prosecute them.

I'm not sure what to make of this.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Sufficiently advanced longbowtry is indistiguishable from witchcraft, in the spirit of “To make a longbowman, start with his grandfather”

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Precisely. See Lars Andersen, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67W4kONfL4Y

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Oh shit, we need to start training our armies for WWIV now then.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

It's unlikely that WWIII would actually set us back to pre-gunpowder; for starters, even in the worst-case scenario where most of the human population dies, then the remaining ammunition is sufficient for a longer time than it would be with our current population.

(Also, nuclear winter's unlikely to be bad enough to collapse society in, say, Brazil.)

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Brazilian agriculture is intensely dependent on oil and fertiliser imports from thousands of miles away. Nuclear winter might not take away their rainfall but it would be a catastrophe from Brazilians in any number of other ways.

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Oct 30, 2022·edited Oct 30, 2022

Fair point, although there'd still be the capacity to feed at least a large chunk of the current population. I guess there's still the possibility of technological/infrastructure loss at that point, though probably not quite that much of it.

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Nuclear winter probably isn't real: https://www.navalgazing.net/Nuclear-Winter

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It is real, it's just less bad than the alarmists want you to think. The key bit I think you might have missed is that the comment that started this didn't give a timeframe for WWIII; it's plausible that arsenals could inflate back to Cold War levels or higher in the next few decades if SALT/START fall apart (note that the PRC is not party to SALT/START and is currently trying for nuclear parity; if the PRC doesn't sign on to something similar then we straight-up are looking at another arms race).

At those kinds of numbers, with tens of thousands of nukes getting exchanged, essentially everyone (including Bean, with whom I largely agree) agrees that there'd be non-negligible climatic effects. Definitely not going to kill us all - I ran the numbers on that a while back - and probably not going to set us back pre-gunpowder, but "nuclear winter isn't real" is overstating the case.

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Training our AIs for WW4.

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What I make of it is that Robin Hood was clearly a witch, and that whole "frolicking in the greenwood" thing was totally a euphemism.

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Oh, I have some vague recollection that 50s folklore/revival of 'witch' traditions held that Robin and his Merry Men were a coven, with Marion being the Queen.

For all the same reasons you put: outlaws, going out to the greenwood, etc.

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Can't very likely have been the '50s since wicca barely existed then (Gardner started in '54 at Bricket Wood, IIRC), but that stuff definitely filtered into the alternative pop culture of America later. The 1991 Robin Hood adventure game Conquests of the Longbow involves Marian being a pagan priestess/witch, among other occult and pseudo-Celtic business.

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Oct 31, 2022·edited Oct 31, 2022

I thought the connection to paganism started with the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood (also the origin of the "Robin had a Saracen friend" trope): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_of_Sherwood

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Oct 31, 2022·edited Oct 31, 2022

While that series certainly made it a mainstream idea, it was much older.

Here's something from 1954 by Barbara Lowe about Robin and the various identifications that antiquarians and folklorists had attributed to him:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/4521486

"A hundred and sixty years ago, when Ritson produced his then exhaustive treatise on Robin Hood such an enquiry as I am embarking upon could not have been conceived. Opinions might then have differed as to whether the outlaw had lived in the twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth century, and whether he was a yeoman or an earl, but everyone was agreed that he was both historical and human. It was only when folklore was invented, and Grimm began analysing fairy tales, that first, Thomas Wright, and then others, claimed for Robin Hood a supernatural origin. He was proved, in turn, to be a Teutonic mythical sprite, a sun-god, Mithras, Woodicock, the Man in Green, the Hobby Horse, and finally they dying god popularised by Sir James Frazer.

It is two versions of this last interpretation of Robin Hood that I want to consider here: that Robin Hood is Grand Master of a coven of witches, and an incarnation of Cernunnus, the Horned God of the Old Stone Age; and that he is a spirit of vegetation, doomed to die periodically for the good of the crops.

…In sum – you may go to the Old Stone Age for Jolly Robin, or Robin Goodfellow – for covens of female witches prancing round a stag-man, or for a dying victim of the seasons. But you will not find Robin Hood. He belongs absolutely to the mediaeval world of the long bow, the guild fraternity, and the Catholic Church."

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Richard Rahl in The Sword of Truth has this power, though he is initially unaware that it's magic. His magic is definitely hereditary, though.

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Co-opt easily demonstratable male "witch" talent but not female I guess!

Considering that there was money and power to be had in giving women equal rights, I find it interesting that they were not "co-opted" by rulers i.e allowed to be maximally productive.

I think it's just really none obvious that social reality isn't physical reality, especially when its hard to find counterexamples.

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

Conspiracy theory I've heard for the rise of (second-wave) feminism was with the rise of labor-saving devices, it was now more economically efficient to have women working outside the home. And, a la Two-Income Trap, it drives down wages too, so now you need two incomes to get by.

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Theoratically, if an household works twice the hours, they should be able to produce roughly twice the commodities they would otherwise. So save for the availablility of capital the net wages should be unaffected.

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Right, but now you have two people working instead of one. So the market is able to capture more people's labor.

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Powerful men have always used women's talents—typically through making them part of their families or using talented relatives.

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Unequal rights for women has *always* been about maximizing their productivity, just not in cash wages, and in a way that violates bodily autonomy by contemporary sensibilities: women’s work has been to bear and raise children (who in turn work farms, tend animals, and care for other children).

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I think not, i think, if anything, its been about maximizing the productivity that the *husband can capture*.

Though actually, i think it was mostly from the sincere belief that women were on average, much stupider than men in most things, which is, of course, absurd, but becomes self-fulfilling when everyone believes it, and is very hard to shake if its a religious belief. It may even be paired with the deontological moral belief that women *should* be subservient or confine themselves to a sphere that makes them, on average, more subservient.

All the other stuff where men profit from the labor of women reinforces this belief, but I don't think it began with that.

Though maybe there is more to it, because it seems so strange to me that it evolved, as far as I can tell, literally everywhere, which is one of the more vexing anthropological questions.

Like, if women are better on average social skills, and social skills lead to status, then what gives? Shouldn't they have grabbed power in the hunter-gatherer days?

My guess is it has to do with the differing aggression levels on average, with most aggressive guys becoming the rulers? Or maybe the schizophrenics, who are more likely to be men becoming shamans?

But that doesn't explain anything, because why would they single out women for discrimination?

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It's a good observation.

Although there are lots of scary things that governments don't co-opt. Like, serial killers. Nobody wonders why the government doesn't recruit cadres of serial killers and unleash them on their enemies. It would be impossible.

Maybe the mental model was "witchcraft sometimes works but is too chaotic, unpredictable, and dangerous for a state to reliably use as a weapon."

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It doesn't seem completely crazy to me that the CIA could occasionally put together a real-life "suicide squad" for black-ops stuff (minus the superpowers and internal bombs). Take some messed-up people who nobody will miss, turn them loose on designated targets in a place where nobody cares who gets hurt, and cross your fingers. Yes, the probability of success would be low (unless your operatives were more like Frank Abignail Jr. and less like Harley Quinn) but it seems like something an overconfident bureaucrat would try at least once.

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It was not historically uncommon for governments to recruit convicts as an alternative to prison, and certain pirates have been pardoned and enlisted as well; lots of precedent and even some claims that it's happening in the current Russo-Ukrainian war.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Uhhh, not likey ? Giving unreliable and unstable individuals military training and access to military grade equipment and training and force your personal into close extended contact with them, ????, profit ? How can you force people like this to follow orders ? Why wouldn't they empty their machine guns into civilians for pleasure or even succeed at the objective but refuse to evacuate?

