Witch Hunt


"Witch trial" redirects here. For the song by Rush, see Fear series. For the novel by Ian Rankin, see Witch Hunt (novel).

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)


Punishment for sorcery is addressed in the earliest law codes preserved; both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part. The Code of Hammurabi (18th century BC short chronology) prescribes that
If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.

The pre-Christian Twelve Tables of pagan Roman law has provisions against evil incantations and spells intended to damage cereal crops.

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.

The 6th Century Getica of Jordanes records a mythical persecution and expulsion of witches among the Goths in an account of the origin of the Huns. The ancient fabled King Filimer is said to have

"found among his people certain witches, whom he called in his native tongue Haliurunnae. Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps, a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech."

Middle Ages

During the Early Middle Ages, the Church did not conduct witch trials. Canon law, in Canon Episcopi, followed the views of the church father Augustine of Hippo (AD 400) that belief in the existence of witchcraft was heresy, since according to Augustine "a heretic is one who either devises or follows false and new opinions, for the sake of some temporal profit". The Council of Paderborn in 785 explicitly outlawed the very belief in witches, and Charlemagne later confirmed the law. The first medieval trials against witches date to the 13th century with the institution of the Inquisition, but they were a side issue, as the Church was concentrating on the persecution of heresy, and witchcraft, alleged or real, was treated as any other sort of heresy.

There were still secular laws against witchcraft, such as that promulgated by King Athelstan (924-999)

And we have ordained respecting witch-crafts, and lybacs, and morthdaeds: if any one should be thereby killed, and he could not deny it, that he be liable in his life. But if he will deny it, and at threefold ordeal shall be guilty; that he be 120 days in prison: and after that let kindred take him out, and give to the king 120 shillings, and pay the wer to his kindred, and enter into borh for him, that he evermore desist from the like.

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.

Early Modern Europe

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.

Critics of witch hunts in this time period included Friedrich von Spee, Gianfrancesco Ponzinibio, Cornelius Loos, Reginald Scot, Johann Mayfurth, and Alonzo Salazar de Frias.

Modern witch-hunts

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.

Saudi Arabia

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 have been alleged-witch persecution and public trials in Indonesia, even in the 2000s. Hundreds have died because of persecution.


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.


In many African societies the fear of witches drives periodic witchhunts during which specialist witch finders identify suspects, even today, with death by mobs often the result. Audrey I. Richards, in the journal Africa relates in 1935 an instance when a new wave of witchfinders, the Bamucapi, appeared in the villages of the Bemba people. They dressed in European clothing, and would summon the headman to prepare a ritual meal for the village. When the villagers arrived they would view them all in a mirror, and claimed they could identify witches with this method. These witches would then have to "yield up his horns"; i.e. give over the horn containers for curses and evil potions to the witch-finders. The bamucapi then made all drink a potion called kucapa which would cause a witch to die and swell up if he ever tried such things again. The villagers related that the witchfinders were always right because the witches they found were always the people whom the village had feared all along. The bamucapi utilised a mixture of Christian and native religious traditions to account for their powers and said that God (not specifying which God) helped them prepare their medicine. In addition, all witches who did not attend the meal to be identified would be called to account later on by their master, who had risen from the dead, and who would force the witches by means of drums to go to the graveyard, where they would die. Richards noted that the bamucapi created the sense of danger in the villages by rounding up all the horns in the village, whether they were used for anti-witchcraft charms, potions, snuff or were indeed receptacles of black magic.

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.

Amongst the Bantu tribes of Southern Africa the witch smellers were responsible for detecting witches. In parts of Southern Africa several hundred people have been killed in witch hunts since 1990

Several African states, Cameroon, Togo for example, have reestablished witchcraft-accusations in courts. A person can be imprisoned or fined for the account of a witch-doctor.

It was reported on 21 May 2008 that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.

United States

Some Christian fundamentalists in the United States react to Neopaganism, and Wicca in particular, with rhetorics reminiscent of the European witch-hunts.

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.

Causes and sociology of witch-hunts

One theory for the number of Early Modern witchcraft trials connects the counter-reformation to witchcraft. In south-western Germany between 1561 and 1670 there were 480 witch trials. Of the 480 trials that took place in southwestern Germany, 317 occurred in Catholic areas, while Protestant territories accounted for 163 of them. During the period from 1561 to 1670, at least 3,229 persons were executed for witchcraft in the German Southwest. Of this number 702 were tried and executed in Protestant territories, while 2,527 were tried and executed in Catholic territories. Nineteenth-century historians today dispute the comparative severity of witch hunting in Protestant and Catholic territories. “Protestants blamed the witch trials on the methods of the Catholic Inquisition and the theology of Catholic scholasticism, while Catholic scholars indignantly retorted that Lutheran preachers drew more witchcraft theory from Luther and the Bible than from medieval Catholic thinkers.”

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.

Political usage

In modern terminology 'witch-hunt' has acquired usage referring to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence.

Homage to Catalonia

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the first recorded use of the term in its metaphorical sense in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). The term is used by Orwell to describe how, in the Spanish Civil War, political persecutions became a regular occurrence.


The term 'witch-hunt' was widely popularized in a political context through Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, ostensibly about the Salem witch trials, but actually a criticism of the McCarthy hearings as well as the general atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that accompanied them. The hearings, held by anti-Communist committees, panels and "loyalty review boards" across the United States, became the most famous 'witch-hunt' of the 20th century. Later deemed unconstitutional, they represented a major breakdown in civil liberties and civil discourse, and for tens of thousands of people resulted in ostracism, ruined careers or even imprisonment.

See also


Further reading

  • Behringer, Wolfgang. Witches and Witch Hunts: A Global History. Malden Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2004.
  • Briggs, Robin. 'Many reasons why': witchcraft and the problem of multiple explanation, in Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Culture and Belief, ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Levack, Brian P. The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662, The Journal of British Studies, Vol.20, No, 1. (Autumn, 1980), pp. 90-108.
  • Levack, Brian P. The witch hunt in early modern Europe, Second Edition. London and New York: Longman, 1995.
  • Macfarlane, Alan. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A regional and Comparative Study. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers, 1970.
  • Midlefort, Erick H.C. Witch Hunting in Southeastern Germany 1562-1684: The Social and Intellectual Foundation. California: Stanford University Press, 1972. ISBN 0804708053
  • Oberman, H. A., J. D. Tracy, Thomas A. Brady (eds.), Handbook of European History, 1400-1600: Visions, Programs, Outcomes (1995) ISBN 9004097619
  • Oldridge, Darren (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader (2002) ISBN 0415214920
  • Poole, Robert. The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (2002) ISBN 0719062047
  • Purkiss, Diane. "A Holocaust of One's Own: The Myth of the Burning Times." Chapter in The Witch and History: Early Modern and Twentieth Century Representatives New York, NY: Routledge, 1996, pp. 7-29.
  • Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World, Random House, 1996. ISBN 039453512X
  • Thurston, Robert. The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America. Pearson/Longman, 2007.
  • Purkiss, Diane. The Bottom of the Garden, Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things. Chapter 3 Brith and Death: Fairies in Scottish Witch-trials New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000, pp. 85-115.
  • West, Robert H. Reginald Scot and Renaissance Writings. Boston: Twayne Publishers,1984.
  • Briggs, K.M. Pale Hecate’s Team, an Examination of the Beliefs on Witchcraft and Magic among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and His Immediate Successors. New York: The Humanities Press, 1962.

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