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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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Witch-Hunting, Terror, and Social Control 255

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Chapter Nine Witch-Hunting, Terror, and Social Control In the preceding chapters I have examined three aspects of the witch-persecutions: the acts of violence, coercion, and terrorism perpetrated by the engineers of the witch-hunts; the material conditions that inspired such acts; and the ideological means through which the witch-hammerers justified their actions. Here I wish to address several specific questions: why witches were persecuted; what effects these persecutions had on local communities; and why the witch-hunts lasted for so long. Between 1550 and 1630 the witch-persecutions reached an unprecedented crescendo. This intense period of witch-hunting coincided with a time of prodigious calamities, as western Europe was jolted by profound economic crises, the trauma of the Reformation, incessant warfare, and recurrent outbreaks of the plague. To many, these events portended the capitulation and destruction of Christendom, the citadel of light besieged by the legions of darkness. The increase in witchcraft and sorcery marked this melancholy age of disasters and misfortunes. Witches and sorcerers were multiplying daily, exasperated demonologists clamored, and this was an affront to God. Thus, the Almighty, moved to righteous wrath, was assailing mankind with famines, wars, pestilence, and manifold tribulations. Del Rio explained the reasons for the innumerable adversities besetting Europe by citing Isaiah's condemnation of Babylon: "All things are come upon thee because of the multitude of thy sorceries and for the great hardiness of thy enchanters."1 To appease God, witches and sorcerers, the perfidious sowers of evil and disorder, had to be eradicated at all costs....

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