Successful uses of criminals by the state are usually examples like colonization and pirates. Both of these examples it weren't the "Serial Killer" type of criminals, more like the usual mix of opportunists and once-good mostly-still-good people that is the majority of criminals.

The CIA is crazy and evil beyond understanding, so I wouldn't say it's necessarily representative of other intelligence agencies (who are crazy and evil beyond understanding and shouldn't be representative of anything human) or other military-ish organizations.

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Russia is using convicts to fight in Ukraine, today. I'd recommend the leaked footage of Prigozhin giving a recruiting pitch to a yard full of them, it's pretty wild. "We're very careful about taking perpetrators of sexual assualt... but we understand mistakes happen"

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I didn't find the argument convincing but the book CHAOS which was published like a year ago basically argues that Manson was working for the CIA as a kind of asset to infiltrate into Hollywood high society and they gave him money and a bunch of drugs to keep him and his followers happy, but woops that didn't work out great never mind.

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He doesn't argue explicitly for any particular theory, just lays out a case that the CIA and FBI were all up in Manson's business and either he was a direct asset or being manipulated to do their bidding and.. isn't that weird? I think the author probably believes they were either trying to actually spark Manson's race war or just generally discredit the hippie movement by making news

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maybe sometimes, far more likely they use actual soldiers or police for none suicide missions.

I think one real-life example is South Korea put together a suicide squad to hypothetically assassinate Kim Jung il after he had tried to assassinate their PM. They trained a bunch of petty criminals in a very harsh special forces training environment that killed 20 percent of them. They were called Unit 684

Ultimately, they decided against going through with the assassination, but they kept the unit on the island, which was confined to the island, the unit figured they were going to die anyway, or were just being irrational and tried to assassinate their own PM instead. They got most of their training officers and their CO, were stopped in Seul, and killed themselves/survivors were executed.

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I don't think it would be impossible for a government to recruit serial killers. I do think it would be a waste of time because governments already have people who are better at killing than serial killers are.

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Not saying it's happened, but people have definitely alleged the CIA has actually done this.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOtN3PllDrk

though, to be honest, they're "recruiting" pretty much anyone.

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The Nazis did, but that was due to Nazis being evil and their enemies being large numbers of Polish civilians. The leader of that unit, Oskar Dirlewanger, was killed shortly after being captured in 1945 and the Allied leadership didn't care and quietly covered it up.

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Yeah. It's be as stupid as e.g. the west trying to co-opt mujahideen onto their side of the cold war. No government would be naive enough to say they're the enemy of my enemy and support them despite the many obvious ways in which that could go wrong.

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Governments do hire soldiers to kill a bunch of people. I don't think they're generally the type of person to become a serial killer unprompted, but that's why they don't need to co-opt it. They can get a regular person to kill.

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I'm not sure if he was a feminist but Mark Twain made this point. If a witch could have made storms the King of England would have bribed them to make storms any time there was an invasion. He included it in The Prince and the Pauper.

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>If a witch could have made storms the King of England would have bribed them to make storms any time there was an invasion. He included it in The Prince and the Pauper.

Oh interesting. The witches in Fort Salem specialize in tornadoes and were used to defeat the British in the Revolutionary war, I wonder if that premise was inspired by Mark Twain.

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Are you telling me there's a show that did "Royal Navy getting wrecked by magical waterspouts" as the departure point for an alt history show?

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Not specifically that, but I think there is a version of George Washington crossing the Delaware with witches behind him cranking out tornadoes.

It's not a show I can recommend generally. Very much guilty pleasure territory. It's also extremely 'young adult' with burning teenage romantic angst, so much it is likely not tolerable my many adults. But I have a strong capability to enjoy media of almost any quality as long as I find some aspect of it interesting, and I appreciate that they at least aimed high in their worldbuilding here.

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I can recommend both the book and TV series of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - though it's Britain co-opting magic to defeat the French in the Napoleonic Wars (and that's only a subplot).

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The book is one of my favorites! The TV show was fine, but fairly forgettable, IMO.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Yeah, that does seem too good to pass up. (I kinda have the same problem with the X-Men universe- there's no way people like Storm or Jean Grey are not going to be at the centre of a frantic bidding war between governments.)

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Though Mark Twain didn't make this point the House of Plantagenet sometimes claimed to be descended from demons. So it's not as if it'd have been a hard bar to power anyway.

Also, yeah, any world with supers should work extremely differently from our own. Technology should be less advanced, militaries should be more even and more about super units, etc.

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Then again, we have Saul visiting the Witch of Endor, so that is an attempt by the king to use witchcraft to get an advantage.

And since it's in the Bible, people would have used it as evidence that witchcraft was real. The witch *does* call up the ghost of Samuel.

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To be fair, I heard Samuel just added that in because he wanted to make more money selling Ewok toys.

More seriously you'd expect this to be ongoing in a court mage style arrangement though.

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There's a legend that witches raised the storm that saved Britain from the Spanish Armada.

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I hadn't heard that. Do you have a source I can read more? It certainly didn't show up in Elizabethan propaganda. But that doesn't mean it wasn't around.

You might be amused that William the Conqueror is recorded as having hired a witch to hurl spells at his enemies during a siege.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

>A feminist, whose name escapes me, once pointed out - if the witches had the power attributed to them they would have been co-opted into the late medieval system. There would have been schools of witchcraft. Men would have sought them out, or taken over witchcraft.

You've basically described the premise of the low budget Hulu TV show "Fort Salem". It's a young adult military academy drama set in an alternative universe where the Witches of Salem reveal themselves and then ally with the USA against the British during the Revolutionary War and have remained a branch of the US military ever since.

Opening credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTRLhNdmLPw

Show trailer that explains some of this alternative history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3y3-aWM0RQ

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This is also the premise (sort of) of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which is a pretty fun book involving British wizards working for the Crown against Napoleon.

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I think this underestimate the fact that people really believed their religion. Maybe getting a witch as an ally is a good way to get a military advantage over your neighbouring lords. But if it means getting on the wrong side of God the utility calculation becomes quite clear.

(Besides people also really believed in witchcraft which for the purpose of leveraging witch power into actual power is basically the same thing as having actual witch power).

Agree on the cruelty obviously...

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>We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.

https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum10.htm

It had stopped no one, so if witchcraft was as obvious as crossbow bolt...

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Crossbowmen and archers weren't literally conspiring with the devil.

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The problem is that all it takes is one guy in the royal family to hire someone to shoot everyone ahead of him in line for the throne with magic arrows, and then the generals of opposing armies. Also, apparently he was saying that archer wizards were a common thing, so the question is how there were any stable governments instead of them all being shot by magic arrows. I guess they all know what words to use to avoid getting shot? And all their generals? But all of them keep it secret from the general populace just to make it a little more likely that they can can use it on some new enemy?

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There does seem to be an implicit assumption that there are nice witches you can go and talk to (and a linked category of perfectly ok wise women). The problem with books like the Malleus is it’s a product of an unusually educated/theologically astute clerical subculture. The peasants may just have believed old women had magical powers, and some of them were evil.

Frankly, the “witches” themselves may have gone along with this, so they could sell magic to make a living and deter people from attacking/exploiting them. Much of this is during the wars of religion, so there’d be lots of widows and spinsters and a fairly unreliable legal system for commoners. There are also, as Scott points out, psychological/coping reasons why traumatised people at the bottom of society might want to believe they have magical revenge powers.

