Friday, May 29, 2009

Gambia 'witches' forced to drink foul potion

This, from the May 20 New York Times: "Witch Hunts and Foul Potions Heighten Fear of Leader in Gambia."

Under the bizarre rule of dictator Jammeh, squadrons arrested Gambians (mostly elderly, witnesses reported) suspected of witchcraft, took them away on buses, and fed them a strange liquid. The article reads,

"To the accompaniment of drums, and directed by men in red tunics bedecked with mirrors and cowrie shells, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Gambians were taken from their villages and driven by bus to secret locations. There they were forced to drink a foul-smelling concoction that made them hallucinate, gave them severe stomach pains, induced some to try digging a hole in a tiled floor, made others try climbing up a wall and in some cases killed them, according to the villagers themselves and Amnesty International."

The drink made some unconscious, and one man interviewed for the article shakes his head uncontrollably from side to side and has done so since the torture. Amnesty International says that six people have died from the unidentified drink.

This story ran on page A6 of the New York Times...the news about witchcraft persecutions is getting more attention lately, as it should. This is a shameful human rights issue that needs to be addressed.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Abuse of child witches on the rise

From today's CNN wire, the article "Abuse of Child 'Witches' on the Rise, Aid Groups Say" addresses the horrible plight of children stigmatized by the name witch. It follows in particular the story of 14-year-old Christian Eshiett of Nigeria, whose "rambunctious" ways led him to be repeatedly beaten, and to run away from home as a 12 year old, spending the next two years on the streets.

The article states:

“Children accused of witchcraft are often incarcerated in churches for weeks on end and beaten, starved and tortured in order to extract a confession,” said Gary Foxcroft, program director of Stepping Stones Nigeria, a nonprofit that helps alleged witch children in the region.... The states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River have about 15,000 children branded as witches, and most of them end up abandoned and abused on the streets, he said.

Link here to Stepping Stones Nigeria, should you wish to donate.

Interestingly, Foxcroft feels the belief in witchcraft should be permitted to remain. I strongly disagree. As long as anyone believes another person wields supernatural powers, especially demonically-endowed powers, there is danger.

This is a very sticky issue for Africa and other parts of the world: Westerners don't wish to insist that such beliefs are superstititious or primitive. Medieval Europe found a way to extricate itself from such egregious beliefs (without the interference of colonializing forces). I honestly think the key is for economic conditions to improve. Crime rises when people are desperate--and accusing someone of witchcraft is a crime.

I don't support the belief in witchcraft. However, perhaps Foxcroft feels his best bet is to improve the system from within, allowing the belief to remain while removing children from its target:

“It is not the belief in witchcraft that we are concerned about,” Foxcroft said. “We acknowledge people’s right to hold this belief on the condition that this does not lead to child abuse.”
What do you think? I welcome comments--is the belief in witchcraft harmful in itself, or a benign belief system?

The image accompanied the article on CNN, with the caption "Children branded as witches protest on February 26, 2009, in the southern Nigerian city of Eket."

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

This originally appeared as a guest post for Historical Tapestry.

I love historical fiction, because I love the opportunity to learn about women's lives of thepast, whether glorious or painful. It helps me hold a mirror up to my own life, and see that I am lucky to live when and where I can vote, where I can speak my mind, where I can take penicillin and not die from a minor infection, where I can undergo labor that is still risky, but knowing my chances of coming out of it alive, with a healthy child, are pretty strong.

History seems to give the lion’s share of textbook coverage to men and battles, but I like to know what women of the day were doing. Sometimes it takes some digging, but the research is always compelling and allows me to feel kinship for these women who made the best of the world they were given.

In the most recent instance, I buried my nose in books about medieval witchcraft. I studied a world where society measured women’s value by how many children they produced, and how many of those they managed to raise to a “safe” age. I learned that having a male relative (father, son, husband) was key to protecting oneself—many widows or unmarried women found themselves accused.

I learned that the cards were stacked against women accused in medieval Europe (New England was far more reasonable—more on that later). Getting one’s case dismissed is hard when you are not allowed to have an advocate (lawyer) speak for you, or even to know who is accusing you. Those were two procedural suggestions from the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunting Bible written in the late 1480s. This pseudo-legalistic book by two friars provided a guide to help magistrates figure out how to properly try a witch. A bestseller of its day, it winged its way across the countryside, allowing baffled lawmen to confidently hold inquisitions.

The reason magistrates withheld the accusers’ names? So that the witch could not summon the Devil or other witches to visit retribution on the accusers’ heads.

And why not permit her to be represented? Because anyone who supports heresy is a heretic in turn.

Fertility plays a huge role in witchcraft accusations—and as women are childbearers, they were more frequently accused, although certainly men also faced trial in significant numbers. In a world without supermarkets, staying alive requires that you have a successful harvest and properly store the food, effectively raise and keep animals, and have your own children to help do all this work…all of which hinges on fertility.

Small wonder, then, that so many of the accusations relate to cows and chickens dying—there’s milk and egg production squandered and lying in the dirt. Other accusations involved controlling the weather (and hence crop growth)… this medieval woodcut shows witches calling down the rain with the magic stew in their cauldron.

And of course, many, many accusations related to miscarriages, stillbirths, newborn deaths and outright infertility. These are issues we still struggle with today… imagine that grief compounded by an angry belief that someone else did that to you.

In 1656, a woman was pregnant at the same time as my ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons. While Mary’s baby thrived, the other woman’s died soon after birth...and she called Mary a witch for it.

