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Also known as superstition-driven terrorism

Although Christianity clearly provided a framework for witch hunting, the hysteria / obsession infected most of society, especially in Europe.

Dateline Bamberg Germany
June 30 1628

Johannes Junius stood accused of witchcraft. The record of his trial is in the library of this cathedral city of Bamburg, Germany. All proceedings were private except when accusers supplied testimony. The important proceedings occurred in the witches' prison.

Executioner: "Sir, I beg of you, for God's sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow upon another until you say you are a witch. Not before that, will they let you go [release from torture], as you may see by all the trials, for one is just like another..."

Junius was unusual. He was a man; most witches were women. And he was the mayor of Bamberg, the cathedral city. Most witches were poor; he was not. Junius was married and had a family; most witches did not. Still he was executedafter his forced confession.

See Minutes for the Janius trial record.

Women were primary victims (~80% in New England). Some common witchcraft charges:

  • Age (over 40; few people lived that long; why?)
  • Birthmark
  • Crippled
  • Deaf or bleary-eyed
  • Doing the Devil's work or consorting with the Devil
  • Freckled skin
  • Having seizures
  • Healing! (Yes, there were "good" witches.)
  • Mental illness, epilepsy
  • Midwifery
  • Performing witchcraft on others, making them ill for example
  • Proud and lordly bearing
  • Recovered from the plague (long life)
  • Sexually compliant, or equally bad, not sexually compliant
  • Talking to themselves

Is witch hunting superstition born of ignorance? Is it manipulative? Is it an expression of fear? Is it irrational? Does it still exist? Is witch hunting to be feared as a cancer in society? Yes to all of these!

An impression one can get from the history is that the poor suffered disproportionately. So also for landed single women and midwives.


Resources Online
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Excerpts indented.

Early Modern Europe: The witch hunts

This site provides numerous links for both the curious and the researcher.

Helen Ellerbe -- Helen Ellerbe, "Dark Side of Christian History," wrote:

"Witch hunts were neither small in scope nor implemented by a few aberrant individuals; the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches. The Church invented the crime of witchcraft, established the process by which to prosecute it, and then insisted that witches be prosecuted. After much of society had rejected witchcraft as a delusion, some of the last to insist upon the validity of witchcraft were among the clergy. Under the pretext of first heresy and then witchcraft, anyone could be disposed of who questioned authority or the Christian view of the world."

"Witch hunting secured the conversion of Europe to orthodox Christianity. Through the terror of the witch hunts, reformational Christians convinced common people to believe that a singular male God reigned from above, that he was separate from the earth, that magic was evil, that there was a powerful devil, and that women were most likely to be his agents. As a byproduct of the witch hunts, the field of medicine transferred to exclusively male hands and the Western herbal tradition was largely destroyed. The vast numbers of people brutalized and killed, as well as the impact upon the common perception of God, make the witch hunts one of the darkest chapters of human history."

European witch hunts -- Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Resource Site:

"From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, many Europeans developed a heightened concern with the phenomenon of witchcraft, seeing a new sect hostile to humanity. Thus, governments and society organized "hunts" for these alleged witches: accusing, torturing, and executing thousands of people. The intensity and viciousness of these hunts varied from place to place, as did their focus on particular targets, such as women. Finally, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment brought an end to these hunts for threats that did not empirically exist. "

National Geographic Interactive

"A small girl fell sick in 1692. Her “fits”—convulsions, contortions, and outbursts of gibberish—baffled everyone. Other girls soon manifested the same symptoms. Their doctor could suggest but one cause: Witchcraft."

"That grim diagnosis launched a Puritan inquisition that took 25 lives, filled prisons with innocent people, and frayed the soul of a Massachusetts community called Salem."

Superstition is not dead, because education is not yet alive everywhere.

Witchcraft in Africa and Asia -- Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

"In Southern Africa, decades of violent repression and armed struggles against it have led to a 'culture of violence'. Witchcraft and witch hunts [directed against evil sorcery] are but two manifestations of that."

"The Ministry of Safety and Security of South Africa's Northern Province created a Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft, Violence and Ritual Killings. The Commission issued a report in 1996-MAY which showed that thousands of people had been accused of witchcraft, have been run out of town and have lost their property. More than 300 had been killed by vigilante mobs over the previous ten years."

"...On 2002-JUL-29, five women were hacked to death because they were believed to have been practicing "witchcraft." The murders took place in the tea belt area of Jalpaiguri state of India. Ten laborers in the Kilkote tea estate have been arrested. In the previous decade, 79 women had been murdered in this area on suspicion of witchcraft."

Witchcraft is alive and well.

American Witch Hunters
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From the website: American Fanaticism

"During difficult times in the Massachusetts Colony in 1692, the devil seemed to be getting the upper hand in recruiting young souls to enlist in a covenant with hell. Special courts were consequently set up to handle the exceptional nature of the threat to the community and followed procedures which would not have been acceptable under less extreme circumstances ." Paul Johnson "The Spectator" October 1, 1991.

