Witch-burning

On fire, their faces strangely impassive, they kept trying to get up and walk away, only to have their neighbors push them back into the pile of burning brush, beating them with sticks, shouting witch, witch. Why were they not staked down in some fashion? It was as if they were being told: here is the forest you were always skulking off into. Here is your cover and refuge, on fire. Get back where you belong.

Watching the video — as much of it as I can stomach — I’m suddenly grateful to be living in a nation of laws with the era of lynching behind us (I hope)… and also to be living on a mountain two miles from town.

I know how vicious small-town neighbors can be. I’ve heard the jokes about vigilante action against the local gay prostitute who solicits customers by the side of the highway just outside of town. How bad would things have to get before any and all weirdos became scapegoats? According to one line of thinking, witch persecutions are tied to economic insecurity, and flare up during times of widespread scarcity. During the last depression, I’ve heard, the Klan burned crosses in the Catholic cemetery in the middle of town. It’s not just the government you have to watch out for, though clearly the worst, most horrible violence happens when some demagogue harnesses the people’s petty hatreds and jealousies: think Rwanda in 1994, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

A few years ago, I read a bunch of books and articles on witch beliefs among the Pueblo peoples of the southwestern U.S. What the ethnographers heard from their informants, over and over, was that trouble starts with envy. Sometimes people became witches without even realizing it, just because they let themselves be consumed with envy for their proverbial neighbor’s ass. Evidently whoever wrote the Ten Commandments was aware of this danger, too. Apart from modern consumer society, I think it’s virtually a universal sentiment. Among the Pueblo Indians, anyone who accumulated too many things too quickly might be a witch — or might provoke jealousy and thus witchcraft in others — and therefore care was taken, traditionally, not to let anyone get too rich or too poor. Witches were thought to be shape-shifters who usually took the form of coyotes, and also traveled in dust-devils, forsaking the proper roads and paths.

Perhaps the people in the video, too, crowded onto a gravel road somewhere in (I think) Tanzania, were waiting to see whether the flames would burn off everything human and reveal the monstrous nature they knew had to be lurking just beneath.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

20 Comments


  1. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

    I did research on the Chinese Cultural Revolution and I agree with you about how people can be more horrible than ‘the government’ sometimes.

    “Perhaps the people in the video, too, crowded onto a gravel road somewhere in (I think) Tanzania, were waiting to see whether the flames would burn off everything human and reveal the monstrous nature they knew had to be lurking just beneath.”

    I wish there was some magic to turn the victims into small creatures so they could flee ….

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    1. Yes, it’s hard to get out of Miller’s shadow on this subject. The problem is that there really were, and are, people who practice black magic in almost any society with a folk healing tradition, so that complicates things a bit. In my example of southwest U.S. Indians, for example, whether or not the secret witch societies ever existed at all, or to the extent that people’s paranoia suggested, is open to debate. What isn’t debatable is that any member of a medicine society — which could include virtually anyone who’d ever had a serious illness — acquired a power over life and death that could be used to harm as well as to heal, in their belief system.

      Unfortunately, perhaps, believing in shape-shifting doesn’t make it so. I’m with you about wishing the “witches” could turn into animals and flee!

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  2. I have chills running down my spine. Thank god you didn’t post a link to the video. I don’t think I have the stomach to watch.

    As a non-white wannabe immigrant in the US, one additional worry I have – along with the ones related to keeping a job and staying in legal status as per the draconian INS rules – is the fear of this economic downturn leading to violence against immigrants.

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    1. I’m glad you thought it was a wise decision not to link to the video. Frankly, I didn’t debate it much — I knew I couldn’t stand watching it again even long enough to get the link.

      Yes, immigrants are the perpetually convenient enemy, aren’t they? It was scarey how quickly hatred toward Arab-Americans manifested itself after 9/11.

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  3. Ditto Arvind’s sentiment. But thank you Dave for watching for us, and relaying the horror with humanity and your writer’s skill. We need to know, even though I for one am relieved not to have seen with my own eyes. This business of being a spectator is always going to be a troubled one, and increasingly so in an age when mobile phones capture atrocities to disseminate worldwide via the internet. (Another form of every-day violence.) As for Africa, it seems to me that yet more troubles lie ahead for that magnificent yet troubled continent. There is toxicity in Africa’s indigenous beliefs in magic and witchcraft, coupled with a troubling reinvention of fierce Old Testament Christianity. History demonstrates to us that horror and brutality never go away, but just re-emerge in different guises. We must all speak out for the weak, the minorities, the disenfranchised. (And by every means at our disposal, including blogs.) Well done Dave.

