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Oct. 27 column -- Halloween

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    THE LIBERTARIAN, By Vin Suprynowicz
    Thoughts on the occasion of the October moon

    The column for which I receive the most "repeat" requests remains my
1992 Halloween submission, "Thoughts on the occasion of the October moon."
That essay follows here, as it originally appeared:

    #  #  #

     Halloween approaches, the day when many an American parent will suit
up the little ones in black robes, matching 17th century conical hats, and
oversized warty noses, sending them off to delight the neighbors with this
impersonation of a witch, as traditionally represented from 17th century
Austrian paintings of the Hexensabbat right up through Disney's "Snow

  Even the newspapers generally play along, running the results of polls
that ask Americans how many actually believe in such mythological creatures
as ghosts, trolls and witches.

  But witches are not mythological creatures, of course. They were the very
real practitioners of a religion which pre-dated Christianity in Europe,
and which had coexisted quite peaceably with the new Christian church for
more than 1,000 years, from the Council of Nicaea until the fateful year
1484 A.D., under the quite sensible rule of the Canon Episcopi, which
instructed Christian clerics through all those years that -- in cases where
sorcery or commerce with the devil was charged but could not be proven --
it was the accuser, not the accused, who was to suffer the penalty for
those crimes.

  Needless to say, this held false charges to a minimum.

  All that changed after 1484, when an ambitious but ethically challenged
Dominican friar and embezzler by the name of Heinrich Kramer managed to
convince Pope Innocent VIII to set the Holy Office of the Inquisition onto
the witches, using torture to extract confessions, authorizing anonymous
accusations without any right for the accused to face her accuser, and
granting the soon-busy witch-hunters the rights to seize and divide the
estates of the accused (who were always found guilty), an invitation to
systematic legal looting so foul that it was never allowed again in Western
history ... until our current War on Drugs, of course.

  As many as 9 million persons -- some doubtless practitioners of the Old
Craft, but many, especially in later years, just as doubtless falsely
accused -- were burned or hanged before the burning times faded away with a
kind of embarrassed shrug in the early 1700s.

  The crime of which they were accused? Worshipping a female deity, a
goddess of the earth, and her male consort, the goat-horned male god of

  Christian clerics, themselves mostly illiterate, called this female deity
"the abomination," which has subsequently been interpreted to mean the
horned devil of Hebrew tradition. But practitioners of a fertility cult
would have had little reason to mock the late-comer Christianity by hanging
crosses upside down or reciting masses backwards. "Satanism," to the extent
that it ever existed (and I suspect more black masses were chanted on
London film sets in the 1960s and '70s than anywhere in the four centuries
preceding), is a very different thing.

    #  #  #

    Why should we care about the fate of the witches? For starters, it
appears the witches stressed not the superiority of either sex over the
other, but rather a balance between male and female principles -- an
obvious notion for early agriculturalists trying to come to a metaphorical
understanding of the germination of crops in the "mother" earth thanks to
the intervention of those primeval "male" agencies, the sun and the rain.

  But the culture which destroyed the witches was not merely
male-dominated. The history of our European ancestors of the 16th and 17th
centuries presents a spectacle of bloodthirsty intolerance, a perverse
catalogue of self-flagellation and repulsion at sexuality which found
outlet only in the frenzied drive to conquer and enslave both the natural
world and any other culture that presented itself. No matter how we may
celebrate their competitive superiority from a safe distance, this was
clearly a bunch of sick puppies.

  Was it the plagues, which quite often left the continent literally in the
hands of teenagers? Whatever the reason, using their superior technology of
sail and cannon, and helped mightily by bacteriological allies to which
they had developed at least partial immunity, the Europeans didn't merely
conquer the indigenous populations of the Americas, they ruthlessly
eradicated whole cultures, and with them any medical or other knowledge
they might have had to offer, sweeping all aside as the "spawn of the

  Meantime, European women were being stripped of their property and other
rights (many "witches," curiously, were widows of independent means), at
precisely the time when their presense in the councils of church and state
might have maintained some semblance of sanity.

  The Europeans of the time adopted little of our hypocritical modern-day
pretense of being horrified at "drug use" per se -- they happily imported
coffee, tobacco, opium, and cocaine. In fact, they forced the opium trade
on China when it proved to be the only thing for which the Chinese would
trade silver bullion.

  But while they reveled in novel forms of drunkenness, what did horrify
those brave conquerors was the use of any hallucinogenic substance as a
means to religious revelation, a superstitious dread of alternative paths
to spiritual enlightenment which still hangs on in our aforementioned and
thoroughly irrational "War on Drugs."

  (Which drug is involved in more incidents of spouse battery and
inter-family murder by a factor of millions-to-1: alcohol or LSD? Which
will get you 20 years in the federal pen, while the other now comes in
convenient "wide-mouth 12-packs"?)

  The wholesale eradication of the cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas was
justified not because of their practice of slavery and ritual slaughter --
Pizarro and Cortes would have found those familiar enough -- but because
they were found to be using peyotl, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and
ololiuhqui (a variety of morning glory seed) in their religious rituals,
sure signs of "witchcraft," and coincidentally a method of seeking direct
revelations from the gods which really delivered the goods -- hardly fair
competition for the modest little Spanish communion wafer.

  Why did the conquistadors relate such practices to the witches back home?
Because the witches, too, in a triumph of empirical science (Northern
Europe has no reliably safe natural hallucinogens), had found ways to turn
such normally deadly poisons as henbane, monkshood, and belladonna into an
externally-applied ointment which would promote religious revelation by
inducing a sensation of flying, followed by ecstatic visions.