This was just one of many crimes her Massachusetts neighbors felt she was responsible for. The others also fell in line with the fertility concerns of centuries: that she made a cow, pig and sow die, caused a neighbor boy to trip in the woods while tracking down his family’s errant cow, and made spun yarn diminish in volume. (She also faced oddball accusations like being able to go into water and not get wet.)

Mary spoke for herself in court, so effectively that she won. And here’s where New England was fairly reasonable: nearly 30 percent of witchcraft cases ended in acquittal. As a new country, not so deeply entrenched in the centuries of witch hunting that Europe endured, the colonies behaved far gentler to their witches. Even when executed, witches knew kindness—the preferred method was hanging, a presumably quicker death than burning at the stake.

Mary again faced the witchcraft accusation 18 years later; apparently, the court’s ruling was unconvincing. She was—mindblowingly—acquitted again, and died of old age in her eighties.

Mostly these sojourns into the past make me so, so grateful that I live when and where I do. Although to be honest, I’d give my eyeteeth (who needs them, really—and in fact what are they?) for a chance to visit the 1800s just for a day.

Preferably not a day when someone with tuberculosis sneezes on me, or a day when I’m giving birth to a breech baby…or a day when a migraine hits…or I have food poisoning and it’s 30 below zero and I have to keep running to the outdoor privy… or I really hate the candidate running for office and wish that I could cast a vote, and my husband tells me it isn’t proper for women to vote… or a day when… actually, maybe I’ll stay here in 2008.

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The image comes from a 1489 book on witchcraft, De Lamiis, reproduced in Kors & Edwards: Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700.

Monday, May 04, 2009

How do witches fly?

This was originally a guest post I wrote for fellow historical fiction writer C.W. Gortner's blog Historical Boys. Gortner's wonderful novel The Last Queen is being released in paperback tomorrow!

How do witches fly?

One of the prevailing characteristics of witches throughout time immemorial has been their ability to fly. Before broomsticks came into the picture, medieval imagery depicted witches flying on tree branches, as in this woodcut from De Lamiis, a pre-1500s tract written by German professor Ulrich Molitor to confirm the existence of witchcraft.

But how might a witch elevate herself? What provides the power that thickens the air and permits her to ride it?

We turn to the Malleus Maleficarum for the answer. The Malleus Maleficarum translates to “The Witch’s Hammer”—not the hammer a witch uses, but one that is used on her. This book, written in the 1480s, provides information on how to identify, question and punish witches, in essence a witch hunting Bible. Two German friars wrote it, based on their experiences roaming the countryside ridding it of witches. No less a personage than Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull complimenting these men on their hard work and providing an endorsement for them.

The book became a bestseller of its day, going through multiple editions over hundreds of years… and today, you can purchase a 1970s edition that is still in print. The Malleus purports to be legalistic and reasonable, even while it contradicts itself and provides flabbergastingly ridiculous examples of witchcraft. My edition provides nearly 300 pages of wince-worthy material… we would be laughing uproariously if hundreds of thousands hadn’t died because of its convictions.

So, the answer on how to fly. This comes from Part II, Question I, Chapter 3 (you can see that the very format of the book lends officiousness and dignity):

Now the following is their method of being transported. They take the unguent which, as we have said, they make at the devil’s instruction from the limbs of children, particularly of those whom they have killed before baptism, and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly; for the devil can conceal a body by the interposition of some other substance, as was shown in the First Part of the treatise where we spoke of the glamours and illusions caused by the devil. And although the devil for the most part performs this by means of this unguent, to the end that children should be deprived of the grace of baptism and of salvation, yet he often seems to affect the same transvection without its use. For at times he transports the witches on animals, which are not true animals but devils in that form; and sometimes even without any exterior help they are visibly carried solely by the operation of the devil’s power.

So there you have it: you must murder children before they can be baptized (saved), and create a potion from their limbs. Or with the devil’s help, you can dispense with the unguent and ride a devil in animal form, or just fly away solely.

The Malleus follows this information with a real-life example, to fortify its truth. The friars write of the town of Waldshut on the Rhine. Here lived a woman everyone hated so much that they didn’t invite her to a wedding that all the rest of the townsfolk attended. Indignant of the slight, she raised a hailstorm to ruin the festivities and prevent the guests from dancing.

Witches “usually” raise hailstorms by pouring water into a trench—since she had no water, she instead urinated into a little hole she dug and stirred it with her finger. A devil stood nearby, and when she was finished, he raised up the liquid and transformed it into the hailstones that fell on the celebrants.

[Quick tangent: how sad that she had no water. Was this indicative of the fact that she was a beggar and scorned for her inability to get food and drink for herself, to the extent that the town excluded her from the wedding celebration?]

As the woman re-entered the town, everyone who had been marveling at the hailstorm saw her and thought, “Aha!” Later, shepherds who had been tending their flocks and saw her urinate into the trench shared what they witnessed, and the witch was arrested.

She confessed to spoiling the wedding because she had not been invited. And they burned her at the stake.

What a frightening land and time to be a person that no one likes. Burned at the stake for the whims of weather, paired with guilt over not providing feast food for the one woman in town who was probably the most hungry.

As I wrote this guest post, I found myself wondering whether Waldshut really existed. Thanks to Wikipedia, I see that it is today amalgamated into the city of Waldshut-Tiengen.

And in the town, yes, still stands the Hexenturm ("Witches' Tower"), a round tower of the medieval fortified walls where witches once were jailed.

Photo credit is from Kors & Edwards: Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700.