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

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

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

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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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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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> 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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A note, St John Chrysostom doesn't say any of that in the homily referenced:


The only semblance is him quoting the disciples saying "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry". So the author seems to have mistaken the quote for St John's words, and then the rest is just the author editorializing.

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This post is a new favorite of mine—bizarre subject matter coupled with deep insights into human nature (with a gentle sense of humor throughout) is very much my jam :)

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> His arguments ring hollow to modern ears, and honestly neither God nor the Devil comes out looking very good. God isn’t trying to maximize a 21st century utilitarian view of the Good, He’s trying to maximize His own glory. Allowing some evil helps with this, because then He can justly punish it (and being just is glorious) or mercifully forgive it (and being merciful is also glorious). But, if God let the Devil kill everyone in the world, then there would be no one left to praise God’s glory, plus people might falsely think God couldn’t have stopped the Devil if he’d wanted to. So the glory-maximizing option is to give the Devil some power, but not too much.

An interesting window in contemporary morality: God is vain and Devil is vengeful. And vice versa, I guess.

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Just to be clear, "dormitive potency" is not false; we are aware of many such substances today.

The whole problem with "dormitive potency" is that it is an explanation which bears zero information, a canonical example of circular reasoning. "NyQuil puts you to sleep because it puts you to sleep" is a stupid thing to say, but that doesn't mean the premise, "NyQuil puts you to sleep," is false.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

One thing I find missing here is an appreciation for how different the "physics" of the 1500s was from today. In that earlier world everyone knew that there were any number of spirits, sprites, demons, angels, and supernatural whatnot wandering around the world, and causing all kinds of mischief, and most of the weird coincidences that one came across. Things that went bump in the night could very easily be a werebear stumbling over a rake in the yard -- why not? Such things were known to exist in the forest, so-and-so had seen one, and besides it just made sense, everyone agrees such a thing might occur.

People just knew there were supernatural causes for all kinds of things, no doubt in part because that tradition had been handed down for generations, but probably also because people just naturally infer intelligence and motivation to complex processes they don't otherwise understand (the modern equivalent being the ease with which people infer intelligence and motivation to GPT-3, or the extreme ease with which people believe a computer can be programmed to think and feel just like us, cf. ELIZA and its -- embarassing, for us -- success).

In such a world, where supernatural causes flood the world, is it a stretch to believe that some people have found a way to use them to malignant ends? Of course not. Rather, it's as natural as breathing, as natural as (say) the modern tendency to believe that hackers can cause a nuclear war, because we all believe all computers can be subverted over the Internet, we heard a story about it for sure, and besides it just stands to reason, everyone knows such a thing is reasonable.

We owe a great debt to the Enlightenment thinkers, and to some extent the Church, who slowly between the two of them persuaded everyone that there *is* no zoology of spirits causing my keys to not be where I am 100% certain I left them, or my car to not start on the very morning I am late for an important appointment. The Church desired this end for its own reasons -- to reserve the supernatural to God alone -- and the scientists of the Enlightenment wanted it to be true that every effect could be explained by a mindless cause, the mechanism for which could be teased out, and ideally written down in equations.

They succeeded so well that these days we can laugh at the world in which supernatural causes were considered entirely plausible for everything from the dog's weird howling one night to our sister's untimely death when she'd been feeling just fine the day before. These days we believe -- with for the most part a no less unreasoning absorbed-in-our-mother's-milk type of blind faith as those of the 1500s believed the contrary -- that *every* strange thing we observe must have a purely physical explanation, that it has to be atoms and molecules doing something sciency which some big-brain could explain in a cool Youtube video -- and any contrary suggestion that it's spirits is just clearly silly.

This is a tremendous advance, not least of all in considerably reducing our ability to wreak cruel tribal vengeance on each other by invoking fears of malignant spiritual alliances -- of witchcraft. It's a pity we take it for granted as much as we do, and pretend it is some natural state of the human mind, some birthright, rather than an inheritance that was hard won by centuries of good thought and disciplined empiricism (and could easily be lost again).

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"They say the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown."

I am legitimately interested to know if you're aware where this concept came from.

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>I remember my high school psychology class, how boggled I was when I learned lots of people often confess falsely, even when they’re not under torture or being pressured or anything

I'd like to see this one backed up. The false confession narratives I'm familiar with all involve significant pressure, or deceit, or deficient mental capacity, and usually all three.

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My theory on the penis stealing illusion:

Some guy, for weird psychological reasons, firmly believes that his penis has been stolen. But when a doctor or priest or whoever examines him, his penis is right there where it should be. Therefore he must have been cursed to falsely believe that his penis has been stolen.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Sommers is a curious cat: he kinda gives me "if Abraham Van Helsing was a real person" vibes. And quite learned despite everything: I tried reading his book on werewolves, but could hardly go a page without running into an extended, untranslated quotation in Latin, German, Italian, French, Greek..... 3smart5me.

I don't know if the whole "witch hunting" phenomenon can be understood without first looking at the phenomenon of witchcraft the world over. On this note, something I've read in several reliable sources but haven't looked into specifically: supposedly the early Iroquois had a belief that there were only two ways anyone could possibly die: either by drowning, or by being hexed by a witch. So whenever someone died (unless they drowned), it was blamed on witchcraft from an enemy tribe, which demanded blood reprisal. I do not know whether this belief existed alongside a parallel practice of witches actually attempting to hex people in enemy tribes.

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Wow. This is truly grim. Fuck Henry Kramer and everyone who was like him. You're way more charitable to that misogynistic woman-hater than I am. I think when the witches stole his little penis they also got his every drop of wisdom and compassion he may have once possessed.

