Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Vice Pioneers" : Witchcraft

Salem Witch Trial Art: Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson

The art of labeling witches: E. E. Evans-Pritchard

Grace Sherwood, the "Witch of Pungo

In the spirit of Halloween, witchcraft seems to be a fitting topic for this week's "Vice Pioneers." Like most of our vice topics, there is so much history and geographical information on witchcraft that only a fraction of it is included here. We've focused on the overall background and labeling of witches and some North American history.

From Wikipedia: Witchcraft, in various historical, anthropological, religious and mythological contexts, is the alleged use of supernatural or magical powers. Historically, it was widely believed that witchcraft involved the use of these powers to inflict harm upon members of a community or their property. Since the mid 20th century, the term witchcraft has sometimes been used to distinguish between bad witchcraft and good witchcraft, with the latter often involving healing. The concept of witchcraft as harmful is normally treated as a cultural ideology, a means of explaining human misfortune by blaming it either on a supernatural entity or a known person in the community. A witch (from Old English wicce f. / wicca m.) is a practitioner of witchcraft.

Beliefs in witchcraft, and resulting witch-hunts, are found in many cultures worldwide, today mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. in the witch smellers in Bantu culture), and historically notably in Early Modern Europe of the 14th to 18th century, where witchcraft came to be seen as a vast diabolical conspiracy against Christianity, and accusations of witchcraft led to large-scale witch-hunts, especially in Germanic Europe.

The "witch-cult hypothesis", a controversial theory that European witchcraft was a suppressed pagan religion, was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the mid-20th century, Witchcraft has become the self-designation of a branch of neopaganism, especially in the Wicca tradition following Gerald Gardner, who claimed a religious tradition of Witchcraft with pre-Christian roots.

Definitions of witchcraft
In anthropological terminology a 'witch' differs from a sorcerer in that they do not use physical tools or actions to curse; their maleficium is perceived as extending from some intangible inner quality, and the person may be unaware that they are a 'witch', or may have been convinced of their own evil nature by the suggestion of others. This definition was pioneered in a study of central African magical beliefs by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who cautioned that it might not correspond with normal English usage.

Historians of European witchcraft have found the anthropological definition difficult to apply to European and British witchcraft, where 'witches' could equally use (or be accused of using) physical techniques, and some really had attempted to cause harm by thought alone. As in anthropology, European witchcraft is seen by historians as an ideology for explaining misfortune, however this ideology manifested in diverse ways. Reasons for accusations of witchcraft fall into four general categories:

*A person was caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery
*A well-meaning sorcerer or healer lost their clients' or the authorities' trust
*A person did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbors
*A person was reputed to be a witch and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs

Éva Pócs in turn identifies three varieties of witch in popular belief:
*The "neighborhood witch" or "social witch": a witch who curses a neighbor following some conflict.
*The "magical" or "sorcerer" witch: either a professional healer, sorcerer, seer or midwife, or a person who has through magic increased her fortune to the perceived detriment of a neighbouring household; due to neighbourly or community rivalries and the ambiguity between positive and negative magic, such individuals can become labelled as witches.
*The "supernatural" or "night" witch: portrayed in court narratives as a demon appearing in visions and dreams.

"Neighbourhood witches" are the product of neighbourhood tensions, and are found only in self-sufficient serf village communities where the inhabitants largely rely on each other. Such accusations follow the breaking of some social norm, such as the failure to return a borrowed item, and any person part of the normal social exchange could potentially fall under suspicion. Claims of "sorcerer" witches and "supernatural" witches could arise out of social tensions, but not exclusively; the supernatural witch in particular often had nothing to do with communal conflict, but expressed tensions between the human and supernatural worlds; and in Eastern and Southeastern Europe such supernatural witches became an ideology explaining calamities that befell entire communities.

North America
The most famous witchcraft incident in the British North America were the witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex Counties of colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted 29 people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, 14 women and 5 men, were hanged. One man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so. At least five more of the accused died in prison.

Despite being generally known as the "Salem" witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns across the province: Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover, as well as Salem Town, Massachusetts. The best-known trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. All 26 who went to trial before this court were convicted. The four sessions of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693, held in Salem Town, but also in Ipswich, Boston, and Charlestown, produced only 3 convictions in the 31 witchcraft trials it conducted. Likewise, alleged witchcraft was not isolated to New England. In 1706 Grace Sherwood the "Witch of Pungo" was imprisoned for the crime in Princess Anne County, Virginia.
Author C. J. Stevens wrote The Supernatural Side of Maine, a 2002 book about witches and people from Maine who faced the supernatural.

What may be the last witchcraft trial in North America was the Ipswich witchcraft trial of 1878, in which a member of the Christian Science religion was accused of using his mental powers to harm others.

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