Witch Hunting Today

Updated on February 21, 2018
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I've spent almost half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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Estimates are that between 40,000 and 60,000 women were executed for being witches in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries—most of them burned at the stake.

But, humanity has progressed from those dark days. Really?

Let’s drop in on the Arc Pentecostal church in Stratford, in the east end of London. During choir practice in 2015, Pastor Samuel Tavares spotted a demon possessing one of his choristers. This sort of thing calls for strong measures. The choir went into power-prayer mode, commanding the evil spirits to leave. It turns out the woman has schizophrenia. No matter, evangelical churches in Britain have been busy driving out ghouls from their flocks.

The Economist reports that “During the ‘curing’ process, a child might fast for days, or be kept up for nights on end. One pastor says the praying involved can also be violent: people start ‘coughing out stuff,’ he says, or fall on the floor. They may be cut. And simply being branded a witch means rejection and stigma.”

By the end of 2015, London’s police had been told about 60 cases of “belief-based ritual abuse” of children. The cops say this kind of crime is notoriously under reported. The “service” of curing witches offered by some churches carries a fee of up £500 ($700).

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Worse Than Exorcism

As far as we know, nobody in England in recent years has been killed for being a witch. However, Professor Jean La Fontaine of the London School of Economics says children are sent from England to Africa for exorcism and some don’t come back.

Here’s a report from the journal Foreign Affairs “… an angry mob in India dragged a 63-year-old mother of five out of her home and beheaded her after the local goddess accused her of casting evil spells. The victim was one of dozens in the southern state of Assam who have lost their lives due to accusations of witchcraft in recent months.” That report is from August 2015.

The magazine goes on to say that “witch hunts are very much a modern problem.” The practice is cropping up in Papua-New Guinea, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nepal, and several other countries. The terrorists of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) beheaded two women it accused of being witches in June 2015.

A Widespread Problem

According to human rights organizations incidents of witch persecution are increasing.

Writing in The New York Times (July 2014), Mitch Horowitz notes that “In recent years, there has been a spate of attacks against people accused of witchcraft in Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, and even among immigrant communities in the United States and Western Europe.”

“At the very least, it is believed that there are thousands of cases of people accused of witchcraft each year globally, often with fatal consequences, and others are mutilated and killed for witchcraft-related rituals” (The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).

The Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network says “a minimum of 865 (people) will have experienced violations of their human rights in 2013 due to belief in witchcraft and other malevolent beliefs. This is likely to represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of this form of abuse and the true numbers of people experiencing such violations across the world each year are likely to be in the region of many thousands.”

Foreign Affairs reports that witch hunts peak at times of hardship such as droughts, floods, pestilence, and pandemics. Similarly, some scholars trace the start of the European persecution of witches to the Black Plague of 1348 and the Little Ice Age of the mid-15th century.

Finding Scapegoats

Somebody has to be blamed for these catastrophes; in most cases, it turns out that women have become easy targets.

Steve Taylor (Psychology Today) writes that many cultures have viewed women as impure and “sinful creatures who have been sent by the devil to lead men astray.”

Given the profound belief conjured up by religions that women are evil they become the obvious villains. This leads Foreign Affairs to conclude that “Today, it appears that a mixture of deep-seated inequality, political instability, and agricultural disruption from climate change is sending the modern world back to the days of witch-hunting.”

Just as the Navajo Indians killed 40 people accused of being witches in 1878. The Indians had been forced off their traditional lands by the U.S. Army and had suffered terrible privations as a result. Chiefs decided witches must be to blame for the misfortune that had befallen them so balance and harmony could be restored if they were purged.

“Witch-hunting is like an infectious disease and is slowly spreading to newer areas. Solutions will have to be found to eradicate this evil practice.”

Neeva Konwar, National Commission for Women, India.

The McMartin Preschool Trial

Sophisticated Westerners might congratulate themselves that they wouldn’t fall for the kind of witch malarkey that uneducated villagers might fear. Those sophisticated Westerners would be wrong to think that.

In 1983, allegations emerged that blood drinking and human sacrifice were happening at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Dark Satanic rituals and witchcraft were supposed to be taking place in a day-care centre. Lurid and highly implausible claims were made about sexual abuse and flying witches and middle-aged Peggy McMartin Buckey was caught up in the middle of the hysteria.

Ms. Buckey and her family ran the preschool facility and suffered mightily because of what turned into a witch hunt.

The children were questioned after ever-more salacious scenarios were suggested to them. No matter that there was no physical evidence of anything untoward going on, seven day-care owners and teachers faced 321 charges. The trial lasted seven years, cost $15 million and resulted in not a single conviction.

The trial provoked an outbreak of panic that witches were running day-care centres all over the United States, despite there being no single shred of evidence that it was happening.

Bonus Factoids

The Harry Potter novels are the most banned books in the United States on the grounds that they promote witchcraft.

In medieval times a method of determining whether or not a person was a witch was devised. The accused woman (it was almost always a woman) had her right thumb securely tied to her left big toe. She was then thrown into a river or pond. If she floated she was obviously in league with the devil and could be fished out and burned at the stake. If she sank and drowned she had the consolation of being pronounced innocent.

Ireland’s earliest known witch was Lady Alice Kyteler. In 1324, she was condemned to death for using sorcery to bump off her husband, but she escaped before the sentence could be carried out. Of course, someone had to pay for the terrible crime, so Lady Alice’s maid was burned at the stake in her stead.

Sources

  • “Toil and Trouble.” The Economist, December 5, 2015
  • “Toil and Trouble.” Evan Fraser, et al, Foreign Affairs, August 16, 2015.
  • “The Persecution of Witches, 21st-Century Style.” Mitch Horowitz, New York Times, July 4, 2014.
  • “Witches in the 21st Century.” United Nations Human Rights, August 24, 2009.
  • “21st Century Witchcraft Accusations & Persecutions.” Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, 2013.
  • “Why Men Oppress Women.” Steve Taylor, Psychology Today, August 30, 2012.
  • “The Lives They Lived … Peggy McMartin Buckey … The Devil in The Nursery” Margaret Talbot, New York Times, January 7, 2001.
  • “Witch Purge of 1878.” Martha Blue, Dine College Pr, June 1990.
  • “Secret Life of Modern-day Witches.” Lynette Horsburgh, BBC News, August 20, 2012.

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