A witch hunt is a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic, mass hysteria and lynching, but in historical instances also legally sanctioned and involving official witchcraft trials.
The classical period of witchhunts in Europe falls into the Early Modern period or about 1480 to 1700, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, resulting in an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 executions.
The term "witch-hunt" is often used by analogy to refer to panic-induced searches for perceived wrong-doers other than witches. The best known example is probably the McCarthyist search for communists during the Cold War, which was discredited partly through being compared to the Salem witch trials.
Punishment for sorcery and witchcraft is addressed in the earliest law codes preserved; both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part (although in the example below it appears that only unjustified spells are to be punished). The Code of Hammurabi (18th century BC short chronology) prescribes that
The Hebrew Bible condemns sorcery. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 states "No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one that casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent the the Lord;" and Exodus 22:18 prescribes "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"; tales like that of 1 Samuel 28, reporting how Saul "hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land" suggest that in practice sorcery could at least lead to exile.
In later Jewish history, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach - Pharisee scholar and Nasi of the Sanhedrin in the 1st century BC - is reported to have sentenced to death 80 women, who had been charged with witchcraft, on a single day in Ashkelon. Later the women's relatives took revenge by bringing (reportedly) false witnesses against Simeon's son and causing him to be executed in turn.
During the Early Middle Ages, witch trials were the direct result of Christian Church doctrine, despite Canon law, which in Canon Episcopi, followed the views of the church father Augustine of Hippo (400 AD) that belief in the existence of witchcraft was heresy, since according to Augustine "a heretic is one who either devises or follows false and new opinions, for the sake of some temporal profit".
The Council of Paderborn in 785 explicitly outlawed the very belief in witches, and Charlemagne later confirmed the law. The Council of Frankfurt in 794, called by Charlemagne, was also very explicit in condemning "the persecution of alleged witches and wizards", calling the belief in witchcraft "superstitious", and ordering the death penalty for those who presume to burn witches.
Nonetheless, Pope John XXII formalized the persecution of witchcraft in 1320 when he authorized the Inquisition to prosecute sorcerors. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a Papal bull authorizing two inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, to systemize the persecution of witches.
There were also secular laws against witchcraft, such as that promulgated by King Athelstan (924-999)
Although it has been proposed that the witch-hunt developed in Europe after the Cathars and the Templar Knights were exterminated, and the Inquisition had to turn to persecution of witches to remain active, this hypothesis has been rejected independently by two historians (Cohn 1975; Kieckhefer 1976). They showed that the Inquisition witch hunts originated amongst common people in Switzerland and in Croatia, who pressed the civil courts to support them. Inquisitorial courts became systematically involved in the witch-hunt only in the 15th century: in the case of the Madonna Oriente, the Inquisition of Milan was not sure what to do with two women who in 1384 and in 1390 confessed to have participated in a type of white magic.
The witch trials in Early Modern Europe came in waves and then subsided. There were trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a big issue again and peaking in the 17th century. Some scholars argue that a fear of witchcraft started among intellectuals who believed in maleficium: that is, harm committed by magic. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities (which were sometimes used to protect the people) now became a sign of a pact between the people with supernatural abilities and the devil. To justify the killings Christianity and its proxy secular institutions deemed witchcraft as being associated to wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, orgy sex, and cannibalistic infanticide.
Witch-hunts were seen across early modern Europe, but the most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often considered to be central and southern Germany. Germany was a late starter in terms of the numbers of trials, compared to other regions of Europe. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670. The first major persecution in Europe, when witches were caught, tried, convicted, and burned in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany, is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called "True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches".
In Denmark, the burning of witches increased following the reformation of 1536. Christian IV of Denmark, in particular, encouraged this practice, and hundreds of people were convicted of witchcraft and burnt. In the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, over 70 people were accused of witchcraft on account of bad weather when James VI of Scotland, who shared the Danish king's interest in witch trials, sailed to Denmark in 1590 to meet his betrothed Anne of Denmark.
Current scholarly estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft vary between about 40,000 and 100,000. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known for certain to have ended in executions is around 12,000.
During early 18th century, the practice subsided. The last executions for witchcraft in England had taken place in 1682, when Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susanna Edwards were executed at Exeter. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. Janet Horne was executed for witchcraft in Scotland in 1727. In 1711, Joseph Addison published an article in the highly respected The Spectator journal (No. 117) criticizing the irrationality and social injustice in treating elderly and feeble women (dubbed Moll White) as witches. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 saw the end of witchcraft itself as a legal offence in Britain: those accused under the new Act were restricted to people who falsely pretended to be able to procure spirits, generally being the most dubious professional fortune tellers and mediums, and punishment was light. In Switzerland Anna Göldi was executed in 1782. Poland saw the burning of two women in 1793. Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738 and Barbara Zdunk in Rößel (West Prussia) in 1811.
