November 19, 2022

I’ve written about the Western world’s witch burning craze during the 15th-18th centuries.* Recently I’ve read more on the subject in a book by Martin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches — The Riddle of Culture. Right after reading Steven Pinker’s book Rationality!

Timely because so much happening right now — in world events, and parts of American civic culture — seems so downright irrational. But reading about the witch craze makes that look far less mad in comparison. While also warning us just how far sociocultural irrationality can go. The story in America is far from over, and there seems to be a natural tendency for madness to keep escalating.

The Harris book makes plain just how horrific the witch persecutions were — with graphic descriptions of the torture regularly applied to get confessions, particularly to get victims to name other names, who’d be victimized in turn, an exponentially expanding cascade of horror. With hundreds of thousands burned to death.

Why were so many so ready to believe such bizarre accusations against their neighbors? Typically including women flying (on proverbial broomsticks) to “sabbats” where witches would congregate, and have sex with demons. Harris suggests such tales were not actually detached from reality — there seems to have been a hallucinogenic unguent that would put people in a dream state wherein such flights and sexual doings figured. But even if such indulgence was widely practiced (doubtful), would users have advertised their experiences?

Harris also discusses, as did my previous essay, the very real incentives for witchery accusations. Not only to vent communal backbiting, but there was actual monetary profit for accusers and prosecutors. Furthermore, with accusations rampant, a good way to avoid falling victim yourself was to join the ranks of accusers.

But Harris adds yet another theory. These were times of great hardship for large numbers of people, and consequent social unrest, shaking the foundations of the prevailing order. Those wanting to protect that order, safeguarding their own power and status, could deflect peasant resentment from themselves to devils and witches — blaming those for all sorts of misfortunes suffered by the less privileged. This Harris sees as the true explanation for why witch hunting became so huge.

This also relates to my earlier point analogizing today’s U.S. political situation. Of course there’s no comparing socioeconomic problems in modern America with those afflicting peasants centuries ago. Yet we’re seeing a lashing out that does resemble the old-time demonization of devils and witches. This is indeed how most Republicans view Democrats — as threatening all that’s good and holy — with about as much rationality. The earlier witch hunts got way out of hand, with horrific human consequences. I’d like to think 21st century Americans couldn’t go so irrational. Yet I’ve been shocked at just how far down that road so many have already gone.

* At https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2021/10/16/religion-as-a-source-of-morality-and-witch-burning/

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