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Or unpopular teenage girls in high school, as now...

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Yeah, I definitely get the sense that there were a lot of people (mostly old women) practising what we'd probably now call Traditional European Medicine.

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> if the witches had the power attributed to them they would have been co-opted into the late medieval system. There would have been schools of witchcraft. Men would have sought them out, or taken over witchcraft

That seems a bit sexist. If witches had the power attributed to them then they probably would have just taken over the kingdoms for themselves.

(Which, I suppose, is a good reason not to attempt to co-opt them, if you're the existing power structure.)

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It wasn’t sexist, it was feminist

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I wonder what happens when someone who thinks their penis was stolen tries to pee?

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About half the population pees without one.

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That's irrelevant to what Andrew is wondering, though ;)

Half the population generally doesn't imagine they previously had a penis they used for that purpose, and now only have "nothing but [their] smooth body" in its place.

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They were built for that from the start.

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Good post.

Modern spirituality tends to be vague ("we see through a glass darkly") so it's often forgotten how scholarly and precise the medievals were in classifying the supernatural world. There's a whole genre of demonology literature breaking down all the ranks and orders of spirits ("Furies", who sow mischief, "maligenii", who tempt and ensare, and so on).

At times it has the air of a really complex DnD setting. Not by accident, really - Gygax et al drew heavily on those sources when creating fictional monsters like cacodemons and so on. "Demonic possession" would have sounded very vague in the middle ages. Almost like a modern person saying "I have a virus".

I suppose there's a psychological pull toward the idea that theories are intrinsically good, and the more detailed they are, the better. "Once our grimoires classified 600 spirits. Now they classify 700! Our understanding of the world is advancing!"

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>"Demonic possession" would have sounded very vague in the middle ages. Almost like a modern person saying "I have a virus".

I like to think that one of the reasons complex supernatural/spiritual classification schemes have fallen out of favor is that they used to provide a useful framework to deal with all kinds of questions, but that this function has been mostly taken over by modern psychology, meteorology and others.

If you look in places like Tibetan Buddhism, elaborate and very systematic descriptions of the astral planes and things like that (including demons) are still very much in use today.

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You don't even really need to go that far. Try conspiracy theory TikTok or QANON subs.

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"Somewhere out there, there still lurk pitfalls in our common-sensical and well-intentioned thought processes, maybe just as dark and dangerous as the ones that made Henry Kramer devote his life to eradicating a scourge that didn’t exist."

Yes, and this vindicates all of my ideas and beliefs specifically.

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Also I'm glad this isn't 2007 or half the comments would be jokes about witches being made of wood and so forth.

I like Monty Python, but by God, their fandom ruined the internet for a solid 10-15 years.

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I apologize, we were young.

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One of the very first xkcd cartoon was about how Monty Python became known for surreal, iconoclast, original humour and then were quoted to death in the most boring and unoriginal way.

https://xkcd.com/16/

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Sadly, though the situation with Monty Python references has really improved over the past 10 years, xkcd has offset that by getting worse.

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This only really applies to Holy Grail, which has the most of the spontaneous absurdism. I don't see how it applies to their sketches like Four Yorkshiremen or The Accountant, or most of the bits from Life of Brian, unless you extend it to meaning "everything is only ever funny the first time".

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There's a lot of spontaneous absurdism in the TV show, much less so in the movies which (largely) feel the need to keep to a plot.

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Scott, a couple times in times in this post, you pretty glibly assert that witches didn't exist. I wonder why you think you know that?

We need to separate two orthogonal questions:

1) Whether there were people who, in their own self-understanding, were "practicing witchcraft;"

2) Whether "practicing witchcraft" had any real supernatural power.

Let's just stipulate for the sake of discussion that the answer to 2 is "absolutely not." It doesn't follow that the answer to 1 couldn't still be "yes."

In particular, if the prevailing beliefs of the culture were such that plenty of people believed in the Malleus Maleficarum (and so be motivated to investigate witchcraft), then why couldn't those prevailing beliefs also be such that at least some small number of people would, you know, try to practice witchcraft (in sense 1, not 2)?

We have people in our population who engage in all manner of weird crimes for selfish/weird reasons. Why isn't it a perfectly good theory that some small percentage of the population in the 1500's engaged in witchcraft? One needn't posit that they were well-described by the Malleus Maleficarum. (There were a fair number of American Communists in the 1930's, but they are not necessarily well-described in anti-communist writing.)

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There may be witches? Like r/WitchesVsPatriarchy ?

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No, not like that.

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Scott never asserts that there were no witches in the sense of 1; in fact he specifically says that there may well have been - ctrl-F "And I don't want to completely rule out".

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Ah, you're right! I read too quickly and somehow missed that paragraph. My bad!

But ... I'm still not sure that paragraph does full justice to my point. Scott closes the post with a reference to the beliefs that made "Henry Kramer devote his life to eradicating a scourge that didn’t exist." I'm saying that it's possible that the scourge really did exist (in sense 1), however differently from Kramer we would interpret that phenomenon.

Another analogy: in Russia in 1916, only a tiny percentage of the population were Bolsheviks, but none of us would say that the Bolsheviks "didn't exist." And this statement is completely orthogonal to how well we would take the beliefs of the Bolsheviks to map onto reality.

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One problem here (for me at least) is that the witchcraft claims follow almost to a tee blood libel claims. And as a practicing Jew, I can confirm that we don’t drink the blood of Christian children, and that’s like, never been a thing. Therefore, it stands to reason (among many other reasons) that witchcraft has also never been a thing, and I can say that with a very high degree of confidence.

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I don't see how that follows at all. Seems like very weak reasoning by analogy.

The following two things can be true:

1) False accusations were made against Jews due to ethno-religious hostility;

2) People (nominally Christian) engaged in a variety of folk practices, some derived from older pagan culture, some re-conceptualized in (inverse) Christian terms, which were met by intense hostility from the dominant Christian culture, and to which false accusations were added.

Far from contradicting each other, those two things seem highly compatible.

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If I'm reading this dispute correctly, it looks like you need to unpack "practicing witchcraft" in your original point #1.

It's possible for a person to self-report "practicing witchcraft" in the sense of "I grow medicinal plants, make extractions of them, put them in cauldrons to try to craft tinctures that help people when they feel sick. And also, I fly around on a broomstick occasionally", and an accuser to report them as "practicing witcraft" in the sense of "you kill people with poisons and curses and also wither the towns' livestock and have sex with demons".

If you conflate these two definitions of "practicing witchcraft" without clarifying that each person actually means something completely different, you don't get the result you'd expect by just thinking about it as an atomic descriptor.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

But a lot of it was not "I try to make tinctures to help people when they feel sick". There are plenty of superstitions and charms and spells to do harm to people, even if you're not a witch but you live in a peasant community that believes in these kinds of things.

Human nature being what it is, some people probably did want to cause harm to others, be that murder for gain, or revenge on enemies, or just "I hate everyone and I want to get back at them". So they would have tried spells and charms and potions and deals with the Devil.

Sometimes Goody Proctor really did make your cattle sick, because she was an enemy of yours. Whether she did it by dosing them with potions (our naturalistic explanation) or because she thought that the spell used to make the potions (witchcraft explanation) was the efficient cause doesn't make a difference to the motive: she was acting out of bad intentions to deliberately cause harm.

Not everybody, of course. But also not everybody accused was likely to have been innocent of no more than "dabbling in healing tinctures".

