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