A witch-hunt is a search for witches or evidence of witchcraft, often involving moral panic, mass hysteria and mob lynching, but in historical instances also legally sanctioned and involving official witchcraft trials.
The classical period of witch-hunts in Europe falls into the Early Modern period or about 1450 to 1700, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, resulting in tens of thousands of executions.
Many cultures throughout the world, both ancient and modern, have reacted to allegations of witchcraft either with superstitious fear and awe, and killed any alleged practitioners of witchcraft outright; or, shunned it as quackery, extortion or fraud. Witch-hunts still occur in the modern era in many communities where religious values condemn the practice of witchcraft and the occult.
The term "witch-hunt" is often used to refer to similarly panic-induced searches for perceived wrong-doers other than witches. The best known example is probably the McCarthyist search for communists during the Cold War, although in contemporary political discourse the framing of McCarthyism as a witch-hunt is mostly applied in a strategy to discredit McCarthyism. (Jensen p229)
The Hebrew Bible condemns sorcery. Deuteronomy 18:11-12 calls it an "abomination" and Exodus 22:18 prescribes "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, and tales like that of 1 Samuel 28, reporting how Saul "hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land suggesting that in practice, sorcery could at least lead to exile.
In later Jewish history, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach - Pharisee scholar and Nasi of the Sanhedrin in the First Century B.C. - is reported to have on a single day sentenced to death eighty women in Ashkelon, who had been charged with witchcraft. Later, the women's relatives took revenge by bringing false witnesses against Simeon's son and causing him to be executed in turn.
There were still secular laws against witchcraft, such as that promulgated by King Athelstan (924-999)
It had been proposed that the witch-hunt developed in Europe after the Cathars and the Templar Knights were exterminated and the Inquisition had to turn to persecution of witches to remain active. In the middle of 1970s, this hypothesis was independently disproved by two historians (Cohn 1975; Kieckhefer 1976). It was shown that the pursuit originated amongst common people in Switzerland and in Croatia that pressed on the civil courts to support them. Inquisitorial courts became systematically involved in the witch-hunt only in the 15th century: in the case of the Madonna Oriente, the Inquisition of Milan was not sure what to do with two women who in 1384 and in 1390 confessed to have participated in a type of white magic.
The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe came in waves and then subsided. There were early trials in the 15th and early 16th centuries, but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a big issue again and peaking in the 17th century. Some scholars argue that a fear of witchcraft started among intellectuals who believed in maleficium; that is, bad deeds. What had previously been a belief that some people possessed supernatural abilities (which sometimes resulted in protecting the people), now became a sign of a pact between these people with supernatural abilities and the devil. Witchcraft became associated with wild Satanic ritual parties in which there was much naked dancing, orgy sex, and cannibalistic infanticide.
Witch-hunts were seen across early modern Europe, but the most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often considered to be southwestern Germany. In Germany the number of trials compared to other regions of Europe shows it to have been a late starter. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670. The first major persecution in Europe, that caught, tried, convicted, and burned witches in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany, is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called “True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches”
Current scholarly estimates of the number of people executed for witchcraft vary between about 40,000 and 100,000. The total number of witch trials in Europe which are known for certain to have ended in executions is around 12,000. During early 18th century, the practice subsided. The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 1716, when Mary Hicks and her daughter Elizabeth were hanged. Jane Wenham was among the last subjects of a typical witch trial in England in 1712, but was pardoned after her conviction and set free. The Witchcraft Act of 1734 saw the end of the traditional form of witchcraft as a legal offence in Britain, those accused under the new act were restricted to people who falsely pretended to be able to procure spirits, generally being the most dubious professional fortune tellers and mediums, and punishment was light. Helena Curtens and Agnes Olmanns were the last women to be executed as witches in Germany, in 1738. In Switzerland Anna Göldi was executed in 1782. Poland saw the burning of two women in 1793 and a third, Barbara Zdunk, as late as 1811.
Witch-hunts against children were reported by the BBC in 1999 in the Congo and in Tanzania older women are killed as witches if they have red eyes. A lawsuit was launched in 2001 in Ghana, where witch-hunts are also common, by a woman accused of being a witch. Witch-hunts in Africa are often led by relatives seeking the property of the accused victim.
In December 1999 a student in Oklahoma, USA was suspended from school for 15 days for allegedly casting spells.
On February 16, 2008 a Saudi woman Fawzi Falih was arrested and convicted of witchcraft and now faces imminent beheading for sorcery unless the King issues a rare pardon.
