Witch-hunt

Burning of three "witches" in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

A witch-hunt or a witch purge is a search for people who have been labelled "witches" or a search for evidence of witchcraft, and it often involves a moral panic[1] or mass hysteria.[2] The classical period of witch-hunts in Early Modern Europe and Colonial North America took place in the Early Modern period or about 1450 to 1750, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, resulting in an estimated 35,000 to 100,000 executions, with the most recent estimate at 40,000.[3][4] The last executions of people convicted as witches in Europe took place in the 18th century. In other regions, like Africa and Asia, contemporary witch-hunts have been reported from Sub-Saharan Africa and Papua New Guinea and official legislation against witchcraft is still found in Saudi Arabia and Cameroon today.

In current language, "witch-hunt" metaphorically means an investigation that is usually conducted with much publicity, supposedly to uncover subversive activity, disloyalty and so on, but really to weaken political opposition.[5]

Anthropological causes

The wide distribution of the practice of witch-hunts in geographically and culturally separated societies (Europe, Africa, India, New Guinea) since the 1960s has triggered interest in the anthropological background of this behaviour. The belief in magic and divination, and attempts to use magic to influence personal well-being (to increase life, win love, etc.) are human cultural universals.

Belief in witchcraft has been shown to have similarities in societies throughout the world. It presents a framework to explain the occurrence of otherwise random misfortunes such as sickness or death, and the witch sorcerer provides an image of evil.[6] Reports on indigenous practices in the Americas, Asia and Africa collected during the early modern age of exploration have been taken to suggest that not just the belief in witchcraft but also the periodic outbreak of witch-hunts are a human cultural universal.[7]

One study finds that witchcraft beliefs are associated with antisocial attitudes: lower levels of trust, charitable giving and group participation.[8] Another study finds that income shocks (caused by extreme rainfall) lead to a large increase in the murder of "witches" in Tanzania.[9]

Scholar Silvia Federici, in her book Caliban and the Witch and other works, has applied a Marxist and feminist analysis to the witch-hunts, arguing that they played an important role in enclosure and the early development of capitalism.[10]