Ufos, Witchcraft, and Necromancy

The French historian Lucien Febvre argued that "the mental equipment available in the sixteenth century made it as good as impossible for anyone to be an atheist, and, perhaps more important, that an atheist could only have been a solitary figure to whom nobody would have paid any significant attention. But not everyone found belief easy or unbelief difficult. Another of Febvre's assessments was more accurate: he referred to the sixteenth century and the three or four preceding as centuries that wanted to believe.

Skepticism about the world of spirit did not arise suddenly in the late seventeenth century or the early eighteenth to destroy belief in witchcraft. The battle between the skeptic and the believer was inside the thoughts of every writer who defended the existence of demons, witchcraft, or both. Witchcraft theory and witch-hunting were caused by skepticisism, not by belief or credulity. Every defense of witchcraft and demonic reality was expressed through the negation of negation: "Witches and demons do not Dot exist; their magic and miracles are not not happening." Witchcraft declined when skepticism overcame the resistance erected against it.

Corning to terms with the imperceptibility, unprovability, and possible nonexistence of the spirit world happened gradually, in step with a reluctant acceptance of the extraordinary power of the human imagination. The subsequent movements that most knowingly exalted the human imagination, either in theory, such as baroque and Romantic aesthetics, or in practice, such as fascination with folk- and fairy tales ("the imagination of the common people"), took place in an atmosphere of emotional exaltation. That exaltation could not have been completely positive: it was in part a manic reaction to dejection and depression. Perhaps the mood was best summarized by a letter that John Keats wrote in 1817: "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.... The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream-he awoke and found it truth....  for a life of sensations rather than thoughts!

But the only way to avoid thinking was to dream; the search for those sensations, promised by the demonic body, proved too elusive. The search for them outside the imagination failed repeatedly.

The thirteenth century was a crucial period in the development of necromancy as both idea and practice." This was the age of Aquinas, and there is clear evidence that necromancy was already under consideration as a way of investigating whether spirits really existed or were capable of interaction with humans. Around the time Aquinas was born, the German Cistercian monk Caesanius of Heisterbach wrote his Dialcgus miraculorum, or Dialogue on Miracles (1225), which was very influential in the later Middle Ages. Prefiguring Nider and other witchcraft theorists, Caesarius couched his ideas in a kind of catechism, a dialogue between a learned monk and a curious, somewhat skeptical novice. In the fifth distinctio (or book) of the dialogue, the novice professes to have "no doubt in my mind" about angels since they are mentioned in the Bible but says that he wants to hear the biblical evidence for demons. When the older monk provides a complete list, the novice then admits: "I do not confess myself satisfied, unless you make these things clear by living [or lively: vivacibus I examples."

Despite his opening gambit, the novice admits that biblical authority is not enough. Hearing of contemporary experiences with demons would make them seem more real. This attitude is presumably less.

Richard Kieckhefer rightly observes that, "in so far as necromancers contributed to the plausibility of claims about witches, they bear indirect responsibility for the rise of the European witch trials in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries." As we see from Vineti, moreover, clerics who prided themselves on their orthodoxy were as important as actual necromancers in fort-ning the stereotype of the witch. Clerical condemnations of necromancy and defenses of exorcism laid the crucial groundwork for vindicating the possibility of real interaction with demons. The only remaining step was to posit physical, bodily interaction, and, for this, women were most interesting because of stereotypes about their passive" sexuality.

Necromancers regularly referred to their operations as experiments." The term is amply justified, whether the point of the experiment was the acquisition of power over demons (the traditional explanation) or the mere demonstration that demons are there. Similarly, the element of experimentation can rarely be discounted from exorcism itself, even in the earliest period of the formation of witchcraft theory.

The temptations that exorcism offered to early theorists of witchcraft are vividly illustrated by Heinrich Kramer. The Malleus goes beyond jean Vineti by claiming that witches can induce demons to possess other people and explaining how. As sole support of these allegations, Kramer once again claims to have personal experience, gathered in Rome during the papacy of  Pius II (1458-64), that is, around the time Vineti composed his Tractatus.

Heinrich  Kramer says that he made the acquaintance in Rome of a young Bohemian priest who believed himself possessed by a devil. Kramer took an intense personal interest in the Bohemian's case: his descriptions of attempted exorcisms imply that he was in charge of them. This encounter with spirit possession and exorcism influenced his obsession with hunting down and interviewing the "willing accomplices" of devils. Although Kramer does not quote Aquinas's contention that inappropriate knowledge demonstrates the presence of a devil, he dramatizes it:

And at last the demon said, "I will not go forth." And when he was asked why, he answered, "Because of the Lombards." And being asked why he would not go forth because of the Lombards, he answered in the Italian tongue (although the afflicted priest did not understand that language), "They all practice such and such things" [faciunt sic ct sic], naming the worst vice of lustfulness. And afterwards the priest asked me, saying, "Father, what did those Italian words mean which he brought forth from my mouth?" And when I told him, he answered, "I heard the words, but I could not understand them.

