Witchcraft: A Factual African Socio-spiritual Canker ...

Sat, 11 Dec 2010 Source: Damoa, Adreba Kwaku Abrefa

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, a World-wide Myth or a Benefactory Boon Phenomenon?

As a result of the gruesome extra-juridical murder of an old woman at Tema, presumed to be a witch by a group of frenzied neo-Christian fanatics, there have been several commentaries that import burning issues on our growing menace of Ghanaian culture of mob justice. In this article, there will be discussions on world-wide perceptions of witchcraft which is presumed to be much unknown to Ghanaians dwelling in their especially Christian extremist dogmas. Witchery in all its versions new and old as they may be termed are treated as a historical phenomenon that continues to attract wide interest with an equally attracted high degree of scholarly attention. Though quite lengthy, it may be of some intellectual interest to be read from A-Z for your cogitation and as food for thought.

Definition and Historical Background

Witchcraft in Europe and elsewhere is roughly defined as the power possessed in a person to do harm to another person, destroy livestock, crops etc and also with the ability to adversely influence nature by casting spells to the detriment of all. It is widely conceived as a form of power which runs between the body of the witch and her victim. Its male version is wizardry. It is popularly believed that the body of the bewitched is capable of changing forms and shapes of all sorts particularly lycanthropy, black cats, hares, foxes, snakes etc. Witchcraft is a phenomenon that has been believed in by all cultures around the world however, the fact that post-enlightenment Christian Europe and North America seem to have rejected its credibility does not mean it doesn’t exist as expressed by court physician to the Duke of Cleves in his tract on witchcraft De Praestigiis Daemonum published in 1563 which confirmed the existence of witchcraft. Europe of the c14th to c18th, witchcraft came to be seen as a diabolical conspiracy and threat to Christianity most especially in Germanic Europe where their conversion to Christianity was late and snail-paced. The end of the Middle Ages in Europe about 1450 saw the greatest fear and craze which lasted for more than 200 years. This rise of the witch-craze was concurrent with the rise of Renaissance magic otherwise called High Magic as a term of endearment to witchery. Neo-Platonists and the Aristotelians who practised it insisted à corps perdu that it was “wise” and benevolent, so this abated the craze drastically. The concept of witchcraft as harmful has been treated by many scholars and “the Wise” as basically a cultural ideology and a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it on a supernatural entity or on a known person in the community.

Legislation, Pressure Bearing to Prosecute, Trial, Burden of Proof and Punishment

The offence of witchcraft concentrated on Roman and Germanic fear of harmful magic and was classified as a crime equated with poisoning in the Pactus Legis Alamannorum. In some medieval texts, the Canon Episcopi (c.910) maleficium (wrong doing) and sortilegium (harmful magic and fortune telling) were condemned so Christians who believed these tales could also be guilty of conceding too much power to Diana the pagan goddess of fertility, hence a heretical offence. In spite of this episcopal warning, Pope John XXII (1316-1334) repeatedly accused his opponents for using charms and incantations in their effort to kill him. Since witchery is claimed to be a spiritual phenomenon that exists, it has always been extremely difficult to prove however the Salic law empowered the magistrates to depend on no evidence but merely that the casting of deadly execrations on a witch’s supposed victims that had produced effect either directly on them or on their crops or livestock was enough. Since little or no evidence was required, many of them were reported for persecution simply because they seemed like bad neighbours ie quarrelsome or isolated and probably harbouring vengeful feelings towards fellow villagers. Therefore accusations of witchcraft bubbled up principally from village and farming community neighbourhood suspicions. Typical accusations include witches’ ride by night and secret nocturnal meetings, desecration of the Eucharist and the crucifix, indiscriminate sex orgy, their pact with the Devil, sacrificial and ritualistic infanticide and cannibalism and the formal repudiation of Christianity, contained in the Malleus Maleficarum, 1486 (hammer against the witches). It could also be surmised that the magistrates acted according as they were reported probably due to bad weather that occasionally or continually blighted crops that could threaten imminent probable famine as neighbours complained of crop failures due to witchery.

