Witch Hunts

The ever popular human past time of witch hunting. I'm referring not only to the discredited anti-feminist pastimes of Old Salem and Medieval Europe, but to their modern equivalents: Jews (in Nazi Germany), and (in Clinton's America), smokers, drug users, gun owners, hackers, "cult" religious groups (Waco, Weaver), fundamentalist Christians, child "molesters" (ever you ever met one yourself?), white supremacists, Muslims, homosexuals and non-mainstream groups in general. In other words, any minority that attracts the malice and suspicion of majorities with:

  • Insufficient tolerance for human diversity
  • An overblown fear of the unfamiliar
  • The willingness to do minorities harm

Unfortunately these qualities seem to take their most virulent form in parents out to "protect" children from threats arising in parents' fevered fears. For example, see any of Hillary Clinton "protect the children" speeches. After all, parents vote.

Witch Hunts

Little is known about the history of witchcraft in Europe, and what is known comes from hostile sources. In traditional European society witchcraft was believed to be a kind of harmful sorcery associated with the worship of satan, or the devil (a spirit hostile to God).

The European doctrine of witchcraft was formulated in the late Middle Ages. Just how many of the beliefs about witches were based on reality and how many on delusion will never be known. The punishment of supposed witches by the death penalty did not become common until the 15th century. The first major witch-hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427, and the first important book on the subject, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Sorceresses), appeared in Germany in 1486. The persecution of witches reached its height between 1580 and 1660, when witch trials became almost universal throughout western Europe.

Geographically, the center of witch-burning lay in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, but few areas were left untouched by it. No one knows the total number of victims. In southwestern Germany alone, however, more than 3,000 witches were executed between 1560 and 1680. Not all witch trials ended in deaths. In England, where torture was prohibited, only about 20 percent of accused witches were executed (by hanging); in Scotland, where torture was used, nearly half of all those put on trial were burned at the stake, and almost three times as many witches (1,350) were killed as in England. Some places had fewer trials than others. In the Dutch republic, no witches were executed after 1600, and none were tried after 1610. In Spain and Italy accusations of witchcraft were handled by the inquisition, and although torture was legal, only a dozen witches were burned out of 5,000 put on trial. Ireland apparently escaped witch trials altogether. Many witch trials were provoked, not by hysterical authorities or fanatical clergy, but by village quarrels among neighbors.

About 80% of all accused witches were women. Traditional theology assumed that women were weaker than men and more likely to succumb to the devil. It may in fact be true that, having few legal rights, they were more inclined to settle quarrels by resorting to magick rather than law.

All these aspects of witchcraft crossed over to the Americas with European colonists. In the Spanish and French territories cases of witchcraft were under the jurisdiction of church courts, and no one suffered death on this charge. In the English colonies about 40 people were executed for witchcraft between 1650 and 1710, half of them in the famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Witch trials declined in most parts of Europe after 1680; in England the death penalty for witchcraft was abolished in 1736. In the late 17th and 18th centuries one last wave of witch persecution afflicted Poland and other areas of eastern Europe, but that ended by about 1740. The last legal execution of a witch occurred in Switzerland in 1782.

Beginning in the 1920s, witchcraft was revived in Europe and America by groups that considered it a survival of pre-Christian religious practices. This phenomenon was partly inspired by such books as Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921). Some forms of modern witchcraft follow the traditions of medieval herbalists and lay healers.

The term witch-hunt is used today to describe a drive to punish political criminals or dissidents without regard for the normal legal rules.
— E. William Monter

Witches and Witch Hunting

But surely witch hunting is dead? Just tune in any radio or TV news broadcast with your witch-hunt detector on. Here's an ever-partial collection of examples:
The Evolution of Criminal Justice by Sandy Judd In twentieth century America, coerced confessions to criminal acts are not technically admissible as evidence in courts of law. Since the 1980's, however, a movement against the enforcement of such "technicalities" has developed within the federal courts. As more forms of questionable evidence become admissible, we must begin to ask ourselves if justice is being properly served. Although blatant physical torture is not yet regularly used, other techniques for obtaining confessions are common: promises of leniency, threats, isolation, sleep and food deprivation, forced nudity and other practices which serve to demoralize the accused. The validity of these confessions is highly questionable.

The Return of the Witch Hunts by Jonathan G. Harris I went to that preschool since I was a baby. I even went there during the first grade after school. I had fun. We painted and colored, Karen (name changed for privacy), now 16, describes some happy times that ended when her preschool closed ten years ago. Her parents have similar memories. The center was open and they could drop in any time. Her father said that today Karen jumped with joy at the prospect of visiting Miss Vi; but visiting the school's seventy year old former owner or her two children, Gerald and Cheryl, is somewhat difficult today. They all remain in Massachusetts prisons. The school was the infamous Massachusetts daycare, Fells Acres.

