Two books about witches.

Reading between the lines.
April 20 2009 6:57 AM

Why the Wicked Witch Isn't Dead

The timeless allure of witch hunting.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The first witch I ever met was 14 years old and shivering. Clarice was brought before me—tiny, frozen, and swaddled in a wide white cardigan—in a church in the wreckage and rubble of the Congo war, as irrefutable proof of the cause of the catastrophe unfolding all around us. Her priest, Papa Enoch Boonga, explained before a gravely nodding congregation that the girl had been possessed by Satan, who would drag everyone around her into the abyss until he and his Armies of Evil were starved, burned, and whipped out of her.

In a dull, blank rote, Clarice told me how she had let the demons enter her at the age of 12. One night, her late grandmother had appeared before her, at the end of her bed, and offered her a biscuit to eat. She promised Clarice that if she only swallowed it, she would become more powerful. But it was a trick. As soon as she ate it, she was betrothed to Satan and forced to do his work on earth. He forced her to jinx her father, making it impossible for him to get a job. Satan forced her to kill her little sister by giving her a deadly fever.

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Clarice had at first denied her intimacy with the devil, Papa Enoch told me disapprovingly. She protested it wasn't true. But he finally made her "admit" it, through a process of starvation and torture. I asked Clarice softly whether she really believed she had done all these things. "Yes," she said. "I do."

Across Africa, I have witnessed witch hunts. I have stood in a hut deep in the Tanzanian bush where the blood of an 80-year-old woman was still wet on the walls, after her "evil" had been hacked out of her with a machete. I have been lectured in the Central African Republic by men who explain the collapse of their country is due to "these wicked women." I have played with rejected child witches living on the streets in Congo and been told by anxious locals that I would soon die from their curses.

Every time, I am struck by the sense I have seen this movie before. The African witch hunts—a hidden war on women—seem to be a direct rerun of the European and American witch hunts of our forebears. So how did societies so different become infected with the same psychosis? For answers, I turned to two excellent new books studying the witch-crazes of our past—John Demos' The Enemy Within and Thomas Robisheaux's The Last Witch of Langenburg. As I pored through them, it became clear that this desire to project all our fears and hatreds and panics onto a specific person—so that we can wipe her from the earth and imagine we are free—is embedded deep in our DNA as a species. It is part of who we are.

The Last Witch of Langenburg

The story at the heart of The Last Witch of Langenburg would be familiar to Clarice. One afternoon in 1672, a woman called Anna Schmeig baked some cakes and wandered around her neighbors' homes in her German village, handing them out. One of them, Anna Fessler, thought the cake tasted foul and couldn't eat much. She threw it away after only a few bites—but she died soon after. The villagers—already traumatized by the failure of crops and mass hunger across Europe caused by the Little Ice Age —concluded she must be a witch. Anna was arrested and tortured. Her daughter eventually "admitted," under the pressure of fists and torture implements, that her mother was a witch. So Anna was strangled and then burned.

The process, then and now, follows a strikingly similar arc of discovery. There is an unexplained death. A woman is blamed. Some local Jack Bauer is at hand to make her "confess." She is forced to name other "guilty" women. (Clarice's grandmother was accused; Anna's daughter was roped in.) And, lo, a conspiracy is discovered. The conspiracy spreads like a bloodstain outward ever further.

You might think the spread of science would cure the plague. But literal witch hunting still recurs in the most backward and fundamentalist parts of even the Western world. Sarah Palin has boasted about being blessed by a Kenyan preacher called Thomas Muthee, who called on Jesus to protect Palin from "the spirit of witchcraft." It turned out Muthee took this very literally—he boasted of driving elderly "witches" out of their communities back in Africa. The Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, drives out "evil spirits" himself. In the Catholic journal New Oxford Review in 1994, he claimed that a "demon" possessed his "intimate friend" Susan—and that he personally cast it out through a process of prayer and exorcism. He even wondered whether, in the process, he cured Susan's cancer.

The allure of witch hunting can grip any of us if we abandon our adherence to reason and evidence. As a tribal, poorly evolved species, we are very vulnerable to believing that we are surrounded by secretive, wicked people who might seem like us at first glance but who are, in fact, conspiring against us—and must be rooted out and destroyed. John Demos explains how this differs from other forms of persecution: "Witch-hunting alone finds the other within its own ranks. The Jew, the black, and the ethnic opposite exist, in some fundamental sense, 'on the outside.' … The witch, by contrast, is discovered (and 'discovery' is key to the process) inside the host community."

We know that witch hunts break out most ferociously at times of trauma and stress. There was no concept of child witchcraft in Congo until the war began and 6 million people were killed. Now a broken and terrorized population has turned on its own children in a desperate, futile attempt to find some way to regain control. The first great witch hunt in Europe came after the Black Death killed one-third of the population. The second came between 1580 and 1650, when the climate cooled and crops failed. Similarly, witch hunting erupted in America—on the dirt-tracks of Salem, Mass.—at a time when 10 percent of the colonists were being killed and all lived in constant fear of the American Indians who were trying to defend their civilization from extinction.

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