Over two hundred people who were accused of being witches were burnt to death in South Africa between the beginning of 1994 and mid-1995. These killings were not legal executions, but took place at the hands of lynch mobs, mostly from the communities in which the accused lived. Such witch hunts are rare. As recently as 1987 one South African scholar described them as “an extreme and remote possibility” and noted that though there had been periodic episodes of anti-witch purges in Central Africa, they were restricted to “identifying sorcerers, destroying their paraphernalia, putting them out of business and at worst exiling them.” The situation, especially in the Northern Province, has become so serious that official investigations are being made into how to deal with it1.
In Western Europe and North America, however, there were witch hunts in the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries in which thousands of people accused of witchcraft were executed after a legal trial. In most societies, and at various times, the most favoured method of killing witches was to burn them to death. The fear of witchcraft and sorcery seems to be endemic to human society, though the killing of suspected witches seems to be epidemic rather than endemic. Terms like “endemic” and “epidemic” are normally used for physical diseases spread by germs. I use the metaphor deliberately because I believe that witchcraft and witch hunts can be seen in theological terms as aspects of a spiritual sickness, as I hope to show in this article.
However, what are witchcraft and sorcery? Anthropologists like to distinguish between them and use them as technical terms. They regard “witchcraft” as the supposed power of a person to harm others by occult or supernatural means, without necessarily being aware of it. The witch does not choose to be a witch, and the supposed harm does not necessarily arise from malice or intent. Sorcery may be learned, whereas witchcraft is intrinsic. A sorcerer may use incantations, ritual, and various substances in order to harm, while a witch does not. While this is a convenient and useful distinction for anthropologists to make, normal English usage is not as clear-cut, and the terms have often been used interchangeably. In newspaper reports of recent witch hunts in South Africa, for example, the terms “witch,” “sorcerer” and “wizard” are often used to translate the Zulu umthakathi or the Sotho moloi. Moreover, English speaks of “witch hunts,” rather than of “sorcerer hunts,” though very often those who are hunted would be technically described by anthropologists as sorcerers rather than witches2.
The problem of terminology is further complicated by the rise of neopaganism in the first world. neopaganism is a conscious attempt to revive the cults of the pre-christian deities of north-western europe, mainly celtic deities such as lugh and daghda, or teutonic deities such as odin and thor. one section of the neopagan movement describes itself as “wicca” or “witchcraft,” and its adherents call themselves “wiccans” or “witches.” “wicca” was the original anglo-saxon spelling of the modern english word “witch.” wicca is a fairly well-established modern religion, popular mainly in britain and north america. historically, wicca can be traced back to the writings of gerald brosseau gardner, who wrote mainly in the 1940s. gerald brosseau gardner was aware of what had been published about witchcraft in his lifetime but had a very hazy grasp of history, and a lack of any sustained research into older texts. “his view of early thirteenth-century england, laid out in high magic’s aid, was apparently based on a cross between the witch-cult in western europe and ivanhoe, and represents a vision of the past even more wildly inaccurate than either.”
Many Wiccans believe that their religion goes back to pre-Christian times in North-Western Europe and that the witch hunts that culminated in the Great Witch Hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries constituted a persecution of their religion, a Christian attempt to eradicate their religion and culture. They identify themselves with those who died in the Great Witch Hunt in much the same way as Christians identify themselves with the martyrs who died in the persecutions of Trajan Decius, Diocletian or Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin; or as Jews identify themselves with those who were killed in the Nazi Holocaust. This view is derived mainly from Margaret Alice Murray’s book ‘The witch cult in Western Europe.’ Margaret Alice Murray, an Egyptologist, asserted that there was a witch cult that represented a pre-Christian religion in Europe; that Christianity was accepted only by the upper classes in society, and that the witch cult continued underground until it was violently eradicated in the Great Witch Hunt. Between the 1930s and the 1960s Margaret Alice Murray wrote the article on “witchcraft” in the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica,’ (1768) and so long after her views had been rejected by specialists in the field, they were accepted by non-specialists.
Witchcraft (“Maleficium”) was indeed common in pre-Christian Europe, and it was an ancient pagan custom for those who believed maleficium was being used against them or their kin to take personal retaliation. Death by burning was thought to be a proper penalty and was practised by the German tribes who worshipped Odin, Thor and the other deities of the Teutonic pantheon. Similar practices were found in the “civilised” society of the Roman Empire. “The pagan Romans, like most ancient peoples and modern tribal societies, prescribed the death penalty for those who killed or who harmed property by witchcraft: in a system which believes in magic and has capital punishment for normal murder and arson, there is no other logical situation.” The hunting and killing of suspected witches was thus an established pagan practice long before the coming of Christianity.