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I take it for granted that "witchcraft" (in my OP sense 1) covers a variety of beliefs and practices, some benign, some not so benign. I don't treat it as an atomic descriptor.

That said, I don't think we need a detailed mapping to make sense of the notion that some people were indeed "practicing witchcraft," both as a self-understanding and as an accurate external description.

In my own view, one would have to go beyond naturalistic herbal medicine to qualify. There would need to some appeal to non-naturalistic beliefs and/or intent to harm. (Maleficium, after all, literally means "wrong doing.")

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> And as a practicing Jew, I can confirm that we don’t drink the blood of Christian children, and that’s like, never been a thing.

I can see how being a practicing Jew would lend you some authority on what Jews are currently doing. I don't see how it's relevant to whether you can confirm that that's never been a thing.

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Ariel Toaff is a practising Jew, son of the Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff who hosted Pope John Paul II on his first visit to a synogogue. Himself a rabbi, Ariel Toaff is also a professor of Medieval and Renaissance History.

His historical research suggested that it might have been a thing at some point, at least in a particular geographical location.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

"Toaff's analysis, which is focused on the Trent trials, depends on two main theses. The first concerns the value of the confessions made under torture. In Toaff's view, the statements made by the accused can be believed when they concern details of ritual practices that the judges could not possibly be familiar with. Toaff's second argument relies on the concordance of the confessions. The fact that a number of confessions are identical is proof, according to Toaff, of their undoubted veracity.

The reaction of most historians was extremely critical. Among the criticisms made, three problems were especially important. The first concerns the use made of sources. Inquisitorial proceedings, which depended on confessions extracted by torture, do not allow historians to observe the “voices” of the accused. Further, the fact that dozens, perhaps hundreds of accounts of ritual murder resemble each other does not prove, in and of itself, that such killings actually occurred. This may in fact prove that the confessions were false (the accused told whatever the judges wanted them to say). Toaff has taken over, uncritically, the partisan notion formulated by the bishop of Trent (whose views caused a good deal of perplexity in Rome at the time), who ignored all the evidence against the notion of ritual murder, including all the papal bulls and all the imperial and royal decrees that were issued between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries in unequivocal rejection of the blood libel.

Toaff relied imprudently on the testimony of Jewish converts and on hagiographical narratives such as those of Bonelli (1747) and Divina (1902), written obviously in support of Simonino's elevation to sainthood. Using hagiographical sources without taking precautions raises a fundamental question: is it possible to study the question of ritual murder accusations narrowly, in isolation, without analyzing the cultural context and, above all, without reconstructing the long development of stereotypes of Jewish difference in Christian theology?According to some historians, Toaff did not merely misinterpret but actually manipulated his sources in his effort to distinguish between Ashkenazi Jewry (violent and “fundamentalist”) and Italian Jewry (civilized and tolerant).

A second problem with Toaff's approach has to do with the mythic dimension of the blood libel. Toaff confuses the myth with the ritual. Worse, he is in the grip of the myth. He keeps thinking from within the myth. Is it possible to approach the question of ritual murder or that of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion logically, factually? “Both have been exposed as false again and again. This has not kept millions of people, in Russia and now mostly in the Arab world, from swearing that they are true and that they provide an explanation of the world's history.”In the way of myths of power, the blood libel acts almost magically: it depends on realism while at the same time removing itself from the logic of proof. This is why the publishing house of Bollati-Boringhieri decided to reprint F. Jesi's L’accusa del sangue, a book that highlights the importance of the mechanisms that produce myths and assure their reception.

Finally, there is the nature of Toaff's narrative. He moves from one source to another, in a cavalier fashion, “going back to the Trent trial and moving on to the events in Norwich, to an iconographic study of sixteenth-century haggadoth and to the rituals associated with the Seder, to end with the sad and grotesque adventure of a German Jew, a painter of miniatures, implicated by pure chance in the events at Trent.” Toaff's style is lively, reminiscent of tabloid sensationalism. Readers may find themselves agreeing with the accusers as the author goes out of his way to address himself to “a public accustomed to screen violence in the movies. … Readers of Toaff's story encounter colorful protagonists whose psychology is simple: ‘Jewish adventurers engaged in illegal dealings,’‘a clever physician from Candia,’‘a strange young painter,’ a German rabbi who performs circumcisions (the Cutter!), ‘Jewish children handed over to the dangerous blade of his knife.’ And, why not, cannibalism, leprosy, suicide, buckets of blood.” Toaff erases the distinction between true and false. “This book is a tragedy. It is filled with half truths, a mixture of testimonies and points of view that are not believable. The way in which this book is written encourages the non specialist reader to reach conclusions of a very serious nature.”

This communiqué, which takes an ahistorical approach to the traditions of Judaism (“There has never existed…”), was followed by a statement coming from Ariel Toaff's father (“I am not at all in agreement with him, rather I oppose him”...

Now his position was: “My statement was an ironical academic provocation, designed to begin the process of breaking the taboo that surrounds research into the antichristian atmosphere within certain Ashkenazi European communities in the Middle Ages.”"

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-5923.2008.00257.x

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In particular, I can totally imagine someone who, under the sway of some kind of anti-semitic theories, decides that if drinking blood of children is the source of power of those evil people, then maybe I should try it too and "become one of them", without realizing it made them totally different.

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Well, now it's Bill Gates and the Clintons eating adrenal glands...QAnon has a lot of similarities.

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You can confirm Jews exist though. The analogue here is the old idea of witches as a kind of big underground cult that didn’t have supernatural powers but believed they did.

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Although I think there's a potentially interesting question of whether there might have occasionally been some underground cults that tried to imitate what they thought Jews were and engaged in some of the horrific practices that were attributed to them at the time.

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I don't know that you'd even need that explicit a Jewish angle. The Crime of Gador in Spain (link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_of_Gádor) happened at a time when Spain was basically devoid of Jews, and speaks to at least some European populations engaging in ritual child murder.

More to the point (when it comes to blood libel), there are probably under 100 purported victims across Europe and the Middle East, between the 12th and 20th Centuries. I've no idea what the number of ritual child murders per capita per annum is, but you do a low-ball fermi estimate, taking population of the relevant area at any given time as 100,000,000 (well below the real figure), then to get one ritual child murder every eight years you'd need a PCPA figure of 1/800,000,000 (which would equate to about one every three years in the modern US - I've no idea if this is right, but the US has about 1,500 child murders every year so it sounds plausible that 0.067% would at least meet the bar of "deeply fucked up murders by a stranger").

I think the numbers wouldn't add up to say that all or most of the blood libel cases were ritual murders by Jews, without Jews being more likely to commit them than gentiles (you'd need a substantially higher rate of ritual child murders than looks plausible). I think you can explain the rest of it with the idea setting in after William of Norwich, then becoming people's default theory of who's responsible when you find a weirdly murdered child in an era before forensics. I'd love to know if instances of blood libel went down once belief in witchcraft became acceptable among elites in the 16th Century to get an insight into this point.

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Thing is, there's a lot of stuff that peasant and folk communities do that straddles the line between superstition and witchcraft.

You have a falling out with a neighbour and want to cause them harm?

You can bury eggs on their land, which will cause their crops to fail and their cattle won't thrive on the grazing.

You can cause their cows to abort by throwing the afterbirth of an aborted calf onto their land.

Two examples from country folklore of my own region.

So everyone believed in magic because everyone was pretty much using little spells themselves, be that charms, prayers, think of things like "bury a statue of St Joseph in your yard to ensure you sell your house" and the like. Then you had people like wise women and cunning men, who knew cures and spells and you consulted them if you needed help. Having the knowledge to do good meant they also had the knowledge to do harm (if you know how to cure poisoning, you also know what plants are poisonous).