I believe that most of organized religion is an ancient nightmare from which humanity has yet to fully awaken.

And hundreds of millions of people still believe that evidence-free shit. They pray to god to help them get that promotion, or for their team to win the game on Saturday. They might as well pray to Santa, since god is just Santa Claus for adults. Ya know, the old dude keeping track of who's naughty and nice, with presents (Heaven) for the good and lumps of coal (Hell) for the bad. I always think if you're asking magical old white men for favors, why not pray to Gandalf or Dumbledore? They're equally fictional and powerless. . .

Real women died by the thousands because of superstitious ignorance and fear wrapped in a cloak of religion. And real women continue to die to this day because of patriarchal oppression wearing clerical robes -- anyone heard from Iran lately?

Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and almost all of the rest. . . . why don't you all go drown in the oceans of misdeeds and suffering you have caused for centuries. Full disclosure: your corpses will NOT be exonerated.

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> Is a good guy with a witch the only way to stop a bad guy with a witch?

Basically the plot of Night Watch series right here. Highly recommended if you're into urban fantasy and long conversations about the nature of morality.

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Now I’m confused. I read the damn book a long time ago and all I remember is that witches definitely stole penises en masse and kept them (as pets, I guess) happily chirping away in little birds’ nests?

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

I think the correct modern day comparison for the Malleus Maleficarum is clearly a legal brief of some kind, maybe one prepared by somebody at the CIA or FBI to offer background and a legal theory to justify some program for taking action against terrorists or something.

The first few sections make empirical and theological arguments that witches exist and are a real problem. My understanding is that for most of the middle ages witchcraft was viewed as kind of a folk superstition and treated pretty skeptically by the more respectable people. See Dante classifying it as a brand of deception, Charlemagne prescribing the death penalty for witch-hunters on the grounds that witches and witch-hunters both believe in witchcraft. Both of those were significantly earlier, but I think it still suggests that the theological arguments he's making are relevant for persuading skeptical readers. It doesn't necessarily go without saying that the church authorities think real witchcraft is even a thing.

Then he establishes that witches are actually a species of heretic, and thus under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. That's why the comparisons to Jews, and Pagans, and other types of heretics are relevant. This is also a reason for the emphasis on the idea that the witches gain their powers by explicit pacts with the Devil in order to subvert Christianity. If they were just casting curses, that would be a civil issue. If they're casting curses because they want to destroy the faith, then it's a job for the Inquisition.

Having argued for a potentially skeptical audience that witches are a real problem, and within the jurisdiction of the Inquisition as an institution devoted to suppressing heresy, he outlines his recommended procedures for dealing with the problem.

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> The Holy Inquisition is forbidden to burn anyone as a witch until they confess with their own lips, and confessions obtained under torture don’t count. THIS IS AN EXTREMELY FAKE RULE. The first way it is fake: a confession obtained under torture doesn’t count, but you can torture the witch, let her confess during the torture, and then later, after the torture is over, say “Okay, you confessed, so obviously you’re a witch, please confirm”. If she doesn’t confirm, you can torture her more and repeat the process. The second way it is fake is that you are allowed to lie to her in basically any way to make her confess. Kramer recommends saying “If you confess, I won’t sentence you to any punishment”. Then when she confesses, you hand her over to a different judge for the sentencing phase, and he sentences her to the punishment. Or a judge can promise mercy, “with the mental reservation that he means he will be merciful to himself or the State, for whatever is done for the safety of the State is merciful”.

Ignoring the parts about torture, this is a good description of the American justice system today: you can't punish someone unless they confess first[1], and you are allowed to tell a suspect whatever lies you feel like, including false promises of leniency, in order to trick them into confessing.

[1] Technically possible, but if I'm remembering right, more than 95% of American convictions are plea bargains.

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It’s interesting how modern Wiccans like to say they’re the Witches that they couldn’t burn, but don’t take credit for the thing with stealing penises and keeping them in cages. It seems like a missed opportunity.

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"Thou Shalt", not "Thou Shall"

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> In fact, the word for woman in Latin is femina, which can also have the form feminus, which is literally just fe minus (lesser in faith)!

Apparently Kramer did reason this way, but "fe" for faith is a Romance innovation (entirely Iberian as far as I know). The Latin for "in faith" in this sense would be "fide" (using the ablative of respect, or maybe some other ablative).


There's no classical Latin parse for "fe" by itself (and Wiktionary says that the -d- was originally there in PIE, predating Latin, so dropping it is entirely post-classical, not classical or pre-classical).

What the heck, Kramer?

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Speaking of incubi and succubi... Carl Sagan in his book The Demon Haunted World compared stories about incubi and succubi to stories about alien abudctions and finds similarities between the forms of the stories. He uses this to argue that there's Something Going On psychologically that gets explained using the tropes of the times. Of course, it could just be evidence that the aliens have been at it for a very, very long time.

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What's the story with witches asking for the red-hot iron trial? Was there common knowledge of this kind of thing being milder and more likely to result in exoneration than whatever was the formal alternative?