Whatever the “witchcraft” that was being suppressed in the Great Witch Hunt was, it was not a pagan religion3. The early Christians disapproved of both pagan religions and witchcraft, but they did not confuse them. The Pagan Roman Empire executed hundreds of Christians for refusing to endorse the validity of its system and its religion, but when Christians were in power, they tended to attack deities but spare humans. There are few recorded cases of the legal execution of pagans in the first two centuries of the Christian Roman Empire (though cases of mob violence were more frequent) nor, with very few exceptions, were heretics put to death until the eleventh-century. In those parts of Europe inhabited by Germanic tribes, Christians put an end to the tradition of hunting and killing witches.
Williams (1959) and Cohn (1975) have traced the process by which the Western Christian attitude gradually changed, especially from the eleventh-century to the beginning of the eighteenth-century. The persecution of witches derived not from the persecution of pagans, but from the punishment and persecution of Christian heretics, until in the fifteenth-century the concept of a satanic conspiracy to destroy Christendom appeared, which resulted in thousands of executions. At the beginning of the eighteenth-century, this persecution suddenly stopped. One of its last manifestations was the notorious Salem witch trials in North America, which ended when the judge and jury of Salem confessed their error, saying that they were deluded and mistaken in their judgment in condemning others to death for witchcraft, acknowledging that they had themselves been deluded by the powers of darkness into bringing the guilt of innocent blood upon themselves and others through their ignorance.
It is perhaps significant that the persecution of witches began in the West after the Great Schism of 1054. In parts of the Orthodox East, at least, witch hunts such as those experienced in other parts of Europe were unknown. The Orthodox Church is strongly critical of sorcerers (among whom it includes palmists, fortune tellers and astrologers), but has not seen the remedy in accusations, trials and secular penalties, but rather in confession and repentance, and exorcism if necessary.
I have tried to show that the process of accusation, trial, sentencing and execution of alleged witches is not a typical Christian reaction to witchcraft. It was practically unknown in Christendom for the first ten centuries. It then gradually appeared in certain parts of the Christian world, but not in others. It lasted for about six hundred years, though the last two hundred years of this period were the worst, after which it suddenly disappeared. Such behaviour was fairly common in pre-Christian societies but was altered when those societies became Christianised. There is not space here to recount all the arguments people such as Williams (1959) and Cohn (1975) use to account for this anomaly; what is important is to recognise it as an anomaly, and to look for a proper Christian response to witchcraft and sorcery outside the places and periods in which witch hunts occurred. Given the witch hunts now taking place in South Africa, the question of a proper Christian response is not an academic curiosity, but for many people, it is an important existential necessity.
It can be argued that witch hunts stopped in Western Europe because as a result of the Enlightenment people no longer believed in the phenomenon of witchcraft itself. The sceptical attitude of the Enlightenment was conducive to the belief that the concept of witchcraft was a delusion. It has also, however, been argued that the use of torture and the anonymous accusation that was common towards the end of the Great Witch Hunt was the result of Western rational education. The techniques pioneered then are still used today in modern technological dictatorships to detect dissenters and suppress opposition. Nevertheless, it remains a common perception that it is a belief in the power of witchcraft itself that gives rise to witch hunts, and that the best way to stop witch hunts is to eradicate the belief in witchcraft.
Western, and especially Protestant, the mission has been profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment worldview, and in that worldview, there is no place for such things as a sorcery. A parable that can help to illustrate this is the account in Exodus of the magicians of Egypt throwing down their sticks, which turned into snakes. Aaron responds by throwing down his stick, which turns into a snake too and then devours the other snakes. Aaron’s response was a model used by many Christian missionaries until the Enlightenment. Since the Enlightenment, Western missionaries would not usually behave like Aaron. They would build a school to teach people that sticks do not turn into snakes. Bosch characterised these missionaries as “children of the Enlightenment” who “tended to deny the existence of supernatural forces located in human beings as well as the reality of spirits in general and the ‘living-dead’ in particular. They thought that, with education, these ‘superstitions’ would disappear.”