Witch hunts are not of the distant past

I just finished the Dutch translation of Monica Black’s A Demon-haunted land: witches, wonder doctors, and the ghosts of the past in post-WWII Germany. Up until then I thought that Western belief in witches in the twentieth century and later was either based on wicca or based on individual cases of wise women or cunning men.  But no, Black’s book makes clear that even in our modern times, actual witch hunts can still take place in the Western world (I already knew they still happen in other parts of the world).

Black describes a landscape of war trauma, defeat, denial and suspision during the aftermath of World War II. This period is mostly known for the miraculous transformation of (West-)Germany from a war torn country to a modern, forward looking country that fully participates in the Western world. But WWII and the crushing defeat of Germany did not just disappear from people’s memories. And nazis did not just disappear either, despite a vigorous campaign of denazification. A lot went on behind closed doors, especially in the decennium or so after the end of WWII.

In this period as in every other period in human history, in their search for healing (mental as well as physical), people sometimes clung to wonder doctors in their uncertainty. Black’s book describes the case of Bruno Grüning, a German miracle healer opperating in the years after WWII who at one point drew thousands of people who were looking for healing. According to Grüning, some people were simply evil and could not be helped. Another folk healer, Waldemar Eberling, pointed to an accidentally passing neighbour, Frau Maassen, as the source of child’s disease. She was branded a witch.

These cases were not rare. It’s a strange idea that even in our so-called enlightened times, people can still be so scared and distrustful that they need an external source as the reason for their discomfort that they can exterminate. Think of the Satanic Panic of the eighties or people who are openly pagan or wiccan receiving threads even in the 21st century. Luckily we do not have an Incquisition anymore, but these cases could still be very harmfull. Poor Frau Maassen was treated as a pariah by many people in her community and became so upset that she lost ten pounds.  

These histories strike me as very important lessons even for today – especially for today. Here in the Netherlands, there is a tendency among a not-so-small subset of people to blame everything, from the lack of affordable houses to street harassment – on foreigners, especially non-western Muslim foreigners. They are not called witches, but the hate these people have to endure from a subset of my fellow Dutch people is sometimes downright irrational and certainly scary.

Despite what many modern day witches want to believe, many non-witches still see witchcraft and the word “witch” as something decidedly negative. I guess communities, at least most people, need adversaries, someone or something they can blame when something goes wrong.  Sometimes these are witches, sometimes these are Muslims, Jews or another group of people.

But I do not believe that is the whole story. There is also a sense of wounded superiority. Some people hold the conviction that that man is better than woman or white is better than black. When these ideas are attacked and/or proven false, someone whose worldview is built on these ideas could lash out. I do not have a solution for any of this. (Wouldn’t it be great of one person could solve this?) Some part of me thinks it is not just a social issue but also a personal issue – some individual will always seek ways to make themselves feel superior to others and will always seek external scapegoats for when something goes wrong. In a climate full of tension, this can ignite and  turn into something bigger. What we can do is learn to see this behavior and make a stand against it.

‘Bruegel’s Witches’ exhibition in Utrecht

It’s the witching season, and Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht has dedicated a temporary exhibition to just this theme. Catharijneconvent focuses on the preservation of Dutch christian art and history, so witchcraft may seem a strange subject. But it’s really not, if you realize that a lot of information about witchcraft in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (and thereafter) has been handed down to us by christian sources, for better or worse.

The exhibition, which is based on a 2011 research by guest curator Renilde Vervoort, focuses on two works by Pieter Bruegel that depict the christan apocryphal story of Saint James the Greater visiting the sorcerer Hermogenes. In her research, Vervoort argues that Bruegel’s depictions of witches in these works are the source of our typical witch with cauldron and black cat who flies through a chimney on a broom.