Kramer need not mention Aquinas's proof since he can claim the same knowledge through direct experience rather than reasoning or authority. Kramer's test case reverses the traditional proof. it features a literate cleric ignorant of a vernacular language, not illiterate women or peasants declaiming in Latin or discussing theology. The subject of the devil's declamations is also a departure, for it is not obviously theological. Yet theology is never terribly far from a nil nd like Kramer's. The "Lombards" in question are almost certainly not an ethnic group in the modern sense but a profession: Italian usurers, about as hated as Jewish moneylenders in in any countries and vulnerable to similar kinds of defamation. Kramer's euphemistic wording implies that the Bohemian's devil accused Italian moneylenders of sodomy. This charge was common enough that Boccaccio alluded to it in the first story of the Decameron, while Dante's hell placed usurers and sodomites alongside each other under a rain of fire that recalled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Witchcraft treatises were anything but illogical or irrational, and we are still living with their legacy. Their theories were perhaps insane, but insanely logical. They were not produced by the sleep or dreaming of reason, as Francisco Goya maintained; they were reason's daydream, produced by its insomnia and hyperactivity. "Witchcraft theorists superficially resembled modern proponents of social intolerance and incivility. But a far more important question is how far we-the "good people" resemble witchcraft theorists. To what degree does Christian morality continue to be invoked, even in post-Christian, secularized form, to reinforce belief in spirits and human immortality?

Problems but "did not like to speak" of them, except to deny them elaborately or condemn them as the impious and criminal thoughts of others. In Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas asserts that, in the early-modern period, "the evidence of widespread religious skepticism is not to be underrated, for it may be reasonably surmised that many thought what they dared not say aloud." He suggests that "not enough justice has been done to the volume of apathy, heterodoxy, and agnosticism which existed long before the onslaught of industrialism.

Not that everyone who advocated the pursuit and punishment of witches was an atheist. But the thought was lurking in the logic of their arguments and actions. It was often, to quote Borges, "the only prohibited word." At times, in its disguise as the thought of another, it was painfully explicit. For several centuries, "the thought" was, not atheism proper, but what nervous Christians called Sadducism or Sadduceeism, a disbelief in the reality of spirit, what we would now call materialism. A desire to be convinced of the reality of spirit was the psychic glue that held the witch myth together, firoin Johannes Nider to sometime in the eighteenth century. This conceptual adhesive accounts for otherwise puzzling resemblances between myths about witches, Jews, necromancers, and heretics.

Without our recognition of this desire to believe, witchcraft appears to be a bundle of unrelated, even contradictory beliefs, held together by illogical, even irrational hatreds. Resistance to skepticism, the other name for the need to believe, was inherently logical, if only by opposing the logic of skepticism and doubt. The witch supposedly experienced the fondest daydreams of her persecutors, but in an inverted and ostensibly frightening form. She rebutted point for point the objections of the skeptic, that frightening other se-who haunted the thoughts of witchcraft theorists. Ironically, both the skeptic and the witch existed in the mind of the theologian long before they were found in external reality. In fact, the theologian's witch never existed externally, but the skeptic became an increasingly real presence-during the sixteenth century by opposing witchcraft persecutions and in the seventeenth as the dreaded atheist.

For the writers whose work I have examined, and for many others, witchcraft theory was theological damage control. Their deepest concerns far outlasted the period of witchcraft persecutions. Examples are legion, but four, one from the eighteenth century and three from the twentieth, will suffice.

John Wesley complained to his diary in 1768 that "the giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, the giving up of the Bible." Wesley admitted that, by his time, "most of the learned men of Europe have given up all to interviewers. Corporeality has evolved with the times, however. The aliens' bodies can now be real instead of virtual, making hybrid humanalien beings easier to conceive.

The suprahumans' artificial insemination can also be performed surgically, rather thereby old-fashioned copulation. Some abductees suspect that they themselves are hybrids.

The voluntary, solitary witches who call themselves alien abductees perform no malqficia and have their own peculiar breed of kindly inquisitors among specialized psychiatrists. Some of these psychiatric researchers, professedly for the most humane, altruistic, and scientific of motives, solicit and record the abductees' "expert testimony" about corporeal interaction with aliens. The most eminent theorist of this movement is the psychiatrist John Mack of Harvard Medical School. Among enthusiasts of alien abduction, Mack has parlayed his impressive credentials and seductive prose into the kind of moral and scientific authority that Heinrich Kramer would have envied.

