Unnatural Rebellion

Malcolm Gaskill

  • The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present by Ronald Hutton
    Yale, 360 pp, £25.00, August, ISBN 978 0 300 22904 2

The province of Enga in the highlands of Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest and most lawless places on earth. On 18 May 2015 ten men armed with machetes, axes and homemade guns entered the village of Fiyawena looking for a woman called Mifila, the mother of two young children. Six months earlier she and three other women had been accused of using witchcraft to cause a measles epidemic. The suspects had been put on ‘death row’ by their fellow villagers, but were rescued by Enga’s deputy police commander, Epenes Nili, who daringly arrived in the mountainous region by helicopter. Bemused villagers with painted faces broke arrows to signify an end to the persecution, and the witchfinder, an elderly woman, was shamed into refunding her fee. Footage shows Mifila, a child on her shoulders, looking far from relieved to be safe. She probably guessed that the witch-hunters would come again. When the men burst into Mifila’s hut in May, her brother stood aside saying it was her time to die. Then she was butchered in front of her family.

A few weeks after Mifila’s murder, another piece of film, this time taken on a smartphone, appeared on the internet. It shows another four Engan women, naked and bound, being abused by agitated men with machetes. A man in a red T-shirt lies on the ground, supposedly incapacitated by the witches having magicked away his heart. In this case, it transpired, locals considered the evidence to be overwhelming, and all the more sinister and compelling for being invisible. At least one of the women died as a result of the ordeal; two others were banished. ‘Maybe this will be the last case of its kind,’ Deputy Commander Nili said, knowing this to be unlikely. Around 150 suspected witches die each year in Papua New Guinea, and no one – the UN, the government, the over-stretched police department – is sure what to do about it. In 2013, following the lynching of 20-year-old Kepari Leniata at Mount Hagen, graphic pictures of which arrived in newsrooms around the world, a 1971 law that extenuated murder if the victim was a suspected witch was repealed. In March a mass trial began of 99 men who went on a witch-hunting rampage in Madang Province. The men who murdered Mifila have not yet been arrested.

These atrocities are a long way from Hogwarts. Yet the term ‘witch’ herds them together, a semantic enclosure for an array of variants from folklore, the Bible, product branding, Halloween parties and newspaper cartoons. The ‘witch hunt’ is an over-used metaphor – from Arthur Miller’s skewering of McCarthyism in The Crucible to Trump’s self-righteous tweets. Devotees of Wicca also call themselves witches. In fiction and legend, witches can be white or black, good or bad: they can be heroines and healers or hexing hags. What strange classification can bracket such diversity, from nursery tales to the blackest crimes? Roald Dahl offers a clue in The Witches, where he suggests that real witches don’t wear pointy hats and ride broomsticks but look normal. They are insatiably vicious yet hard to detect. ‘If only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not,’ Dahl tells his young readers, ‘then we could round them up and put them in the meat-grinder.’ Dahl’s witches are all women.

Dahl belongs to a long tradition of making fun from misogyny. As Lyndal Roper observed in an essay of 2006, the infamous treatise Malleus maleficarum (‘The Hammer of Witches’), first published in 1486, was meant to be amusing as well as alarming. The Late Lancashire Witches, a play of 1634 by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, was both subversive comedy and topical commentary. In each case, the witches are female, their bodies corruptible, their passions unbridled. They mock and menace patriarchal political order (in The Late Lancashire Witches a codpiece is bewitched to cause impotence). Inversion is the basis of humour and social anxiety in all ages and cultures, and witches represent, enact and embody inversion. Fair is foul, and foul is fair. If the witch did not exist, she could be invented by taking every imaginable social and moral ideal and stuffing their dark opposites into the skin of a human monster. Witches creep along the boundaries between order and chaos, purity and corruption, attraction and revulsion, natural and supernatural, the real and the surreal. Uninvited lords of misrule, they are first projected in the mind and then sometimes, as in Papua New Guinea, tragically reified.