Sound familiar? A supposed religious threat, misunderstood, was countered by special courts with arbitrary powers. History does indeed repeat itself; the Neocon response to terror comes to mind.

On 21 April, 1692, Mary Easty, of Salem Village, Massachusetts Colony, was accused of witchcraft, tried, and executedjust like that. Only years later did citizens stop and think. From Paul Johnson:

"Five years later, the people of Massachusetts recognized that Easty had been innocent and that they had unjustly executed her. They claimed that 'such grounds [for her conviction and execution] were then laid down to proceed upon, which were too slender to evidence the crime they were brought to prove.' The Puritans realized that they had succumbed to hysteria and lost their way and been driven into evil deeds - 'we walked in the clouds, and we could not see our way.' Their fanatical zeal had led them to exercise the exact kind of repression on themselves which they had fled Europe to escape. The colony held a day of fasting on January 14, 1697, and especially the judges who had tried Easty looked into their guilty consciences. Samuel Sewal stood in front of his brethren with head bowed while the minister publicly urged him to take 'the blame and shame' of the injustice upon himself, lest God punish the entire people of new America. None of this made much difference to Mary Easty, already long since dead and buried."

Terror out of superstition or ignorance is not a whit different from religiously-motivated terror. And neither of these is any different from secular terror, except in source of motivation.

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Witch hunting is an expression of fear in ignorance during superstitious times. Attitudes are ingrained. "Malleus Maleficarum" (Hammer of Witches) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger; printed in 1486. It became the bible for witch hunters for two centuries. In one passage, "Malleus Maleficarum" has this to say:

    "Midwives surpass all others in wickedness. When [midwives] do not kill the child, they blasphemously offer it to the Devil in this manner. As soon as the child is born, the midwife, if the mother is not a witch, carries it out of the room on the pretext of warming it, raises it up, and offers it to the Prince of Devils, that is Lucifer, and to all the other devils. And this is done by the kitchen fire."

Starkly, this passage illustrates the hold superstition had on the populace during the time of Columbus. It should be no surprise that Fundamentalism has a similar hold on the collective psyches of many people today.

It was 1671, before an English woman, Jane Sharp, met the stigmatization of the midwife head on. For her time, Sharp had profound knowledge of human anatomy, both genders. She was able to describe the entire life-generating process and dispel all the nonsense in Malleus. Sharp further argued that midwives, being women, were more capable than men in midwifery. Her book predated the Enlightenment, but was entirely in its spirit.

Although the Church was involved in many witch persecutions, most witch hunters and judges were secular. For most of the witch hunting era, witches were not often put to death; it depended in part on geography. Germany and Ireland had quite different execution rates at times. Fines and imprisonment were far more common than executions.

References for the above include:
"Witches and Witch Hunts," by Milton Meltzer.
"Salem Village Witchcraft" by Boyer and Nissenbaum


Modern Significance
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Through the Crusades, the Inquisition, and witch hunting, Christianity passed through oppressive and violent stages not different from the terror arising today out of Islam.

The human psyche is driven by fear to commit monstrous crimes. In the individual, his/her private and internal fears bring out neurotic, even violent, behavior. Nations are no different--if they have a culture of ignorance.

Terrorism, worldwide in extent and well coordinated, seems out-of-control--as indeed it is. In an emotional sense, it is only natural for the stalker and the hunter to lash out at any convenient target.

Certainly Mary Easty was no Saddam Hussein. Set aside their histories and what do we see?
  • Mary Easty was accused of complying with the Devil.
  • Saddam Hussein was accused of consorting with al Qa'ida and developing weapons of mass destruction.

The substance is the same. In neither case was there a shred of proof, even though the "executioners" searched high and low both before and after the fact. History has already drawn its parallel.

Will and Ariel Durant would hardly be surprised. Why? Well, what lessons do we learn from visiting Salem today? It has become a tourist trap! For example, there is a witch museum and witch village managed and staffed by supposed practicing witches. Numerous gift shops play the supernatural theme. You can take spooky tours. Salem today is all about show business, not history. More than 400 years later, Americans avoid the awful origins and look the other way, apparently in their quest for a good time. "Don't bother me" seems an apt motto for visitors who go for superstition.

What is bad about that? Again, if you forget history, you can always sit through it again in another age.

Back to "reality." A navy recruit once heard this admonishment in his training for war: "When you are in a spot, do something, even if it is wrong, but do something." Such training has its time and place on the battlefield--when you know where the enemy is, and failure to act means defeat. But we do not know where bin Laden is. We found out the hard way that Iraq never harbored nor cooperated with al Qa'ida, nor did it have weapons of mass destruction. Neither was Iraq even a threat on the evidence at hand. Scary but empty thoughts drove us into a war of imperialism. The President said "time is running out" when only time could provide a wiser choice.

Iraq differs little in substance and veracity from the Salem Witch Trials. The "executioners" as well as the populace lost their minds or were brain washed. Iraq was also the easiest of the "Axis-of-evil" countries to attack.

