Professor Michael Benton
Hunting for the Witch in Modern Society
Racism, misogyny, religious persecution, the act of committing hate crimes; these flawed mindsets and practices that are embarrassingly still prevalent in modern society can be viewed through the lens of a singular emotion, fear. The fear of the unknown, the fear of change, the fear of being confronted with something that challenges one’s own personal beliefs and ideals have historically caused seemingly rational people to erupt in irrational violence. Not that being fearful is in any way an excuse to carry out prejudicial violence of any kind, but it does however begin to explain the violent actions that follow such a volatile frame of thought.
The actions of which can lead in either two directions: that of a witch-hunt, in the figurative sense where an individual, group, or an entire social class can be viewed as different or less than in regards to the traditional societal standards. Deeming them the supposed cause of any given social plight, allowing the denial of the rights and privileges that are held by a civilized society. Or as the full blown literal act of the accusations, convictions, and brutal executions of many people (primarily women) in communities where they have perhaps lived for many years, experiencing the ultimate betrayal in being accused by their neighbors, friends, and even family members of practicing witchcraft in the attempt to cause harm to an individual or to their community as a whole.
The latter of which could be simply viewed as a past occurrence committed most notably in the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries of Europe and North America, most notoriously in Salem, Massachusetts. However, strikingly these actions are still being committed to this day, in rural regions of the world, such as in Papa New Guinea where it is estimated that 150 tortures and executions of accused witches continues to happen every year throughout the developing island nation (Russell).
I intend to discuss the history of the early witch-hunts in Europe and North America, the possible mindsets and factors that are thought to have fueled the fire of persecution, and the murderous events that followed. As well as how these events parallel with the brutal attitude and activities that are continuing to threaten the safety of women in Papa New Guinea to this day. How the mindset of a witch-hunt can also be seen figuratively across present day North America, within the attitudes and actions of people that lead to the persecution of people in regards to their race, and religious practices; and how we as a nation can put and end to this backwards mindset.
We begin to look at the history of witch-hunting by discussing an event that occurred in the late 1400’s, in Southwest Germany: two Catholic priests by the names of Heinrich Kramer, and his colleague Jakob Sprenger began their work on crafting their famous book, the Malleus Maleficarum, translated as The Hammer of Witches (Demos, 62-63). This infamous piece of skewed literature, contained a “bull” (official statement) by the newly installed Pope, Innocent VIII, which in itself attributed to being a license to carry out unlimited witch-hunting; this book was the official guide to all witch related activities, and offered a comprehensive model of responses for judges and inquisitors in dealing with such matters for centuries to come (Demos, 63). The responses enacted by these political and judicial officials were primarily against women who were living in low-income and widowed.
According to Emily Oster, “Between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, as many as one million individuals were executed for the crime of witchcraft” (1). Oster continues to state that the majority of the victims were women who were poor and widowed, and that the trials and executions occurred primarily in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In one town located in Germany, 400 people were executed for witchcraft in a single day (1). These numbers are staggering, and just how does this sort of femicide even begin to be explained? The answer may rest partly on the changes of weather. The Malleus Maleficarum contains a chapter titled “How They Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, to Blast Both Man and Beasts”. This leads into the viewpoint that witches are capable of controlling the weather, a possibility of a direct concern for the people of the seventeenth century, that were themselves in the midst of a little ice age due to drastic climate change, effecting food production (Oster, 2). The people of this time period with their limited understanding of the concept of climate change and the causes of weather, could understandably fall into the belief that a sinister force was causing the devastation to their daily lives, and with that said, seek out to destroy the source of said sinister force. However, weather wasn’t the only force of nature that the Europeans and early Americans believed that the witch was capable of controlling. Kinetic energy could also be viewed as a tool for a witch to manipulate for the purpose of causing harm or death.
This belief of the manipulation of kinetic energy can be discussed in and example of an event that occurred in the year 1654, in Windsor, Connecticut. A woman by the name of Lydia Gilbert was accused of being a witch, and using witchcraft to curb the bullet fired from a mishandled musket during a drill conducted by the local militia, to in fact murder a man named Henry Stiles for the reason of not repaying the debt owed to her family (Demos, 73-77). Lydia Gilbert was executed shortly after her indictment. Lydia was hung by the neck in the midst of her neighbors happily cheering at the destruction of evil. How Lydia must have felt during the entire ordeal of accusations, throughout her trial, and especially during the few short moments that remained of her life when she was able to look out onto the cheering crowd of people that she knew, right before she dropped to an agonizing death, no one could ever know. As for the crowd however, chances are that it contained cheering women that at some point would be hanging from a rope in the very same gallows where Lydia currently was. The emotions felt by the crowd were possibly a combination of fear, confusion, and hate for something not entirely understood. John Demos suggests that perhaps the reason lies in the fact that these early Americans came from Europe in the time of the great European witch craze, during the early seventeenth century (80-81). The fact of being secluded in the wilderness on relatively unknown land, with the existence of witches and witchcraft very much a part of daily life, leaves it no surprise that witch-hunting became so quickly prevalent in the new land, and would soon turn to also be viewed through the lens of racism and religious persecution.
Demos suggests that the prejudice in these accusations, in the form of racism and religious persecution began widely against the new arrivals in their colonies beginning in 1616, the Africans slaves. The newly integrating Africans carried their own religions that incorporated the belief in magic, which for the white colonists posed a certain threat. The colonists believed that their new slaves could make them sick, and destroy crops with the practice of witchcraft. However, they still believed that the most direct means of threat came from their own race (85-87). Witch-hunting in early Europe and North America generally faded away towards the nineteenth century. However, these same parallels can be seen occurring currently in literal form in rural regions of the world, predominantly in the Highlands of the island nation of Papa New Guinea.