Unbeknownst to Mack, I am sure, his broadest contentions about the suprahuman world are modernized versions of Kramer's:

The alien beings that appear to come to us from the sky in strange spacecraft present a particularly confusing challenge to ... naturalistic or obicctivist ideology. For they seem to partake of proper-ties belonging to both the spirit and the material worlds, bridging, as if effortlessly, the division between these realms which has become increasingly sacred and unbreachable since science and religion went their separate ways in the seventeenth century. On the one hand, these beings seem able to be seen by the abductees, who feel their bodies moved and find small lesions inflicted upon them. On the other hand, the beings seem to come, like intermediaries from God or the Devil, from a nonembodied source, and they are able to open the consciousness of abductees to realms of being that do not exist in the physical world as we know it. Before concluding I will speculate about why the barrier between the spirit and material worlds has become so entrenched in the West. For it is this false dichotomy that makes our confrontations with beings who do not respect this gulf so shocking.

If this paragraph seems to imply that science is nothing more than an ideology or a sacred cow-like religion-that is what Mack's book attempts to prove.

Mack announces that Western religion and Western science are equally obsolete: he is post-Christian as well as postmodern. Yet, with the exception of tnal~ficia, every theme of fifteenth-century Christian witchcraft has analogues in the strange narratives that Mack constructs from inter-views with his patients. The psychological atmosphere is the same: fear of the imagination, fear of naturalistic explanations (including traditional psychotherapies), hope masquerading as fear, doublenegative formulations, and palindromic reasoning.

As in 1487, a disillusioned literate quester seeks to confirm his metaphysical daydreams by the expert testimony of intellectually, emotionally, and socially underprivileged persons, hoping to discover proof of a reality from which he feels cut off. Mack rebels against the cold impersonality of what he tellingly calls consensus reality: "I am often asked," he says, "why, if UFOs and abductions are real, the spaceships do not show up in more obvious form." The answer, predictably, is that these "encounters" are being directed by "an intelligence that provides enough evidence that something profoundly important is at work"; yet this intelligence "does not offer the kinds of proof that would satisfy an exclusively empirical, rationalistic way of knowing." The solution is "for us to embrace the reality of the phenomenon and to take a step toward appreciating that we live in a universe different from the one in which we have been taught to believe."

The difference between John Mack and Heinrich Kramer, aside from their methods of interviewing expert witnesses, amounts to this: the psychiatrist is attempting to recover what the inquisitor was attempting not to lose. The worldview that Kramer vaguely feared has since triumphed and evolved: it is a social reality rather than an indistinct threat, and it often appears overwhelming. Kramer and Mack share the same anxieties, and each could say with the pop singer Bob Seeger, "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

In his slashing condemnation of Christianity, Nietzsche claimed that "faithmeans wanting not to know what is true." Thomas Aquinas, whose fascination with demonic corporeality foreshadowed the mythology of witchcraft, explored willed ignorance from another angle. According to Garry Wills, "It can be objected that the deceivers in question have first deceived themselves, that they are sincere in their adherence to falsehoods, so they cannot be faulted for acting on genuinely held views. Yet the Roman hierarchy's own most favored theologian, Thomas Aquinas, held that there is such a thing as 'cultivated ignorance,' ignorantia affectata, an ignorance so useful that one protects it, keeps it from the light, in order to continue using it.... He called this kind of ignorance not exculpatory but inculpatory. It is a willed ignorance, though an unconfessed one."

Christians have no monopoly on this kind of thinking. The Christian ideology of spirit continues to exert its appeal even over "post-Christians."

The philosopher Antony Flew tells a parable that purports to expose the fallacy of theistic discourse, or God talk, by self-styled believers.

Flew's parable fits the discourse of witchcraft theory as well as or better than it does discourse about God:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells's "invisible man" could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.)

But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last the Skeptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"

The answer is that the "Believer's" god, denion, or gardener feels better. Flew's Believer is expressing, not belief, but resistance to skepticism, a refusal to believe the empirical evidence that certain things are not happening.

Flew asserts that such discourse is meaningless because it is unfalsifiable-since it cannot be proved wrong under any circumstances, it can never be proved right. Granted, "It does not not exist" is not the same proposition as "Look, there it is." But whether it is intellectually respectable or not, the dialogue between the skeptic and the believer runs on in the minds of many people, educated and not, scientists and not. The emotional stakes are too high to silence it.

In the Symposium, Plato's Socrates claimed that the gods never have direct contact with humans. Instead, they employ the daimons, beings halfway between gods and humans, as their intermedianies or messengers." Plato's term daimonion gave the West its word for demons, his word for messenger (a claim made for Blavatsky by some followers!), aggelos, the word for angels. When God begins to seem impossibly distant, Western Christians rediscover angels and demons. If these messengers begin to seem distant or unreal as well, someone begins daydreaming that somewhere-somewhere close – other people must be experiencing suprahuman reality, physically, empirically, unmistakably.