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It’s Halloween, and all the spooky creatures are about—goblins, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, witches… Most of these are more folklore than history, but witches? Witches are another story entirely. Granted, we’re still not certain that broom-riding, spell-casting witches have ever actually existed—but we know that lots of people have thought they do, and reacted accordingly—often with fatal consequences for the people accused of witchcraft.

But what makes a witch? Most historians of religion agree that witchcraft is best understood as an inversion—the witch is a figure who illustrates the exact opposite of how good Christians are supposed to behave. Christians worship God, witches worship the devil; Christians go to church on the Sabbath, in the daytime, witches attend their Shabbats at midnight; Christians pray for a good harvest, witches delight in causing crops to wither—and so on and so forth. While there were very real people tried for witchcraft, the exact things they were accused of were probably more a product of their accusers’ imaginations than anything they did or didn’t do. And this is the point that witches become very interesting to me as a scholar of Judaism—because witchcraft starts to sound an awful lot like blood libel.

Like witchcraft, blood libel is an accusation based on an inversion. Christians celebrate the Eucharist in which bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus; a blood libel is the accusation that Jews steal Christian children and use their blood to make wine and bread. It’s a very specific accusation, but it follows a larger pattern of Judaism being presented as an inversion of Christian practices—where Christians embrace Christ, Jews reject him (and were even believed to have been responsible for his death); where Christians are redeemed by Christ, Jews embrace eternal damnation; where Christians give charity, Jews practice usury—you can see how this parallels the way that witches were constructed. While some of these accusations had a bit more basis in fact than the ones connected to witchcraft, they still derived most of their strength from the imaginative power of inversion.

The earliest known blood libel originated in Norwich, in connection to the disappearance of a young boy named William in 1144. His body was found outside the city on Holy Saturday. Thomas of Monmouth, whose account tells us most of what we know about William, recounted injuries consistent with crucifixion, and that fact in combination with the timing and the common understanding of Jews as inverted Christians, led suspicion to fall on the local Jews. In that case, King Stephen intervened and stopped anti-Jewish riots from breaking out, but the idea of Jews lying in wait to murder innocent Christian children took hold in the public imagination. Other instances occurred in Gloucester, Bury St Edmunds, Bristol, and Lincoln, before Jews were finally expelled from England in 1290—but the myth of ritual murder quickly spread to the continent, giving rise to numerous riots and executions of Jews, which continued well into the twentieth century—and still comes up from time to time, especially in Russia and the Middle East. Here in the UK, we’re less suspicious of Jews than we were 800 years ago—but our very human tendency to have good-or-bad, us-or-them thinking, means that we’re still prone to invent and exaggerate any sort of difference and imagine it as an inversion.

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