A question of credibility

by Thomas S. Rue

Published in Harvest, Imbolc/Candlemas, February 1991
Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 19-20

Not long ago, I felt compelled to respond to a letter in an area newspaper, wherein a writer claimed there has only ever been one 'holocaust,' and to suggest otherwise, the writer asserted, diminishes from the horror of the Nazi war crimes.
I wrote:

There are few examples in human history with which to compare Hitler's destructive scope, but such examples exist. Other massive crimes against humanity have included the nearly successful genocides of native peoples in America and in western Europe.
Vast tribes of native Americans were systematically wiped off the face of this continent by my own white ancestors (if not personally, then by assent). Whole families were massacred by the U.S. government and by lawless vigilantes, without any fear of law. There can be no excusing this, and to deny it would be like a modern German denying what occurred at Auschwitz. If this is not genocide, then the word has no meaning.
Another example of a holocaust is that which has come to be known as the Spanish Inquisition. In the contemporary pagan community, these dark ages are recalled as the Burning Times, when witches and Christian heretics were hanged or burned at the stake with equal frenzy. Modern counts place the number of those accused of being witches, who were painfully executed in the name of Jesus, at nine million [emphasis added]. The purpose of the Inquisition was to root out, torture and put to death those who worshipped the ancient goddesses and gods who predated Yahweh. Hitler's evil was but an echo of this.
'Holocaust' is defined in an 1857 edition of Webster's dictionary: 'A burnt sacrifice or offering, the whole of which was consumed by the fire; a species of sacrifice in use among the Jews and some pagan nations.' The word describes the butchery of the nine million witches and others killed during the Christianization of Europe as accurately as it does the six million Jews slaughtered by Hitler.
The numbers are not what are particularly significant. The intent in all three instances was to murder entire people or religions. Fortunately, in none of these three instances were the forces of darkness entirely successful...
Such crimes have happened before in the world. Human nature is such that it is capable of great service and sacrifice. It is up to those of us who remain to do all in our power to ensure a holocaust never happens again. We can do this only by not forgetting those who have gone before" (Rue, 1990).
There have been no published responses to this letter (though a woman I didn't know called and left an answering machine message praising this and other letters published over my name as "incredible," apparently in a positive sense).
There is a compulsive aspect to the historian and the journalist in me, which strives for clarity of vision and accuracy. This is the part which questions the "nine million" allegedly executed during the Holy Inquisition.
Many Craft practitioners are familiar with this number, but I have not been able to ascertain precisely where it comes from. For example, Gerald Gardner (1959) asserts, without any footnote or source for the figure: "It is true that in the early days some Christians were martyrs for their faith. But remember, some nine million people were similarly tortured to death for witchcraft, even if they were not all witches" ( p. 263).
Maybe Gardner heard it from Old Dorothy.
Following in Gardner's footsteps, American Wiccan pioneer Ray Buckland (1986) does not question this count and again, without citing any source: "A rough estimate of the total number of people burned, hung or tortured to death on the charge of Witchcraft, is nine million. Obviously not all of these were followers of the Old Religion" (pp. 5-6).
Even Starhawk (1979), for whom we have tremendous respect, asserts, once again without citing a source: 'Of an estimated 9 million Witches, executed, 80 percent were women, including children and young girls..." (p. 5.)
I am led to wonder whether the nine million figure actually stems from Gardner, who may have pulled it out of thin air! Does this appear anywhere, prior to his writings? Erica Jong (1981) states: "During this period [years not specified] an estimated half-million people -- some chroniclers say more -- were executed for witchcraft. (Gerald Gardner, the noted twentieth-century Witch, says nine million in his work, The Meaning of Witchcraft)" [p. 38, emphasis in original]. Jong also says 80% of this number ("hundreds of thousands ol perhaps millions") were women, but does not say where this comes from. Starhawk? Where did she get it, Gardner?
Barbara Walker (1983) takes a more scholarly and cautious approach when she tells us: "The victims of those five and a half [1257 to 1816] were literally countless. Official burnings were only a beginning. There were also the disrupted, starving unrecorded suicides; unofficial lynchings; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who died unnoticed in the papal crusades heretical groups. There were late-Renaissance witch hunts in Protestant countries, which had no formal connection with the In but certainly took their impetus from it" (p. 444).
Mary Daly'a Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987) contains the following definitive entry: "Burning Times, The: a Crone-logical expression that refers not only to the period of the European witchcraze (the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries) but to the perpetual and worldwide witchcraze perpetuated by patriarchy" (p. 67). Possibly on a premise that the number is irrelevant, Daly does not mention one.
The number question came up at a recent Pagan gathering (Panthea IX) when a singer gave a slightly altered rendition of Murphy's emotionally charged, "Burning Times." Instead of the usual "nine million women," the singer cited only "half a million Witches" who allegedly died. In discussion after the concert, two coveners casually remarked they had heard estimates for the number put to death as Witches or heretics varying between 500,000 and nine million! One person questioned whether there were even million people living in Europe during the years in question. Of course, if we're talking about a systematic process occurring of years (more or less), this latter point becomes moot.
One source (Robbins, 1959) places the number even lower: "If an approximation of those executed as witches be insisted on, reliable suggestion is that of George L. Burr, who estimated a minimum of 100,000 men and women and children burned in alone. One might double this figure for the whole of Europe" (p. 180.)
In one sense, the numbers do not matter. As I wrote in the letter quoted above, numbers are insignificant compared to the' muffler entire people or cultures, or to subjugate, to enslave, terrorize, and control, as patriarchy has done.
However, in another sense, in order to maintain our literary credibility, we need to know what we are talking about historically. There is a difference, though perhaps not so much in moral terms, between the murder of a quarter million or less and the murder of nine people! If our accounts are to be believed, they must be consistent and bear some resemblance to what really occurred.
How many alleged witches were executed, and how do we know? If we don't know, why do we cite dubious numbers?
I invite readers to share documentary evidence or testimony they may have, whether published or otherwise, concerning how many people were executed after accusations of witchcraft or other heresy during the Middle Ages.

[Readers are Invited to respond to Tom Rue, P.O. Box 706, Monticello, New York 12701]


Buckland, Raymond J. (1986). Complete Book of Witchcraft. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, Minnesota.

Daly, Mary and Caputi, Jane (1987). Webster's First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, Beacon.

Gardner, Gerald B. (1959). The Meaning of Witchcraft, Copple House Books: Lakemont, Georgia.

Jong, Erica (1981). Witches. Harry Abrams, Inc.: New York.

Robbins, Russell H. (1959). Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. Crown Publisher: New York.

Rue, Thomas S. (1990). "Other holocausts" (letter), Times Herald-Record: Middletown, New York, September 12.

Starhawk (1979). The Spiral Dance: A rebirth of the ancient religion of the Great Goddess, Harper & Row: New York.

Walker, Barbara G. (1983). The Women's Encyclpedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row: New York.

Additional Link

  • Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt, by Jenny Gibbons, first publised in Pomegranate, Lammas 1998.