Exporting Anti-Witch Hysteria?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 25, 2008 — 5 Comments

There has been a debate within modern Paganism, specifically within the various Witchcraft and Wiccan traditions, over whether the issue of persecutions and killings of “witches” in places like Africa, India, and the Middle East is a “Pagan” issue. While some correctly note that these alleged “witches” are often not associated with any Pagan or pre-Christian religion, others, like Phyllis Curott, argue that we are bound by a common label.

“I don’t think that Fawza was practicing anything resembling what most of us now call Wicca and Witchcraft. If she was doing anything, which is not clear, it may have been some kind of old traditional folk magic. It doesn’t matter – she is sentenced to die by beheading for Witchcraft. That is the word many of us use to identify ourselves. That word means that she is a member of our community. And we are not a community if we don’t take care of each other. We may not be able to save Fawza, but we must try.”

This view has been echoed by modern Pagans in India and South Africa, who have seen an all-to-real connection between the persecution of “witches” and the rights and freedoms of modern Pagans living near them. But can the problems of “over there” impact those of us living in the West? Mary Leland, writing for the Irish Independent News, argues that the anti-witch fanaticisms of “over there” may be finding a new home among us.

“In this case it was the revelation that the guest speaker was a man representing a church in Dublin which advertised among its services a protection against witchcraft. The chat diverted into such issues as whether alternative therapies such as Reiki or yoga or hypnosis could be considered contrary to biblical strictures … before occasionally hitting on the immediacy of superstition among, in this case, largely African congregations. Whatever else many of our African immigrants may have brought with them to Ireland, they have included a belief in witches, seen as an active threat to the well-being of families and communities … Christianity may have outgrown that horrible idea by now, but not before exporting it, with evangelistic missionaries, to Africa. It’s not easy either for a woman to listen to any debate about witches and witchcraft without remembering that it was women who were accused, tortured and executed in their thousands over several centuries.”

Leaving aside issues of tensions over immigration and possible xenophobia, can immigrants from countries known to persecute so-called practitioners of “witchcraft” bring with them the hysteria that has destroyed so many lives? Some are saying it is already here, with suspicious deaths and child abuse linked with a fear of malicious magic and witchcraft among immigrant communities in the UK. Leland worries that those offering immigrant communities in Ireland “protection from witchcraft” could eventually spark a larger witch hysteria.

“To hear that witchcraft is on the religious agenda of an African church in Dublin is to feel some alarm at the possibility that this tradition of evil-seeking has been re-introduced to Ireland. Of course we have to be racially and religiously sensitive to cultural differences, but the fanaticism of this particular cultural difference, and the brutality with which its victims are treated, must not be ignored, even on a radio chat show.”

Is it possible that the witch persecutions we read about in the paper could come to us? Could cultural misunderstandings and tensions among various communities result in violence and harassment towards modern Pagans? While debates will continue regarding whether the persecution and killing of “witches” in distant lands is “our” issue, we may soon find ourselves having to contemplate the problem much closer to home.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • THE Michael

    When are pagans going to get their heads out of the sand and stand up to this deadly stupidity? I say that in those places where we have FINALLY earned legal protection, we start standing up for ourselves and DEMANDING that people stop accusing us of being evil, especially when they hypocritically use the EVIL of murder and persecution against us, even if out of ignorance. Here, where I live, somebody even LOOKS at me the wrong way, I LOOK back, and tell them to BRING IT ON, if they think they are going to hurt ME or MINE in the name of Jesus, no less. These people respect those who stand up to them, so quit thinking that singing Kumbaya is going to protect you. If the Jews, the Tutsis, and other genocide victims haven’t made the lesson of human nature perfectly clear, then you deserve to be in danger. The Wiccan rede does not magically protect anybody, anymore than the ten commandments have. Wake up and get real or suffer the consequences.

  • Yvonne

    I think the persecution of witches is “our” issue wherever it may occur; however we must be careful not to make the situation worse for the victims of persecution. If the country where the persecution occurs is anti-western, then us blundering in as openly Pagan/Wiccan defenders is not going to help, because the country in question is just going to say “See, we told you – decadent western ways” and ignore us.But sometimes it can help to be open about our beliefs, as in the cases where analogies with Wicca has actually helped to stop persecution of traditional shaman-type practitioners.I also think that, as Michael says above, that constant vigilance is necessary.

  • mrsb

    I’ve seen quite a few pagans denounce the need to defend those in other countries who are wrongly accused of witchcraft. Often these are the same pagans who travel to Salem and love to cry out “Never again the Burning Times!”. Are these modern “witches” any less our people than those Salem “witches”?As pagans, and as people, should we not stand up for anyone wrongly accused?The thought that we shouldn’t be involved because it is “over there” is fine and dandy. Except that before you know it, “over there” is knocking at your door and dragging you out of your home at night.

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