There continued to be occasional prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act in the 19th and 20th century. The most well remembered is that of the medium Helen Duncan in 1944, the last person to be imprisoned under the Act. Supposedly the authorities feared that by her alleged clairvoyant powers she could betray details of the D-Day preparations, but the accusations in court centred round defrauding the public. She spent nine months in prison. The last conviction under the act was that of Jane Rebecca Yorke. The Act was repealed in 1951.
The Bemba people believed misfortunes such as hauntings and famines to be just actions sanctioned by the High-God Lesa. The only agency which caused unjust harm was a witch, who had enormous powers and was hard to detect. After white rule of Africa beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft grew, possibly because of the social strain caused by new ideas, customs and laws, and also because the courts no longer allowed witches to be tried.
It was reported on 21 May 2008 that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.
In August 1999, Jack Harvey, pastor of Tabernacle Independent Baptist Church in Killeen, Texas allegedly arranged for at least one member of his church to carry a handgun during religious services, "in case a warlock tries to grab one of our kids...I've heard they drink blood, eat babies. They have fires, they probably cook them..." During speeches which preceded his church's demonstration against Wiccans, Rev. Harvey allegedly stated that the U.S. Army should napalm Witches. One of the protesters carried a sign which read "Witchcraft is an abomination" on one side and "Burn the witches off Ft. Hood" on the other. A Wiccan faith group is active at Ft. Hood, a large army base near Killeen.
In 2008 Jim Piculas, a substitute teacher at Charles S. Rushe Middle School in Land O' Lakes, Florida, was reported to have lost his job for "wizardry." Piculas performed a sleight of hand trick in front of students, making a toothpick seem to disappear using concealed adhesive tape. In a phone conversation with Piculas, an administrator is claimed to have told Piculas that he had been "accused of wizardry." School officials later informed reporters that wizardry was "just one of the reasons Piculas was let go.
Other theories have pointed that the massive changes in law allowed for the outbreak in witch trials. Such laws pointed out heretical nature, and punished all aspects. Another theory is that rising number of devil literature popularized witchcraft trials, in which the German market saw nearly 100,000 devil-books during the 1560’s. Another assumption is that climate-induced crop failure and harsh weather was a direct link to witch-hunts. This theory follows the idea that witchcraft in Europe was traditionally associated with weather-making. Scholars also imply that a connection between witchcraft trials and the Thirty Years’ War may also have a direct correlation.
While the previously mentioned theories mainly rely on micro level psychological interpretations, another theory has been put forward that provides an alternative macroeconomic explanation. According to this theory, the witches, who often had highly developed midwifery skills, were prosecuted in order to extinguish knowledge about birth control in an effort to repopulate Europe after the population catastrophe triggered by the plague pandemic of the 14th century (also known as the Black Death). Citing from Jean Bodin´s "On Witchcraft", this view holds that the witch hunts were not only promoted by the church but also by prominent secular thinkers to repopulate the European continent. By these authors, the witch hunts are seen as an attempt to eliminate female midwifery skills and as a historical explanation why modern gynecology - surprisingly enough - came to be practiced almost exclusively by males in state run hospitals. In this view, the witch hunts began a process of criminalization of birth control that eventually lead to an enormous increase in birth rates that are described as the "population explosion" of early modern Europe. This population explosion produced an enormous youth bulge which supplied the extra manpower that would enable Europe's nations, during the period of colonialism and imperialism, to conquer and colonize 90% of the world. While historians specializing in the history of the witch hunts have generally remained critical of this macroeconomic approach and continue to favor micro level perspectives and explanations, prominent historian of birth control John M. Riddle has expressed agreement.
As this theory has an alternative macroeconomic explanation some scholars oppose it. Diane Purkiss argues "that there is no evidence that the majority of those accused were healers and midwives; in England and also some parts of the Continent, midwives were more than likely to be found helping witch-hunters. Also the fact remains that most women used herbal medicines as part of their household skills, and a large part of witches were accused by women.
Some sociologists have attributed the occurrence of witchhunts to the prevalent human tendency to blame unexplainable occurrences on someone or something familiar. For example, Europe relied heavily upon agriculture during the period of the witch hunts; if there were large scale crop failures, the consequences would very likely be disastrous. Crop failures often correlated with the occurrence of witchhunts, leading some sociologists to suggest that communities often took out their anger about a lack of food on community members who were unpopular (witches.) This can be paralleled in more recent examples such as the Nazi use of anti-semitism to apportion blame for economic problems. A perception of moral righteousness, by the community, is a necessary element that enables rationalization. This, however, is only one element in a complex tapestry of factors leading to the events in question.
The modern notion of a "witchhunt" has little to do with gender, the historical notion often did. In general, supposed "witches" were female. Noted Judge Nicholas Rémy (c.1595), "[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches], should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex." Concurred another judge, "The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations.