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...


  1. Witchy representations in popular culture –

    The most popular image of the witch is the one of the old, ugly hag, green-grey-faced, warty, hook-nosed, soothsaying, devil-worshipper who conjures all manner of nastiness upon others. They are popular Halloween symbols, and associated with broomsticks, casting spells by moonlight, brewing noxious cauldrons and being able to see into the future.

    This popular mythical character is however a complete misrepresentation of the essence of being a true witch. The only resemblance to those modern practicing ‘Wicca’ today may be quite loose associations such as wise women who study traditional plants, astrology and a mixture of pagan ritual.

    Early archetypal representations of witches being nasty old pieces of work foretelling doom appeared in Shakespeare’s Macbeth 1603-1607 and this character continued appearing in Grimm fairytales in the 1800s. Their stories adapted from German folk tales, involved decrepit old women eating children and exacting evil deeds upon others.

    This nasty persona stuck in the mainstream popular consciousness with Disney’s wicked witch of the west in the 1939 production, The Wizard of Oz and continued with dozens of Disney cartoons that followed from the 1950s. Some researchers at Brigham Youngs University argue that Hollywood studios (and Disney) have a lot to answer for young people holding a negative view of older adults: with characters such as Madam Mim, Cruella de Vil, and the witch in Snow White all propagating an image of an angry, senile, crazy, ugly, old spinster.

    The mythic witch character has always taken a female form (again another misconception) but has changed over the last part of the 20th century to include other personality traits such as benevolence, naughty–niceness, seductive beauty (even sexiness), as seen in the characters of Bewitched and Charmed. Some modern witch identities also follow a new archetype as proto-feminists characterised in those modern Witches of Eastwick. Technopagan ideals have also transferred to contemporary witch characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where she employs technology such as the internet and rocket launchers to perform the rituals for eradicating evil.

    Themes of positive empowerment are also starting to creep into our popular impressions of witches thanks to the fantasy of Harry Potter, however, overall the darker villain archetype wins over more wholesome images of witches every time.

    It seems the image of the green-faced baddie is here to stay...

  2. Such ritual is sacred in nature which requires high respect and complex understanding. Its force should never be underestimated for it is why beyond powerful.

    Bell, Book & Candle - Gifts & Fine Metaphysical Supplies

  3. Sadly, this is not an entirely historical topic:

  4. Absolutely not an entirely historical topic... we' have more info and comments on our facebook group.. here's another excerpt.

    A myriad of different spiritual ideologies practised worldwide are both positively and negatively described as witchcraft. Globally, but especially in Britain and North America, there are substantial communities who currently practise a variety of forms of Wicca.

    Wicca is widely considered a neo-pagan, duotheistic, nature-based religion. According to the history given by Wicca’s founding practitioner, Gerald Gardner, it is a survival of the European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials of the late medieval period. There is no single orthodoxy or central organisation of this belief system, with interpretations and practices varying widely among practitioners. There are an estimated 800,000 individuals who identify as Wiccans worldwide.

    The use of the inverted pentagram by the Church of Satan, has led to some misidentification of Wiccans as Satanists. But there are important differences between these religions, such as the lack of a Satan-like figure in Wiccan theology. Due to ongoing negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue to practise in secrecy.

    Beyond Wicca and its many permutations in the West, individuals and communities in Africa, Japan, India, Oceania and the Americas subscribe to a variety of ideologies – often traditional or pre-Christian practices, including mixes of Christian and traditional religious beliefs such as Vodou, Obeah and Quimbanda – which may be detrimentally deemed witchcraft, sometimes with violent repercussions.

    In some Central African areas, malicious magic users are believed by locals to be the source of terminal illness such as AIDS and cancer. As of 2006, between 25,000 and 50,000 children in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their homes. In Kenya it was reported that in May 2008 a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft. In the Meatu district of Tanzania, half of all murders are “witch-killings”. In India, it is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the states of Assam and West Bengal, since 2003.

    Closer to home, in Papua New Guinea a local newspaper reported that in 2008 more than 50 people were killed in two Highlands provinces for allegedly practising witchcraft.

    Witchcraft remains a deadly practice...