[…] Books can contain just as much evil as they do good. And few can hold a candle to the Malleus Maleficarum, a guidebook written in 1487 to help authorities identify and exterminate people accused of being witches. Instruction guides are meant to help us create , but when it comes to books like the Malleus Maleficarum, all they typically built was panic, fear, and superstition–superstition that we still cling to today. And if the historical record is any indication, it also managed to build something else, at least for a time: mass hysteria, hellbent on destruction.
Witchcraft is a topic Aaron Mahnke has covered before on Lore (as well as in the first season of its spin-off podcast, Unobscured), but episode 138, “Foresight,” provides one of his clearest looks into the demonized dark art. Mahnke begins by considering why people were targeted and outlines the most common traits of those accused of being witches. He also enlightens listeners about the various means for executing condemned witches, which extend beyond the hangings and burnings made familiar by countless pop cultural representations over the years. From here, our host hearkens back to 16th Century Scotland, a hotbed of witchcraft panic. A good portion of the episode is devoted to the hurly-burly surrounding Janet Boyman, a healer who brings significant heat on herself when she branches out into prophesying (a practice that would come to be considered tantamount to attacking with a curse).
“Foresight” satisfies not only with its informative content but also with its strong structuring. The narrative strands tie together perfectly, as Mahnke demonstrates that witchcraft is not merely some outre subject, but rather one (as in the case of Janet Boyman) deeply entangled in national political affairs. The episode builds toward a striking identification of a bitter irony (one which I won’t spoil here), and as an added bonus, links historical record with one of Shakespeare’s most famous, and fantastic, plays.
Along the way, Mahnke also sounds a clear theme, noting the human penchant historically for “burning what we don’t understand.” In our current age of the coronavirus pandemic, where the fear of others and of the threat posed by the invisible world grows daily, this episode of Lore proves terribly timely indeed.