UEA, 25 March 2010
A new book by one of Britain’s leading experts on the history of witchcraft argues that it is “hard-wired” into human nature and we should not be complacent about the continued potential for persecution.
Dr Malcolm Gaskill, reader in early modern history at the University of East Anglia (UEA), says that far from being consigned to the past witchcraft and witch-hunting are still “potent” issues in developing countries and rich nations alike, particularly where poverty, lack of education, and social and political turmoil come together.
“Witchcraft is culturally durable, relevant, and potent – hard-wired into us all, even those who have consigned it to history’s dustbin with other relics of primitivism,” said Dr Gaskill, of the School of History at UEA. “We are all a little bit superstitious and people who feel under pressure or that they are being threatened tend towards persecution.
“More recently, published photos of Satan’s face in smoke from the burning Twin Towers, and girders on Ground Zero twisted into a cross, played to real fears and beliefs, beliefs that make political mandates. Chances are you’re lucky enough to live in an ordered society, but order is endangered whenever it is defended too zealously or unjustly. We remain vulnerable to fears that secret forces may be working against us, an ‘axis of evil’ conspiring to destroy Western civilisation.”
In Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction, published today by Oxford University Press, Dr Gaskill examines the history and origins of witchcraft, from the ancient world to contemporary paganism, considering why it still features so heavily in our culture. He reveals how witchcraft has meant different things to different people and that in every age it has raised questions about the distinction between fantasy and reality, faith and proof.
Dr Gaskill also challenges false assumptions about witchcraft by explaining why the myths exist and why they matter, arguing that much of what we think we know is wrong. He looks at the myths attached to the great witch-hunt of the 16th and 17th centuries and said it is important to “explode” these in order to understand properly the mechanics of belief and persecution.
Last year a UN official identified witch-hunting as a form of persecution and violence that is spreading round the globe, affecting millions. In 2008 there were examples of brutal persecution in Tanzania, one of which involving the trade in albino body parts for use in ‘muti’ magic, while other incidents have taken place in countries including Kenya, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU soldiers allied themselves to witchfinders to win support and intimidate supporters.
In the developed world, the Russian government is clamping down on witches – 10,000 of them according to a 2008 health ministry report – whose services include love spells and magical revenge. In the UK there are several hundred fundamentalist churches of west African origin where supposedly possessed people are exorcised. Children are frequently seen as ‘kendoki’ – witches – and abused accordingly, with almost 60 cases reported to the Metropolitan Police between 2006 and 2008. In 2000, eight-year-old Victoria Climbié was tortured to death by her guardians after she was denounced as a witch by a local pastor.
“We should sustain our disgust, and condemn the religious beliefs of the witch-hunters, however sincerely held,” said Dr Gaskill. “Equally, we shouldn’t be complacent, defining ourselves against the people of Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria in a way that makes us feel intrinsically different. In addition to prejudice, real occult beliefs feature widely in the most developed societies on earth.
“Whether or not one believes in the existence of spirits and the effectiveness of magic, it’s a fact that witchcraft exists. For millions of people this is an unpleasant reality. Vulnerable people are duped and thousands of people die each year.”
Despite this, Dr Gaskill said that witchcraft and witches still play a part in society. “Witchcraft is a subject that fascinates us all. Historically, we recognise witch-hunting as a feature of pre-modern societies. But witches still feature so heavily in our cultures and consciousness. From Halloween to superstitions, and literary references such as Faust and Harry Potter they still appear to have a role in our society.”