The Satanism Scare By Gerry O'sullivan University of Pennsylvania Copyright (c) 1991 by Gerry O'Sullivan, all rights reserved Postmodern Culture v. 1 n. 2 (January, 1991)

Secondhand Smoke the Congressional Research Service Raises Questions About EPA's Secondhand Smoke Study

Keyboarding Explosive Data For Homemade Bombs Foxor; Tracy Gordon: Hartford Courant Newspaper (bjc: Included as one of the most egregious examples of irresponsible "news" reporting in the long and sordid history of that industry. Bomb building, indeed! Wait until this distinguished 'reporter' learns about the information his local public library provides to all comers.)

Response to Dateline treatment of bomb recipes on internet Peter Ludlow Dept of Philosophy; SUNY Stony Brook


The use of a certain ritual action to bring about the intervention of a supernatural force, either in human affairs or in the natural environment, for a specific purpose is called magick. The term has a wide range of reference, from major ritual performances to conjuring tricks. Nineteenth century anthropologists were particularly concerned with distinguishing between magickal and religious activity, seeking in their evolutionary approaches to present magick and religion as belonging to different stages of cultural development, with magick as the earlier form. It has been suggested that whereas religious acts generally involve a personal approach to spiritual powers, magickal activity is largely impersonal, a ritual technology that constrains and controls rather than supplicates the powers it wields. Nevertheless, the true complexity of the interrelationship of religious and magickal beliefs and practices is now widely recognized.

The role of magick varies from culture to culture, from a central position in primary rituals involving the well-being of an entire community — as with some major hunting or agricultural rituals — to minor, peripheral, private acts of magick. Both public and private magick can and do exist within single societies. Black magick or sorcery may be used destructively to bring misfortune or death, and it is often distinguished from witchcraft by its use of magickal techniques, such as spells or charms. Witchcraft relies on an internal quality or disposition of the witch. An example of a true sorcerer is the tohunga makutu of the New Zealand Maori, who has to learn his special magickal practices, which are said to make it possible for him to destroy humans. Beneficial, or white, magick is used to ward off such attacks as well as to prevent natural calamities; magickal healing is among its aspects. Much of white magick is directly concerned with the productive activities of a particular society. The fishing and agricultural magick of the people of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea is an example. Love charms are also considered white magick.

In casting spells, the appropriate use of words is sufficient to release or activate a power. The importance of the words is variable. In some Melanesian and Polynesian societies the precise wording of a spell is a crucial part of the magick. Other cultures, such as that of the Azande of the Sudan, lay less stress on wording, being content with conveying the spell's general meaning. For the Azande, magickal objects such as special woods and roots are of greater significance. The objects used in magick are regarded as repositories for or symbols of the powers engaged, or, as with the destruction of wax figures of victims in sorcery, symbolically connected to the aims of the magick.

Magickal acts may be performed by individuals on their own behalf, or a magician with specialized knowledge of the rites may be consulted. In some societies associations of magickal specialists exist. Magickal knowledge is sometimes bought and sold or can be passed on through inheritance. The magician, both in the preparation and the performance of a rite, may need to be aware of a complex set of rules and restrictions, such as food taboos, that may influence the efficacy and safety of the magick.

Sir Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer, who advanced influential anthropological theories of magick in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, saw it as pseudoscientific. Tylor proposed that magick was based in the erroneous equation of physical causality with the association of ideas. This notion was elaborated by Frazer, who saw two basic principles in magickal thought: that like produces like and that an effect resembles its cause, and that things formerly in contact continue to act on one another. The magick based on similarity he termed homeopathic, that based on contact contagious. The destruction of a victim's likeness is homeopathic magick, the burning of a lock of his hair for the same destructive purpose is contagious magick. These are the two forms of sympathetic magick.

Frazer fitted magick into an evolutionary scheme in which, as its techniques were found unproductive, magick would be succeeded by religion, which in turn would be followed by scientific enlightenment. The influential sociologist Emile Durkheim, however, stressed the dependence of magick on collective religious belief and ritual. Magick contrasted with religion in that it did not involve a church, a moral community, but its powers were derived from notions of the sacred established within such a community. After working (1914-18) among the Trobriand Islanders, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski developed a pragmatic theory of magick that stressed its psychological value. Where there is uncertainty of practical success of the outcome of uncontrollable events, magickal acts, he suggested, reduce the anxieties involved, thus widening the apparent range of an individual's ability to deal with the environment. Through work in the 1920s and '30s with the Azande, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard provided an account of magick functioning in a full social context as part of a logically coherent belief system. The emphasis on viewing magick as part of a total belief system and on the contexts of magickal action has continued in many contemporary studies.

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