Wednesday 23 June 2010

In the news: witchcraft and insanity

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.



chilledchimp said...

I'd be more prepared to consider her theory if she'd done her research properly. Salem was a British colony and therefore hanged, not burned, convicted witches.
I have no doubt that many of these alleged witches, and those executed in Europe some years earlier, were mentally ill. The brutal torture methods employed by inquisitors and "witch hunters" including dislocation of limbs, indecent assaults and sleep deprivation would have ensured that even the most stable would have been in extreme mental distress in the days before their conviction.
Saying that rationality prevailed because of better understanding of disease seems to me to be a sweeping statement. People have suffered from mental illnesses for many thousands of years. Although spirit possession was thought to be a cause, there were other factors in play as well. In Shakespeare's time (my English teacher told me) melancholy was simply rather fashionable, like angst at the moment.
I would argue that it was the decline in supernatural belief of all sorts engendered by The Enlightenment that led to an upsurge of superstition as the Catholic Church fought Protestantism using superstition as a method of social control, especially in Germany. Marry that with a period of war in England, famine in Catalonia... It was a volatile time. There were many factors which triggered the witch craze.
If your readers would like to know more about the witch craze and other religious persecutions, I highly recommend Norman Cohn's Europe's Inner Demons.

aleera-lee said...

ricky had no delusions nor mental illness. we were easy pray to a sex hungry lunitic. he called himself pagan to draw us in, act as a savior in our insecurity. he played on our spiritual belief to get us into bed. nothing more.

Anonymous said...

I know Rick personally and he dose have a mental illness hes a Satanic and he is a nice guy even though he done those things. after he done the programs he done in the jail he was in he has changed for the better. also hes working on more things now that he is out.
Also i don't think you all know what you are talking about.
From The Satanic Priest

Anonymous said...

He is still the same claiming to satanic and chatting up multiple chicks online. Monogamy is not in his nature. All his old friends have stable jobs and are married with kids. He still acting like a teenager. So tell me what has changed?

Anonymous said...

I am a previous victim of this person. It has taken me a long time to be okay with myself and others again. He did what he did to hurt people for fun. I learnt what he was like the hard way.