Witch hunts still see thousands murdered annually in the 21st century

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A legislative pardon is being sought for those executed for crimes of witchcraft in Scotland 300 years ago – but many thousands more are still being persecuted globally today.

In the 16th to 18th centuries in Scotland, accused individuals were deprived of sleep, and their nails were pulled or crushed. Many were bled or ‘pricked’. They were stripped in search of the Devil’s mark. The convicted were executed often by strangulation, and their bodies were burned, leaving nothing for families to bury. 

This was a significant miscarriage of justice and a blight on Scottish history. It is also what inspired Claire Mitchell QC and writer Zoe Venditozzi to set up the Witches of Scotland campaign and podcast, seeking retrospective justice and apology for the victims of Scotland’s Witchcraft Act (1563). 

The Witches of Scotland podcast launched on International Women’s Day February 2020. After being briefly scuppered by the pandemic it took off again, and with velocity. 

The pair cover an impressively broad range of topics, many of which you would not immediately think to associate with witchcraft in Scotland. 

They focus on humanising victims, specifically the women, by reading details of their life, their alleged ‘crime’, and their eventual fate, where the information is available.

We may have some preconceived notions when we think of witches – midwives with mysterious powers; alewives with their pointed hats and broomsticks; cantankerous crones who, no longer young and fertile, are bitter and miserable in their inability to be of value to society.

But how do these stereotypes hold up against the facts?

“When you look at the age groups in so far as we can see them it’s not a huge amount of older people and a small amount of younger people, it’s more broadly split than that,” Claire Mitchell QC explains.

“In one view, it could be anybody at all. And that was the really scary thing about it because all it took was for somebody to say I saw her acting funny and then my cat died, or she shouted at me and then our crops failed. So, it didn’t take much for an accusation.”

The witches’ well at Edinburgh Castle esplanade. Approximately 300 women were executed here as witches. Credit: author.

It could be anyone at all. Of course, if you were a woman your chances of being targeted increased dramatically.

Eighty four percent of those executed during the Scottish witch trials were female – an estimated 2,184 women. For the sake of comparison, the notorious Salem trials (1692 – 1693) saw a total of 14 women and five men executed. 

Claire says: “I think a famous quote attributed to John Knox was ‘women are the port and the gate of the devil’. 

“That it was women that were accused of witchcraft, not men, came from the fundamental idea that women weren’t as robust as men and therefore women weren’t able to fight the charms of the devil. “If the devil were going to work among society he would prey on the weaker members of society – the more morally corruptible members of society.”

Claire is a lawyer whose focus is miscarriage of justice cases. It’s no surprise that viewing the Scottish witch trials through such a lens drove her to try remedying such catastrophic wrongs. 

“We should remember that thousands of women were killed as witches in Scotland, that it was a horrendous miscarriage of justice. And in putting that right, we should not just put it right but have a memorial to it as well so that in public spaces people can see that a terrible thing happened, and we acknowledge it and we’re sorry for it.”

It’s clear from the popularity of the podcast and campaign that people share the Witches of Scotland’s view.

But, what is unmissable when listening to the podcast is the space between then and now. It is history after all and it almost feels like story-telling.  

Records from the time are patchy. It’s almost impossible, in some ways, to truly imagine a society which feels so far removed from us, and which could facilitate such brutality. 

Except that such societies are very close at hand today – witch hunts are an ongoing issue.

Quietly, almost silently, people are being killed around the world today because it’s said they dabble in witchcraft and sorcery.

The year 2021 alone saw hundreds of accusations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and eight women there were lynched just in September. 

In October, mobile phone footage came to light of a man beheading an 85-year-old woman in Marani Kisii in Kenya, where lynchings of elderly women are an all too regular occurrence. Similar occurrences take place in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Malawi, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Colombia – the list goes on.

Some aspects of today’s witch hunts echo those which took place in Scotland 300 years ago. 

For example, society’s most vulnerable are still targeted disproportionately: women, children, and the elderly. 

Also, religion and churches are still the vital platform upon which people can stake their beliefs and fire accusations.

I spoke to Leo Igwe, humanist, and founder of Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW). AfAW operates predominantly in Nigeria and strives to end witchcraft related human rights abuses by empowering victims to fight their accusers through the courts. 

“There is this entrenched belief that if you say there are no witches then you are saying there is no God. And if you say there is a God, you cannot say there are no witches,” Leo explains.

“So, now religion and believing in God has provided a kind of legitimising coverage for witchcraft beliefs.”

Leo Igwe, founder of AfAW. Credit: author.

In countries such as the UK, Germany, and the United States, religion lost its ability to instil such a feverish fear over time (the Witchcraft Act in Scotland was abolished in 1736). 

The reasons for this are complex, and the powerful countries in the west are far from blameless when it comes to how much the rest of the world has or has not developed. 

Nevertheless, when superstition and traditional belief amounts to the stoning, beating, beheading, burning, or banishment of vulnerable people, lines presumably must be drawn – cultural sensitivities notwithstanding.

Bodies such as the UN have been established to combat precisely this sort of human rights violation. Various NGOs have also claimed they will take steps to tackle the persecution of alleged witches.

But Leo says that in his experience these endeavours fall short of addressing the real problems.

“[NGOS] will go out and repair their houses occasionally, or come out and give them [locals] a few dresses. And they go home. And I ask them, is that how we’re going to end this problem? You are not serious!”

‘Witch camps’ have been set up in countries such as Ghana and those accused often end up there as a result of being banished from their own communities or to seek asylum from their persecutors. 

“Instead of going to the communities and educating people and stopping witchcraft accusations, some of the NGOs led by so-called educated people are campaigning to close the witch camps because they say there is exploitation going on there.

“The authorities there are aware of what’s going on, that these are refuge centres and people who go there, go there because if they don’t, they will be killed.”

Clearly the issue is complex, perhaps more so than was the case in 16th century Scotland, and social stresses such as lockdowns only heighten fears and uncertainty and the desire to scapegoat. 

But progress such as the Witches of Scotland’s ongoing campaign here in Scotland, is helpful according to Leo Igwe.

“I will always want whoever is involved in this campaign to try as much as possible to connect it with ongoing persecution in other parts of the world. I think that will help us a lot, and that will help in passing across our message. And for me that is the greatest resource.

“If you are able to integrate what we’re doing with this process of memorial in Scotland, or in Germany, or in the US, it will help in this message that we should have stopped this so many years ago.”

This sentiment was brought to public attention this week by the Witches of Scotland.

In a BBC article the campaigners have asked for an apology to be made by the Scottish Government this International Women’s Day, 20 March. This is in addition to the national memorial and legislative pardon they want for the women who lost their lives.

The proposals made by the Witches of Scotland campaign have so far been favourably received. At the moment, the SNP is planning to propose a private members’ bill to achieve a pardon for those convicted and executed under the Witchcraft Act. 

The Witches of Scotland stress the importance of a public apology in Scotland. Claire Mitchell believes it would send a “powerful signal and hopefully help others” to prevent thousands of innocent men, women, and children being murdered for crimes of witchcraft in the future.

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