Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe

By Owen Davies; William de Blécourt | Go to book overview

6
The Devil's pact: a male strategy

Soili-Maria Olli

By the second half of the seventeenth century, as the witch trials reached their climax in Sweden, belief in the interventionist powers of the Devil had become not only a major preoccupation of the educated classes, but also seems to have considerably exercised the minds of the wider population, illiterate as well as literate. It is apparent, however, that different groups in society held different views as to the nature and consequences of dealing with the Devil. Both the Lutheran Church and the secular authorities held up Satan as the fount of all evil and used the figure and fear of Satan as a means of disciplining and controlling the populace. To have any sort of dealings with him was to commit not only the gravest of personal sins but to be complicit in his master-plan to undermine Christian society.1 Yet, as nineteenth-century folklore collectors found, the Devil was not always considered a scary, dangerous figure. He held an ambivalent position in popular beliefs, and was even thought of by some as a reliable friend and helper.2 This contrasting view of satanic relations is also revealed in the records of eighteenth-century Swedish prosecutions of those accused of making pacts with the Devil. As these trials show, for men in particular, the Devil provided a strategy for bettering one's position in life, and not necessarily at the expense of society. These Devil's pact trials also highlight the differing conceptions of female and male satanic relationships, and the way in which that fundamental tool of the Enlightenment – growing literacy – enabled a wider section of society to engage with Satan rather than reject him.


The idea of the Devil's pact

The concept of the Devil's pact was a prominent theme in early modern European theology. Central to the debate was the idea that witches and magical practitioners of all types gained their powers from selling their soul to the Devil. According to learned doctrines no human being could possibly possess any supernatural powers or occult knowledge.3 Only God could

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