The Reality of Burning Witches (Trigger Warning)

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I fear that some of us living in the developed “first” world have developed a tendency to romanticize the European witch persecutions of the early modern period, a time where between 35 to 65 thousand men and women were killed for crimes of sorcery and witchcraft. It was so long ago that we have taken to fictionalizing the witch-hunts in films like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “Black Death,” and “Season of the Witch.” Blurring the line beyond mere romanticization into utter fantasy, a fantasy fed by the very lies used to initially convict those men and women. This fantasy is problematic not only for the way it warps history in the minds of the uncurious, but because witch-hunting has never stopped. The witch-hunts in Europe may have ended generations ago, but in other parts of the world they are still burning innocents.

Kepari Leniata being burnt to death in Papua New Guinea for the crime of "sorcery."

Kepari Leniata being burnt to death in Papua New Guinea for the crime of “sorcery.”

“A young mother accused of sorcery was stripped naked, doused with petrol and burned alive in front of a crowd including schoolchildren in Papua New Guinea, reports said on Thursday. The woman, named by The National newspaper as Kepari Leniata, 20, was reportedly tortured with a branding iron and tied up, splashed with fuel and set alight on a pile of rubbish topped with car tires. According to the rival Post-Courier newspaper she was torched by villagers who claimed she killed a six-year-old boy through sorcery, with police outnumbered by onlookers and unable to intervene.”

The source of that blaze is a woman. A crowd gathered to watch her die, swept up in the hysteria and panic of the accusation. That is what “killing witches” looks like. In Nigeria, another woman, 70-year-old Rebecca Adewumi, was recently killed for being witch.

“Mrs Adewumi was accused of being responsible for the sickness of a local evangelist. She was dragged to the palace of the monarch, where she was forced to drink local concoctions. The concoctions were given to her to make her confess or die within seven days. But after seven days she did not confess or die. Subsequently local thugs stormed her house. They dragged her under the rain and flogged her. According to a family member, her attackers scrapped her hair with broken bottles and used a big scissors to cut her fingers, then placed her on a tyre and set her ablaze.”

The witch-hunts aren’t some relic of the past, they are happening now. Nor is it isolated to the “third” world.

“A teenage boy underwent “unimaginable physical torture” before being drowned by his sister and her partner because they believed he was a sorcerer who was practising witchcraft, a court heard on Thursday. […] Over four days Kristy, who was visiting his sister from France, was tortured with metal bars, wooden sticks, a hammer and a pair of pliers in a “prolonged attack of unspeakable savagery and brutality”, the court was told.”

We live in a strange time. In America we concoct fantasies about killing “witches,” we build thrillers that suppose our own witch-killings were justified, while thousands are killed by mobs in towns and villages across the world.  Surely we should be feeling some cognitive dissonance, but we seem to accept “The Witch” as just like any other fantasy creature: zombies, werewolves, vampires, winged fairies. We make no real connection to how much our fantasy is built on the horror of killing innocents (and the propaganda that fueled it). Nor do we realize that Hollywood is a global business, and that our fantasies about witch-killing might be seen very differently in lands where witch-hunts have not become a relic of history. For modern Pagans and Witches living in countries where these witch persecutions happen, they are in a constant struggle to change a culture of misinformation and dangerous propaganda (South African Pagans are currently circulating a petition to their Human Rights Commission).

Yesterday I wrote about a large number of film projects featuring witches and witchcraft that are being released this year, and that those of us who identify as Witches should start discerning our response to them, because what pop-culture does impacts our collective thinking and beliefs. This is not because these films are about “us,” but because the lines are far blurrier than we realize. That it’s problematic that we are entertained by fake witches being killed while Christian groups in America fund witch-hunters overseas. Meanwhile, the unscrupulous have no problem issuing polemics that deliberately try to blur the lines further between modern religious Witchcraft and the witch-persecutions. We seem to forget that we are not immune to moral panics here too.

I’m not saying we can’t have fantasy witches riding broomsticks and cackling, I’m simply saying that we can’t enjoy them in a vacuum. When we blur the lines between the fantasy witch and the innocent women and men that were killed in early modern Europe, when we make them the villains while witch-hunts rage and people die in places like Papua New Guinea, we have to start examining what we are saying to ourselves through our art. The reality of burning witches is not fun, entertaining, or exciting, it is horrifying and tragic, it should gain the world’s attention and mobilize us into action. The figure of the witch, in fantasy and reality, has always been a dangerous and complex idea and we cannot ignore what we invoke in its name.