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Sorry for the derail, but: the part about "witchcraft is the worst evil, and everyone needs to put down everything else and take up the fight against witchcraft" made me think, is there actually more evidence for "systemic racism" and "white supremacy" now, than there was for witchcraft back then? It really doesn't look like we've progressed all that much when it comes to epistemology and choosing the most urgent issues.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

The theory that witchcraft is still an extant practice in the form of Bolshevism has long been known to those who pay attention to such matters. But Bolshevism was just the beginning of it. The death of the unholy trinity of the Witch Kings Stalin, Hitler and Mao who fueled their reign with mad blood rituals have given way to the subtle, yet infinitely more insidious evil of Socialism. We do not recognize it as such, for it has infiltrated the Western World so deeply, that we do not recognize it. No wonder this, since fish too, will when put to question, reliably fail to accurately describe the nature of water!

Evidence for this outrageous claim, you ask? Recall that even our supposed "Champions of Liberty" Milton Friedman and Friederich von Hayek were corrupted on that fateful night on Pilgrim Mountain. Only van Mises remained stalwart and fled the corruption, turning away from the group in holy and righteous disgust, exclaiming the greatest of condemnations "You're a bunch of socialists!".

Now you, my most skeptical interlocutor objects somewhat justifiedly with "Well then, the whole world may indeed be corrupted by Socialism most foul. But what maketh Socialism to be Witchcraft, the unholy will of the great Deceiver himself?".

Behold then the evidence of the greatest crime of our time! What is the twinned curse of a failing birth rate and a decline in testosterone, if not the stealing of penises en masse!

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Great book review! And I actually never knew that "Der Hexenhammer" was Malleus Malleficarum in English!

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*"Meanwhile, the Devil isn’t trying to maximize 21st century utilitarian evil. He’s trying to turn souls away from God. **So although he could curse people directly**, what he actually wants is for humans to sell their soul to him in exchange for curse powers."*

The "although he could curse people directly" thing is technically true, but would miss the entire point of Judeo-Christian worldview vs. good and evil. In TL;DR: form, God created man with free will: a free will that is the one thing *not even he will mess around with directly*, ever.

I mean, technically, God could turn people's minds to whatever he wants them to think. But he does not - apart from maybe confusing someone for a short while ("hardening their hearts" kind of stuff), there are no examples either in Jewish or Christian scripture of God *directly* messing with people's minds ("He made him believe he was a giant rabbit"). Instead, you as a created being are put in a world you need to make sense of, and have to take it from there.

So the devil has to work indirectly, as it were: his goal is to make people *chose* to fall away from God. Cursing them might help, but usually won't: he has to take a more indirect route most of the time. So in this regard, the Malleus Maleficarum makes perfect sense.

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I mean there's a very good reason to make fun of the Malleus, its author, and those of its readers who took i seriously: it came after centuries of the Church's official position being that witches do not exist, that the belief in witchcraft is a superstition, that accusing someone of being a witch is a heresy, and that witch-hunting is a crime.

(And trials by ordeal had generally been banned by the time the book was written).

This wasn't just a false turn in the search for truth like phlogiston was; it was an intellectual regression measured in *centuries*.

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"I omitted most of the many, many times when Kramer follows his claims with stories of the cases that led him to believe them (...) Everything is like this. Rare is the unsourced claim."

Reminds me of the vast majority of published business books. Case studies and anecdotes galore, always reinforcing the author's particular point-of-view.

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The part about the witch covens conferring with the Devil in a man's body reminded me of the Decameron story of the guy getting hired at the nunnery to have sex with the nuns. There's got to be at least one story of a coven making carnal deals with some guy pretending to be the Devil, only for the actual Devil to show up five minutes later with a "sorry I'm late, I had to stop to pick my kid up from school" and a very awkward time for all involved.

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I feel like this whole article has a very weird tone for the topic, which is the torture and murder of thousands of people, and is not just confined to the past but is still happening in Africa today ...

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Your idea that Kramer was just an ordinary, well-intentioned guy trying his best to understand the world seems to be undermined by his Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Kramer. He seems to have been regarded negatively by lots of his peers. Disclaimer: I know nothing myself about this topic

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I'd really like to see a SSC (or reader) book review of Graham Hancock's supernatural. Yes, he's a "Atlantean chamber of records in a cavity under the Sphinx" kind of guy, as well as a book on "what if there were a TECHNOLOGICAL explanation for the supposed magical powers of the Ark of the Covenant (and where the hell is it hidden, anyway)?"

Supernatural is everything from cave art to alien abductions. One of the book's theories is that a key step on the path to evolutionary modern humans was discovering altered states of consciousness - sometimes through rituals, sometimes through mushrooms, and according to the book, there have always been a small number of humans who could spontaneously (and often involuntarily) enter altered states of consciousness. Some cultures created the role of shaman for them, and they were able to contribute to human civilisation (the stone-age version of the social model of disability?) whereas we diagnose them as mentally ill.

Point is, a lot of their experiences sound a lot like magic, witchcraft and wizardry - their actual visions are of course socially mediated, so cavemen would experience some kind of supernatural bison hunt, nowadays it's aliens, but in the middle ages it could have well taken the form of consorting with devils. There's lots and lots of experiencing being pierced with spears and having your body cut open in a trance state (I presume penis-stealing comes into this somewhere). And of course someone randomly being struck down by trance states would look a lot like they'd been cursed or bewitched.

In the middle ages in particular, the ergot fungus that grows on rye fields seems to have been a big problem, it not only caused physical poisoning symptoms but also had psychoactive effects "simliar to LSD" in malnourished people in particular (the book goes into some detail on this). The wikipedia page on ergotism even speculates about a connection to the Salem witch trials.

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The impious and sceptical tone of this review makes me suspect the author of being involved in either witchcraft or bolshevism.

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>All suspected witches have the right to an attorney. But if the attorney goes overboard defending the client, it is reasonable to suspect him of being a witch himself.

