Tuesday, 6 April 2010

In the news: Malcolm Gaskill on witch-hunts

In yesterday's Guardian Malcolm Gaskill, author of Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction and Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-century English Tragedywrote a feature called Witch-Hunts Then - And Now. In it, he draws a parallel between the European witch-hunts of the 15th to 18th centuries, in which about 50,000 people were killed as witches, and the persecution of people accused of witchcraft in modern-day sub-Saharan Africa and India.

Malcolm Gaskill says that the similarities are not only due to the kinds of accusations made against often innocent people, but also the social conditions such as economic depression, poverty, political and legal disruption in places where witch-hunts are rife. He said: "A sense of anxiety and suspicion, and a willingness to resist evil with violence, were pervasive."

Witch-hunts in Europe are luckily a thing of the past, but they are still a massive problem worldwide. Malcolm Gaskill said:

"In September 2009 the UN identified witch-hunting as 'a form of persecution and violence that is spreading around the globe'. In July this year the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network, an organisation established last year, will hold its first conference devoted to alleviating the crisis in developing countries."
You can read The Guardian feature at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/05/witch-hunt-witchcraft-accused-killed

I recently reviewed Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction on my blog at: http://www.badwitch.co.uk/2010/03/review-witchcraft-very-short.html

I'm currently reading another book by Malcolm Gaskill - Hellish Nell: Last of Britain's Witches- and I will be writing about it on A Bad Witch's Blog when I've finished it.


Andrew said...

being a witch in South Africa at this time gives quite an interesting insight! As you say, accusations of witchcraft are quite similar to those of Europe during the witch craze. However, as many witches have noted, there is just no way to know what really happened. How many of the "witches" sentenced during those times were actual witches? How many confessions were real; how many were made under duress? And (to us at least) how many "real" witches were there?
Here in SA there is definitely a tendency to accuse innocent people of malevolent witchcraft. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the accusations usually involve ritual murder or mutilation, whereas further north there is a pervasive fear of penis theft by witchcraft, and in Kenya, mobs have been responsible for the death of many alleged penis thieves.
However, here in SA there is a unique situation -- the witches are real. As in the European witch craze, South African traditional witches are incredibly secretive. Many South Africans are happy to consult traditional magicians, and the line between "good" and "evil" witches is often blurred.
In Europe, it was impossible to prove who had cursed someone's cow, or had flown to a satanic sabbath at night. But here, the "evil" witches really do murder people and steal their body parts for magic. These "muthi" murders are alarmingly common. And what makes it even more terrifying is that very often the community will take justice into their own hands. With no proof, a mob will execute a suspected witch for murder. He or she may very well have been a witch, but was not guilty of murder.
Since I'm a "European" witch, I can't claim any deep understanding of South African witchcraft, although I have been raised in the culture. I guess it still gives me a good perspective, and as you say, is probably a good way of understanding what may have happened in them crazy burnin times.

badwitch said...

Andrew - Thanks very much for your insight into the problems witches face in South Africa. Fascinating.