This leads directly on to the third function of witch-belief, its importance in preserving social norms: the witch is purely and simply the epitome of all that is antisocial and in defiance of society, and therefore its members make every effort to conduct themselves in such a way that they cannot be accused of being witches. While decent people took pains to do good, witches were always doing evil, whether or not it was advantageous to them. And while envy was described as being one of the cardinal characteristics of witches, everyone else took care to assure their neighbours that such a feeling was unknown to them. A great many ancient polite phrases and forms of greeting would seem originally to have possessed this function: ‘May it become you well,’ ‘congratulations,’ ‘good luck,’ ‘you are welcome,’ the peace of God,’ ‘good-day,’ ‘farewell’ or ‘good luck with the work,’ as one says in Vendsyssel when one passes someone sawing firewood or similarly occupied. One hears time and again of witches who approach or walk past without uttering these remarks, whereupon some mischance or other ensues. This new sociological view of witch-belief has in many respects furthered the demystification of the age of witch-trials. It is no longer necessary to assume that those persecuted were people who had deliberately or with a disturbed mind made a pact with the devil in order to practise black magic, or that the witches belonged to heathen cults secretly cultivating an ancient fertility god, ‘the horned god,’ (or ‘the Devil’ as their Christian persecutors called him). This type of theory, which predominated in the study of the subject right into the 1950s, inevitably puts us on a level with inquisitors, witch-judges and popular witch-persecutors who all believed that the witches really were to blame. Neither is it a solution to brand the witches as various kinds of rebel against society, as was popular in the newspaper articles and polemical publications of the 1970s.

The more perspicacious research into witch-belief has come to indicate that the source material does not support such theories, which, moreover, are entirely superfluous. For when we stop staring blindly at the witches and focus on their accusers, the believers in witchcraft, everything falls into place, and the reason for certain individuals in milieux adhering to the common philosophy described above being allotted the role of scapegoat, becomes abundantly clear. On the basis of the thousands of witch-trial records subjected to scrutiny in recent years, it is possible to ascertain that only an extremely small proportion were mentally deranged folk who were under the delusion that they were witches, and that a somewhat larger group were ‘wise’ men and women. But the greatest number by far were perfectly ordinary people who had never in any way attempted to practise witchcraft. It was a role imposed on them by their surroundings.

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


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