That sounds awfully familiar even today. There are too many people even today rejecting that defendants have rights, no matter how severe the accusations.

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‘Caliban and the witch’ by Silvia Federici is another interesting attempt to explain why witch-hunting became such a big thing. She takes a kinda Marxist-feminist approach. Basically, with the transition from feudalism to capitalism it was advantageous for the nobility to try a divide-and-rule approach towards the proles. Conflict between the sexes rather than class war. Then the population shortage after the Plague added an extra incentive to subjugate women. End result: witch-hunt.

Don’t know how accurate it is. She does seem to think that feudalism was kinda like a communalistic utopia. But I think she’s right in highlighting the link between witches and reproduction - see the mention of miscarriages and infanticide in Scott’s review.

It’s definitely an entertaining read. Complete with illustrations of the penis-birdnest!

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Man, a lot of wasted bandwidth.

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Timely, considering that Russia is now saying that the big threat from Ukraine is Satanism. I guess Nazism wasn't scary enough.

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Witch alarmism sounds quite a lot like AI alarmism.

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I have a friend who is in her 70s, whose family was heavily into witchcraft when she was a child. The way she describes it is pretty much a type of child abuse, but apparently her mom actually believed she was able to cast some kinds of spells. With the caveat that these events happened 60+ years before I knew the the people involved, I think the mom was a mixture of superstitious and mentally unbalanced. Superstitions used to be really common - my parents knew people in very rural Kentucky that believed some weird stuff, like if you get slapped in the back while pregnant your kid will look like the face you were making.

For the family I was talking about above, the kids distanced themselves from their mom about as soon as they were able and rejected anything to do with her, but are still really freaked out by anything like it to this day. I'm not sure if they do or do not believe that witchcraft is (potentially) real.

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1. The Romans also thought witches existed, but because they came at it from another perspective, they were opposed merely to *bad* uses of witchcraft.

2. Even C. S. Lewis thought the only reason we shouldn't burn witches is because they don't exist. If they did, we should.

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> that hundreds of people telling you telling stories

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I can’t reconcile this with the advice Scott shared a few weeks ago from a Christian sub stack saying that the devil compels your worship while God merely invites it. Seems like the conception of the devil in this book is very consent-oriented, getting verbal confirmation of worship intent and also taking measures to make sure worshippers are satisfied and compensated. So when did the view switch to the Devil compelling worship?

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I lived in a Midwestern community from 1978-1999. I saw "normal" church goers become fundamental and join strange (to me) churches. I was actually fearful to let my kids buy and play Dungeons and Dragons. This is absolutely the beginning of what is happening now. His reference to "Satanic Panic" (in blue) is worth a read as well. These people were in a bible study group with me, and were very "normal" they changed so much in a couple of years that I couldn't be friends with them anymore. My way of coping was going back to college and majoring in Physics and Mathematics. lol

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>what else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture, for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife.

Damn. And to think that this guy is ***checks google*** called Golden Mouth, what kind of garbage sewer mouth would spew all this hatred on our sweet partners in humanity.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

Now this is the kind of content for which I subscribe!

Regarding Montague Summers, he was one of those eccentrics that a previous comment thread was asking about. Richard Feynman frequented strip clubs? Penny-ante stuff. Did Feynman write about demons, witches, vampires and werewolves, being regarded as a respectable authority on same?

Did Feynman have a hairstyle like this?


Summers was allegedly a clergyman, but there's some doubt as to whether he ever was really a priest. He had been ordained an Anglican deacon, but then he converted to Catholicism, and went about saying he was a priest but there's no records (so far as I know) that he ever officially was one.


There's a lot of fascinating stuff about late Victorian/Edwardian Englishmen who converted to Catholicism then went off the deep end (or were already off the deep end), such as the self-styled Baron Corvo, one Frederick Rolfe. Especially his novel "Hadrian the Seventh" which contains an authorial self-insert who becomes pope (and it is very gay, as was Rolfe himself, but that romantic, sentimental, mawkish gayness of a certain strain of English writing).


There's also Robert Hugh Benson, scion of an Anglican clerical family, who converted, was ordained, and is also well-known for his ghost/horror/supernatural fiction. He had two brothers who were also writers, A.C. Benson and the better known E.F. Benson.

Regarding the accounts of penis-stealing, that's koro. Today we send people to psychiatrists, not inquisitors, to get it fixed.


And to sum up, the "Hexenhammer" is an example of why Pope Leo didn't take Martin Luther seriously. Some German friar is having freakouts over the Epistles of St. Paul? Yeah, well, the Germans are like that, everybody knows. Kramer himself got into trouble for his obsession with witches:


"Helena Scheuberin was an Austrian woman who stood trial accused of witchcraft in 1485. Her trial and acquittal led Heinrich Kramer to write Malleus Maleficarum, which was published two years later.

…The defendants' lawyer raised procedural objections, which the commissary general, representing Bishop Golser, upheld. The accused were released after putting up a bond to appear should the case be resumed. In the end, Helena Scheuberin and the other six women were all either freed or received mild sentences in the form of penance.

The trials were overseen in part by inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, who traveled to Germany to investigate witches. The local diocese refused to honor his jurisdiction, leading Kramer to seek and receive the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus (1484) which reaffirmed his jurisdiction and authority as an inquisitor.

Kramer was dissatisfied with the outcome of the trials and stayed in Innsbruck to continue his investigations. Exchanged letters show Bishop of Brixen Georg Golser, whose diocese contained Innsbruck, commanding Kramer to leave the city. He eventually left after the Bishop expelled Kramer for insanity and his obsession towards Helena. He returned to Cologne and wrote a treatise on witchcraft that became the Malleus Maleficarum (first published 1487), an instruction guide for identifying witches."


