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The Witch Hunt : Persecution And Delusion In The 21st Century

Witchcraft. Magic. Necromancy. These three terms have become synonymous with satanism and evil throughout history and are deemed as a formidable threat to life and prosperity. Belief in the supernatural - and the specific belief that the devil had gifted certain humans (witches) the power to hurt other humans in return for their loyalty - emerged early and was widespread across Europe. A ‘witchcraft craze’ engulfed Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s, resulting in the execution of tens of thousands of people - mostly women - believed to be ‘weapons of Satan’. Of these, the Salem Witch Trials of colonial Massachusetts have cemented themselves in history as a symbol for witch persecution and the hysteria that engulfed much of Europe at the time and lives on today, as an immoral yet surviving legacy of the past.

The infamous Salem Witch Trials began in the spring of 1962, in Salem Village, a small inland community merely 10 miles from the metropolitan city we know today. A group of young girls alleged that they were possessed by the Devil, and accused many other women of witchcraft. Women and girls in the village began suffering from fits, body contortions, and uncontrollable screaming ( today believed to be the side-effects of a poisonous fungus ) and as mass hysteria ensued, 150 people were accused and 18 were executed, six of which were men.

There were various reasons, identifiable today, that contributed to the trials in Salem and those in neighbouring villages. The harsh realities of life in the rural Puritan community of Salem Village were plagued with fears of disease, war, and the long-standing rivalry with the more economically prosperous Salem Town. There was also an underlying religious plot at play, where the secular Puritans clashed with the traditional Church of England. The church had long used fear as a weapon to wield against dissidents who challenged or threatened their power. There was also the Puritan gender bias that believed that women were more likely to succumb to the devil. Thus, women who did not conform to Puritan norms such as unmarried women and those who did not have children were targets of accusations. Clouded by suspicion, resentment, and fear, it would be these circumstances that would eventually culminate in the Salem Witch Trials.

However, the events in Salem were but one long chapter in a long story of witch hunts that originated in Europe. The majority of witch hunts took place in Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland; it is believed that 110,000 people in total were tried for witchcraft and 40,000 to 60,000 were executed.

Accused witches were forced to defend themselves without counsel. Courts used a series of bizarre tests with no scientific basis to determine innocence. For instance, the controversial water test. A witch’s body was tied and thrown into a body of water. Sinking meant innocent and floating meant guilt. The most damning of evidence, however, known as ‘spectral evidence’ which were claims by accusers that they had been attacked by the devil and to add fuel to the fire, they would writhe and whimper and babble in the gallery, sealing the fate of the defendant. Those who confessed or divulged names of the other witches were shown leniency and those who insisted on their innocence met harsher fates. Although many viewed the unfolding events as travesties, they remained mute; in fear of being punished for raising objections to the trials, as well as being implicated with allegations of witchcraft themselves. Punishments for those found guilty of witchcraft included imprisonment, flogging, fines, drowning, or exile as well as capital punishment such as burning at the stake, hanging, or beheading.

The publication of ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, translated as the “The Hammer of Witches’ by two germans was a detailed guide on how to identify, hunt, and interrogate witches and included the most inhumane forms of torture. It labeled witchcraft as heresy and quickly became the authority for Protestants and Catholics trying to flush out witches or people rebelling against the Church. For more than 100 years, the book was the second-most purchased book in Europe, beaten only by the Bible.

The injustice in the Salem witch trials would result in changes in the American legal system including the right to legal representation, the right to cross-examine one’s accuser, and the presumption of innocence till proven guilty. The Salem Trials and the witch hunt remain powerful symbols of unlawful persecution. However, this unlawful witch persecution still festers in the world today, particularly, in rural India and Africa where superstition and belief in the supernatural thrive.

Since 2000, more than 2500 people have been assaulted or killed in witch hunts in India. Most states in India don’t even record witch-hunting as a specific type of crime; instead, the attacks against women are registered as assault or murder. Attacks unfold as mob violence, involving torture in various forms, and neighbours, even family members, watch as women are hung from trees or left to die in burning houses. The survivors often claim that they were blamed for the death of a child, sickness plaguing the village, or even bad weather. In many cases, men accuse women of witchcraft to force them out of their homes so they can claim their land. Local practice includes bizarre methods to determine if a woman is a witch, for instance, the floating of lentils in a bowl of water means innocence and sinking proves guilt.

Witches have appeared in various forms throughout history—from evil, warty women hunched over a cauldron to haggard, cackling magicians riding on brooms wearing pointy hats. In pop culture, witches have been depicted as benevolent, suburban housewives; coming-of-age teenagers learning to control their powers, and gifted sisters battling the forces of evil. The real history of witches, however, is dark and not so seemingly. The Salem Witch Trials will be engraved in political history and contemporary literature as a warning about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process. The true brutality and near-accurate depiction of the events can be watched in Netflix’s “ Witches: A Century of Murder” and the movie titled “ Salem Witch Trials.”

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