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Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs and Disease

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

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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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Introduction 1

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1 This is not a convincing answer. Beliefs in maleficent magic existed long before the witch-trials and survived long after the last witch was put to death, and an explanation of why such beliefs resulted in arrests and executions during a particular period in time must depend on an analysis of how these ideas were utilized, not how they originated. Fraudulent accusations should not be ruled out as a factor of considerable significance in the persecution of countless innocent people. Witchcraft studies writers, however, indignantly dismiss such a suggestion because it is incompatible with the ontological foundations of their research perspectives. Their position, we may recall, is that since people believed in witchcraft, witchcraft was therefore real, and answers must be sought in the thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and sentiments of the people involved in the witch-hunts. In other words, everyone accepted the notion that witchcraft was real, everyone believed that the people on trial really were witches, and the witch-persecutions reflected these genuine popular views. These assumptions, as I shall attempt to demonstrated in the forthcoming chapters, are not entirely supported by the evidence. Thomas' mentalist perspective also leads him to dismiss the powerful role of printing in the propagation of Continental demonology and witch-hunting in England. 53 Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), has criticized Thomas on this issue, pointing out that given the 1486 publication date for the first edition of the Malleus Maleftcarum, the first most influential text on demonology (see...

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