"In 1484 clergyman Heinrich Kramer made one of the first attempts at prosecuting alleged witches in the Tyrol region. It was not a success: he was expelled from the city of Innsbruck and dismissed by the local bishop as "senile and crazy".

Some scholars have suggested that following the failed efforts in Tyrol, Kramer requested explicit authority from the Pope to prosecute witchcraft. Kramer received a papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus in 1484. It gave full papal approval for the Inquisition to prosecute what was deemed to be witchcraft in general and also gave individual authorizations to Kramer and Dominican Friar Jacob Sprenger specifically. Other scholars have disputed the idea that Sprenger was working with Kramer, arguing that the evidence shows that Sprenger was actually a persistent opponent of Kramer, even going so far as to ban him from Dominican convents within Sprenger's jurisdiction while also banning him from preaching.

...The preface also includes an alleged unanimous approbation from the University of Cologne's Faculty of Theology. Nevertheless, many historians have argued that it is well established by sources outside the Malleus that the university's theology faculty condemned the book for unethical procedures and for contradicting Catholic theology on a number of important points: "just for good measure Institoris {Kramer's Latinised pen name] forged a document granting their apparently unanimous approbation."

The book became the handbook for secular courts throughout Renaissance Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition, which "denied any authority to the Malleus"

So he wasn't above implying he had more official authority and backing than he did, and indeed forging documents:


"The bull was written in response to the request of Dominican Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer for explicit authority to prosecute witchcraft in Germany, after he was refused assistance by the local ecclesiastical authorities, who maintained that as the letter of deputation did not specifically mention where the inquisitors may operate, they could not legally exercise their functions in their areas. The bull sought to remedy this jurisdictional dispute by specifically identifying the dioceses of Mainz, Köln, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen.

The bull urged local authorities to cooperate with the inquisitors and threatened those who impeded their work with excommunication. Despite this threat, the bull failed to ensure that Kramer obtained the support he had hoped for, causing him to retire and to compile his views on witchcraft into his book Malleus Maleficarum, which was published in 1487. The Malleus professed, in part fraudulently, to have been approved by the University of Cologne, and it was sensational in the stigma it attached to witchcraft as a worse crime than heresy and in its notable animus against women.

...Summis desiderantes affectibus was published as part of the preface of the book, implying papal approval for the work. However, the Malleus Maleficarum received an official condemnation by the Church three years later, and Kramer's claims of approval are seen by modern scholars as misleading."

So why the witchcraft craze? And why places like Germany falling for it wholesale, while other regions didn't? That is a good question to ask. Why do people fall for conspiracy theories today?

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> And I don’t want to completely rule out that some people actually tried witchcraft... The history of modern occultism implies that any sufficiently schizo-spectrum person who asks to see the Devil will come away satisfied..

There is another possibility, that Wicha was actually a "movement" back then, either remnants of paganism, or a fad like hipiedom. It wasn't rogue schizophrenics, it was a group of people.

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Oct 28, 2022·edited Oct 28, 2022

This piece is a great illustration of why I can’t get comfortable with Scott or the rationalist community generally. The post is genuinely interesting, informative, provocative, and even admirably self-aware, but it can’t bring itself to follow through on its own logic when that logic threatens the self-image of rationalism as a based thinking person’s alternative to cringe academic progressivism.

I think Scott is commendably perceptive to see himself in Kramer, a clever man willing to fearlessly entertain the mind-boggling consequences of actually taking commonplace beliefs seriously, and to be afraid of this similarity. But he pulls his punch before getting to the big payoff: thinking independently and writing contrarian books about bold world-changing ideas is *dangerous*, the normal standards of intellectual hygiene that so impress Scott are not enough, and a responsible critical thinker must go further by including marginalized perspectives that don’t make it into the “respectable” hegemonic discourse.

The problem comes in framing Kramer’s received hegemonic worldview of upper-class literate Europeans as the only one reasonably available to him. This overlooks not only his peers’ many contemporary responses that called out his problematic, prejudiced, and unfair project, but the fact that the “witches” themselves had plenty of critiques!

So my takeaway is not that, alas, even with the best of intentions, a well-meaning rationalist can accidentally do a whoopsie and set off a few centuries of torturing innocent people to death. It’s that “merely” trying to make sense of common beliefs and taking them to their logical conclusions (according to hegemonic logic), without carefully accounting for the viewpoints being excluded from these deliberations, is a deadly epistemic sin that can lead smart people to do evil things. The lesson of Malleus Maleficarum for rationalists is that they actually need to be reading cringe academics writing about things like “epistemic injustice”, “antiblackness”, and “patriarchal systems of knowledge production”, or else they might become the scary monsters.

(The reason I keep reading the blog is that clearly Scott is smart and self-critical enough to have considered this, so maybe he’s trying to tee up this conclusion for us in an indirect way that avoids his losing ingroup status among other anti-feminist rationalists. But alas, he just disavowed Straussian hermeneutics in the last post…)

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Probably late to the party, but Kramer was not what I’d call a decent or reasonable guy. Ask Helena Scheuberin, the woman he tried for witchcraft in Innsbruck. She was acquitted, and then Kramer stalked her. Even in the 15th century, a court ordered him to stop harassing her and the bishop threw him out of the city. And then shortly thereafter he wrote the “Malleus Maleficarum”.

