Blow the Mind: Hammer of the Witches

Circa 1500, mythical witches communing in a woodland landscape.
Circa 1500, mythical witches communing in a woodland landscape.
Rischgitz/Getty Images

Imagine a half million corpses -- mostly women -- piled high on a pyre.

Imagine an age of social turmoil, spiritual crisis and technological revolution.

Imagine an age in which children as young as seven were executed for the crime of demonic copulation.

It's difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our 15th century predecessors. Witchcraft trials and witch persecutions have become a part of our shared mythology and history, but what truly went on during those centuries of brutal torture and death?

In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie and I look at some compelling theories to why so many men, children and especially women suffered at the hands of superstitious religious persecution.

We discuss Heinrich Krammer's "Malleus Maleficarum" and its role in creating the myth of witches. And in one of the more fascinating theories, proposed by author Walter Stephens, we explore the possibility that the torture and murder of a half-million victims grew out of the need for renegade, broken Christians to reclaim their belief in God.

It's heavy stuff. It's dark stuff. But the forces underlying this mass-femicide are still present in the world today. If we don't understand what stirred the fires of persecution before, then what chance to we have to prevent their return?


And if you want to learn more about witches, check out our previous episode "What's in a Witch's Brew" and of course the HSW article "How Witchcraft Works."

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.