The earliest witch trials sprung up in Fribourg, Neuchâtel and Basel in Italy. In the course of the trials Johannes Nider, a Dominican friar helped propagate the view that witches assembled for dancing, feasting, sexual orgies, murdered children and ate their flesh. The notion was also held that witches regularly gathered at meetings called Sabbaths or Synagogues.

Various types and Categories of Witchery

Witchry has several categories in the Christian Bible; these include sorcery, divination, soothsaying, astrology, healing, augury, necromancy, chiromancy and all forms of fortune telling and healing with charms. European witchery and witch hunt were commonly based on a person seen in the act of positive or negative sorcery, where a well-meaning sorcerer or healer lost clients or the trust of “the authorities”, a person gained enmity of neighbours or a person was surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs. The Christian Bible therefore puts strong prohibitions on all of these yet witchcraft was resorted to as in King Saul’s visit to the Witch of En-dor for consultation regarding an impending war with his enemies. Saul was not the only powerful authority who made a U-turn on his edict on witchcraft, the Roman Emperors forbade maleficium by the of law of the Twelve Tables in the c5th BC, yet in their imperial period, in spite of the lex Cornelia, Emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Septimus Severus, whilst banishing from their realms all seers and necromancers and putting them to death, in private they entertained astrologers and wizards among their retinue, consulting their art upon each important occasion end even in their hodiernal affairs of life.

Torture and Executions

Between 1450 and 1750 to be precise, a toned down figure of between 40,000 and 100,000 suspected witches were claimed to have been executed in Western and Central Europe of which 80% were women however, varying figures peg it up to 2,000,000. To buttress this stereotype on women especially, reference is usually cited to incidents of possession of a whole convent of young nuns at Loudoun in France in the 1630s, also the possessed young girls in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and in England, the possession of several children at War boys in Huntingdonshire and events thereafter. Several mortiferous systems of torture were applied on suspected witches before their execution. Typical torture mechanism s applied were strapado commonly used in Italy and Spain, the use of red hot pincers on the body and in the pudendum and or anus, the use of pear-shaped apparatus in any of the body orifices and expanded by screw until it tore and mangled the orifice in application, the use of turcas to pull out finger nails, torture chairs and several others too many to write. Notable execution methods were stoning, burning alive, decapitating and hanging however many suspected witches died during trial where inquisitors used various cruel torture mechanisms to extract confessions that killed the suspects on trial. This suggests that if the famous flamen from Awukugua in Akuapim Mampong had appeared in Europe as he had the magical power to conjure the Sacrosanct Golden Stool from the sky, he would certainly have been set ablaze, yet don’t forget that the Golden Stool has been the most sought-after envious treasure that the British have ever fought for but failed to achieve. This odium on women especially being portrayed as witches has recently been surrebutted by women’s groups as sexist and misogyny in character.

Witchcraft as Oldest Religion and Neo-pagan Witchcraft

The identity and motives of the witches continue to be interpreted in many ways. Between 1890 and 1930, one interpretation of witch trials produced a genuine new religion. The theory was that the witches practiced a pre-Christian religion which has given birth to today’s fast-growing Neo-pagan Witchcraft. Charles Godfrey Leland, an American lawyer, a political journalist and folklore scholar maintains not only pre-Christian but a pre-Roman religion dating to the ancient Etruscan culture. According to him, this hidden old religion uses Catholic Saints’ names and other details, prayers and rituals. A recognised Egyptologist Margaret Murray has her version on this old religion in her book ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ and many followers of modern witchcraft continue to accept large portions of Murray’s version of earlier witchcraft. She maintains that the ancient witch cult was a pre-Christian religion centred on a fertility god whom Christian theologians deliberately equated with their supposed Devil in order to persecute their suspected witches. Murray claims that in medaeval England, the old religion was protected by the Plantagenet dynasty of Kings beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066 who had to die as sacrificial victims or find a substitute after ruling for seven years. Murray maintains that the murder of Thomas à Becket in 1170 on the orders of his most trusted friend Henry II and later made a saint was one of such substitutes. Murray also confirms that the French mystical warrior, Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was in fact a priestess of the old religion. Traces of this old religion can be found in carvings in churches and in folklore. New Englanders portrayed witchcraft as the use of supernatural power for benefactory purposes usually but not always to harm as preconceived. They contend that some human beings possess extraordinary abilities that are darkly unnatural. Ann Hibbens, 1656, confirmed herself to have knowledge that ordinary people lacked and George Burroughs, one of the few men and the only minister to be executed for witchery in New England was accused of unusual strength; he could carry a full barrel of molasses with just two fingers of one hand. Indeed others did mischief with their powers so acquired.