Entertaining rundown at 12 minute mark:


I love this video for making me realize that witches and werewolves were intertwined more than I realized, and much MUCH further back than I’d thought. Also fascinating: the people who believed they transformed into spectral werewolves to fight witches in their dreams.

The line between religion, magic and what most people considered empirical reality was just drawn differently in the past. One of the best books I’ve ever read was historian Keith Thomas’s seminal treatise “Religion and the Decline of Magic”. The most relevant part to this post might be the background on folk magic. This was *everywhere*, and just pervaded every aspect of life, sometimes so tightly interwoven with official Christianity that it could not be distinguished. But then some significant social, demographic and technological shifts occurred that created a lot more instability and uncertainty. There were suddenly a lot people who just didn’t fit into social structures that had previously provided for just a few oddballs and misfits. Practices that had just been endemic “white magic” suddenly became suspect.

According to family lore, my own great-great-grandmother was a bit of a “Strega”, an Italian folk witch. But what women like her were doing in a chaotic and rapidly depopulating Southern Italy at the end of the 19th century was magic with a distinctly Catholic character. Folk religious practices didn’t get quite the same scouring in Italy and Southern Europe as they did further from the Holy See, almost as if the Church tended to look out past the foot of the Vatican wall. Once arrived in the US, more dogmatic German and Northern European Catholics were largely horrified at all the weird stuff going on in Italian immigrant neighborhoods that called itself Catholicism. Italians quickly dropped a lot of it in the name of both assimilation and modernity.

I knew my ancestors made wax effigies of body parts as offerings to thank the Virgin Mary for healing them, but I was shocked to find you can still do this at the hugely popular Catholic shrine at Fatima in Portugal. If you think the Virgin helped cure your breast cancer, you can buy a wax boob at the gift shop and toss it in a giant oven designated for this purpose. I can only assume that plenty of the millions of Catholics who visit annually find this creepy and weird and not Catholic at all, but it’s countenanced. For now.

Is praying to saints for a sick child over a bowl of holy water and olive oil Christianity or occultism? My ancestors probably didn’t consider that witchcraft at all in 1900, but my mother would have by 1960. If they’d been German instead of Italian a few centuries earlier, they might have been burned for it. Like everything else, it all depends on the incentives of the people around you.

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I witch I had known all this earlier!

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I think it's no coincidence that the Hammer of Witches came about right after the revolutionary introduction of the printing press. The medieval inquisitions weren't exactly softball but they were much more restrained than the excesses of the early modern period and I think we have to credit the scholastics running the Catholic church for keeping things in bounds and mostly not letting things degenerate in neighbors using the process to settle grudges with each other.

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> promising them worldly prosperity and length of life

McCoy was right all along!

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I can't believe nobody has mentioned Béatrice de Planisolles yet

A famous French heretic from a bit earlier in the middle ages. Her Inquisition interview is frankly hilarious ("... the spiciest, juiciest inquisition I have ever had the pleasure to read. She managed to acquired as her lovers most of the top heretics in 14th century southern France, all of whom were listed in the interview, btw, which made it so spicy..") and strongly suggests that, yes, everybody was doing "witchcraft" (as in folk magic) back then.

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We made fun of "dormitive potency" not for being false but for being tautological -- it's like saying "poppies can make you sleepy because they have the ability of making people sleepy", just in fancier words.

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> It would seem that witches can steal your penis.

As we all know, "penis" can be used as a metaphor for masculinity, and correspondingly also as a metaphor for rationality, e.g. in discussion of how "masculine modes of understanding" forcibly impose and insert themselves on and into the emotional realities of The Other. Therefore, "stealing a penis" can be understood as removing or hindering the victim's ability to be rational, detached, and analytical, and thus by contrast enhancing their emotional volatility. Possibly in general, and possibly on certain specific topics.


Now, I'm not *saying* that a certain NYT writer is a witch, but...

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Quasi related twitter thread that went viral last week saying that the theory that witches were pagan wise women persecuted by the catholic church was popularized by Himmler https://twitter.com/suzania/status/1584893372376166405

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> there’s a very narrow band between “God restrains the Devil so much that witchcraft can’t exist” and “God restrains the Devil so little that witches have already taken over the world”. Prima facie, we wouldn’t expect the amount God restrains the Devil to fall into this little band.

I read this and I immediately thought of the Anthropic Principle and why it is such an unsatisfying explanation. Indeed, the argument Kramer uses to defend this position kind of looks like the anthropic principle if you squint a bit. If God let the devil kill everyone, then we wouldn't be alive to praise him, so of course God places limits on the devil. Meanwhile, there's evil in the world - we can clearly observe that - therefore we know God allows it.

Compare this to the anthropic principle: If there was no life on the Earth, we wouldn't be around to observe it, so of course we should expect to be on a planet that has life on it - same principle if you want to extend to 'intelligent life'. We don't observe intelligent life elsewhere, indeed we observe that the conditions for its existence (whether at a universal scale or below) are pretty narrow, so we must live in a world/universe in which life can exist.

For me, this explanation has the same lack of convincing power, whether applied to witches/the existence of evil, or to any other attempt at explaining the world as we know it.

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This is a funny follow up to the meditation post, since I view “a witch took my penis” and “I experienced jhana” as pretty similar claims. But in both cases I am very interested in why the person makes that claim. Both seem obviously absurd to me, yet people clearly do and did claim them, so I want to know what is going on to make them do so.

I would’ve guessed the anecdote about the parish priest’s schwanz to be a joke, but I don’t know enough about how they viewed priests and celibacy in the Germanic lands of that day so I may be reading too much into it.

