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:
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.)