So then take that a step further. You have a quarrel with a neighbour, or bad things start happening. What is causing that? When the usual causes are dismissed, then you start looking for unusual causes - like magic.

And maybe you suspect that woman who goes about telling people if they displease her, she will curse them - like Alice Kyteler, or Kepler's mother:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Kyteler

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharina_Kepler

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Is there any evidence of an actual alternate religion being practiced, though? We have cases where the Church tried to persecute actual heresies like the Cathars. There's the theory going around it was a survival of pre-Christian European folk religion, but I'm not sure how strong the evidence for that is.

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I don't think there is evidence of "an actual alternate religion," but I also don't think that's what witchcraft was. I described it above as something much looser, "people (nominally Christian) engaged in a variety of folk practices, some derived from older pagan culture, some re-conceptualized in (inverse) Christian terms."

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From my understanding, one of the goals of the inquisition was to catch people who had non-Christian beliefs while they pretended to be Christians (mostly to avoid being killed or get kicked out of the country, I guess). Not because they believed their rituals effective, just out of general principle.

In the mindset of an organization happy to root out Jews and Muslims, going after people who believe they can influence the world by supernatural means contrary to Church doctrine seems like a no-brainer.

Of course, in my model of the medieval world, basically everyone used superstitious practices not grounded in church doctrine. Burning every peasant who nailed a horseshoe to their home would probably not have been feasible. But trying to root out at least the above average practitioners of heathen rituals would basically on the to-do list of every religious organization bent on enforcing 100% believers.

The belief that witchcraft is effective was probably just something that "everybody knows". I guess that the bible is at least ambivalent on the effectiveness. I mean, Exodus 22:18 does not command you to make fun of witches for their beliefs that they can influence the Divine Creation with the help of rituals which obviously don't work, it just tells you to kill them. (Per Wikipedia, the medieval church doctrine denied witchcraft, but in the early modern period, but became at least more ambivalent in the early modern era. A 'small ice age' leading to worse agricultural outcomes may have played a role?)

I think that all societies have had some people trying to cast spells to harm others. Probably happened in 1000 BCE, 1000 CE, 1500 CE and 2000 CE. This does not explain why the church was mostly chill about it in 1300 CE, but started persecuting it much more harshly towards 1600 CE. Or why witch-hunts became so popular in this period.

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This paragraph quoted from the malleus maleficarum "[the devil] assumed body of a man, and urges them to keep faith with him, promising them worldly prosperity and length of life; and they recommend a novice to his acceptance... and when the disciple asks what more must be done, the devil demands the following oath of homage to himself: that she give herself to him, body and soul, for ever..."

this sounds like a version of something that does happen today in spiritual communities and cults and made me wonder about the possibility of a man (or whoever, but it says man here) claiming to be a devil to attract followers and power, and most especially young women who will do anything you tell them to.

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I assume cult dynamics are widely applicable. I haven't studied the Malleus Maleficarum enough to judge how much of its detail might be descriptively accurate, but it's at least possible that, yes, that's what some cult leaders said.

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Oct 30, 2022·edited Oct 30, 2022

There is one documented case of a Satanist cult killing a bunch of people to fuel their rituals - Adolfo Constanzo's gang in 1980s Mexico. However, they were

- a pre-existing criminal gang

- following a unique brand of nonsense invented by Constanzo, not any sort of pre-existing tradition

- fairly rapidly caught, with absolutely tons of physical evidence, as soon as they targeted a civilian

We can compare this to the similarly well documented false accusations of random innocents during the Satanic Panic around the same time. Medieval witch trials pretty much invariably resemble the second type - people, frequently under duress, frequently small children, making wild physically-impossible claims under prompting from authority focus with zero physical evidence to support any aspect of them.

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It's not true that the trial records invariable contain unrealistic material. But even it were, it's perfectly possible that the unrealistic material was added as "piling on." That would not preclude the possibility that some were engaged in practices that both they and their opponents understood as witchcraft.

For example, there's plenty of literary evidence that practices of cursing were common in antiquity. Is it likely that all such things just suddenly stopped in the early Middle Ages?

Invoking the example of various panics tells us very little. This is a mistaken form of reasoning. Henry Kissinger once said, "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." Likewise, the presence of false allegations is not evidence that there are no true allegations.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

"This is how I think of myself too."

Bravo! And so should we all say.

I think I still have a copy of the Malleus around here somewhere, but you clearly got a lot further in reading it than I ever have.

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Just to bring up the alternate hypothesis: magic exists; malicious magic directed to harm others exists; and spirits that desire to entrap people into using same, to their ultimate detriment, exist.

(None of which is to say that Kramer had either a complete, or a wholly true, idea of how all this worked.)

To the obvious rejoinder about provability, I will note that there's no reason why a malicious spirit that is directly granting supernatural powers to someone should *want* to make its existence and its methods clearly understandable to large numbers of humans. And such a spirit would not be bound by the "single simple rule that applies in all times and all places" principle that the scientific method presupposes.

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But if witches can perfectly avoid detection, it would be pointless writing a book about how to find them.

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I suspect that conditions in the 1500s were pretty different from today.

(For that matter, the wide distribution of texts like Malleus Maleficarum may have been one of the factors motivating the change.)

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Note that a malicious spirit *also* wants to be malicious to those that it has given power to. Because, in the end, it wants to tear *everyone* down. That is, it's using people. So it wouldn't want witches that can perfectly avoid detection as well. In fact, it's playing both sides, both the ones accusing people of being witches AND the people actually making pacts. Because both serve its purpose of causing strife and murder and malice.

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"there's no reason why a malicious spirit...should *want* to make ...its methods clearly understandable"

There was a fantasy book I read ages ago (the title escapes me) that had sorcerers controlling demons to do malevolence. [possible spoiler ahead] It was thought that every veteran summoner eventually got careless with complex runes but the last scene was an, er, boss demon explaining that it was all a deception - an excuse to cause wanton destruction and then surprise the 'controller' at the height of his career!

So maybe that..

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A spirit must be bound by *some* limitations, unless you want to argue that it's literally omnipotent. The lack of cooperation makes it harder to discover those rules, but not impossible, given enough effort and opportunities.

You could think of it like learning about the enemy's weapons in war - sure, the enemy isn't going to *tell* you a single simple rule like "To blow up our tanks, just hit the top armor with a Javelin missile," but those rules derive from deeper physical laws like "steel armor is heavy and a tank can't carry too much of it on top." Your enemies aren't omnipotent, so you can learn about those deeper laws, and come up with ways to test your hypotheses even if they don't cooperate - "Since the top armor of a tank is thinner, let's make a missile that hits from the top."

Likewise, unless evil spirits are omnipotent and merely feigning weakness to toy with us, there must be some laws about what they can and can't do - when they can and can't lay curses, when they can or can't be bound and exorcised - and one would expect that over hundreds of years of trial and error that witches and witch hunters would have developed some testable hypotheses.

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Yeah, there are some limitations.

They are, however, entirely capable of just not doing anything clearly supernatural in any provable context, such that systematic investigators mostly come to the conclusion that witches don't exist. This conclusion is of course convenient for the spirits in question.

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It's also inconvenient, because they can't take any actions that might reveal themselves, and they get more and more restricted as things like cell phone cameras become ubiquitous. They're basically backing themselves into a "god of the gaps" situation.

