Monday, June 8, 2009

The witch-hunt continues

A brief history of Witchcraft

We've been busy looking at witches and witchcraft this week. Getting into some detailed research, we realise there's potential to do a whole exhibition on the topic! But here's some info about some content we think is relevant to our exhibit... with great thanks to my 'evil intern' for compiling a brief history so far...In various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, witchcraft to the believed use of certain kinds of supernatural or magical powers.

We've come across some awesome objects in the Museum collection such as Indonesian Rangda masks, representations of the widow-witch who rules evil spirits in Balinese symbolic plays. Rangda is the queen of the Leyaks. The Leyak shadow puppet offers up great imagery, as a mythological creature represented by a flying head with entrails. We're also investigating stories about the Azande divination rituals and practices throughout Sub-Saharan Africa with related items in the Museum's collection. We have a great opportunity to add a great deal of detail to documenting our collection. I'm excited! But the story of witches and witchcraft is much bigger than the AM collection items can tell alone...

The persecution of individuals as ‘witches’ is a phenomenon that has regularly recurred throughout the last millennium. Such persecution reached its zenith in medieval Europe when many individuals – especially, though not exclusively, women – who were suspected of performing ‘sorcery’, ‘magic’ or other forms of witchcraft were executed, many by being burned at the stake. Often such individuals were merely practitioners of traditional or herbal medicine; midwives; healers.

The Spanish Inquisition:
Commencing in 1478, it was responsible for the torture and death of tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals. Its primary aim was to halt the advance of heresy, but many other ‘offences’ were included – bigamy; solicitation; homosexuality; bestiality; and ‘superstitions’ – as well as practices identified as witchcraft.

Malleus Maleficarum:
Such persecutions throughout the latter half of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries in Europe were assisted by the 1487 publication of the Malleus Maleficarum which detailed the way witches could be identified, tortured, tried, and executed. The work became an instructional handbook for Christian witch-hunters, being re-printed 36 times between its original publication in 1487 and 1669.

The Salem Witch Trials:
Such courts would be considered of dubious legality by contemporary standards, as is attested by the well-documented North American example of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 in which 150 individuals were arrested and imprisoned, twenty-nine of whom were legally tried and convicted of witchcraft – at the time a capital felony. Nineteen of the accused were hanged; one was crushed to death; and at least five others died in prison. A year later the ‘Court of Oyer and Terminer’ which had made the convictions was dissolved, notably with one of the court men stating that, "It is better that 10 suspected witches escape than that one innocent person [is] killed."

..and the witch-hunt continues...