Russian semiologist Yuri M. Lotman has analyzed how epidemics of fear work through the study of witch-hunting processes that claimed thousands of victims in Catholic and Protestant countries centuries ago.

In the article, published in the latest edition of the Revista de Occidente magazine, the most senior representative of cultural semiotics in Spain highlighted that the witch persecution intensity curve “paradoxically coincides with progress in the field of culture and science”. “As Renaissance ideas spread, so do fear and processes”, asserted the expert.

During rationalism, “the horrors of various centuries disappeared in just three or four decades making it hard to believe they ever existed” and then “the myth that fear and fanaticism stem from an almost prehistoric age” appears, but in the Middle Ages, trials of witches were isolated phenomena, concluded Lotman, who analysed numerous documents where the processes were collected.

The Spanish semiologist points out that “it is not the threat that creates fear, but rather fear that creates the threat”. This threat, witchcraft, is “a social construction, the creation of semiotic codes, which the society in question uses to code itself and the world around it”. 

The “cloud of fear” means people consider certain acts as normal which outside of this sphere would appear to be foolish. The increase in fear was aided by the success of printing press, which helped spread demonological literature, the influence of the East and the discovery of America, but the victims themselves were not aware of these causes.

“Lotman takes a historical event to see how human passion works”, explained the director of the Cultural Semiotic Studies Group, Jorge Lozano, who was aware of the existence of the text stored in the file of Lotman’s son, at a conference held in Venice last May, and who decided to disseminate it in Spain.

Lozano, who introduced the Russian author’s work into Spain at the end of the 1970s, highlights the importance of the semiotic study, which amongst other things examines how historical discourse is created, preceding the historian’s analysis. “It is not the same to consider witch-hunting as an accident or the result of an epidemic of fear”, he pointed out.

Lotman says that it is the voice of the “anonymous mass”, rumours and jokes that lead to an atmosphere of fear which would not exist without this, and which he accuses. And the accused is a minority: “society chooses truly its most defenceless part”, in this case, women, and “classifies them as the enemy”. The victims are “extremely diverse”: the old and young, hideous and beautiful, very poor and very rich: the middle level mass, devoid of defined characteristics, is “dominated by fear, hate and envy” towards those that possess some type of outstanding quality.

The scientific value of translation

Lotman worked for many years and, spending a great deal of time on this matter, prepared two versions, with his son continuing his work, explained Margarida Ponsatí, the person responsible for translating the work of this author from Russian into Spanish. She commented that the semiologist is “surprisingly clear to everyone”, so much so that he had a television programme on Russian culture and has “a lot of readers”. He “comes out a lot in a scientific article, you forget he is a linguist, it is if you were talking to him and he was walking with you”, she added. 

Lotman explained that accusations against witches are repeated. They are a group with a “reverse” faith, which parodies the truth: Satanic prayers are normal prayers read backwards, with elements of the liturgy being black candles made from human fat with the flame pointing downwards, parodies of prayers or receiving communion with children's blood or urine. 

But witches are also portrayed as a “harmful community”, accused, like early Christian communities, of the murder of newborn babies -society was reflected in those innocent babies-. Another repeated accusation is that of having a type of special and unbridled lust related to trying to prevent other people from engaging in sexual activities. 

Referencia bibliográfica:  Yuri .M. Lotman. “Caza de brujas. La semiótica del miedo”. Revista de Occidente (10-33), OCTUBRE 2008.