More Witches Have Been Executed Since World War II Than in Centuries Past

Most people probably think of witch burnings as a terrible fever (or fervor) that died out sometime soon after the glory days of Salem’s infamous witch hunter Cotton Mather.

But an Agence France-Presse story today, commemorating the almost one hundred 17th-century executions of accused witches at Norway’s arctic “Gates of Hell,” points out that witch killings never ceased. In fact:

Some 50,000 people are believed to have paid with their lives in Europe during the medieval witch trials. But by comparison, the number of people killed for the same reason worldwide since World War II is estimated at between 70,000 and 80,000.

I want to point out some caveats here. That first number excludes executions in America, Africa, and elsewhere; it also glosses over all the victims from 1500 (the end of the Middle Ages) to 1945; and any such stats have to be impossibly squishy. I’d wager that modern-day numbers on witchcraft persecutions are murkier than those from Torquemada‘s and Mather’s times. The “old” witch hunters operated within some semblance of a judicial system and that meant the involvement of magistrates and the existence of official records. Today’s slaughterers tend to operate more as freelance mobs who are not accountable and of whose actions scant records exist.

AFP’s source, Rune Blix Hagen, a historian at the University of Tromsoe in Norway, acknowledges that the real numbers are unknowable.

“These are official figures and probably only the tip of the iceberg,” says Hagen.

All that said, the superstition-fueled violence against people accused of witchcraft is as real today as it ever was. Ground Zero may well be Papua New Guinea, from where reports of witch executions emerge with startling regularity. Jo Chandler at the Global Post wrote a wonderful yet frightening article about it some months back.

Then there are African countries like the Congo, where witchcraft accusations, springing from old JuJu beliefs that have become intertwined with Christianity, are often made against children, with horrific consequences. You may want to take a couple of deep breaths before you watch this:

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Accusing people of witchcraft is also common in Saudi Arabia, where beheadings of those convicted are thought to be on the rise, and India, where witch lynchings reportedly number hundreds a year.

Amazingly, a look at the calendar does seem to confirm that it is 2013.

A belief in the supernatural is neither benign nor harmless. In the words of Voltaire, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

(Illustration: The execution of three witches in Baden, Switzerland, 1585; via Wikipedia.)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    How to determine if you have a Witch.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

      Add to that list she made my money, my dog and my truck disappear.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

        You must be listing to country music :)

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Nope, she didn’t make his beer, his gun, or his beer disappear.

          I took my nephew to a Darius Rucker concert last month. We had to sit through Justin Moore first. That by-the-numbers sarariman performed like he was reading off a Country Song checklist just like that. And some people actually came just to hear him and left before Darius. Wtf?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

            Darius Rucker played the Bangor waterfront about two weeks ago and I got a free concert from my door step. He sounded awesome live.

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              He DOES! I felt bad that we only had seats out on the grass when I heard him, but we’d have been deaf by the time he came on stage if we’d been any closer.

              Let’s see, what all did they perform… (I assume you heard most of this) Apart from his new stuff, which is pretty damn good for Country, they covered all the best Hootie songs, plus Purple Rain, Joker, and Space Cowboy. I didn’t know he was going to do all that, so it was a grand surprise.

              Funny thing: Justin Moore started to do a cover of I Get By (With A Little Help From My Friends), which actually made me perk up and stop making fun of him, and I kid you not, he forgot the lyrics. They had to jump to another song.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Fill in that entire graph with “He/She still uses Livejournal”.

      • Ella

        Hey! There isn’t anything inherently witchy about horny young people sharing porny fanfic with each other.

    • Pseudonym

      It raises a serious point, though. The number of witches executed in the European witch trials was, in round numbers, zero. A lot of people were executed, but pretty much none of them were actually witches.

      I suspect it’s a similar story for those executed since WW2.

      • Will

        ….Your last sentence fragment is quite concerning…

        “but pretty much none of them were actually witches.”

        Sadly the way this is worded you are conceding that some of those that were executed were actually witches.

        None were witches… there are no witches… there were never witches… and there never will be witches….

  • The Other Weirdo

    I would have to question the number of people murdered due to cultural stupidity worldwide minus Europe during medieval times. It does nobody any good to compare Europe of the 1400-1500s to the result of the world of today. If nothing else, populations are much higher today.

    • Terry Firma

      Nobody’s claiming the percentage of ‘witches’ killed is higher now than in centuries past. Those are absolute numbers, not per capitas. Neither my piece nor the AFP one says what you seem to think they say.

