I shall maintain that the phrase ‘each town has its witch’ in ‘The Midsummer Ballad’ was more than a poetic commonplace at the period when that poem was composed. When Holger Drachmann wrote it in 1885, witchcraft was still alive and flourishing in the country and the smaller market towns. The witch, like the local ‘original,’ was the role commonly provided in the idyllic villages and cosy provincial towns for individuals who did not conform within the small social group where everyone knew and was concerned with everyone else.

It is difficult to understand how witch-belief could have lasted for so long if it was merely based on foolish misunderstanding and ignorance, as we have been led to assume ever since the Age of Enlightenment. But during the last few decades examination of historical as well as present-day milieux incorporating witch-belief has shown the untenability of the old ideas and led to the realisation that this type of manifestation possesses various psychological and sociological functions. Witch-belief is a philosophy of life that enables people to overcome a considerable number of common problems. It does not teach, as the Church has done in Denmark since the days of Pietism, that accident and misfortune are trials sent by God, to be borne with the same humility as that with which Job bore his, as the Bible records. According to witch-belief the ills of life are not punishment for sins committed but are villainous attacks carried out by certain types of person who are in league with hidden powers: the witches. However, these dangerous people can be overcome; there are two ways of combating them: either through counter-magic, whereby, possibly with the aid of a ‘cunning man,’ an attack is directed against the supernatural side of their nature, or-because the witch is after all a human being of flesh and blood-by resorting to physical violence.

In Denmark, for instance, it was believed that it was possible to quell the power of the witch by drawing blood, which for many ages led to severe maltreatment of supposed witches. The latest recorded maltreatment of a Danish witch occurred in Vendsyssel in 1897. Witch-belief has a further important function in serving as a kind of safety-valve for all the hidden aggression which cannot be expressed through normal channels since it is not tolerated by society. One would be frowned upon for turning away a pauper without giving him anything, or for shutting the door in a neighbour’s face when he called to borrow something, or for throwing one’s mother-in-law out of the house when she was in her dotage; but if one could convince oneself and others that these people in fact were witches, one was perfectly justified in kicking out the pauper, slamming the door on the neighbour and forcing mother-in-law to live in an outhouse on the scraps one put out for her. When one had once established the fact that someone was no ordinary human being, but a witch, there were no limits to how far one could go in setting aside moral and social norms.

Gustav Henningsen, “Witchcraft in Denmark”. FolkloreĀ (1982)


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