Witch Hunts

Witch Hunts

Of Donald Trump’s many offenses, criminal and moral, let me add his profoundly insulting misuse of “witch hunt” to describe the process of justice now closing around him.

I became something of an amateur expert on who the witches really were while doing research for my historical novel, The Burning Time, which is based on the records of an actual witch trial in 1324. What follows here is a tiny sampling of the terrifyingly true facts we now know about this subject.

Three primary elements are always found in witch persecutions: (1) the attempt by a conqueror’s religion to colonize, demonize, and eradicate older, indigenous belief systems; (2) economic motive, since the accuser profits by being awarded the accused’s properties; and (3) misogyny—fear and hatred of the female.

The Burning Time in continental Europe and the British Isles lasted approximately 600 years through three distinct Inquisitions, peaking in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but persisting well into the eighteenth century and the “Enlightenment”; eventually, as exorcism became more fashionable, executions declined in frequency. In Germany the last person accused of witchcraft was executed in 1775, in Spain 1781, in Protestant Switzerland 1782. Catholic Poland burned alive its last witch as late as 1793 (the year George Washington held his first cabinet meeting) .

The papacy was not alone in sustaining these persecutions. Indeed, ideological-political battles raging between the Reformation and Counter Reformation literally fed the flames, with newly minted Protestants competing with Catholics for the most extreme fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Luther declared that all witches should be burnt merely for making pacts with the devil, even if they did no harm thereby. Calvin preached that “God expressly commands all witches and enchantresses be put to death, and this law of God is a universal law.”

Europe’s witch purges gave rise to new, persecutory professions: one such was witch hunting. Witch hunters would charge handsome fees as they traveled from town to town, searching out prey. Their techniques included listening to all rumours and accusations; looking for “devil’s marks” (moles, warts, or darker-than-”normal” skin); and searching the accused’s home for evidence of cats, herbs, or books. Also commonly employed was the self-fulfilling trial by ordeal, usually that of water. In this procedure, an accused witch was forced to a kneeling position, bound that way with ropes, and dragged or thrown into a river or lake; if she floated, she was pronounced a witch and would then be burned; if she drowned, she was declared innocent—posthumously. Watching such trials by ordeal became a popular entertainment. So did attendance—complete with picnics, jugglers, peddlers, and spectator crowds—at witch burnings.

The concept that a pact with Satan was inherent in all magic or heresy actually came later in the witch persecutions, and was applied first in Ireland and Sweden, where indigenous faiths were deep-rooted and thus required demonizing by the colonizers. Earlier European records show accusations and executions–by hanging, boiling alive, crushing with stones, and burning at the stake–for more commonplace political-cultural rebellions: wives “guilty of treason against their husbands,” “sodomites,” “midwives,” and “misbelievers.” But once the idea was afoot that heresy resulted from a Satanic pact, it became dogma and spread swiftly, culminating in the 1486 publication of the notorious Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer), written by two Dominican monks, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, from Germany and Holland, respectively.

The Malleus became the handbook that defined witchcraft: “All witchcraft comes from lust, which in women is insatiable,” and formally institutionalized such practices as witch hunting, interrogative torture, and various especially sadistic means of execution (“Anything done for the benefit of the state is good.”) For the next three centuries, the Malleus was the irrefutable, final authority on the subject, and became accepted not only by Catholic hierarchy but by Protestant legislatures as well. Naturally, the more that people were accused and tortured, the more they confessed, whether they knew anything about The Craft or not. Consequently, paranoia that witches must be everywhere increased, as did campaigns to eradicate them.

The result was widespread slaughter.

A short sampling: in 1482, in Constance, France, 48 women were burned; in 1507, in Calahorra, Spain, 30 were burned; in 1515, in Geneva, Switzerland, 500 accused witches were executed in a single day; in 1524, in Como, Italy, 1000 were killed; in 1622, in Würzburg, Germany, 900; in 1670, in Mohra, Sweden, 70 women and 15 children were executed and 136 other children between the ages of nine and 16 were sentenced to be whipped together at the church door every day for a year. In Germany, the sixteenth century saw witch burnings almost every day; complete villages were “cleansed” of women, girls, and cats. (Europe was so depleted of cats that scholars name this as a major cause of the Great Plague—since no other animal was as effective in controlling the population of rats, who were the carriers of bubonic plague.) In 1586, only two women were reported left alive in an entire Rhineland district. Whole convents were indicted and sentenced for harboring “rebellious, learned women.” The children of victims were especially suspect, suffering incredible cruelties: as late as 1754, Veronica Zerritsch of Germany was compelled to dance in the warm ashes of her executed mother, then was burned alive herself, at age thirteen.

Some scholars, focusing on the continental persecutions between 1550 and 1650, conservatively estimate the number hanged or burned at 60,000. Other scholars, charting the entire span of The Burning Time across Europe—600 years—estimate that between eight and nine million persons were massacred. It is impossible to know for certain. We do know that although men were also accused, tortured, and killed, the vast majority of victims were women and girls.

The New World’s seventeenth-century witch trials in Salem and Danvers, Massachusetts were different, though related. As usual, fanatic religiosity (extreme Puritan Protestantism, in this case), economic motive (acquisition by accusation), and misogyny were present. But here, racism was a further factor: charges originally focused on the alleged spiritual practices of Tituba, an enslaved woman of Native American or African descent. Certainly none of the accused were actually Pagan or Wiccan; in fact, most were devout Christians. Only Tituba may have been practicing a form of indigenous worship. Nevertheless, 20 women and men were horribly tortured and put to death by hanging, in 1692.

In popular parlance, of course, “witch hunt” came into usage in the U.S. during the 1950s wake of McCarthyism, when Senator Joe McCarthy and his right wing backers destroyed the lives of numerous Americans, especially those in the arts, on the fostered assumption that to have left-of-center politics was to be a communist and then automatically a spy and traitor. When a catch-phrase comes to mean a generally fruitless pursuit of an innocent person, one would think that signifies such pursuits, particularly the original ones that inspired the phrase, had ended.

Yet today, murders of village people accused of witchcraft and sorcery have been increasing in parts of Asia, South America, and Africa—almost always preceded by incursions from fundamentalist Christian missionaries, usually from North America. Victims are mostly still targeted for practicing traditional medicine and midwifery, but in some cultures reaching old age or having a disability or albinism can be reason enough to provoke superstitious attacks. Three women accused of witchcraft were burned alive before spectators in the inland mountain regions of Papua New Guinea—within the past decade. Right now, as you read these words and we prepare to enter the year 2020, the West African country of Gambia is holding public national Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings involving the witch hunts and persecutions ordered by Yahya Jammeh, the former president who ruled for 22 years before fleeing abroad in 2017, bringing his fleet of luxury cars with him. When president, he had jailed dissidents, ordered extra-judicial killings, forced AIDS patients to quit their medications, and branded some citizens “witches.” Using witchcraft accusations as a state tool, he manipulated ethnic differences in the population—Jola, Mandika, and Fula peoples–encouraging groups to blame each other for any misfortunes, and the ensuing accusations of sorcery frequently led to the accused being kidnapped, tortured, and killed.

Persecution based on accusation of witchcraft persists around the world, a murderous phenomenon that largely goes unrecognized and unreported, according to the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

So no, Donald Trump, you are not in any manner whatsoever the victim of a witch hunt. Quite the opposite. The real victims were and are innocent, suffering, often deeply courageous human beings simply trying to exist, while being viciously persecuted by men like you.

This blog will be on hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday.