Friday, January 05, 2007

The Witches Among Us


I often think, when I'm reading the news, of the years I spent working as an undergraduate and graduate student to understand, through my study of history, of why people interact with one another the way they do. I was especially interested in notions of "community," of how communities define themselves as much by what they "are not" as by what they are.

In for example, Quattrocento (15th century) Italy, war raged (those pesky French were always invading, Constantinople fell), disease raged (the Black Plague originally swept through Europe in 1348, carrying off at least one-third, and possibly one-half, of the populace), crops failed, etc, etc. (Amazing how one can use "etc" to casually dismiss the untold suffering of thousands of people. You know, like Iraq, etc.)

In the Quattrocento, Franciscan Observant preachers--such men as Bernardino da Siena and Bernardino da Feltre--berated, warned, and raged at the communities in which they traveled to preach about tolerance of "sodomites," witches, and Jews. Allowing sodomites and witches to live amongst the Christian members of a community was sure to call down God's wrath, and Bernardino da Siena had no shortage of precedent from the Bible to cite as proof of God's hatred of tolerance. Later, Bernardino da Feltre would get it into his crazed head that Jews drank the blood Christian boys during Passover, and caused the tragedy surrounding the death of Simon of Trent.

I spent a lot of time studying witchcraft. Not actual witchcraft, which I'm sure never existed--at least in the ways it was defined by the witch hunters. I wanted to know why 80 percent of those accused were women; why the panics got worse after the Reformation, and were especially virulent in newly Protestant nations; how witch panics operated like ripples in a pond but would come to a sudden end; how Plato and Aristotle played a part; how stripping away from people a notion of "good works" led to the kind of ostracism of old, poor women who sometimes were accused of witchcraft; how the horrendous rates of infant and maternal mortality led people to believe that malevolence had been directed at those who died.

In short, this blog entry could potentially turn into a dissertation, so I'll try to steer it back to the article at hand.
Witches are being persecuted in various villages in Africa. In northern Ghana, for example, 80 suspected witches were expelled from their village. They are sent to live in "scruffy camps".

Like the witches' trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 or the Cold War persecution of alleged communists in 1950s America, the fate of a suspect often hangs on the word of another.

Death, illness, dreams, superstition or even visible signs of success may be enough to provoke accusations of sorcery.

No matter how hard the allegation is to prove -- or how hysterical the accuser -- the fact that witchcraft is virtually impossible to disprove means many women are forced to live outside their communities, some for as long as 30 years.

Many of the women and men who find themselves in the camps are there because of the kinds of bad things that happen to ordinary families: a child dies, a marriage goes bad. A desire to assign agency to evil leads to accusations of witchcraft.

And, of course, there's always envy. Or perhaps more telling, the idea that someone, especially a woman, has stepped outside of her traditional role.

In some cases, witchcraft offers an easy explanation as to why one person is successful and another is not.

"In cases where successful women, brilliant women, have gone beyond the confines of their status as women, witchcraft is used as an explanation," said Dr Abraham Akrong, of the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies.

While the writer of this article seems surprised, the following statement is not ironic at all:

Ironically, the rise in Ghana of charismatic Christian churches, with their focus on the fight against evil, has intensified fear and belief in witchcraft, even among educated people, Akrong said.

As I said, witchcraft persecutions increased in those areas that had supposedly traded in their superstitious beliefs in relics and saints and priests for the "more rational" religion of the various sects of Protestantism. Fundamentalist Christians are the descendents of Protestants, not Catholics, and the increasing belief among Fundamentalist Christians that evil operates with agency in the world (the devil is afoot) feeds directly into traditional beliefs in these villages that evil can be explained by a witch's bad will.

So, what does this have to do with us? (Who you calling us? Okay. Americans living in the US in 2007 under the rules of the Patriot Act.)

Being labeled a witch begins with word of mouth. A neighbor gets into a dispute, accuses another neighbor of witchcraft, and the rumour mill grinds up another victim. In this country, right now, suspicion of being a terrorist, terrorist sympathizer, etc is enough to launch an investigation. Step out of line in the airport security checkpoint and you might find yourself held overnight in a jail cell. And now, anything you send through the U.S. mail service may, if it's deemed "suspicious", can be opened according to the president's signing statement.

In many ways, we are no different than the neighbors who accused each other of being secret Jews, or sodomites, or witches. We have new words to define our fears--we call the folks who could potentially hurt us "terrorists." We watch them closely. We sit in our houses, afraid to go out for fear that the terrorists are going to blow up a plane, or put poison in our food, or make us sick. That they will destroy our cities because we tolerate their presence.

The two Bernardinos are laughing in their graves.

Image details: ID F064-002
Title Cerbère [et] Léonard
Medium photo-offset
Book Bataille. Le Diable au XIXe Siècle. Paris et Lyon : Delhomme et Briguet, 1895. Page 937.
Notes Les principaux démons, tels qu’ils appparaissent d’ordinaire d’après les diverses constatations: Cerbère [et] Léonard. anthropomorphic dog with bird’s feet; horned devil with witch’s broom, lifting skirt to show his other cheek
Theme The Marvelous
Subjects satan/devil

Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library

Cross-posted at Culture Kitchen and Progressive Historians

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