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Ask any Western child to draw a witch, and the chances are that he or she will come up with something familiar: most likely a hook-nosed hag wearing a pointy hat, riding a broomstick or stirring a cauldron. But where did this image come from? The answer is more arresting and complex than you might think, as I discovered last week when I visited Witches and Wicked Bodies, a new exhibition at the British Museum in London that explores the iconography of witchcraft.
Witches have a long and elaborate history. Their forerunners appear in the Bible, in the story of King Saul consulting the so-called Witch of Endor. They also crop up in the classical era in the form of winged harpies and screech-owl-like “strixes” – frightening flying creatures that fed on the flesh of babies.
Tag Archives | Witches
The erudite Mitch Horowitz, a stalwart of intellectual New York book publishing, has been given op-ed space in today’s New York Times to highlight a new worldwide wave of violence against witches — and how to end it:
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Most people believe that the persecution of “witches” reached its height in the early 1690s with the trials in Salem, Mass., but it is a grim paradox of 21st-century life that violence against people accused of sorcery is very much still with us. Far from fading away, thanks to digital interconnectedness and economic development, witch hunting has become a growing, global problem.
In recent years, there has been a spate of attacks against people accused of witchcraft in Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, and even among immigrant communities in the United States and Western Europe. Researchers with United Nations refugee and human rights agencies have estimated the murders of supposed witches as numbering in the thousands each year, while beatings and banishments could run into the millions.
Via The End of Capitalism, Alex Knight offers a fascinating take on the powerful meaning of witches in European history:
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For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade”. She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation.”
During the late 15th through 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America. The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having [given themselves] to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, and performed many other abominations.”
So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women?
Can the law effectively contain the supernatural? From truTV:
Authorities in Swaziland, who are very serious about their witches, have enacted revolutionary new legislation intended to regulate all witch air traffic over their country.
Specifically, Swaziland may be the only country to have ever attempted to regulate witch air traffic. The new legislation stipulates that witches on broomsticks flying over Swaziland may not fly higher than 150 meters.
The Civil Aviation Authority’s Marketing and Corporate Affairs Director, Sabelo Dlamini, confirmed the new flight limitations for South Africa’s Times Live: “A witch on a broomstick should not fly above the [150-metre] limit.” Any witches caught violating the altitude limit will be subjected to a fine of R500,000, about $53,000.
Swaziland’s local folklore concerning witches holds that they use their brooms to spread their evil potions.