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I am amusing myself by reading this an mentally replacing "witches" with "AGI".

Whatever else you are concerned about, there is no way it is anywhere close to as bad as AGI. If you had the faintest idea how bad AGI really is, you would be freaking out all the time. You need to stop whatever you were doing before and become some kind of AGI-minimizer instead.

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Sorry for the low content, but this really hit the spot. Thank you!

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Joseph Glanvill because a member of the Royal Society in 1664, when the Royal Society was only 4 years old (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fellow_of_the_Royal_Society). He was one of leading advocates for science in the later seventeenth century.

He also wrote a book about the experimental evidence for witches, called Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions. From the Preface:

"I have no humour nor delight in telling Stories, and do not publish these for the gratification of those that have; but I record them as Arguments for the confirmation of a Truth which hath indeed been attested by multitudes of the like Evidences in all places and times. But things remote, or long past, are either not believed or forgotten: whereas these being fresh and near, and attended with all the circumstances of credibility it may be expected they should have the more success upon the obstinacy of Unbelievers.

But after all this, I must confess, there is one Argument against me, which is not to be dealt with, viz. a mighty confidence grounded upon nothing, that swaggers, and huffs, and swears there are no Witches. For such Philosophers as these, let them enjoy the Opinion of their own Superlative Judgements, and enter me in the first rank of Fools for crediting my Senses, and those of all the World, before their sworn Dictates. If they will believe in Scott, Hobbes, and Osborne, and think them more infallible than the Sacred Oracles, the History of all Ages, and the full experience of our own, who can help it?"

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I wonder if there were contemporaries that pointed out the huge problems with torture as a proof method.

That one doesn't seem to rely on unintuitive psych theory regarding true confessions and false confessions, the unreliability of memory and such, just common sense.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic but I feel like even in the 15th century I would have been able to see the problems with it torture, if not witchcraft.

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Oct 29, 2022·edited Oct 29, 2022

I wrote about the Malleus Maleficarum a couple weeks ago, as an example of the annoying kind of dystopian literature... the kind that serves as self-pitying war propaganda for the powerful: a shrill compendium of elite grievances; a comically grim warning that anyone who ignores their noble demands may threaten our cherished hegemonic norms. The whiney excuses of unstable critics who have accidentally found themselves in power.

What I found interesting was that the book begins by claiming that rampant unchecked witchcraft could soon cause the apocalypse; it then includes a papal bull granting priests the “full and entire liberty” to stamp out sorcery, followed by a notarized statement of unanimous support by the local university’s doctors of theology. Next there’s an extended section criticizing any clergymen who doubt the widespread reality of this crime. Only after all this throat-clearing do we get the diagnostic manual and the trial guide, with clear step-by-step instructions on how to identify and prosecute such supposedly overbearing menaces. (Of course, the author’s real issue lay with insufficiently zealous bureaucrats, who had exiled him from his parish for obsessing over one particular acquitted woman’s alleged promiscuity). It's as if the author is saying, "Look, witch-lovers, everyone important and powerful agrees that we really need to do something about this right now, because otherwise nobody will ever do anything to stop it!”

The same basic story describes Matthew Hopkins, an itinerant witch-finder who during England’s revolution through some depraved spell-work single-handedly hexed more than a hundred souls gallows-ward for witchcraft, for social stability. (England as a whole hunted fewer witches through the entire prior century combined than he did in just three years, because this whiney degenerate kind of cultural coordination can be quite angrily powerful).

Modern-day analogues are almost too obvious to mention. You can make a decent career out of anti-fascistically whipping up mobs against whoever might harbor some pre-smartphone conservative sentiments, since those reactionary extremists existentially threaten us now: just look at how disagreeable and low-status the self-identified right-wingers have become, ever since we’ve thoroughly stigmatized their beliefs… do you really think such dinosaurs are worth defending? Likewise, during the Salem trials—which ironically occurred when the King revoked all Massachusetts law, leaving litigants without a judge’s firm paternalistic limits—one chorus of attention-seeking teenage girls cried out “me too!” every time that any of them claimed to have been victimized by someone else’s problematic behavior; each defendant who confessed and then blamed others for seeming similarly witchy got pardoned, while those who refused to play along died. Unfortunately I can’t think of any modern-day analogues to this, but Arthur Miller’s famous play about it apparently allegorized a “red scare,” during which an uncouth populist senator tried investigating some of the countless communist spies now known to have utterly infested our postwar government (though I’m sure that having to testify before congress about your own alleged treason would have seemed scary and, moreover, inconvenient, especially for those whom they caught red-handed). Etc.

My post mostly tries to flesh out what's wrong with this kind of fundamentally disingenuous and cowardly dystopian literature, and gesture towards what more honest political horror could look like. Ultimately, I argue that generative language models will rapidly worsen this YA-ification of power: the tendency to endow victimhood and weakness with moral status, and for power to speak in such a wheedling cowardly voice.


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This is all pretty reasonable imo

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I think you mean “snitchin is bitchin”.

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Oct 30, 2022·edited Oct 30, 2022

I once dated a girl who prayed for bad things to happen to her roommate when she was pissed at her roommate and then bad things did happen to her roommate. She was dead seriously convinced she had some witch/occult power of making holy curses.

We all thought she was crazy, and I am SUPER glad I never knocked her up.

