Delusions of witchcraft in the witchcraze and today
In article entitled Witchcraft or Mental Illness? on the Psychiatric Times website, Beatriz Quintanilla, MD, PhD, says that many women who were condemned as witches during the witchcrazes from the 15th to 17th century, including the famous Salem Witch Trials, were in fact mentally ill.
The article states: "Hysteria and epilepsy were the two illnesses that were most frequently confused with witchcraft or demonic possession, especially if they were accompanied by tremors, convulsions or of loss of consciousness."
At the time, women were thought to be weaker than men and therefore more prone to demonic possession or to be led astray by the devil. Mental illness was also not understood as well as it is today and there were few treatments available.
On the same day as the Psychiatric Times feature appeared, the TVNZ website ran a news story about a man being jailed after manipulating teenage girls into having sex with him by claiming he was a witch and a vampire. At the trial, a psychiatric report said that the man, 22-year-old Ricky Horsburgh, had the mental age of a 16-year-old. The judge said Horsburgh was living in a "little cocoon of fantasy".
News stories like these can be uncomfortable for modern, neo-pagan witches, such as Wiccans. We would never cause harm to another person using magic or in the name of witchcraft. When we hear about people calling themselves witches and doing terrible things, we feel shocked and also concerned that it gives genuine witches an undeserved bad name.
Clearly, some people with mental health problems suffer delusions that they are witches and can commit appalling crimes. It is also easy to see that in bygone centuries people might have mistaken mental illness for demonic possession or witchcraft. Whether all historic cases of witchcraft can be explained by this is another matter.
What do you think?
The picture shows a recent production of The Crucible, a play about the Salem Witch Trials, at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.