Witch hunts still occur today. Witch-hunts against children were reported by the BBC in 1999 in the Congo and in Tanzania, where the government responded to attacks on women accused of being witches for having red eyes. A lawsuit was launched in 2001 in Ghana, where witch-hunts are also common, by a woman accused of being a witch. Witch-hunts in Africa are often led by relatives seeking the property of the accused victim.
Other instances of moral panic in the modern West have some similarities to the earlier witch-hunts. Notably, the hysteria surrounding Satanic ritual abuse, prominent in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere during the 1980s, employed much of the same occult and conspiratorial imagery.
See also List of satanic ritual abuse allegations, for many more examples.
In many African societies the fear of witches drives periodic witch-hunts during which specialist witch-finders identify suspects, even today, with death by mob often the result. Audrey I. Richards, in the journal Africa, relates in 1935 an instance when a new wave of witchfinders, the Bamucapi, appeared in the villages of the Bemba people. They dressed in European clothing, and would summon the headman to prepare a ritual meal for the village. When the villagers arrived they would view them all in a mirror, and claimed they could identify witches with this method. These witches would then have to "yield up his horns"; i.e. give over the horn containers for curses and evil potions to the witch-finders. The bamucapi then made all drink a potion called kucapa which would cause a witch to die and swell up if he ever tried such things again. The villagers related that the witch-finders were always right because the witches they found were always the people whom the village had feared all along. The bamucapi utilised a mixture of Christian and native religious traditions to account for their powers and said that God (not specifying which God) helped them to prepare their medicine. In addition, all witches who did not attend the meal to be identified would be called to account later on by their master, who had risen from the dead, and who would force the witches by means of drums to go to the graveyard, where they would die. Richards noted that the bamucapi created the sense of danger in the villages by rounding up all the horns in the village, whether they were used for anti-witchcraft charms, potions, snuff or were indeed receptacles of black magic.
The Bemba people believed misfortunes such as wartings hauntings and famines to be just actions sanctioned by the High-God Lesa. The only agency which caused unjust harm was a witch, who had enormous powers and was hard to detect. After white rule of Africa beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft grew, possibly because of the social strain caused by new ideas, customs and laws, and also because the courts no longer allowed witches to be tried.
Amongst the Bantu tribes of Southern Africa, the witch smellers were responsible for detecting witches. In parts of Southern Africa several hundred people have been killed in witch hunts since 1990.
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. On May 21, 2009, The New York Times reported that the alleged witch-hunting campaign had been sparked by the Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh.
In Sierra Leone, the witch-hunt is an occasion for a sermon by the kɛmamɔi (native Mende witch-finder) on social ethics : "Witchcraft ... takes hold in people’s lives when people are less than fully open-hearted. All wickedness is ultimately because people hate each other or are jealous or suspicious or afraid. These emotions and motivations cause people to act antisocially". The response by the populace to the kɛmamɔi is that "they valued his work and would learn the lessons he came to teach them, about social responsibility and cooperation."
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. Cases have also come up where a strong-willed woman is targeted because she is assertive and is seen as a threat. 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, commit suicide or is brutally murdered. Most cases are not documented because it's difficult for women to travel from isolated regions to file reports, and because the violence is largely directed toward women, the police often fail to take it seriously when they do. Less than 2 percent of those accused of witch-hunting are actually convicted, according to a study by the Free Legal Aid Committee, a group that works with victims in the state of Jharkhand.
The most recent publicized case in India spread international uproar was in October 2009 when five Muslim women were paraded naked, beaten and forced to eat human excrement by villagers after being branded as witches in India's Jharkhand state. The incident was only made public after a cellphone video surfaced of the event. Many national research agencies contend events such as these happen daily around the world, without any reports to the police out of fear of retribution.
Though the practice of "white" magic (such as faith healing) is legal in Papua, the 1976 Sorcery Act imposes a penalty of up to 2 years in prison for the practise of "black" magic. In 2009, the government reports that extrajudicial torture and murder of alleged witches - usually lone women - is spreading from the Highland areas to cities as villagers migrate to urban areas.
On February 16, 2008 a Saudi woman, Fawza Falih, was arrested and convicted of witchcraft and now faces imminent beheading for sorcery unless the King issues a rare pardon. And on November 9, 2009, Lebanese TV presenter Ali Sibat (who was arrested in Medina in 2008) was sentenced to death on charges of witchcraft. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police." Also according to Human Rights Watch, two other people have been arrested on similar charges in November 2009 alone.
Occasional prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act continued in 19th and 20th century Britain. A well-publicised recent case was that of the medium Helen Duncan in 1944. Supposedly the authorities feared that by her alleged clairvoyant powers she could betray details of the D-Day preparations, but the accusations in court centered round defrauding the public. She spent nine months in prison. The last conviction under the Act was that of Jane Rebecca Yorke. The Act was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951. This act prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist while attempting to deceive and to make money from the deception (other than solely for the purpose of entertainment).
The McMartin preschool trial of 1984 to 1990 is the longest trial currently recognized in American history. The victims were accused of satanic ritual abuse in underground tunnels, involving flying witches, actor Chuck Norris , blood drinking, mutilated corpses, and human sacrifice. More than 350 people were involved in the fabrication of the allegations, which were taken seriously by the media, the public, the courts, and the prosecution. The jury did not believe the allegations, however, and the victims were freed.