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Late Prof. Marvin Harris (great anthropologist, "hated" by Steven Pinker - long story, mainly about Napoleon Chagnon) - had a fine fun-theory about witches: Hardly any were hunted and burnt during the middle ages, when THE church was strong, but after 1500 (during the "Neuzeit"/"modern era") during a time, when the church(es) had to justify their role. Defending us from those evil witches was a great way to do this. So they did. Luther as eager to burn them as any pope in Rome. - see the excellent book: "Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches. The Riddles of Culture"

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An article from 2018 about folklore:


"Of the 141 entries featuring witches, 40 of them deal with hags taking on the form of hares when trying to escape from farmers who catch them sucking milk from their cows’ udders.

The information is presented in factual and specific form: Mrs Paddy Brady from Kilteane, Co Cavan, reports that she "knows of a woman who turned herself into a hare. Her name was Mrs Hutchington, a Protestant woman who lived in the townland of Ryeforth, Co Cavan. She went to my grandfather, Bennie Goldrick, and sucked the milk from the cow. Grandfather saw her; he got his gun loaded it with a crucked [sic] sixpence, fired at the hare and hit her on the head. She ran away, and he ran after her to her house, where he found the woman in the bed with her head bleeding. He made her promise to never do that again, so she did not." An addendum tells that a crooked threepenny or sixpenny piece was used since only a silver bullet had the power to kill a witch-hare."

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This is, admittedly, a little bit off-topic, but I feel that, every time somebody cites the Spanish Inquisition and witches in the same article, a little bit of historical context should be added. It's worth reflecting on the fact that, according to the latest estimates, in Europe in the Modern Age some 50,000 witches were burned: half in the German territories, 4,000 in Switzerland, 1,500 in England, 4,000 in France. In Spain, the witch victims of the Inquisition were 27 in total, including all the imperial territories, according to its exhaustive historical archives (in a recent study in Catalonia -- https://www.abc.es/espana/catalunya/abci-parlamento-catalan-indulta-mujeres-ajusticiadas-brujeria-202201261825_noticia.html -- there are more examples, but the vast majority were victims of neighborhood vendettas, often after being exonerated, rather than accused, by the Inquisition). Witches and witch-hunting are a northern European obsession and specialty, inherited by countries with a majority of northern European settlers, like the US, and any reference in this context to the Spanish Inquisition should be, if anything, praiseworthy.

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For a Theory 3, the descriptions of the rituals, spells, covens, etcetera around witches & witchcraft sounds like the kind of thing that all modern tumblr-witches I've known would have been super into. Cults have had a draw forever, and witch covens sound here like a cult where you get to participate in cool rituals & ceremonies, you get to have sex with people in a sexually repressed society, and you also get supposed magic powers, then it would surprise me if there were not real people who were in real witchcraft cults who thought they were real witches.

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I’d go much stronger on the hypothesis that some people were really trying to do witchcraft. Essentially everybody in medieval Europe was doing magic, carrying around charms and doing garbled Latin incantations and such for good health, to get pregnant, whatever. A lot of this was tolerated by the decadent pre-Reformation church as long as there was a veneer of the magic being powered by Jesus. So it’s really a very small jump from superstitious use of charmed saints’ bones to trying to invoke the really good stuff via Satan, and I’m sure it was very common for people to slip this way. Keith Thomas’”Religion and the Decline of Magic” is a great treatment of how this background shifted from late medieval to early modern times in England.

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Reading the accounts of penis theft, I wonder whether it was basically an elaborate excuse for handjobs. Imagine that a man paid a prostitute to commit this act (perhaps hoping to avoid pregnancy) but got caught. "Um...actually she was just a witch restoring the penis she stole!" If other people in the village didn't like her (including perhaps the man's wife), they might go along with this weird story as a way to justify bringing down the force of the church on her head. I'm not sure if this is compatible with accounts of penis theft in other cultures, though.

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> His arguments ring hollow to modern ears, and honestly neither God nor the Devil comes out looking very good. God isn’t trying to maximize a 21st century utilitarian view of the Good, He’s trying to maximize His own glory. Allowing some evil helps with this, because then He can justly punish it (and being just is glorious) or mercifully forgive it (and being merciful is also glorious). But, if God let the Devil kill everyone in the world, then there would be no one left to praise God’s glory, plus people might falsely think God couldn’t have stopped the Devil if he’d wanted to. So the glory-maximizing option is to give the Devil some power, but not too much.

This is the most convincing argument I've seen for Theodicy, although it does mean giving up the claim that god is pure good.

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I like the empathy towards the witch hunters in this review, who I think often get a bad rap from modern audiences. In the medieval world, it’s not like the choices were between witch trials and modern jurisprudence, it was much more likely a choice between mob rule and royal/church abuse of power. Witch trials were a form of due process, as you point out, by people who didn’t understand very much about the world.

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My only remark is to regret the number of people who have come to see this Malleus Maleficarum by Kramer as the text that defines the christians' views of witches and witchcraft.

It seems clear to me that Kramer was an angry crank subject to a variant of the 80s-era satanism scare (in addition to being apparently a swindler). The one case of him actually trying witches, in the city of Innsbruck, went down in flames, resulting in no convictions, and the bishop of Brixen ordering him to stop pestering the good citizens of Innsbruck and get the fuck out of town.

Frustrated and angry, he wrote this book to explain his views, that were antithetical to what had long been the mainstream view of witches among learned christians, the long-held traditional Catholic law, the Canon Episcopi, that considered witchcraft a delusion (cf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_Episcopi). Contemporaries like Ulrich Molitor, Jean Vincent or Nicholas of Cusa were skeptical and laid back about witches. On this I could suggest


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