A witch-hunt is a search for people labelled “witches” or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic or mass hysteria.
The classical period of witchhunts in Europe and North America falls into the Early Modern period or about 1450 to 1750, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, resulting in an estimated 35,000 to 100,000 executions.
The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century.
In Great Britain, witchcraft ceased to be an act punishable by law with the Witchcraft Act of 1735.
In Germany, sorcery remained punishable by law into the late 18th century.
Contemporary witch-hunts have been reported from Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Papua New Guinea.
Official legislation against witchcraft is still found in Saudi Arabia and Cameroon.
From at least the 1930s, the term “witch-hunt” has been used figuratively to describe activities by governments (and, occasionally, by business entities) to seek out and expose perceived enemies, often apparently as a means of directing public opinion by fostering a degree of moral panic.
The McCarthyist persecution of suspected communists in the United States in the 1950s, is especially associated with this usage of the term “witch hunt.”
The city of Schaffhausen was caught up in the wave of persecution of witches as well.
The first trial in which the word “Hexe”(witches)was used is 1402, containing an entry for the expenses incurred for the execution of one or more witches.
They were arrested by city officials and held prisoner and forced to confess in the city hall.
That the trial went badly for these people is clear from the entry “Fünf Schilling umb tur holtz zu dem hesen Brand” – five schillings worth of dry wood to burn the witches.
One person burnt at the Schaffhausen stake as a witch was Margaret Stöckli, who belonged to a family with a certain amount of social influence.
She died after being reported by her own daughter and son-in-law in 1482.
She was also said to have consorted with the Devil.
(Exactly HOW does one consort with the Devil?)
In the Holy Roman Empire (Austria, Bohemia, Germany, Lorraine, Moravia, the Netherlands, Silesia and Switzerland) from 1450 – 1750, there were 50,000 witch trials which resulted in 30,000 executions.
Hard to imagine a society that would rule by fear and deliberately target those that were different and accuse them of acts that couldn’t be proved but the stigma of which would cause the accused to already appear guilty by sheer virtue of having been accused…
Witch hunts still occur today in societies where belief in magic is prevalent.
In most cases, these are instances of lynching and burnings, reported with some regularity from much of Sub-Saharan Africa, from rural North India and from Papua New Guinea.
In addition, there are some countries that have legislation against the practice of sorcery.
The only country where witchcraft remains legally punishable by death is Saudi Arabia.
Witch hunts in modern times are continuously reported by the United Nations as a massive violation of human rights.
Most of the accused are women and children but can also be elderly people or marginalised groups of the community such as albinos and the HIV-infected.
These victims are often considered burdens to the community, and as a result are often driven out, starved to death, or killed violently, sometimes by their own families in acts of social cleansing.
The causes of witch hunts include poverty, epidemics, social crises and lack of education.
The leader of the witch hunt, often a prominent figure in the community or a “witch doctor”, may also gain economic benefit by charging for an exorcism or by selling body parts of the murdered.
It was reported on 21 May 2008 that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.
In March 2009, Amnesty International reported that up to 1,000 people in the Gambia had been abducted by government-sponsored “witch doctors” on charges of witchcraft, and taken to detention centers where they were forced to drink poisonous concoctions.
In India, labeling a woman as a witch is a common ploy to grab land, settle scores or even to punish her for turning down sexual advances.
In a majority of the cases, it is difficult for the accused woman to reach out for help and she is forced to either abandon her home and family or driven to commit suicide.
Most cases are not documented because it is difficult for poor and illiterate women to travel from isolated regions to file police reports.
A 2010 estimate places the number of women killed as witches in India at between 150 and 200 per year, or a total of 2,500 in the period of 1995 to 2009.
Witch hunts in Nepal are common, and are targeted especially against low-caste women.
The main causes of witchcraft related violence include widespread belief in superstition, lack of education, lack of public awareness, illiteracy, caste system, male domination, and economic dependency of women on men.
The victims of this form of violence are often beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and murdered.
Sometimes, the family members of the accused are also assaulted.
In Papua New Guinea, in June 2013, four women were accused of witchcraft because the family “had a ‘permanent house’ made of wood, and the family had tertiary educations and high social standing”.
All of the women were tortured and one was beheaded.
Reports by UN agencies, Amnesty International, Oxfam and anthropologists show that “attacks on accused sorcerers and witches — sometimes men, but most commonly women — are frequent, ferocious and often fatal.”
It’s estimated about 150 cases of violence and killings are occurring each year in just the province of Simbu in Papua New Guinea alone.
Reports indicate this practice of witch hunting has in some places evolved into “something more malignant, sadistic and voyeuristic.”
One woman who was attacked by young men from a nearby village “had her genitals burned and fused beyond functional repair by the repeated intrusions of red-hot irons.”
Few incidents are ever reported.
Witchcraft or sorcery remains a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia, although the precise nature of the crime is undefined.
The frequency of prosecutions for this in the country as whole is unknown.
However, in November 2009, it was reported that 118 persons had been arrested in the province of Makkah that year for practising magic and “using the Book of Allah in a derogatory manner”, 74% of them being female.
According to Human Rights Watch in 2009, prosecutions for witchcraft and sorcery are proliferating and “Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police.”
On 29 and 30 June 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants beheaded two “witches” with their husbands on accusations of “sorcery” and using “magic for medicine” in Deir ez-Zor province of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Earlier on, the ISIS militants beheaded several “magicians” and street illusionists in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
In modern terminology ‘witch-hunt’ has acquired usage referring to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence.
It is used whether or not it is sanctioned by the government, or merely occurs within the “court of public opinion”.
The term is used when a hunt for wrongdoers becomes abused, and a defendant can be convicted merely on an accusation.
I can’t help wondering is it witches that consort with the Devil or is it witch hunters and false accusers that truly dance with him in the moonlight?
How easily men panic when the unknown or unexplainable comes a-callin’, or when an excuse is sought after to remove undesirables while simultaneously profiting from their persecution.
How easy it is to destroy another person.
Is the price of destroying another person still 5 Schillings or has it been raised to 30 pieces of silver?