Papa New Guinea occupies the eastern part of the world’s second largest island and is prey to volcanic activity, earthquakes and tidal waves (BBC.com). Papa New Guinea is also home to a population where 80% of the people live in rural areas with few or no facilities of modern life (BBC.com). Kent Russell, who spent time in this region investigating the witch-hunts, spoke with a woman named Monica who was accused of witchcraft, but luckily had escaped her accusers. She currently assists other women accused of being witches, to escape the same fate that she herself had nearly been dealt. Monica speaks of the fact that everyone in Papa New Guinea believes in the existence of witches, from the Prime Minister, to the chief of police, and that there was and actual sorcery conference the year prior to discuss witch activity (Russell). This wide spread belief in the existence of witches, in combination with the great negative activity contributed by the weather and natural disasters, coupled with the fact that a large majority of people live secluded in the wilderness; is not far off from the way of life for the early settlers in North America previously discussed. This makes it somewhat easier to understand that when the people of Papa New Guinea experience something bad in one of their communities that cannot be explained, in their minds it must be the sinister actions of a witch. It is also believed that any death that isn’t due to old age is believed to have a malevolent force behind it (Russell).
This is linked to a case in which a young boy died from an illness, and instead of having the knowledge that the illness was most likely caused by a virus, a young mother unrelated to the child was accused of using witchcraft in the of murder him. Russell describes the aftermath of that accusation:
A group of 50 or more of the dead boy’s relatives apprehended the young mother, stripped her, tortured her and burned her alive in the settlement’s landfill, just outside the city of Mount Hagen. A number of bystanders were uniformed police officers who helped turn back a fire engine when it whined to the scene (Russell).
This statement also speaks of the corruption of local officials, such as the police force in allowing and even participating first hand in such despicable acts. This is all occurring in light of a new law that was passed in Papa New Guinea in 2013, which makes the act of murdering accused witches illegal.
Another reason for an accusation may stem from simple jealousy, Russell states that jealousy, pronounced “jelasy”, is often a motivating factor in the Highland region for the accuser, knowing that the supposed witch will be murdered or exiled from the community, leaving her house and possessions up for grabs (Russell). This attribute of jealousy as being the motivation for accusations also coincides with the motivations for accusers in the early witch-hunts of North America: in the case Sarah Bridgman accusing Mary Parsons of practicing witchcraft, possibly out of jealousy; John Demos states that witchcraft was typically thought to involve envy (132-137).
Modern day North America however, not engaging in the practice of literal witch-hunting, is however guilty of the act in a figurative sense by the means of scapegoating individuals and or certain groups there of. Scapegoating, “a person or group made to bear the blame for others or suffer in their place” (dictionary.com). This act of placing blame on an individual or group can be seen throughout American history. Thomas Schoeneman states that scapegoating along with witch-hunts, occur in times of social change and upheaval (531). Schoeneman classifies a cultural change as a “revitalization”, stating it is a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture” (531). An example of this revitalization can been seen beginning in the south during the 1960’s. The civil rights movement began from the desire of a more satisfying culture for the African-American community, and the elimination of the Jim Crow mentality that was so detrimental to our country and the freedoms that we represent. Racial segregation made it so that African-Americans were not seen as equals in our culture, and therefore didn’t deserve to be treated as such. Aldon Morris states that “The Jim Crow system went to great lengths to impress on the blacks that they were a subordinate population” (518). During the civil rights movement many activists were thrown in jail, physically and verbally assaulted, and at times murdered, not unlike the accused witches of the early witch-hunts. These disgraceful acts were motivated by the fear of cultural change in society, scapegoating the civil rights activists as the cause for social upheaval and disorder, when in actuality the reasons for social upheaval was the disorder of the laws that kept a whole ethnic race down in society, and not treating them with the respect as an equal citizen.
The act of scapegoating can be seen in recent times as well, such as the fact that an entire class of people who practice the religion of Islam are being viewed as the enemy. This has lead to acts of violence against Muslim individuals in our own country, placing our fear and anger against a foreign enemy on our own citizens. This fear has also led to the proposed ban of any Muslims entering our country of supposed freedom. These despicable acts against Muslim individuals happening currently in our society, and against the black community of the Jim Crow era can be viewed as racism, it can be viewed as the scapegoating of an entire class of people, and it can most definitely be viewed as a figurative modern day witch-hunt where we as a country are attempting to stamp out the supposed “evil” that so threatens our way of life.
Fear is powerful. The unknown, the inevitable change, the possibility of being confronted with something that challenges one’s own personal beliefs and ideals is something that is understandably scary. However, we as a nation can accept the challenge of the unknown, we can accept the challenge of inevitable change, we can find value in the challenge of being confronted by something that goes against our personal beliefs and ideals; not living in fear the way that our ancestors did in early America. We can say no to inept political officials who promote that backward way of thinking. Most importantly, we can ultimately be the example to the rest of the world that the equality in race, gender, and religion are, together, stronger than fear. That modern day witch-hunts in the forms of racism, misogyny, religious persecution, and the act of committing hate crimes, can no longer be a way of life in any developing or developed nation.
Demos, John. The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World
The Penguin Group, 2008.
Kent, Russell, “They Burn Witches Here”. Huffington Post. (2015)
Morris, Aldon. “A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual
Landmarks” Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 25 (1999).
Oster, Emily. “Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe” The
Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No 1 (Winter, 2004).
“Papa New Guinea: Country Profile” BBC.com. 28 April 2016
“Scapegoat”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 1 Dec. 2016
Schoeneman, Thomas. “The Witch Hunt as a Culture Change Phenomenon” Ethos Vol. 3,
No. 4 (Winter, 1975).