|Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1886|
by Jean Henry Mead
I had no intention of writing about witchcraft when I began my second children's mystery novel. Although the legend of the ghost of Crimson Dawn had intrigued me for some time, all I knew was that a local woman, who had once lived on the Crimson Dawn ranch, now haunts the area. I then learned that during the 1930s and ‘40s, she's said to have told her childen tales of witchcraft. For many years hundreds of people have attended an annual summer solstice celebration held at the ranch where plays are enacted about witches and warlocks. That bit of research changed my storyline.
During my research I unearthed some interesting facts, most of which I won’t include in my book. Although we consider the Salem witch burnings and hangings of 1692-3 barbaric and a blight on American history, I discovered that massive witch hunts and killings still take place in most areas of the world. The victims include an Egyptian pharmacist who was put to death in 2007, in Saudi Arabia, because he had been convicted of practicing witchcraft, as was a Lebanese television presenter the previous year.
Lynchings still occur in India for those accused of practicing black magic. Some 750 people have died on the gallows since 2003 in the states of Assam and West Bengal, and more than a hundred women have been tortured, paraded naked or harassed in the state of Chhattisgarh. In Oceana, a province of Papua New Guinea, more than 50 suspected witchcraft practitioners were killed in 2008, and two years earlier, in the Congo, some 50,000 children were evicted from their homes because they had been accused of practicing witchcraft. Mobs stoned many of them to death. In Tanzania, half the murders committed are ‘witch killings.’ That gives me cold chills.
Africa's sub-Sahara’s Bantu culture employs ‘witch smellers’ to find and report suspected witches, so perfumes and deodorants would probably produce brisk sales, if they were available. Not all suspected witches and warlocks are killed, however. In Gambia more than a thousand people have been locked in detention centers and forced to drink dangerous hallucinogenic potions, according to Amnesty International.
In Japan the ‘fox witch’ is the most commonly known black magic figure. The kitsune-moche is someone who, according to legend, earns his sorcery status by bribing a fox with its favorite foods, thus gaining his mystical powers. And in South America, the Chilean Kalfu and Witches of Chiloe are well-known figures of folklore as are Brazilian magic-religious cults known as the Shango, Candomble, Macumba and Quimbanda, among others. Their beliefs were originally imported from Africa by slaves in colonial Brazil.
But how is a witch defined? There are four general categories:
~Someone caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery.
~A well-meaning sorcerer or healer who loses his/her client’s trust.
~A person who antagonizes the neighbors.
~Someone allegedly believing in witchcraft.
The term ‘witch doctor’ has often been misconstrued to mean a healer who uses witchcraft instead of one who diagnoses and cures ailments created by witches. The term was used in England before it became commonplace in Africa, where ‘toad doctors’ are hired to undo evil spells cast upon its victims. In northern England, where superstition still lingers, ‘witch doctors’ call themselves ‘cunning men’ and claim to cure diseases caused by the devil.
Witches and warlocks differ from sorcerers in that they reportedly use charms and curses, and sometimes mental telepathy to cast spells on their victims. They’ve even been known to use mirrors to project evil.
Renewed interest in witchcraft came about during the 20th century in English speaking countries as well as those in Europe. Wicca was inspired by Margaret Murray’s cult of the 1920s and reinforced by Gerald Gardner’s religious cult and the book he wrote entitled, Witchcraft Today. The movement is not only a witchcraft-religion but a secret society organized into covens and led by a high priesthood.
My notes only scratch the surface and because of space limitations don’t include ‘white witches’ and voodoo. Witchcraft is alive and prosecuted on every continent of the planet. Even a hint of witchcraft derailed a senatorial campaign in the last election although it served as the theme for a multi-million dollar empire for author J.K. Rowling. Author James Frey is currently capitalizing on Harry Potter’s successes by paying young authors $500 to write mystical books for possible film production. Now, that’s modern witchcraft.