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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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The European Witch-Craze 23


Chapter One The European Witch-Craze At the close of the Middle Ages, the people of western Europe were led to believe that they were the target of a vast occult conspiracy of witches orchestrated by the Devil. Many were convinced that Satan himself walked the earth, bringing disaster and destruction. Secular and ecclesiastical authorities, along with leading jurists, theologians, and philosophers, all confirmed the reality of the threat. According to a contemporary chronicler: "All who have afforded us some signs of the approach of [the] Antichrist agree that the increase of sorcery and witchcraft is to distinguish the melancholy period of his advent; and was ever [an] age so afflicted as ours? The seats destined for criminals in our courts of justice are blackened with persons accused of this guilt. There are not judges enough to try them. Our dungeons are gorged with them. No day passes that we do not render our tribunals bloody by the dooms which we pronounce, or in which we do not return to our homes discountenanced and terrified at the horrible confessions which we have heard. And the devil is accounted so good a master, that we cannot commit so great a number of his slaves to the flames but what there shall arise from their ashes a sufficient number to supply their place."1 The Church joined with civil authorities to battle the occult threat. Anti-witchcraft legislation was enacted, and across Europe systematic campaigns to eradicate the satanic conspiracy were put into motion....

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