Friday, October 9, 2015


Witch Hunts tend to be ugly, hysterical searches for a result that comforts a large group of people, more than reveals the truth.  People of Early modern Europe and Colonial America were a superstitious and cowardly lot.  They had strict religious beliefs that fed on fear and hatred of others and that fed into the panic of the time.

It’s the kind of thing that goes back to our foolish caveman days—substituting fiction in convenience for hard facts that may be difficult to determine.  And, of course, punishment for malevolent sorcery is represented in the earliest laws in both early Egypt and in Babylonia.  The Code of Hammurabi prescribes:  

“If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not yet justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into he holy river shall he plunge.  If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put a spell upon him shall take possession of his house.  If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death.  He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.”

Rome had laws to stop spells and incantations intended to do harm to crops.  When epidemic illnesses broke out women were executed as witches.  In fact, if the histories are to be taken as true, the scale of the witch hunts in the republic of Rome far exceed anything that took place in the “classical” witch-hunts of Early Modern Europe.

The Hebrew Bible states “Now one shall be fount among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one that casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead.  For whoever does the things is abhorrent to the Lord”  and Exodus 22:18 famously states “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”

In a mythical tale of the origin of the Huns, a persecution and expulsion of witches among the Goths by King Filimer shows that he:
“found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae.  Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army.  There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech.”

A few councils of the Catholic Church in the early Middle Ages imposed ecclesiastical penances for devil-worship—a mild approach represented the view of the Church for several centuries, presenting a goal of the clergy to prevent fanaticism about witchcraft.  In fact, in 785, condemning people as witches was made a crime punishable by death.

The Church, at this point, was strongly of the opinion that witchcraft and devil-worship were not real, that it didn’t exist.  Oh, there were still accusations thrown, witches tried, but it was more rarely done and much more a thing organized by the Church more rationally.  Death was rarely the punishment.

One such preacher who spoke out aggressively agains witches was Bernardino of Siena—one of his sermons went as follows… “One of them told and confessed, without any pressure, that she had killed thirty children by bleeding them… [and] she confessed more, saying she had killed her own son… Answer me: does it really seem to you that someone who has killed twenty or thirty little children in such a way has done so well that when finally they are accused before the Signoria you should go to their aid and beg mercy for them?”

It was Thomas Aquinas who’s work, in the 13th century, was the developer of the new theology which would bring back the witch hunt and it wasn’t long before the madness began again, ushering in a new age of persecution that went from the mid 1400’s until the mid 1700’s thirty-five thousand to about one-hundred thousand people were executed for fear of witchcraft.

And lest we think the world is beyond this type of thing--in today’s India, over two thousand people were murdered over the last fifteen years for being suspected witches.  Similar hunts continue in Sub-Saharan Africa and New Guinea as fear and superstition and just plain ignorance lead to more deaths.  The cycle keeps repeating like a skipping record--why you'd almost think a witch were to blame!

1 comment:

Guillaume said...

Witch hunts are sadly not a thing of the past.