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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 Black Death: Prelude to the Witch-Persecutions 77


Chapter Three The Black Death: Prelude to the Witch- Persecutions It was a society obsessed with the fear of the Devil which took up the wholesale massacre of people for complicity in Satan's conspiracy to destroy the world, and this obsession can be traced to the social, economic, and psychological dislocations arising from the incessant outbreaks of the plague. This chapter begins with an examination of European society's encounter with one of the most extraordinary events in its history-the mid-fourteenth century visitation of the plague. The Black Death, as the first outbreak of the plague is called, was a "virgin soil" epidemic. This term refers to the onset of a virulent disease among a population with no previous exposure to the infective agent.1 Cross-cultural and historical data demonstrate that during virgin soil epidemics vast numbers of people quickly become infected, and casualty figures are often astronomical: one quarter to one third of those afflicted die? In terms of mortality, the Black Death was undoubtedly the greatest disaster to befall western Europe in the last thousand years-surpassing the two World Wars of the present century.3 Aside from being an unparalleled human calamity, the mid-fourteenth century plague epidemic was a decisive factor in the subsequent economic, sociopolitical, and religious development of medieval Europe.4 Few works have systematically examined the bearing of the plague on the preoccupation with witchcraft and the idea of a large-scale diabolical conspiracy of witches. Historians have generally rejected such a causal relationship. 5 Yet, the resemblance 78 WITCHCRAFT,...

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