On Hussein's part, he did not cooperate fully enough in his own self-interest until too late. By permitting Hans Blix and his team unfettered access, he too could have kept the whole thing "safely" in the hands of the able UN inspectors--keeping his palaces to the end of his days. Of course that goes against the grain of the Authoritarian Personality. And so does waiting until you can be sure of your information!

The Iraqi case is especially painful. For pointing out these things early on was to be branded a traitor by fellow Americans who meant well enough; they just did not think well enough.

Think about that. Leaders who instill fear in their followers develop fanatic robots, a la Hitler mode. The duper and the duped so to speak in true Authoritarian fashion. At the same time, and the real tragedy, the duper is duped by his/her own fears. This is the ground Mr. Bush exploited and now finds himself on. Like it or not, we tread on the same ground, and we are much softer targets than he is.

Most of Europe, including France, saw the matter of Iraq better that Bush did. This is not to say Saddam Hussein is a good man, or that the Baath party was benevolent. Certainly they are/were not. Genocide against the Shiites and the Kurds are provable indictments. Moving toward international indictments was certainly a wiser choice. The problem with that was simple. The timing had to fit into a re-election schedule.

Milosevic is the first national leader to stand trial for genocide. His example meets all the requirements of international laws. Hussein could have been next, and America would still be admired as a leading nation respectful of law and order instead of hated or feared.

That route, however, is not consistent with the stated aims of Neoconservatism. Paul Wolfowitz wrote a classified Manifesto that concluded in part:
  • The number one objective of US post-Cold War political and military strategy should be preventing the emergence of a rival superpower.
  • Another major U.S. objective should be to safeguard U.S. interests and promote American values.
  • If necessary, the United States must be prepared to take unilateral action."

The Wolfowitz position was merely controversial when he first wrote it. Today it is national policy. Being deliberate policy, this makes things much worse morally; Hitler would have loved the third point Wolfowitz made.

Patriotic? Maybe in some narrow sense. Sensible? Of course not. History will surely decide Bush was duped by his own arrogance born of his authoritarian personality. In any event, Mr. Bush duped his fellow Americans and too much of the world.

For more along this line see:

Witches in Medieval Society


Johannes Junius' last letter: to his young daughter

    Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and--God pity him--bethinks him of something. I will tell you how it has gone with me. When I was first time put to the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. Ktzendrffer, and two strange doctors were there. Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how come you here?" I answer, "Through falsehood, through misfortune." "Hear, you," he says, "you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily? If not, we'll bring in witnesses and the executioner for you." I said, "I am no witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I'll gladly hear the witnesses." Now the chancellor's son was set before me ... and afterward Hoppfens Elsse. She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor. . . . I answered: "I have never renounced God, and will never do it--God graciously keep me from it. I'll rather bear whatever I must." And then cam also--God in highest Heaven have mercy--the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing. . . . Thereafter they first stipped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. Then I though heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terible agony. . . .

    And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God's help I had to bear the torture. . . . When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: "Sir, I beg you, for God's sake confess something, where it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch. Not before that," he said, "will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another. . . ."

    And so I begged, since I was in wretched plight, to be given one day for thought and a priest. The priest was refused me, but the time for thought was given. Now, my dear child, see in what hazard I stood and still stand. I must say that I am a witch, though I am not,--must now renounce God, though I have never done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last there came to me a new idea. I would not be anxious, but, since I had been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would myself think of something and say it. If were surely better that I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really done it; and afterwards I would confess it to the priest, and let those answer for it who compel me to do it. . . . And so I made my confession, as follows; but it was all a lie.

    Now follows, dear child, what I confessed in order to escape the great anguish and bitter torture, which it was impossible for me longer to bear. . . .

    Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch-sabbath]. I said that I had not recognized them. "You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you. Say--was not the Chancellor there?" So I said yes. "Who besides?" I had not recognized anybody. So he said: "Take one street after another; begin at the market, go out on one street and back on the next." I had to name several persons there. Then the Zinkenwert--one person more. Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides. Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle--whoever it might be, I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more. So they gave me to the executioner, told him to stip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. "The rascal knows one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won't name him." By that they meant Dietmayer: so I had to name him too.

    Then I had to tell what crimes I had committed. I said nothing. . . . "Draw the rascal up!" So I said that I was to kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead. It did not help. I had also taken a sacred wafer, and had desecrated it. When I had said this, they left me in peace.

    Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something; be he never so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though he were an earl. . . .

    Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded. So strictly is it forbidden. . . . Dear child, pay this man a dollar. . . . I have taken several days to write this: my hands are both lame. I am in a sad plight. . . .

    Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you more. July 24, 1628.

    Dear child, six have confessed against me at once: the Chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfens Elsse--all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged my forgiveness in God's name before they were executed. . . . They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say it, just as I myself was. . . .

Johannes Junius was burned at the stake as a witch.
Burned at the stake!

When an idea consumes the mind. . . We haven't changed all that much--Abu Ghraib, third world torture. . . . and, of course, 9/11.

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