Modern Western images of witchcraft merge most convincingly with non-Western and historical ones through the ‘witch craze’. Between 1400 and 1800, and especially from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th, civilised Europeans killed alleged witches. Scholarly research has assembled a detailed, variegated map of prosecution – moderate and intense, sporadic and sustained – from Massachusetts to Moscow, Stockholm to Sicily. There were 110,000 trials, half of which resulted in convictions, except during witch panics, when the rate usually rose. Not all communities bothered with the law. In 1705 in the fishing village of Pittenweem in Fife a mob set about Janet Cornfoot, who they believed had cast spells on the community. They dragged her to the harbour, hung her by the ankles, pelted her with stones, crushed her under a door piled with rocks, then ran her over with a cart. Cornfoot’s lynching may seem remote, but it sounds very like the bloodletting at Madang in 2014, and happened in the British Isles fewer than fifteen generations ago. Time drains horror from crime. The 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Luyken produced a set of engravings depicting the execution of witches and the grisly aftermath: charred corpses hanging from chains at the stake, picked over by souvenir hunters. No modern viewer would be as repelled by these as by the colour photograph of Kepari Leniata’s body burning on a rubbish tip, yet as commentaries on inhumanity they are of a piece. As Laurence Rees says in his history of the Holocaust – for some a companion piece to the witch-craze – it pays to be reminded ‘just what our species can do’.

The validity of comparisons between Nazi genocide and witch-hunting is limited, however. Jews were racial scapegoats for national ills, and Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals were similarly accused of hurting the Volksgemeinschaft. Witches aren’t quite like this. Demonologists may have branded them a heretical brood, fighting Christendom under Satan’s banner, but the reality tended to be more personal and prosaic. Instead of being random scapegoats, witches are intimates who reveal their malice through mundane confrontations. As Roald Dahl knew, the real terror of witches is that they are all around us. As the anthropologist Eytan Bercovitch has put it, ‘The witch is everything that people truly are as communities and individuals but would rather not be.’ Witches stir up negative emotions: guilt, lust, rage, remorse, envy and fear – the last of these is the key word in the subtitle of Ronald Hutton’s panoptic, penetrating book.

Hutton is unflinching in describing misery yet encourages understanding of the peculiar arrangements of circumstance that make people think and behave in wrong-headed and pitiless ways. Witches, it is clear, are fashioned from some psychic ambiguity or conflict we have lodged inside us. What remains obscure, however, is just who ‘we’ are, what makes us ‘us’, and by extension what makes a witch. Connected to these problems is the question of whether the idea and practice of witch-hunting latch on to some universal archetype. Are parallels between early modern Europe and the anthropology of modern Asia, Africa and South America more than superficial? Are the enormities of Pittenweem and Papua New Guinea basically the same or do differences of time and space, mentality and culture, separate them out into distinct phenomena?

Perhaps witchcraft studies – the subject spans several fields – need a general theory. But general theories are like lifeboats: welcome, but liable to sink if they take on all exceptions to their rule. Inspired by their reading of social anthropology, Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas explained the increase in accusations of witchcraft in early modern England as a result of late 16th-century social and economic change. Steadily, though, incongruent cases gathered in drifts, even though there was only a modest degree of generalisation involved. The anthropologist Niek Koning made the sweeping assertion that the hunter-gatherer’s peripatetic lifestyle inhibited the festering ill-will so vital to witchcraft accusations, whereas settlement meant that farmers with everything to lose competed and resented and envied. Modernity, comprising capitalism and state formation, suppressed witch-hunting and replaced it with ‘more collectivist forms of social paranoia’. But Koning’s theory has holes. Not all agrarian societies have witches, whereas some foraging societies do; typical suspects might be old, elsewhere they are young; men can outnumber women among the accused. Particularism has its drawbacks too. The downside of the safely compact microhistory or field study is the limited range of its significance.

