Saturday, February 16, 2008

On the dangers of being a witch.

Over the centuries, numerous religions have supported, and in fact encouraged, the torture and murder of women who were supposedly witches. Thousands upon thousands of them died in horrendous ways. (Often, of course, the religious/secular authorities made a profit out of such death - e.g. the property of the "witch" was divided between the church that persecuted her and the state that prosecuted her.) Wow, I wonder what motive they had for accusing her in the first place.

The trouble is that once accused, there was no way out.

Produce a witness to say that the witch was somewhere else at the time of the supposed crime, then the witness was obviously bewitched.
If it is proven she led an evil life, then obviously she is a witch. If she proves she led a blameless life, well, we all know witches are good at dissembling.
If she resists confession under torture, well what did you expect, she's a witch. If she admits it, well, that proves she's a witch.
If she seems scared, well, her conscience accuses her.
If she is brave, well, that's typical of a witch.
And so on.

Once accused, there was never a way out. To find a witch innocent would have called into question every other case. Take a single year, 1598, in a single German town (Wurtzburg) - there were 28 public burnings of witches, each with some 4 to 6 victims.*

The last execution for witchcraft in England was in 1684, when a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were hanged. Their crime? Raising a rain storm by taking their stockings off.

Of course, we have left all this behind now. No state in 2007 would be so stupid or cruel or weird. No religious leaders or major religion or government would recommend or support such horrors, or display the kind of misogynous and weirdo-erotic elements as were found in the sexually repressed, male-dominated society of the 16th of 17th century Europe and America.

Would they?

This from the BBC news.

"Human Rights Watch has appealed to Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of a woman convicted of witchcraft.

In a letter to King Abdullah, the rights group described the trial and conviction of Fawza Falih as a miscarriage of justice.
The illiterate woman was detained by religious police in 2005 and allegedly beaten and forced to fingerprint a confession that she could not read.
Among her accusers was a man who alleged she made him impotent.
Human Rights Watch said that Ms Falih had exhausted all her chances of appealing against her death sentence and she could only now be saved if King Abdullah intervened."

* Figures/examples etc taken from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World" which ought to be required reading of every secondary school pupil everywhere.

6 comments:

jason said...

I actually feel nauseous after reading that BBC story. It makes me wonder if this is the tip of the iceberg; how many such blatant miscarriages of justice are occurring that we never hear about?

This kind of thing is an excellent example of why a secular society is a good idea, in terms of basing its laws on reality. As soon as religious or superstitious factors are thrown into the mix, it becomes hopelessly subjective, with the accusers either simply mistaken, deluded, or actively deceitful.

I can also imagine myself in such a situation, which gives me a feeling of horror-filled helplessness: how to defend yourself against an accusation which has no basis in reality?

Glenda Larke said...

I don't know, Jason, and it breaks my heart. And of course, as you so rightly guess, I wasn't just talking about Saudi Arabia. Or witches.

Too many people in this world are convinced they speak for God.

Jo said...

Isn't that what Henry II and Becket were all about. Trying to divorce religion from state. I agree, whatever your religious beliefs they should not be involved with law making and government. How do you ensure that though?

hrugaar said...

Raising a storm by taking their stockings off reminds me of Hollywood screen sirens, I suppose it's the erotic frisson. Is this an idea you can adapt and use in the Random Rain series? ;)

Glenda Larke said...

ewww...

Alex said...

Stupid humans... I wonder what if their mothers or wives or daughters are accused of witchcraft. It always make me very very angry when I read about Inquisition and other cruelties of religion.