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Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs and Disease

An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts- Second Printing


Homayun Sidky

Long before the political mass-murders witnessed in the present century, western Europe experienced another kind of holocaust – the witch-hunts of the early modern period. Condemned of flying through the air, changing into animals, and worshipping the Devil, over a hundred thousand people were brutally tortured, systematically maimed and burned alive. Why did these persecutions take place? Was it superstition, irrationality, or mass delusion that led to the witch-hunts? This study seeks explanations in the tangible actions of human actors and their worldly circumstances. The approach taken is anthropological; inferences are grounded on a wide spectrum of variables, ranging from the political and ideological practices used to mystify earthly affairs, to the logical structure of witch-beliefs, torture technology, and the role of psychotropic drugs and epidemic diseases.


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Preface xiii


Preface Long before the political mass murders of the present century, western Europe experienced another kind of holocaust-the witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The witch- persecutions lasted for over two hundred years, longer than any modern counterpart, when thousands of people were brutally tortured, maimed, and roasted alive; millions more were terrorized and intimidated. The crimes of the accused included flying through the air, changing into animals, dancing with demons, and worshipping the Devil. The brutal execution of human beings for such implausible offenses might seem incomprehensible to those living in the twentieth century, however, the European witch-hunts bear too grim a resemblance to the large-scale political atrocities and judicial mass murders of our own time to be dismissed or treated as an isolated historical aberration. Nor can the presence of underground religions or secret societies account for the magnitude and duration of the witch-persecutions, although a number of writers have asserted that witches were members of non-Christian or anti-Christian sects on the losing side of a battle for religious hegemony. Attempts to extrapolate the existence of "witch cults" or "satanic sects" from contemporary pamphlets and trial records have ended in fantasy, trivialization, and obscurantism. Equally untenable is the argument that people believed in witchcraft, therefore witchcraft was real, and we need look no further for answers. This worn-out mentalist approach, which treats thoughts and ideas as independent variables, mystifies cultural and historical processes by disregarding the concrete sociopolitical determinants of the witch-persecutions. xiv WITCHCRAFT, LYCANTHROPY, DRUGSAND DISEASE...

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