Even if we agree that a witch is ‘somebody believed to use magic for harmful purposes’, explanations for the way such power is acquired and dispensed are manifold. European writers taught that witches formed a spiritual union with Satan, thus perverting the Christian covenant, whereas common people (mostly in England) held the more grossly materialist belief that the satanic pact was sealed by suckling animal-shaped familiars. In New Guinea the Hewa tribe once supposed witches had a flesh-craving foetus nesting inside them, whereas the Bamileke of Cameroon thought it was an unnatural organ pumping out violent desire. The Swazis of southern Africa held that witchcraft was a virus that lured the infected into a deadly cult, and the Mamprusi of Ghana said it was a toxin passed from mother to daughter. Early modern thinking on witchcraft also advanced the idea of matrilineal heredity – women compelled by blood to behave badly across the generations. Most theories entail some unwholesome reciprocity between body and spirit. Yet dualism is only the starting point from which cultures elaborate their own unique witch beliefs, which leads us back to the question: do witches have some basic common characteristic?

Similarities in measures taken against them may hold clues. Pre-modern anxiety created work for ‘cunning folk’: village adepts who acted as healers and soothsayers and detectives of supernatural crime. Hutton calls them ‘service magicians’, figures whose rituals might identify a witch or neutralise her power. Suspects were also made to undergo ordeals. In England they might be ‘swum’ to see if they floated, a sign of guilt; on the Indonesian island of Flores they had to pluck a stone from boiling water without blistering the skin. The ‘queen of proofs’ was the confession. In Dang, a Gujarati province, suspects were swung upside down over a fire; elsewhere they were flogged, starved or deprived of sleep. Europe’s tortures, theoretically applied with academic precision, are, like the witch herself, ingrained in our visual culture. Inquisitors operated on the basis that a witch’s loyalty to her false master, the devil, needed to be broken. Only then would she speak the truth and identify her accomplices. Witch-finders, like the woman complicit in the murder of Mifila at Fiyawena, have long fanned the embers of suspicion into witch-hunting conflagrations. In the 1980s an escalation of accusations in Zambia was linked to a proliferation of ‘experts’ in sniffing out witches. It was estimated in 2005 that South Africa had half a million such practitioners. Some African witch-finding movements have appropriated colonial imagery and ideology, preaching the gospels and rooting out witches in one seamless evangelising crusade. Far from eradicating superstition, Christian missionaries have repackaged it as a workaday Manichaean struggle between good and evil.

The postcolonial context exposes some ghastly legacies of Western early modernity, especially what happened when imperial prohibitions on witch-hunting were revoked as empires folded. The Indian rebellion against the British in 1857 initiated a terrible witch-hunt in the northern territories, and a century later Ugandan tribal chieftains reacted to independence in the same way. Opponents in the Angolan civil war of the 1990s slaughtered witches, in the belief that this gave them political legitimacy. Far from being an inert feature of unchanging primitivism, witch beliefs are animated by the unease aroused by periods of transition, especially to economic individualism. This was the argument Macfarlane and Thomas made about England, and it fits what happened to the Giriama people of Kenya and the Kerebe of Tanzania in the 19th century, as well as inhabitants of the Gwembe Valley of southern Zambia in the 1980s. Most striking is the ‘modernity of witchcraft’, a phrase coined by the anthropologist Peter Geschiere. Technology, science, prosperity and education do not necessarily inhibit the belief in witchcraft; they may actually propagate it, especially if accusing witches breaks with a colonial past and helps to realise national identity. South Africa’s Ralushai Commission recommended in 1996 that Africans be governed ‘according to African understandings of reality, embodying the ideas that witchcraft was objectively real and that a belief in it was a hallmark of traditional African identity’. Theocracy sustains witch-hunting too: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Indonesia and Gaza have all in recent years stepped up enforcement of anti-magical legislation. In 2007 President Jammeh of Gambia authorised the arrest of 1300 suspected witches in a single region. The authorities in Saudi Arabia supply training in witch-finding and counter-magic for the good of the state.

