Friday, December 3, 2010

Witchcraft 101

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.


Bill Kirton said...

There have been relatively recent cases of witch-killings in the UK, admittedly not by native Brits but, as you say, in some cultures the belief in the reality of withcraft is still very strong. I have no religious or spiritual faith at all but I must confess to a frisson when an ex-student of mine, now naturalised but originally from Kenya, told me of incidents between his parents. His father was a 'witch doctor' and his mother a Christian and, in one quarrel, his father took a stick, threw it on the ground, and it became a snake. This was a highly intelligent student with a PhD and he believed every word he said. It was scary.

Shane Cashion said...

How do you know she's a witch?
Well, she turned me into a newt! Sorry. Jean, very interesting post. I've always found the topic fascinating and have a daughter who will be thrilled to read your book!

Carola Dunn said...

I just read about 12 murders in Haiti--the victims were thought to be using magic powder to spread cholera. My reaction was that education is the cure, but obviously--from what Bill has said--it's not the whole answer. Remember that Conan Doyle was a strong believer in spiritualism. There are a vast number of intelligent people in the world who believe in things they can't see.

Me--I recently bought a t-shirt saying Born Again Skeptic. Cheers, Bill!

Carola Dunn said...

PS Wicca is not particularly secret, and for the most part the covens are individual and have differing beliefs and ceremonies. They tend to believe in a mother goddess, also identified with the Earth, and most practise what they consider "white" magic, eschewing the dark. If they tend to be secretive, it's because of the witchcraft label, bestowed when the christian church tried to suppress them.

For secretive cults, or whatever you want to call them, the Mormons, Scientologists, and Masons are high on the list, though most of their secrets have been exposed (like the government's!).

Jean Henry Mead said...

I also read that people in ancient Egypt accused of witchcraft were tossed into a dangerous river. If they survived, the person who accused the suspect was put to death and his proprty was awarded to the swimmer. If the suspect drowned, the accuser was awarded all the victim's property.
I think that would make someone think twice before accusing a neighbor with a nicer house of witchcraft.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Bill, I agree that witchcraft beliefs are scarey, especially when it involves killing innocent children, as in the Congo.

Shane, I hope the book will be out next year. I'll save a copy for your daughter.

Carola, I love your T-shirt quote. Anyone who has worked as a journalist is definitely a skeptic (me).

As for the Wicca cults, I'm not including them in the children's book so I haven't delved any deeper into research about them, but thanks for the information.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Believe it or not, Lyne's aunt was a witch, as in the literal sense. She once went to a plam reader and the reader refused because of her markings. There were a lot of mysterious events throughout her life that could be attributed to her mystical talents. Perhaps I'll do a blog on her one day. There are plenty of elements we do not understand.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Mark, I would be interested in reading about Lyne's aunt's witch status. Speaking of marks, I was born with the mystic cross in my palms and have had pschic ability my entire life. I hope that doesn't make me a witch. :)

Sunny Frazier said...

I'm on the fence with this topic. I do astrology, I have premonitions, I lock in on people's energy and pick up their thoughts, objects glow and I know I'm probably going to trip over them or break them in the next 20 minutes if I don't take action. Does that make me a witch? My sisters, my grandmother, we have all dealt with ghosts, pretty common in my family. I have a ghost living in my home, she's not a problem except when she rings the doorbell at 5 a.m. (her little joke). It's odd but I'll give myself credit for navigating through this on a daily basis all my life.
Now, back to my hole while the rest of you discuss whether witches exist or not. As long as I don't hurt anyone, I hope I'm never hunted down!