Russian witchcraft is best seen as a remnant of East Slavic pre-Christian pagan practices, elements of which have survived into modern times. Earliest Russian records describe executions of sorcerers in Suzdal in 1024 whereas inclement weather causing crop failures, famine and pestilence were blamed on activities of witches. With the 1551 Stoglav Council, the Muscovite government and church took an active interest in battling against witchcraft however Russian cases of executions were comparatively smaller. Muscovy men accused of witchery were known herbalists and village healers which were professions commonly associated with witchcraft. Sorcery has been part of the culture of the East Slavic peasants into the c19th by reason of their continued use of charms, spells, potions and herbs in folk medicine.

Witchcraft has found expression in the Teutonic nature cults, the Roman religion, the Zoroastrians and the Manicheans as associated with their religions and philosophies which believe in a power of both evil and good in the universe.

In the ancient Near East, notably Egypt and Babylonia, witchcraft played a conspicuous part as elicited in the code of Hammurabi about 2000 BC.

Neo-pagan witchcraft, in the words of Gerald Gardner is the only world-wide religion to have begun in England whose birth dates between 1939 and 1951 when the witchcraft act of 1735 was repealed by Parliament. This new religion of witchcraft, usually capitalised has grown rapidly in England and its affiliate countries affectionately christened as Wicca, a term borrowed from Freemasonry along with Masonic rituals. Gardner claims that he had met with members of a surviving witches’ coven shortly before World War II whiles operating under the cover of Rosicrucian Theatre in Hampshire and was accepted into the group which performed a ritual in the summer of 1940 to tone down and stop the threatened German invasion of England [thus identifying the witches with the patriotic soul of Britain] hence the continuation of the old religion in essence in England. Murray maintains that it has come down from the Stone Age as a fertility religion that honours God.

Estimates of membership in the cult of witchcraft range into a few millions. With no written sacred scriptures, they have produced scores of books on the practice with notable authors such as Margot Adler, Evan John Jones and Michael Howard.

Attitudes of Cultures Round the World towards Witchcraft

Believe in the supernatural is strong in many parts of India and witch lynching is usually reported in the press from time to time. It is estimated that 750 people have been killed in witch-hunts in the States of Assam and West Bengal since 2003.

In Japan, Fox witch is the most commonly seen witch figure identified as the kitsune-mochi and the tsukimono-suji. These are family owned and such families are highly respected and feared.

In China, a fully clothed female Tocharian mummy wearing a black conical hat of the type now associated with the witches in Europe is displayed in the Xinjiang region of Western China, indicative of an Indo-European priestess that was a tradition in China.

In Oceania, more than 50 people were lynched in two Highlands provinces of Papua New Guinea in 2008 for allegedly practising witchcraft.

In Africa, little is known about persecutions and public executions in the ancient days of this oldest religion as pertained centuries ago in Europe, presupposing that there was none however, with the introduction of Christianity into the continent, Africans have come to adopt a wide range of negative and odious views on traditional religions. African Christians are typically overwhelmed by their Christian dogma as do their counterparts in Latin America and Asia. The term witch doctor has also been misconstrued to mean a healer who uses witchcraft rather than its original meaning of someone who diagnoses and cures maladies not only supposedly caused by witches but also heals general illness and injury and also provides customers with magical items for everyday use. The African perception of the art and science of witchery has a hostile dimension reminiscent of centuries ago Europe of antiquity, thus streaming in the opposite direction to where Europe has left off centuries ago. Europe and North America have adopted an oblique acceptance of this ancient religion and also assimilated into their culture for only God knows why. The resurgence and revitalisation of witchcraft non-juridical persecution and extra-judicial execution of suspects without proof in African cultures targets old people as suitable candidate for this type of accusation by reason of the fact that they are isolated, hence vulnerable irrespective of the fact that these are the very same people who for their vulnerability are ipso facto suitable for social protection and security. It is so strange that even 789 AD when Charlemagne imposed Christianity on the people of Saxony, he proclaimed that anyone who burned any person on suspicion of witchery shall be put to death. The Lombard code of 643 AD states the same penalty on nocent culprits if ever. It can therefore be hard to understand why African attitude to certain issues are so antiquated akin to pre-Stone Age mentality.