This would also be vulnerable to covert observation - if the spirit isn't omniscient, then it doesn't *know* if it's leaving provable evidence of the supernatural or not, because it doesn't know what we know. You could, say, put a few hidden cameras in a witch's house to catch a spirit manifesting in front of her when it thinks she's alone.

(That would be a neat fantasy novel scenario - witch hunters never actually caught any witches or banished any spirits, but they investigated so thoroughly that the spirits don't dare affect the real world just in case they get caught.)

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

There are quite a few steps between "omniscient" and "capable of being caught out by trivial human measures such as hidden cameras".

Also, there's plenty of measures available that wouldn't trip the "obviously supernatural" flag, especially given modern civilization's immovable ideological prior against anything supernatural existing. If it's a one-off event, a spirit could do almost anything, and get caught on camera, and the reaction of everyone not directly involved will still be "meh, probably nothing".

Concrete example: suppose there is an actual witch, who does like Kramer says they often do, and buries a charm under someone's doorstep to inflict debilitating magic illness. How does the modern world react? Random, mysterious nasty illness is downright routine and would get dismissed; even if the charm is removed and the illness vanishes, that is also routine and would get dismissed; and you could have the witch confess on camera and film the whole process, and it would just vanish into the noise online. Just as Scott supposes that the medieval world would generate lots of reports of witches even if witches didn't exist, it seems clear that the modern world would ignore all reports of witches, even if they did.

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My speculation about evil spirits would include, as you say, *some* limitations. There would have to be some laws/restraint keeping them from wrecking the place completely. Are these laws knowable and usable by humans? Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy(1945) thought so(search "occult"). Is it ever a good idea to experiment with poorly understood powerful forces that have some sort of consciousness and are characterized by deception and malevolence? It's like toying with atomic power except the atoms don't like you.

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There's an interesting contrast with "Cautio Criminalis", written in 1631 by Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld. Like Kramer, Spee affirms that witches exist and that their crime is the worst possible. However, he argues that almost all accusations are false and the trials are a farce. I'd love to read a review of this work, as a counterpart to "Malleus Maleficarum".

As a sample, here is Question XV: Who in particular are the people who continually incite the rulers against witches?

Spee identifies four groups. First, theologians and prelates who are detached from the real world, "happy in their own speculations and little museums". Some of them are so inexperienced in the affairs of men that they can fall prey to misinformation they read or they can regard the courts as sacrosanct and incapable of error. Trusting the judgement of the courts, they inevitably conclude that "everything is full of witches" and "this plague must be crushed". Second, the lawyers who have gradually noticed that witch trials are lucrative and as a result have suddenly become very pious. Third, the "ignorant and usually jealous and malicious common folk" who "avenge their feuds through defamation" and also accuse the authorities of witchcraft if those authorities don't seize and torture the targets of their defamation. Fourth, people who try to avoid suspicion by making accusations, perhaps because they themselves are witches. Spee notes that the set of denunciations often cycles back round to the first accuser (who then confesses) and so either innocent people are confessing, or making an accusation should be treated as highly suspicious.

A good job none of these four groups has any contemporary analog!

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Hooray! I came to drop the cautio criminalis comment and I see I have been beaten to the punch!! My understanding is that Spee’s book was more highly regarded among practicing witch hunter, a witchhunters witchhunter if you will, and MM was seen as somewhat sensational, in part because of the penis-stealing focus.

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You are more likely to be struck by lightning or hit by a comet, than to be falsely accused of witchcraft.

People who spend too much time publicly worrying about false accusations of witchcraft probably have an agenda. I would not be surprised to find that most of them already made their own contracts with the Devil.

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That's perfect. But also very much the sort of thing a witch would say.

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Us people-tings be always in a panic. Satanic Panic, Commie Panic, Climate Panic ...

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Arthur Miller compared the Red Scare to the witch trials, but he didn't believe witches existed, whereas there really were agents of the Soviet Union operating in the US (and of course the Second World of communist governments itself existed in a way that Satan didn't).

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Yeah, the Crucible is a great play if read literally as being about the Salem Witch Trials and human nature but is just garbage as a parable for HUAC and the Army-McCarthy hearings since Communists are real and witches aren't.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Didn't McCarthy have something like a 10% rate of the people he accused of being Commies actually being Commies? There were certainly a bunch of Soviet agents, but McCarthy in particular wasn't doing much better than chance.

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Well, if 1% of all people that could feasibly have been put under investigation were actual Commies, then he did ten times better than chance :)

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I've seen a credible claim, but I forget where so the credibility is obviously noncommutative, that *every* person accused by McCarthy of witchcraft, I mean Communism, on every version of his list, was in fact a Soviet agent.

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There are some that we know were definitely Soviet agents (due to Venona decrypts mentioning them), some that we're pretty sure were *not* Soviet agents (due to, again, Venona decrypts mentioning them) and a lot that AFAIK we've got no particular evidence on.

You could argue, I suppose, that a lot of the people we don't have evidence on could have been undetected Commies, but literal 100% either way doesn't make sense.

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founding

There were a lot of Soviet agents in the US (and British) governments in that era, but we later learned who most of them were. McCarthy, IIRC, did slightly better than chance in identifying Soviet agents, and the cases where it quickly became clear he was just making stuff up, discredited the hard work other people were doing to identify Soviet agents in the US government and even the idea that there *were* any significant number of such.

I don't think McCarthy was actually a Soviet agent himself, but a clever spymaster would probably want to have someone like him doing that sort of work on the other side.

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The play "The Crucible" does include a character that actually is a witch, in the sense that she attempts to perform a magic ritual; her getting caught is one of the things that starts the search for other witches, of which there were none.

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Would it be a better fit for the current "Nazis everywhere" panic?

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This is Scott at his best; this is as good as any classic SSC article

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Agree, both in comment and in name

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> Did you know you can just buy the Malleus Maleficarum? You can go into a bookstore and say “I would like the legendary manual of witch-hunters everywhere, the one that’s a plot device in dozens of tired fantasy novels”. They will sell it to you and you can read it.

Oh yes. Further, they wrote less books back then so it's easier to get an overview.

> Witches are worse than Jews, because Jews never claimed to be Christian. But witches were once Christian and then renounced the faith.

This is a fairly common argument. One Christian theologian, for example, argued that non-Christians from non-Christian countries should not be discriminated against while heretics should be. Likewise people who had immigrated or conquered were not supposed to be blamed for their faith in the same way as local converts. Islam actually codifies this: heretics or apostates go to hell while people who are simply not Muslim might still be righteous (though not as righteous as if they were Muslims). And Jewish apostates are poorly thought of while gentiles can be moral so long as they follow certain rules.

> Theory 1, Kramer made everything up. I don’t want to completely discount this. [...] Theory 2, Kramer is faithfully reporting a weird mass hallucination that had been going on long before he entered the picture.

Theory 3: Humans inherently make sense of the world by creating metaphysical phenomenon that have are meta-explanations with loose grounding in material reality and if you focus on these phenomenon, rather than the material reality underlying them, you will end up with coherent but false worldviews. Our ability to manifest these metaphysical phemomenon both allows us to organize beyond our social groups and is a function, perhaps a necessary one, of our ability to theorize and pattern match. Kramer had a series of true phenomenon such as cow murders and pattern matched them to a metaphysical theory about magic.

The idea that he was either lying or dealing with liars ignores there may have been a reality, even if a misunderstood one.

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Yeah, it seems more and more like humans have this reflex to blame bad things on malicious people or malevolent abstract entities (or the victims themselves), when the actual causes are complex interactions involving many people, many of whom can be completely unaware.

