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The Allure of Witch Hunting

May 5, 2009

A few days ago, I posted a video showing a barbaric act of witch-burning in Africa. Any sane person who has watched such diabolic acts will attest to the chilling monstrosity behind those acts. Today, I came across an excellent articleby Johann Hari at that tried to explore the human conditions which encourage and sustain such practices even in the modern world (Thanks Allytude for sharing the link).

In his article, Hari shares the story of a 12 year-old girl accused of witchcraft.

In a dull, blank rote, Clarice told me how she had let the demons enter her at the age of 12. One night, her late grandmother had appeared before her, at the end of her bed, and offered her a biscuit to eat. She promised Clarice that if she only swallowed it, she would become more powerful. But it was a trick. As soon as she ate it, she was betrothed to Satan and forced to do his work on earth. He forced her to jinx her father, making it impossible for him to get a job. Satan forced her to kill her little sister by giving her a deadly fever. Clarice had at first denied her intimacy with the devil, Papa Enoch told me disapprovingly. She protested it wasn’t true. But he finally made her ‘admit’ it, through a process of starvation and torture.

Notice how she was made to admit that she was a witch. No one asked if it was because she really was one or whether this little 12-year old girl admitted to the crime after she couldn’t take the torture anymore.

We have to remember here that even though the article refers to witch hunting in the supernatural/superstitious sense, we observe such witch-hunting tendencies in other circumstances too. Homosexuals, blacks, atheists, communists etc were(are) often victims of such mindless crimes.

As Hari tries to find the different aspects of such practices and the social conditions which prevail in societies that encourage such acts, I found his historical perspective behind those practices interesting. Although I haven’t thought about it at length and am not sure whether Hari’s assertion here is correct, I do see some truth in it.

We know that witch hunts break out most ferociously at times of trauma and stress. There was no concept of child witchcraft in Congo until the war began and 6 million people were killed. Now a broken and terrorized population has turned on its own children in a desperate, futile attempt to find some way to regain control. The first great witch hunt in Europe came after the Black Death killed one-third of the population. The second came between 1580 and 1650, when the climate cooled and crops failed. Similarly, witch hunting erupted in America (on the dirt-tracks of Salem, Mass.) at a time when 10 percent of the colonists were being killed and all lived in constant fear of the American Indians who were trying to defend their civilization from extinction

Another aspect of such a practice which was not surprising to me was that the ‘witches’ were almost always women. It is probably a no-brainer to understand why that is so

Women are generally weaker than men. They are less able to defend themselves from braying mobs. They are easier to pin down and turn into a screaming, denying receptacle of evil. The mobs usually choose the weakest women of all—old women and little girls.

The rest of the post is an interesting read and gives us some insight into the psyche of people who commit such crimes. There are no cures to such human tendencies except – as Hari also points out – to insist on evidence. To not be satisfied with superstitious mumbo-jumbo and not accept any reason which is based on blind faith.

Btw, for those of you who may think that such incidents do not happen in India, here is an article which may dispel such doubts [Link to Pdf]

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2009 12:28 pm

    I dont know how true that theory is or whether it can hold its own if anlaysed…but yes India has its share of witch hunting…and it is quite widespread….

    anyone who believes otherwise is living in a fool’s paradise..

    In India witches are referred to as Daayans…or by various other terms …I only know Daayan and Haawa

    Can you believe that so widespread is the practice that several states in India have passed the anti witchcraft act??
    notably Bihar …reasons given by Hari might be true for a particular setting but at least in India I believe that this practice is because of superstitions….
    and lack of education…

    I do agree with the second part that you have quoted here that pinpoints reasons as to why it is always women who are targeted….

    actually while writing this comment and scrolling up and down reading the post as well as reading that article again…one point did strike me….why is it that in India most backward states and the ones that are the most poor are the ones who have this practice on the largest scale?

    so to some extent Hari’s assumption does seem true….

  2. May 6, 2009 3:01 pm

    Hear hear! “We have to remember here that even though the article refers to witch hunting in the supernatural/superstitious sense, we observe such witch-hunting tendencies in other circumstances too. Homosexuals, blacks, atheists, communists etc were(are) often victims of such mindless crimes.”

    There was an excellent piece in the New York Times on the way various immigrant groups have been scapegoated for epidemics in the US. Its not that this does not happen in other countries, but the US case has been documented.

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