The funny side of this mind-set of modern African craze fundamentalism in stark ignorance is that, in their frenzied thaumatolatrous religiosity, seldom do they inquire about the source of the magical powers of their new age thaumaturgic pastors which I surmise only God knows where because these are what neo-Christian congregations cherish to see and yield to. This explicitly suggests a typical African mind-set that persistently deepens the gap between Black and White cultures in all spheres of life, culminating in Black people’s dependence on Whiteman’s wisdom and growing science and technology.

The Position of the Church and Other Religions on Witchcraft

The churches first and foremost Catholics saw witchcraft as malignant with no element of benignity for purposes of the churches interest as it expanded to suppress all competing Pagan methodologies of magic. This could be done only by presenting a cosmology in which only Christian miracles portrayed as theurgy were legitimate and credible whereas non-Christian miracles were of the Devil. A law was accordingly passed to this effect such as the Canon Law under King Edgar, 10th century AD. While differences had been struck between beneficent and malignant magic, the Church attempted to blot out any such distinction so in the view of the Church all non-Christian religions were lumped together as ‘Pagan’ and all magic of whatever nature lumped as sinful and abhorrent except those of the Catholic Church.

There were twist and turns on the Catholic Church’s stance on thaumatury and in early c14th many accusations were brought against the clergy and other learned people who were capable of reading and writing magic. Pope Boniface VIII died 1303 was posthumously tried for apostasy for allegedly entering into pact with the Devil though the demonolatry charge was new. The Templars were also tried as devil-invoking heretics 1305-1314. Tens of thousands of trials and executions were carried out in Europe and in England, in reference to the witches in Macbeth, James I hanged more supposed witches than any other English Monarch. Witch persecutions continued through the Protestant Reformation in the c16th so both denominations ie Protestants and Catholics continued with trials with varying degrees of executions however in 1687 Louis XIV issued an edict against witchcraft which toned down on such accusations, trials and executions.

Christian fundamentalist churches continue to harbour the fear of witchcraft alive in their sermons however feminist neo-pagan movements endear it as a social and spiritual rebirth in line with Nature, “fertility” [not in its literal interpretation], science and technology and modernity.

The Hebrew Bible in conjunction with the Christian Bible recognise witchcraft as Masoretic; the same applies to the Greek New Testament text which states ‘thou shall not suffer a witch to live’ which provided justification for Christian witch hunts. In the Septuagint, sorcery is translated as pharmakeia or pharmakou which means herbalist but misconstrued for poisoner. The Christian Bible provides that these commandments against sorcery were provided under Hebrew Kings yet they made recourse to them in secret as stated supra.

Traditional Judaism acknowledges the existence of magic but forbids its practice in the worship of other gods contrary to earlier and even current Catholic doctrines. Some of the Rabbis practiced magic themselves. For instance, Rabbah created a person and sent him to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Hanina also created a calf that could eat. In these cases their magical creation was seen as Divine miracles other than as witchcraft.

Islam reserves the practice of magic as preserves of the messengers and prophets of God but believes that supernatural powers can be performed by Awliyaa, translated as the spiritually accomplished. In tune to this, some Muslims believe that they can seek the help of the Jinn in magic though it is prohibited and seen as seeking help from the devil, yet believe in Jinn in Islamic tradition is part of the Muslim faith. The Prophet Mohammed said ‘Allah created the angels from light, the Jinns from the pure flame of fire and Adam from that which was described to you. Jinns can be cast off by reciting the ‘ruqya’.