    • Stev84

      European witch hunts were hardly a medieval phenomenon. They came in waves over a long time. In many countries (especially Germany) they didn’t reach their height until after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries and went on until the mid to late 18th century. By that time the Catholic Church actually tried to control them (they placed the Malleus Maleficarum on the Index for example). But it was Protestant rulers and clergy who fanned the flames then.

  • DG

    That was a strange opening line. If people think that about witch burnings, that they died out after Salem, then they’re idiots. For that matter, just mentioning Salem alone demonstrates history through Hollywood. An isolated occurrence that, as soon as it was discovered by outside authorities – both secular and religious – was immediately stopped and had no sustained parallel in the colonies before or after that incident. Second, and this is one of those areas where polemical narrative meets cruel reality, the witch hunts we associate with Christian Europe didn’t really begin until the period we call The Renaissance and the Reformation, and continued in force throughout Europe well into the period we call the Enlightenment. In fact, even scholars with axes to grind are hard pressed to find ongoing or sustained cases of witch trials in any real numbers in Europe during the previous thousand years before. Same with the Inquisition of course. The ‘Inquisition’ as we think it came into force during the period known as the Renaissance, and was not really ‘The Inquisition’ as we know it until then, with few exceptions. Odd facts if you think about it. As for witch burnings today, many in those countries look at places like the United States with out of control murders and violence, virtually unlimited access to abortion, pushing for suicide rights and even euthanasia, and don’t exactly think our grand post-Christian/post-religious society has much of a leg to stand on when it comes to finger pointing.

    • Pseudonym

      You missed capital punishment and war in your list of evils of the United States. I’m sure that was just an oversight on your part.

      • Dave G.

        A broad statement. Hardly unique to the US now or ever.

        • Pseudonym

          The US is only one of two developed democratic countries which still practices capital punishment. The other is Japan. So that is almost unique to the US.

    • Terry Firma

      The opening paragraphs are precisely about righting the misconception that the execution of witches fell by the wayside after the Salem trials. “History through Hollywood is right,” I guess — and again, the article goes on to demonstrate that pop culture is wrong about the ostensible disappearance of accused witches’ executions.

      So…I’m not quite sure what you’re taking issue with!

      • DG

        Any time I see Salem referenced it bothers me. I mean, a single event that happened in almost isolation against hte overall history of the US, and yet you’d think it was one of billions of such occurrences every year for centuries.

        I especially think of this when I remember a story on CNN a few months back, in which a leader in the Middle East said he didn’t trust Obama since Obama is a liberal Democrat, and we know that liberal Democrats slaughter religious dissidents. What? Yeah. What was he talking about? Waco, Texas, that’s what. Believe it or not, people see that in some parts of the world in, what I think, is a completely overblown and misunderstood event. Liberal Democrats slaughter religious dissidents? And yet, 400 years from now, what will they be saying? Far fewer innocents died at Salem, and look at the grief we give that time and those people. Indeed, what will they say in the future?

        So that’s my beef. Keeping it honest and keeping it real. There really were no ‘medieval witch burnings’, not in any way consistent or noticeable. Those came later, in the post-Reformation, Renaissance periods up until the enlightenment age.

        • Stev84

          Yeah, they weren’t confined to the middle ages, but that doesn’t change the fact they were partly caused by religious intolerance, which was at a new height after the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Sure, there were probably many other social and even economic factors, but many clergy had no issues with stoking people’s fears.

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      How about you stop and think for one fucking second that human beings are being killed and mutilated for no reason! Because of superstition and fear. Even in this day and age. That’s terrible. Take that from the article instead of being so damn argumentative and judgemental.

    • Sven2547

      United States with out of control murders and violence, virtually unlimited access to abortion, pushing for suicide rights and even euthanasia, and don’t exactly think our grand post-Christian/post-religious society has much of a leg to stand on when it comes to finger pointing.

      This is the dumbest comparison I’ve seen in ages.

      • Will

        This is confusing and smells of a child who has been indoctrinated, i feel sorry for you.

        • Sven2547

          Are you referring to me or the absurd quote I pasted from DG?

  • Peter Dybing

    Well you know how to get us Pagans riled up. Good Post!

  • Michael Harrison
  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The “old” witch hunters operated within some semblance of a judicial system and that meant the involvement of magistrates and the existence of official records. Today’s slaughterers tend to operate more as freelance mobs who are not accountable and of whose actions scant records exist.

    Would it not be more accurate to refer to “today’s slaughters” as Witch Lynchings instead of official Witch Hunts?

  • Mira

    Pastors denying responsibility. Of course.


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