"Moloch" in retrospect seems like a playful attempt to posit an abstract entity responsible for a class of problems that many people didn't even notice was a class.

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Witches did most certainly exist in the time of the Malleus Maleficarum.

Of course they did not have the magical powers that have been attributed to them. But they had social power and power to frighten. Think of them like the Voodoos in Africa. They can have real effect on peoples lives due to those people believing the curses are real. So they manifest the negative on themselves. Same with witches.

Even now we have decent sized groups of Wiccans. Most who practice harmless rituals. But some who use social pressures and effects to mess with their enemies or modify society. Are they a serious threat? Hmm probably not. But they do exist.

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deletedOct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022
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Did you respond to the wrong post with this?

Or have you used our discussion about Wiccans and Witches as an odd segue to discuss AI?

Not really sure how this is relevant to the subject at hand?

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I am pretty new to ACX - only been a month or so. Not sure what you mean by every post is one step away from AI x-risk? That makes no sense. If the story is about AI then fair enough. But this one had zero to do with AI in any way. So I thought it was an odd step for the commenter to take to try to change the discussion.

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deletedOct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022
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Okay....

Pretty odd connection though. Because an actual sentient AI that takes control of the world will not be playing into the hands of any human. So it does not seem rational for the creators of it to be building it because they think it will give them control over people and society. It will not. They will be controlled by the AI just like the people they may have sought to control.

So I really think it is a step too far and not really relevant to this conversation - which I am well in my right to question if someone goes of track.

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deletedOct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022
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Yep that certainly fits what I know about Wiccan.

Unfortunately there are bad eggs in the group though. I think they are only a tiny minority though.

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deletedOct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022
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That's basically the whole story of Joan of Arc - except it was useful for the French political power to rehabilitate her in the end.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

This was a plotline over a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Voyager (bad show, but I liked these episodes).

Someone sets up a holodeck program simulating a medieval Irish village. It is left running on a permanent basis, and the omnipresent background mischief of space causes it to start going wrong. The programming safeguards -- that normally prevent the simulated villagers from noticing anything that wouldn't fit their reality -- fail. And there's quite a lot of stuff going on that doesn't fit the normal functioning of a medieval Irish village, so the villagers get more and more freaked out.

Eventually they accuse the crew members of being witches or spirits. The evidence is overwhelming. (And, frankly, the accusation is essentially correct!) But here's some of the testimony:

> MILO: So, I said to young Harry, I'm not one for rainy days and grey skies. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, he called up the spirits to do his bidding. A second later, there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

> EDITH: I was up near Ballahick Farm with little Mary. She was playing near the well. Somehow, she lost her footing and fell in. I was so frightened I didn't know what to do. So I ran to the Colbys to get some help. But when we returned, there was Mary in the meadow talking with Katie O'Clare. There wasn't a scratch on her. Katie said I must've been mistaken when I saw her fall. There was no mistake.

> GRACE: Last Sunday, after his sermon, I saw Father Mulligan vanish into thin air.

These are most certainly the actions of people with supernatural powers. But their sheer non-malevolence is called out by another villager seeking to defend the crew:

> Katie showed me things that are beyond our comprehension. They have machines that I can't begin to describe, but not once have they used them against us. Quite the opposite, in fact.

> Milo, you said you didn't like the rain and young Harry Kim made it go away.

> Edith Mulcahey herself said that Katie O'Clare pulled her daughter from the well and out of harm's way.

> These are not the deeds of spirits and mischief makers.

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Oh, I hate those episodes. It's the Fairhaven episodes, and it's not even a mediaeval village, that makes it worse.

It's late 19th/early 20th century Ireland, allegedly, because they have trains and there's talk of revolution in the air. The setting looks like it's on the east coast, Janeway's character is supposedly to come from the south-west, which is also seemingly only a hop, skip and jump away, and there's also confusion with the west coast.

The elements are all *terrible* and it's precisely the kind of "people who know nothing of history or the context invent a Hollywood version of diddley-aye leprechaun top o' the mornin' Ireland" that you would expect.

The defender is probably Janeway's love interest? Whom she deliberately meddled with the original characterisation to get rid of his wife (murder!) and make him more appealing to her tastes and more likely to fall in love with her, which can't be said to be "not once have they used their machines against us". 😁

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On the other hand "full of lazy stereotypes" is exactly what I would expect of a holodeck Irish village programmed by Tom Paris...

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Oh yeah. Funnily enough it was full of tiny details that they obviously attempted to get right, like having the name of the train station be in both Irish and English.

Then they invented the worst "pig in the parlour stereotypes" 🙄 I was particularly cross about the church, because the interior looked like the Gallarus oratory - all damp stone. That's not what a 19th century/20th century Irish Catholic church interior would have looked like *at all*.

This video is like it was uploaded via a bucket, but about 4:38 in is their idea of what a priest preaching a homily in a Catholic church of the time would be like:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LigxKWsd-K0

What it really would have looked like:

https://caoimhindebhailis.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/image-14.png

https://catholicnewsherald.com/images/stories/Ourfaith/priest-vestments.jpg

Granted, the image they presented really would fit with "what hologram from society that has no idea about religion thinks is appropriate".

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> Funnily enough it was full of tiny details that they obviously attempted to get right, like having the name of the train station be in both Irish and English.

Huh. Would that have been the case prior to independence?

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

> The defender is probably Janeway's love interest? Whom she deliberately meddled with the original characterisation to get rid of his wife (murder!) and make him more appealing to her tastes and more likely to fall in love with her, which can't be said to be "not once have they used their machines against us".

Yes, all of that is correct.

I have no particular attachment to the details of the geography of Ireland. But I do like the illustration of "when my daughter fell into a well, Katie rescued her" being used as evidence to condemn Katie to death.

We can generalize the observation to explain why intelligence is not considered a trait that is generally to be admired. An intelligent person is a better friend and also a more effective enemy; whether a person's intelligence is good or bad depends on how they feel about you! Which means that many people correctly view intelligence in others as dangerous and frightening.

When I worked in cybersecurity, people's stories of telling other people what they did for a living fell into two very distinct camps:

1. "How cool! Is it like in the movies?"

2. Becoming visibly uncomfortable and trying to avoid speaking to the person in the future.

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Yeah, but that wasn't "Katie pulled my daughter out of the well", it was "When I came back, there was no well and Katie told me I imagined the whole thing".

Put yourself in the place of being told that "that thing you remember never happened, look, there isn't even that building that you said was there". We call it 'gaslighting' now, and it's not held to be well-intentioned on the part of the person doing it, or beneficial for the recipient of it.

"Katie got a rope and pulled my daughter out" is something within the bounds of physical reality. "Katie made the well disappear" is not, and is going to look like magic.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

The well didn't disappear. It was still there. The (false) claim was that the girl never fell in, not that there never was a well.

Denying that you have done something that isn't allowed, such as using sorcery, is the baseline expectation. No one is going to be surprised when a witch claims that a magical result can be explained by some other means.

Put yourself in the place where you receive an anonymous (correct) tip that your daughter is appearing on a porn site, but when you ask all your friends, to a man they deny any knowledge of the videos or the tip. You're positive one of them is lying. Does that matter to you? Would you expect anything different?

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"The elements are all *terrible* and it's precisely the kind of "people who know nothing of history or the context invent a Hollywood version of diddley-aye leprechaun top o' the mornin' Ireland" that you would expect."