  (The stuff worked best when applied to the mucous membranes with a smooth
wooden rod or staff -- the "witch's broomstick" of our modern Halloween.)

  This was the great evil of the witches, and the justification for
destroying millennia of the (start ital)materia medica(end ital) which they
had gathered -- the traditional folk knowledge of medicinal plants which
was largely destroyed with the Wise Women of 16th and 17th century Europe,
and which we are only painfully piecing together again today.

    #  #  #

    It's commonly held that this order of midwives and herbal healers were
a superstitious lot, rejecting the more "scientific" advances of the
academically trained doctors of their time.

  The truth is just the opposite. What could be more scientific than
carefully observing and noting the effects of medicinal herbs over a period
of generations? What could be a more superstitious pile of nonsense than
the theories of the 2nd century quack Galen, whose theory that health is
dominated by the "four humours" remained gospel for centuries, refined with
the addition of harsh purgatives and the exquisite nonsense of

  So fatal was the standard practice of medicine in the centuries after the
witches were eliminated that most leading statesmen of the time -- George
Washington included -- died while being bled by doctors. (Washington woke
up with a sore throat at the age of 67, and died within 48 hours after
receiving a cathartic enema, being dosed with poisonous mercury and
antimony, and having literally half his blood -- four pints -- drained from
his body, all in keeping with the best medical advice of the day.)

  All three of Louis XVI's elder brothers were killed by the blood-letting
of physicians during youthful illnesses. The last direct heir to the
Bourbon throne was preserved only after the queen mother bundled him away
to a locked room and refused on pain of death to let any of the court
physicians have at him.

  Superstition? Ask most modern patients whether they would rather be
injected with a purified white extract, or swallow a tea made from the same
herb, and see whether there isn't a "superstitious" preference for the
power of the magic syringe or even for surgery over the remedy in its
naturally-occurring form, even when the latter offers better control of
dosage and side effects. Chew up a bunch of bug-eaten leaves? How

  The ancient Egyptians were fighting infection with fruit molds as early
as the date of the Ebers papyrus, but thousands had to die of pneumonia,
puerperal fever and meningitis, all through the late Middle Ages and right
through the 19th century, before Fleming could get anyone to take another
look at penicillin. It was with similar reluctance -- and not until 1795,
when Napoleon seemed likely to put them all out of business unless they got
practical in a hurry -- that the established brotherhood of "scientific"
physicians finally acknowledged that the "old wives' remedy," lemon juice,
was a better cure for naval scurvy than all their acids and caustic salts
put together.

    #  #  #

    This is the tradition of ignorance, intolerance, and futility which we
honor when we dress up our children to ridicule warty old witches, or when
we protest (as parents groups in Le Mesa, Calif. and elsewhere continue to
do every year) that Roald Dahls' book "The Witches" should be banned from
school libraries because it "portrays witches as ordinary-looking women."

  Only the dimming effects of time -- and the fact that the Inquisition
pretty much got them all -- render this outrage acceptable. To find a
modern parallel, imagine the (fully appropriate) public outcry if it were
discovered that some small town in Bavaria, from which for some undisclosed
reason all the Jewish families disappeared in 1942, had since decided to
launch a new Halloween custom, in which many of the town's blonde-haired
little children were dressed up in yarmulkes and artificially large beaked
noses, and sent out to play pranks and demand loot under the guise of being
"nasty little Jews." Imagine further that the more religious local townfolk
demanded the removal of certain children's books from the local library,
because they depicted Jews as "people or ordinary human appearance."

  A healthy skepticism about many of our modern-day "witches" and some of
their New Age mumbo jumbo may be in order ... though surely it's not up to
us to choose which of their exotic notions it's "acceptable" to explore.

  But shall we extend our inherited intolerance to the many serious
researchers now trying to rediscover the healing properties of plants, to
overcome centuries of medical libel designed to convince us that
mild-mannered natural remedies which can take weeks to rebuild our
immunities are not worth our time, that the only valuable medicines are
purified (and thus patentable) toxins that kill "bad" cells in a test tube,
no matter how much damage they cause the "host organism" in the process?

  Excepting the odd mountain hamlet in Gwynedd, the Tirol, and the
Hebrides, our direct links to the Wise Women of old are probably lost for
good. But rediscovering their worldview, a beneficent vision of humankind
inextricably balanced in nature's mandala, is a journey well worth
beginning anew -- perhaps even on the night of the Samhain moon.

    #  #  #

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas
Review-Journal. Readers may contact him via e-mail at [email protected] The web
sites for the Suprynowicz column are at
http://www.infomagic.com/liberty/vinyard.htm, and
http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. Watch for Vin's book, "Send in the Waco
Killers," coming from Huntington Press in February, 1999. The column is
syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications,
P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.


Vin Suprynowicz,   [email protected]

The evils of tyranny are rarely seen but by him who resists it. -- John
Hay, 1872

The most difficult struggle of all is the one within ourselves. Let us not
get accustomed and adjusted to these conditions. The one who adjusts ceases
to discriminate between good and evil.  He becomes a slave in body and
soul. Whatever may happen to you, remember always: Don't adjust! Revolt
against the reality! -- Mordechai Anielewicz, Warsaw, 1943

* * *

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Robert A. Hettinga <mailto: [email protected]>
Philodox Financial Technology Evangelism <http://www.philodox.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'