At first, when I hadn’t seen the exhibition and  hadn’t read Vervoort’s book yet, I was a bit sceptical about this idea. After all, there are lots of witches depicted with brooms, cauldrons, etc. before Bruegel’s time. However, Vervoort’s argument is about the specific combination of the aforementioned attributes, and the influence Bruegel had on later depictions of witchcraft, mainly in the Netherlands. In that context, her conclusion stands a lot stronger.

Now on to the the exhibition itself, which is a joy to visit. The Catharijneconvent is a lovely museum which is seated in an old monastry in the center of Utrecht. It is well known for its exhibitions that mostly focus on christian history, but are also very open to a non-christian audience. The exhibition of Bruegel’s Witches is a good example of that. For someone like me, who is interested in art history, folklore, and the history of witchcraft, this is like a child walking into a candy store.


The first room tells about the context in which witchcraft in 16th century Holland existed. We come across heretic sects and see paintings of the extremely cold weather that large parts of Europe experienced. Both are generally considered to be big influences on the second large outbreak of the witch craze in the late 16th century. Early drawings and engravings of witches by Hans Baldung Grien and others are on view (see above for a few examples). They are considered to have had a great infuence on how we see witches today. Vervoort however thinks the chance that Bruegel was directly influenced by them is fairly small. Doesn’t matter, I was so glad to finally see these fantastic works in real life! A large part of the room is taken by a modernversion of scales on which suspects of witchcraft were weighed. One can actually sit on these scales and listen to the questions that inquisitors would fire in your direction. In the back of this same room, we are confronted with the two prints of Bruegel around which the whole exhibtion is built.


The next room kind of dissects the image of the which that is depicted on Bruegel’s first print, where the witches fly through the chimney. And after that, we get to see the impact that Bruegel’s work supposedly had on later artists, in a hallway filled with image after image about the now well known witch’s sabbath and witch’s kitchen.  It’s  a delight to see all these works together, by popular 17th century artists such as Cornelis Saftleven, Frans Francken II and David Teniers II. The repetition of the images really drives home the point that by now the concept of the witch on her broom flying through the chimney on her way to the sabbath was a well known subject. There seems to have been a small market for this kind of images. The exhibition refers to them as akin to our modern horror movies, something to take a creepy delight in.


There was a more serious tone in these artworks too, as the discussion about the realness and dangers of witchcraft was still very lively in this period, and people were still sentenced to death over accusations of witchcraft. However, the Netherlands were a relatively calm corner of Europe when it comes to the witch craze. Of the tens of thousands of people that have lost their life to this black episode in European history, only ca. 200 were in what is now the area of the Netherlands. Also, some of the most enlightened thinkers on witchcraft came from this same area, such as Johannes Wier and Balthasar Bekker. Is it a coincidence that by far most of the witch images we know from the 16th and 17th centuries are from the Netherlands?

I’ll leave that question for now – let’s go back to the exhibition. There’s two more rooms, and I find both to be a bit disappointing after what we’ve seen so far. One room is about women as witches. The subject is very interesting, but it just doesn’t really fit the narrative of the rest of the exhibition, and when it comes to subject matter the artworks and objects gathered in this room are (in my humble opinion) all over the place. The last room is about the depiction of witches in our modern times. It’s an empty room with projections on the walls of witches in popular media, such as movies and animations. I knew modern witches would be depicted in this exhibition, but I expected a bit more of it – maybe some actual artworks, some objects or movie props, and maybe a nod to modern witchcraft?


That said, I really enjoyed this exhibition! It was a feast to see all these witch images together. I definitely learned a thing or two from the exhibition, and from Renilde Vervoort’s study Vrouwen op den besem en derghelijck ghespoock (Women on brooms and similar hauntings), which I’m reading right now. I bought it in te museum shop, together with Johan Otten’s Duivelskwartier, which I wrote about last month.

It’s good to see that witchcraft, magic and folklore are getting more popular as research subjects. It teaches us a lot about the nature of people and about the ways of certain parts of the world. And to this pagan, it is also a source of inspiration.