This smacks of anti-Darby O'Gill And The Little People bigotry! Disgusting! Next you'll try to tell us Brigadoon isn't a documentary.

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Since this was in the time of the Protestant Reformation, the king (James VI) was Presbyterian (and explicitly had been raised as such, his mother the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots having been faced with rebellions by the Protestant noblemen of her reign) then prayers to the saints *would* have been considered by the clergy and nobles of the time as magic, Papist superstition which was itself devil-worship.

The North Berwick witch trials were complicated by the background history of the rebellions against Mary, the murders committed by Scottish noblemen, the interference with James' upbringing by said noblemen determined to create a God-fearing Protestant king who would respect the limits of his authority over them, and attempts on James' life.

Belief that witches could raise storms then met the perfect opportunity in the storms which prevented his betrothed Anne, princess of Denmark, from crossing over to Scotland. James then sailed to meet her, but also met with storms on the way back. This triggered gossip and rumours in Denmark about possible witchcraft, sparked by the witch trials happening in Germany at the time, and thus trickled down to Scotland and "are people trying to kill the king?" Since there had been at least one attempt on his life, and since anti-Catholicism was ongoing, this easily morphed into "are Catholics trying to kill the king? trying to do it by witchcraft?"

The Danes had held their own witch trials about the storms preventing Anne from sailing to Scotland, and had convicted and burned women for it. So James set up his own tribunal.

And of course, if you're a midwife (a suspicious profession because of abortion, still births and potions to prevent conception or bring about miscarriages) who uses Catholic prayers and charms (superstitious magic) that makes you the perfect suspect for a witch-hunt, true or not.

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It's a good thing witches don't exist, or probably one of them would curse your penis to disappear (illusorily) for this post.

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As he said, they do. I know some. And I've seen spells have meaningful effect. Belief is a powerful thing.

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Weird how no major businesses or governments take advantage of the mystical power of sorcery. Must be thanks to the incredible religiosity of modern states, so that in deference to God they refuse to consort with devilish power.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Witchcraft is apparently a booming multi-billion dollar industry: https://www.marketplace.org/2020/02/14/witchcraft-goes-mainstream-becomes-big-business/

Granted, you could argue that corporations are merely profiting off the occult beliefs of customers. But there's some evidence that a significant number of major corporate and financial leaders do practice occultism themselves, in places as varied as South Korea (https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/opinion/international/kim-when-ceos-embrace-the-occult.html), India (https://www.quora.com/Do-billionaires-use-astrology), and even here in the United States (https://www.thecut.com/2015/07/tech-bros-discover-the-occult.html). Grant Morrison, a famous comic book creator, screenwriter, and practicing chaos magician, has made quite a bit of extra money for himself by giving lectures on sigil magic to corporate advertising departments, on the basis that logos and brands are effectively sigils.

None of this is to suggest that magic actually works in a supernatural sense, simply that a great deal of people - including those in positions of great power and influence within polite secular society - seem to believe it's useful, erroneously or otherwise.

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There's a big difference between "I'm selling you witchcraft" (obvious - I'll sell any damn thing) or "I'm using witchcraft to pick my stocks or acquisitions" (which anyone can *claim* to work, since throwing darts at a board is better than your average investor) and "I'm using witchcraft to make your dick not work, so I can sell you Viagra."

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Not sure what you are on about. I literally stated that witches do indeed exist. There is a thriving Wiccan community in most countries. And a small percentage of those people are in it for personal gain and dark reasons. They have no magic - so if you mean witches that fly around on brooms and turn people into newts don't exist then no kidding.

Millions of non magical witches that can and do curse and spell people and some people are gullible enough to believe the magic is real so it works on them. It is the same as Placebo in medicine.

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In the 90s Russia I saw plently of apparently completely serious ads offering curse-removal services. This sort of thing seemed to have about the same level of reputation as astrology and divination.

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Yep. Even though it beggars belief there are still millions of people that believe in astrology and divination and curses. Scary in this day and age with our level of education and understanding of the universe.

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And 90s Russia was a pretty chaotic and miserable place (capitalism just became an excuse for widescale looting and gangsters rose to power), another parallel with our medieval peasant village...

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There is apparently a Witches Market in La Paz, Bolivia, where you can buy dried frogs and llama fetuses to use in witchcraft, or hire a witch of your own for some purpose

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sl3hkONqa2M

Apparently this is what happens if you _don't_ persecute witches, they wind up taking over a whole street and filling it with creepy objects for sale.

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> You can just buy the Malleus Maleficarum. So, why haven’t you? Might the witches’ spiritual successors be desperate to delegitimize the only thing they’re truly afraid of - the vibrant, time-tested witch hunting expertise of the Catholic Church?

Ironic, since that very book was condemned by the Inquisition. The Church position is that millions of Satanists really can be wrong, they are all outweighed by the Church hierarchy.

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The Malleus is fascinating for many reasons, but today I think it's most interesting in that its methodology is largely shared by the likes of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, the most popular of the woke "anti-racist" crowd. I addressed that in the first in a series of essays on their work (link to full essay below): "In their books, Kendi and DiAngelo appeal not to methods of proof, but to the methods explicated in another, similarly popular book written centuries ago – a book that also falsely assumed a specific ill intent was the cause of bad outcomes. That book was the Malleus Maleficarum (usually translated as the Hammer of Witches), a treatise on witchcraft … The policies advocated in the Malleus were implemented across Europe. The policies advocated in DiAngelo’s and Kendi’s books are just now starting to find their way into American law. Before they potentially become entrenched, it’s worth considering the similarities in the approach of these books, and how they diverge from the humanistic and Enlightenment values that helped end the witch hunts and usher in the conditions for human flourishing … Kendi has tweeted: “The heartbeat of racism is denial. And too often, the more powerful the racism, the more powerful the denial.” And DiAngelo also considers denials of racism proof of racism. As she writes in White Fragility, “None of the white people whose actions I describe in this book would identify as racist. In fact, they would most likely identify as racially progressive and vehemently deny any complicity with racism. Yet all their responses illustrate white fragility and how it holds racism in place.” The Malleus describes how a suspected sorceress should be questioned by her inquisitors, instructing them to “[n]ote that for the most part sorceresses initially make a denial [that sorceresses exists], and hence a greater suspicion arises than if they responded, ‘Whether they exist or not I leave to my betters.’” According to the Malleus, not only does a denial indicate guilt, but the only exculpatory response is the accused’s expression of deference to one’s “betters” among the clerisy’s academic elite -- whose doctrines posit the existence of witches. And similarly, as DiAngelo wrote in her dissertation, her “primary measure” of white racism is “the larger body of research in the Whiteness literature” – a Whiteness literature that posits omnipresent racism ..."

Full essay here: https://paultaylor.substack.com/p/a-critique-of-kendi-diangelo-hannah

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022Author

I think his claim is that saying "witches don't exist" is suspicious, not that saying "I am not a witch" is suspicious in and of itself.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

I mean, if you say "racism doesn't exist", that also would be treated as suspicious, and I've reasonably-frequently encountered recitals that this is evidence of being a racist.

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I think I would (informally, outside of legal, especially criminal, contexts) probably treat a strong claim that "racism doesn't exist" as mild evidence towards some amount of racism, if it comes from a reasonably intelligent-seeming person.

That, or trolling.

That statement would, after all, only be true if there wasn't a single person in the entire world who harbored any beliefs of the "my race is inherently superior and of greater moral value than other race(s) X"-variety, which I have, to my own satisfaction, empirically verified to be untrue; in quite an obvious way.

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