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At the same time, historical witches differ markedly from anthropological witches. Only Europeans, from the early 14th century onwards, conceptualised witchcraft as a conspiracy against an established monotheistic religion. Pope John XXII (1249-1334) was an enthusiastic enemy of witches and magicians, and his actions against them – issuing injunctions, launching investigations, executing malefactors – caused reverberations as far away as Ireland. There, Petronilla de Meath ended up on the losing side in a power struggle with the bishop of Ossory, and was burned to death after being tortured into confessing she was a ‘heretic sorcerer’. The fusion of witchcraft and heresy served to demonise religious dissent. In the 1420s there were campaigns against homicidal devil-worshipping women in France, Spain and Italy, especially in the Pyrenees and the Alps. At Todi in Umbria a woman was burned to death for, among other crimes, anointing herself with the rendered fat of vultures, which empowered her to ride a goat-demon to a Sabbath where she and other witches were urged to murder children. She was also accused of shape-shifting – she was said to become a fly. Only in Europe did the secular and clerical ruling class, which had done so much to permit and promote witch-hunting, eventually change its mind about the reality of witchcraft as theological construct and indictable felony. But Hutton’s quest is not for a common ancestor from which all species of witchcraft descend. That would only reinforce the reductionism implied by general theories of the causes of witch-hunts. Rather, he looks for the origins of later variety in earlier variety, with distinct distant pathways leading to modern beliefs and behaviour.

Ancient Egyptians had no concept of witchcraft, perhaps because fear there was directed towards foreigners, seen as ‘hostile magicians’. The Greeks were similar, although their antipathy to magic edged closer to the medieval church’s antithetical view of religion and magic. Mesopotamian peoples did have witches, in what Hutton calls ‘the classic sense of human beings, concealed inside their own society, who worked magic to harm others’. These witches were assumed to be female. It made sense that women’s inferiority and social impotence would mean they were attracted to demons, whose blandishments they were too feeble to resist. As in other cultures, witchcraft was a ‘weapon of the weak’, albeit a peculiarly gendered one aimed horizontally at neighbours rather than upwards at class superiors. People powerless by nature could aspire to power only through rebellion. This could be natural, in the sense of insurrection, or unnatural in the form of witchcraft. In the Christian tradition the two were cemented ideologically. ‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,’ inveighed the Bible. We know of relatively few trials in the ancient world. The Romans executed two hundred people for causing an epidemic with veneficium, meaning ‘witchcraft’ or ‘poisoning’ or both – essentially the crime for which Mifila was murdered. All these Roman witches were female, showing the pervasiveness of the idea of woman as murderous rebel. By the first century BC, this stereotype had become even more sharply focused. Horace told of Canidia, a vindictive hag who cooked up spells using poisonous herbs, toads’ blood, owls’ eggs and the body parts of infants. According to Horace wretches like her should be stoned to death, their bodies left to rot. Tacitus recorded that the Germanic tribes imagined women to be ‘endowed with something celestial’, an opinion they elaborated into a fear, in Hutton’s winning phrase, of ‘a mythical sect of night-flying cannibal witches’.

Following perhaps a faint thread of continuity, some of the most savage witch panics of the 17th century occurred in southern Germany. In the city of Würzburg 1200 convicted witches were burned between 1616 and 1630, and another 900 a day’s ride away at Bamberg. One reason for the severity of these purges was the region’s patchwork of independent polities (Würzburg and Bamberg were prince-bishoprics), another was the unprecedented destructive energy caused by friction between Protestants and Catholics both within and between states. Religion, more than any other factor, explains why witch-crazes mostly took place in the early modern period although many of the necessary social, intellectual and legal preconditions had existed centuries earlier. In far smaller numbers, witches had been executed in German-speaking lands throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, as they had in France, the Low Countries, Bohemia, Denmark and Russia. A widow was drowned in tenth-century Northamptonshire for sticking an iron pin in an effigy of her enemy. The idea seems well established. Tacitus’ witch suggests that the idea of female maleficence was even older, a tribal gender politics that set boundaries for acceptable conduct among women, and created a scenario of deviant femininity. The culprit did not have to be a woman. Around one in five of the witches prosecuted in early modern law courts was male. For a man to behave like a woman – dabbling in magic to compensate for a lack of masculine vigour – was at least as serious a failing as for a woman to overreach herself in a man’s world.