One theory for the number of Early Modern witchcraft trials connects the counter-reformation to witchcraft. In south-western Germany between 1561 and 1670 there were 480 witch trials. Of the 480 trials that took place in southwestern Germany, 317 occurred in Catholic areas, while Protestant territories accounted for 163 of them. During the period from 1561 to 1670, at least 3,229 persons were executed for witchcraft in the German Southwest. Of this number 702 were tried and executed in Protestant territories, while 2,527 were tried and executed in Catholic territories. Nineteenth-century historians today dispute the comparative severity of witch hunting in Protestant and Catholic territories. “Protestants blamed the witch trials on the methods of the Catholic Inquisition and the theology of Catholic scholasticism, while Catholic scholars indignantly retorted that Lutheran preachers drew more witchcraft theory from Luther and the Bible than from medieval Catholic thinkers.”
Other theories have pointed that the massive changes in law allowed for the outbreak in witch trials. Such laws pointed out heretical nature, and punished all aspects. Another theory is that rising number of devil literature popularized witchcraft trials, in which the German market saw nearly 100,000 devil-books during the 1560’s. Another assumption is that climate-induced crop failure and harsh weather was a direct link to witch-hunts. This theory follows the idea that witchcraft in Europe was traditionally associated with weather-making. Scholars also imply that a connection between witchcraft trials and the Thirty Years’ War may also have a direct correlation.
While the previously mentioned theories mainly rely on micro level psychological interpretations, another theory has been put forward that provides an alternative macroeconomic explanation. According to this theory, the witches, who often had highly developed midwifery skills, were prosecuted in order to extinguish knowledge about birth control in an effort to repopulate Europe after the population catastrophe triggered by the plague pandemic of the 14th century (also known as the Black Death). Citing Jean Bodin's "On Witchcraft", this view holds that the witch hunts were not only promoted by the church but also by prominent secular thinkers to repopulate the European continent. By these authors, the witch hunts are seen as an attempt to eliminate female midwifery skills and as a historical explanation why modern gynecology - surprisingly enough - came to be practiced almost exclusively by males in state run hospitals. In this view, the witch hunts began a process of criminalization of birth control that eventually lead to an enormous increase in birth rates that are described as the "population explosion" of early modern Europe. This population explosion produced an enormous youth bulge which supplied the extra manpower that would enable Europe's nations, during the period of colonialism and imperialism, to conquer and colonize 90% of the world. While historians specializing in the history of the witch hunts have generally remained critical of this macroeconomic approach and continue to favor micro level perspectives and explanations, prominent historian of birth control John M. Riddle has expressed agreement.
As this theory has an alternative macroeconomic explanation some scholars oppose it. Diane Purkiss argues "that there is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also some parts of the Continent, midwives were more than likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Also the fact remains that most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, and a large part of witches were accused by women.
Some sociologists have attributed the occurrence of witchhunts to the prevalent human tendency to blame unexplainable occurrences on someone or something familiar. For example, Europe relied heavily upon agriculture during the period of the witch hunts; if there were large scale crop failures, the consequences would very likely be disastrous. Crop failures often correlated with the occurrence of witchhunts, leading some sociologists to suggest that communities often took out their anger about a lack of food on community members (witches) who were unpopular. This can be paralleled in more recent examples such as the Nazi use of anti-semitism to apportion blame for economic problems. A perception of moral righteousness, by the community, is a necessary element that enables rationalization. This, however, is only one element in a complex tapestry of factors leading to the events in question.
The modern notion of a "witch hunt" has little to do with gender, the historical notion often did. In general, supposed "witches" were female. Saith noted Judge Nicholas Rémy (c.1595), "[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches], should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex." Concurred another judge, "The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations."
'Witch-hunt' has become a generic term, referring to any situation in which a 'guilty party' is, essentially, tried and convicted in absentia, without any 'firm' evidence—indeed, in a typical witch-hunt, guilt is presumed from the outset, and the focus of the hunt actually becomes getting the accused to admit his guilt. Often, these so-called 'confessions' are brought about by way of verbal trickery, or by questioning the loyalty or past conduct of the accused.
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 Oxford English Dictionary describes the first recorded use of the term in its metaphorical sense in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). The term is used by Orwell to describe how, in the Spanish Civil War, political persecutions became a regular occurrence.
The term "witch-hunt" was widely popularized in a political context through Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, ostensibly about the Salem witch trials, but actually a criticism of the McCarthy hearings as well as the general atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that accompanied them. The hearings, held by anti-Communist committees, panels and "loyalty review boards" across the United States, became the most famous 'witch-hunt' of the 20th century. Later deemed unconstitutional, they represented a major breakdown in civil liberties and civil discourse; those accused of being Communist sympathizers could find themselves 'blacklisted' by their chosen profession, effectively ending their careers.