What a Witch Hunt Looks Like

We were talking about witch hunts in the comments to my recent post on lynching and the use of the language of lynching. I said that it’s important that witch hunts threaten more than one’s reputation and that witch hunters use evidence or tests that are not logically connected to the supposed conclusion of witchcraft (among other criteria). To illustrate what we’re actually talking about, I thought we should not stay abstract about witch hunts any more than we were abstract about lynching: and if you haven’t read that post, it’s not abstract at all. That post cannot be more disturbing because of All The Racism, and this one is potentially less disturbing only because of the lack of pictures.

That said, in a world that includes witch hunting, it is important to discuss it honestly, to understand what a witch hunt actually does, what witch hunters actually do. It is every bit as important to understand witch hunting as it is to understand lynching. So, if you’re ready, I give you two short illustrations of witch hunting from the perspective of a victim and from the perspective of a perpetrator.

In some parts of the world, witch hunters not only target adults for imaginary crimes, they target the children. Children, after all, cannot fight back. The Guardian reported on this ten years ago, relating the stories they gathered when visiting children living at a shelter for those who had escaped the witch-hunters. In the Guardian they focussed on victims of Christian witch-hunters, but of course Christianity is far from the only religion that promotes the murder of people on the excuse of witchcraft. This is Mary’s story:

‘My youngest brother died. The pastor told my mother it was because I was a witch. Three men came to my house. I didn’t know these men. My mother left the house. Left these men. They beat me.’ She pushes her fists under her chin to show how her father lay, stretched out on his stomach on the floor of their hut, watching. After the beating there was a trip to the church for ‘a deliverance’.

A day later there was a walk in the bush with her mother. They picked poisonous ‘asiri’ berries that were made into a draught and forced down Mary’s throat. If that didn’t kill her, her mother warned her, then it would be a barbed-wire hanging. Finally her mother threw boiling water and caustic soda over her head and body, and her father dumped his screaming daughter in a field. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she stayed near the house for a long time before finally slinking off into the bush.

Mary was seven.

She says she still doesn’t feel safe. She says: ‘My mother doesn’t love me.’ And, finally, a tear streaks down her beautiful face.

While sexism pervades many witch hunts, from my limiting reading it seems like it does not always do so, at least not primarily. It seems to target outsiders and the vulnerable. In the article above, although I excerpted Mary’s story, young boys (especially) and also boys up to the edge of adolescence are also commonly targeted. A while back when I was doing reading on this topic I came across something that I can’t seem to find again. The substance, however, was that the people in a certain region had good evidence of the reliability of their religious rituals that “find” witches or “prove” witchcraft. What evidence of reliability, you ask? It was that the magical witch-hunters who performed the magic rituals always named someone that those in area already found suspicious: it never found witchcraft among the popular and powerful.

Yeah. Anyway, while the “proofs” of witchcraft never hold up, it isn’t mere whimsy that leads to accusations of witchcraft. Nor is it necessarily naked greed (though both of the articles linked here mention Christian religious leaders taking money to perform exorcisms, identify witches, and break curses). It can be psychologically unbearable to feel powerless in the face of our world’s dangers. I suspect that there is a complex feedback between the desire for an explanation and the process of taking “evidence” out of its context so that it might, at the very least, seem to support the claim that a particular claim is more likely to be true. Performed enough times, “evidence” may seem to accumulate.

The Independent, two years after the story in the Guardian, tells the stories of some witch-hunters. This case also involves Christian witch-hunters, but again, that isn’t the case everywhere. Saudi Arabian government officials prosecute a crime of witchcraft which seems to mix elements of pre-Islamic superstitions with Koranic justifications. India is commonly the site of witch hunts. In addition to the 2000+ who have been jailed by Indian governments, there are others who never come before any official, but are attacked or shunned with no formal accusation and no opportunity for defense. In the case of India, Hindu notions of witchcraft and the nature of evil help shape the form of accusations and the pattern of targets. South American witch hunts are not as well documented as those in India, Saudi Arabia, and sub-Saharan African, but there, too, one can find areas where witch hunts are distressingly common. In South America indigenous religions and Christianity are both implicated. The situation is similar in sub-Saharan Africa, though the person quoted in the story for the Independent appear to be Christian. Not a professional witch-hunter nor a church official, Emanuel Sawyer is a man who has made accusations of witchcraft and participated in hunts led by others:

“Of course witches must be killed!”, Emanuel Swayer tells me, leaning forward. “They are witches!” We are sitting in the nearby town of Nasa-Gin now, in the soft breeze by Emanuel’s fields. A skinny dog is lolling at Emanuel’s feet. He is regarded as a local expert on witches – and how to dispose of them.

“Witches are people who use the power of our ancestors to harm others,” he explains, with a jeer. Most people here believe there are two realms: the physical one which we can all see, and a higher realm, where the spirits of our ancestors reside, eternally watching us. Everybody can appeal to the ancestors for help, by making offerings to them – but only witches ask them to do harm. “The worst thing about witches is if you make a tiny mistake, they’ll kill you,” he says. “It happened to my grandfather. One day he got pricked by a thorn, and he died the next day. How can a thorn prick kill somebody? He must have angered a witch. It is the same with my father. He was a mentally well man. But then he was bewitched and became confused and disappeared and we haven’t seen him since.”

But the witches’ most evil act in their war on Emanuel Swayer was to kill his baby son, Yusuf. “He got severe diarrhoea and died,” he says. “It was the witches. Of course, they deny it – they say I’m not, I’m not, I’m not – but they are. Long ago, in 1984, the Tsungu-Tsungu [a local vigilante group] captured some witches and they admitted it. They admitted it was all true, and this is what they do.”

This is what witch hunts look like. We must not forget.



  1. cartomancer says

    One of the key things to note about witch hunts is that there needn’t always be professional “witch hunters” involved. Very often accusations tend to start and mobs get stirred up by neighbours and local officials and religious leaders – cases where professional “experts” on witches get called in are in the minority, as the two harrowing examples you cite attest. This is not an issue where one can single out pernicious individuals and remove them, it’s about a combination of local culture and severe economic stresses and hardships. Matthew Hopkinses and Balthasar Nusses and their modern equivalents are few and far between – though such people can make already volatile situations far worse.

    There is another dynamic at play, though, which is often evoked by modern commentators likening a situation to a witch hunt. I don’t know whether any modern witch panics across the world show evidence of this, but some (and only some) Early Modern European witch panics were characterised by an escalating fervour to root out more and more witches, rather than just attacks against known problem elements within society. This fervour to root out secret covens of witches was inspired largely by a religious culture that saw witches not just as lone causers of harm but as an organised conspiracy run by the devil that hides in plain sight. Witches weren’t just the creepy old widows at the fringes of society – they could be anybody. They could be your neighbours. They look just like us. And they’re recruiting! This was the idea spread by Kramer and Sprenger, and much more explicitly by later writers on witchcraft such as Nicolas Remy. It is this aspect of the witch hunt that inspired Arthur Miller to write The Crucible as a parable for the McCarthyite persecution of Communists.

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