The Rise of Scepticism and Stoppage of witch Persecutions and Executions

There was never a time and there has never been a time when ‘everybody believed in witchcraft’. Even at the height of witch trials in ancient Europe and America, some people expressed doubts about the crime allegedly committed and even questioned the juridical procedures including how they extracted confessions of truth through torture as per Johann Weyer (1515-1588), personal physician to the Duke of Jûlich-Cleves-Berg who reacted to the renewal of witchcraft trials by publishing De Praestigiis Daemonum which questioned whether the crime of witchcraft was even possible. Only after witchcraft trials had died away did more fundamental scepticism spread with a philosophical and theological doubt that that spirits of any sort could have any physical effect in this world.

Witchcraft in Modern European and North American Cultures

Modern witchcraft practices as identified in Europe have particularly arisen in the c20th, generally portrayed as revival of pre-Christian European magic and spirituality which falls within the broad category of Neo-paganism accepted as part of their culture. Contemporary witchcraft takes many forms and involves the use of divination, magic and working with the benevolent unseen gods and the classical elements and the unseen forces and the spirits of nature. Europe today acknowledges the practice of herbal and folk medicine whiles spiritual healing is also common, as are alternative medical and New Age healing practices. The first groups of pagan witchcraft to publicly appear in the 1950s and 1960s such as Gerald Gardner’s Wicca and Roy Bowers’ Clan of Tubal Cain, operated as initiatory secret societies. Other practitioners such as Paul Huson also claimed inheritance to surviving traditions of witchcraft. Most recently, a movement to recreate pre-Christian traditions has taken shape in polytheistic reconstructionism, including such practices as Divination, Seid and various forms of Shamanism.

After all these persecution and execution spree in Europe and America as discussed supra, the socio-economically developed countries of the Western hemisphere have either willingly or unwillingly conceded to the claim by the Neo-Platonists and Aristotelians that the “Wise men/women” were directly responsible for Renaissance. Persecutions rapidly declined and in 1687, Louis XIV issued an edict which made proofing witchcraft more difficult in France. To divert attention from witchcraft and its scare, it was considered to be not always associated with the Devil as speculated. Others have come out openly to attest to the fact that witchery is beneficial and not evil and black as the Church has denigrated it in the minds of society.

Europe, still on their long guilt trip can only obliquely concede to seeing the bright side of pagan magic by rechristening witchery as Wicca, Wise men/women etc. Witchcraft in modern Europe is euphemised as white magic, good, ‘unbinding’ witches, wizards; sorcerers etc., but the most frequently used are cunning-man and wise-man in organised secret societies like Odd Fellows, Freemasons, and Knights of Marshall/St John etc. Europeans have never abandoned their centuries old culture hence the observance of Halloween night in mid-November of each year as an important cultural occasion.

Europeans and Americans believe that some people can attain and perform supernatural achievements including David Blaine who jumped from the top of Manhattan Tower to the ground like a bird perching on the ground, stayed in a jar of water for 44 days without food, and air. Europe strongly believes in Human Rights and will not condone and connive with any dastard conduct of irresponsible and unreasonable fanaticism of any sort. Though they brought the Church and the Bible especially into Africa, they have made their own modifications and have liberalised their interpretations of the texts in the Bible to suits modern trends. Europe accepts all cultures including paganism

Parliaments of cultures of the advanced countries of Europe and North America etc and those of some developing countries have legislated for Freedom of Worship. Though African countries profess freedom of worship, this is not without open confrontations against worshipers of other religions with odious stereotypical references.

A Congolese has complemented that witchcraft be respected. He recommends that Africans toe the lines with the Europeans and Americans and tap the art and science of these Wise people by stopping stereotyping them and by publicly inviting them to explain and exhibit their sciences as they do in Europe, America etc to see what can be gained from them instead of persecuting and executing them even without proof. My contribution is for Africans, African governments and all infuscate-hued cultures is to appeal to them to wake up from their unnatural sleep to experience the fast passing light of day because I remember quite well that Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana attempted to organise the traditional “Wise men/women” instead of persecuting them.

Adreba Kwaku Abrefa Damoa, LLB; MPhil (London) London UK

Columnist: Damoa, Adreba Kwaku Abrefa