Witchcraft Accusations, Women, and Social Control


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Women weren’t the only victims – some men were also targeted by the witch-hunts of the 1600s. Image by earl53

Are witchcraft accusations simply a poorly-disguised attempt at social control?

Witches: Past, Present, and Pop Culture

There is a character in a very popular children’s programme in the UK called the Witch Finder General.

Dressed in 17th century costume, this character would suddenly appear in an ordinary, present-day setting, and whenever someone prevents him from getting what he wants, for example when a self-service restaurant ran out of chips and the catering assistant offered him salad instead, the man would accuse them very loudly of being a witch.

Suddenly, more men dressed in the same period outfits appear on screen, grab the hapless victim, and carry them away shouting ‘witch, witch, she is a witch!’ to the puzzled consternation of onlookers.

I always found these sketches very amusing but also slightly uncomfortable to watch, because I am aware of the disturbing historical reality that inspired them.

In many ways, the ‘Witch Finder’ sketches do sum up the social dynamics behind witchcraft beliefs and accusations as tools of social control.

Witch Hunts in Europe and the USA Between 1300 and 1700

Thousands of women died in unspeakable pain at the hands of real Witch Finders and the Inquisition in Christian Europe from the late Middle Ages until the early 1600s.

Although people of both sexes and all ages were accused, tortured and killed, victims were more often than not women who somehow defied traditional gender roles of that era; spinsters, widows, the village ‘wise women’ knowledgeable about herbs, healing and midwifery. These women were typically accused of having made some kind of pact with the Devil which resulted in illness, harm for others, for someone’s property, misfortune, or crops failing.

In the USA, the most infamous, frenzied and brutal witch hunts took place in Salem in the State of Massachusetts in 1692, where around 200 people were accused and 20 executed over the course of a year.

The first witches to be identified and prosecuted were a Caribbean Slave, an elderly widow and a homeless beggar woman. The first witch to be executed was a “an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity,” according to the Smithsonian.

It was little consolation to the victims that, unlike their European counterparts, those responsible for the hunts eventually admitted their errors and compensated their families (a public apology did not come until the mid 20th century however).

African Witch Hunts Today

Meanwhile, Witchcraft accusations and violent punitive action resulting in maiming and death are still common in many parts of the world outside Europe and the USA, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to journalists and academics such as Sylvia Federici, a similar pattern prevails: Victims are often women, particularly older women, who are widows, who have some degree of personal wealth, and, unlike others, are neither married or dependent on any male relative.

Sometimes these women are successful market traders who are accused of causing poverty and high prices through their ‘greed’. In countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, these women are set upon in their own houses, literally dragged from their beds, brutally tortured, and often murdered, with the pretext that they are witches because they have caused someone’s sickness, misfortune, or damage to their property.

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