Other evolutionary strands rise faintly to the surface. In 1587 Chonrad Stoeckhlin, a Bavarian herdsman, was executed for claiming that he sent his soul on nocturnal journeys across the astral plane. Wolfgang Behringer, the historian who discovered his story in the archives, dubbed him ‘the Shaman of Oberstdorf’, although as one reviewer, Georg Modestin, pointed out, there wasn’t actually much shamanism in Behringer’s book. Modestin referred to Behringer’s ‘mythical archaeology’, a term that could also describe the work of the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg. Ginzburg established the idea that the religious genealogy of early modern witches drifted back into an obscure pagan and prehistoric past, and that the practices of visionaries, soothsayers and healers were shamanistic, even if, pace Behringer, these practitioners themselves were not actually shamans. As with witchcraft in general, the more we learn the less confidently we are able to classify our findings. Shamanism, an 18th-century term classically attached to Siberian travellers in the spirit world, has ceased to be a definition and has become, as Graham Harvey puts it, more of a ‘semantic field’.

To speak of witches, then, whether as a contemporary theologian or jurist, or a modern historian or anthropologist, is either to be confused and tripped up by taxonomy or to be confident about forcing meanings on words. The mid-17th-century translator of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s occult philosophy protested that ‘magic and witchcraft are far differing sciences,’ an idea with a long pedigree in the English state. Elizabeth I made witchcraft a felony in 1563, yet employed Dr John Dee as court magician. Not everyone agreed with the distinction. Exasperated Protestant clerics held that magic and witchcraft were the same, insisting even that village white witches were worse than their maleficent counterparts because they made ignorant folk complicit in the sin of sorcery. This further complicates the proliferating terms and shifting meanings. The most ontologically disruptive variant was the belief that the witch existed only in the imaginations of inquisitors and fools. Scepticism trickled through the entire era of European witch-hunting. Sceptics doubted that humans could share power with demons, and others believed such a thing to be possible in theory but were unconvinced by the evidence typically presented at law.

Witches have always been good to think with. That’s why they have so many incarnations, and have attracted so many theories. Easily adapted to express a spectrum of anxieties, they have been endlessly remade in myth, legend and history. In the Age of Reason, scoffing philosophes exploited them as symbolic victims of popish superstition and tyranny, while Romantics cast them as heroines persecuted for threatening the status quo. The need to substantiate these claims was less evident than the persistent desire to mythologise. The most enticing explanation was offered by an Egyptologist, Margaret Murray, who in the first half of the 20th century decided that early modern witch-hunters, far from inventing witches, had shone a disapproving light on an archaic fertility cult, close to nature and the old gods. All sorts of movements found a serviceable heritage in witchcraft. Arts and crafts types (and nationalists) gazed fondly at witches’ pre-industrial innocence, radicals celebrated their proto-revolutionary courage, and feminists lionised them as a sorority tortured by phallocentric regimes. Modern historians, including Ginzburg, have dispelled these historical illusions while retaining the idea that the beliefs of accusers and accused were connected to a pagan past far older than the written record, its customs ‘the historic equivalent of fossils’. The ‘Wild Hunt’, a spectral cavalcade of hunters and heroes, may not have been the direct ancestor of the witches’ Sabbath, but was possibly a distant cousin. Or perhaps it was made up by Jacob Grimm for his Deutsche Mythologie of 1835. No one knows for sure. It’s hard to tease out tangled tales and tropes, which correspond to one another but cannot be positively identified as links in a causal chain.

What is beyond doubt, Hutton concludes, is that ‘the witch figure remains one of the few embodiments of independent female power that traditional Western culture has bequeathed to the present.’ This acknowledges our continuing dependence on the witch motif. Some of this dependence is voyeuristic, even sadistic. The uncomfortable truth is that as much as cruelty and violence repel us, they can excite us when they don’t pose a direct threat to our safety and comfort. Edmund Burke said that to empty a theatre one had only to announce that an execution was in progress outside, thus demonstrating ‘the comparative weakness of the imitative arts’. We still contrive to exclude others, and then either hide from the consequences or spectate approvingly. We are, to an alarming extent, who we once were, which explains why witches past and present are made by us and live with us.