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    1. This business of being a spectator is always going to be a troubled one, and increasingly so in an age when mobile phones capture atrocities to disseminate worldwide via the internet.

      Yes, I imagine that’s what I saw — some long-distance trucker probably shot the video on his cellphone or something. Aside from my discomfort in revisiting the piece, it just didn’t seem right to disseminate the link further — though obviously if everyone else felt the same way, I never would’ve seen it. And maybe it’s good to be exposed to such horror from time to time, as a counterweight to all the fake violence in movies and video games. (I watched my cousin Jeff blow away other players in a very realistic online game on a large screen once for about an hour, right before bed, and then slept like a baby.)

      I feel compelled to point out, as a matter of national pride, that the brand of Christianity at issue here, Pentecostalism, was made in the U.S.A.! And for all its faults, it is at least a racially integrated movement here, more so than any other branch of Christianity in America, I think. I don’t know whether it’s doing anything to break down ethnic divisions in Africa or not.

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  4. I think there is a lot of truth to this – think today and how gay people are treated. And now the whole civil rights debate about how gay people are seen as stealing the civil rights movement from black people? It’s a bit ridiculous. I thought it was civil rights, and not just African American rights. It all screams of the “judicious mixture” logic used by the coal companies in the early 20th century.

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    1. Yes, and of course discrimination against gays should never be far from one’s mind when thinking about Western European witch-burning, given the origin of the derogatory term “faggot.” But African-Americans are far from alone in not wanting to share their victim status. There are also those who insist that there was only one holocaust, too (and ignore the gays, Roma, intellectuals, and Poles that died in the Nazi death camps alongside Jews). I’d like to believe such professional victims are a small, loud minority, though. And in the end I think Americans will end up granting many more rights to gays and lesbians. It’ll take another decade or two, I think.

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      1. And the physically and the mentally disabled too Dave. Let us not forget them. The Nazi’s were so untiringly comprehensive when it came to eliminating those they disapproved of.

        Here in the UK my male partner and I are openly a couple, and we have no problems. It’s just not an issue. I’m proud to live in a country where that is possible. But there are still too many places in the world where the civil liberties we enjoy are non existent. I’ve heard African bishops ranting against the evils of homosexuality in a manner that seems way too reminiscent for comfort of Hitler’s condemnation of the Jews. And they’re not alone, those African Bishops. There have been a few Catholics who’ve recently been claiming natural disasters as evidence of God’s wrath against sodomites. I have no faith myself. But I sure as hell wish that those who do put their own houses in better order, rather than go gay-hunting as a solution to the world’s woes.

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        1. Amen, Clive! :) I think it’ll be a little while longer before openly gay couples enjoy that kind of acceptance everywhere here, though the examples of “married” gay celebrities are changing a lot of minds, I think, and Americans’ basic sense of fairness will probably eventually prevail against religious dogmatism. Even many younger evangelicals and Mormons are beginning to break with their elders over gay marriage, I hear. What will take much longer is acceptance of those who can’t be assimilated to existing models of behavior, such as the transgendered or those practicing polyfidelity. And yeah, you’re right about the hateful rhetoric of those African bishops – that’s scarey even for those of us who aren’t directly targeted.

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    1. This fucking breaks my heart. It’s another example of how humans set themselves (ourselves) up against a template of the Other. demonizing what, who we fear. and it strikes me as particularly infuriating and tragic that in alternative ways of apprehending the world there seems to lie a great deal of potential for healing. Shamanic and earth-based traditions seem so necessary to me right now. but what hurts most in reading this is thinking of the pain those poor people felt. it’s easy to generalize but that distances us from being right up there in the face of what’s happening. Sometimes stepping back to see a bigger picture fogs things up for me. but I don’t think I could have watched that video, either.

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      1. Thanks for the heart-felt response. Yes, it’s difficult to know how to respond to things like this without lapsing into over-generalizations based on cultural assumptions that may or may not apply. And I think we do have to be careful not to idealize shamanic traditions, though some of Via Negativa’s readers back in 2004 and 2005 probably felt I was guilty of that on occasion. Ultimately, I feel religion is — or ought to be — more about healing than about belief, and I feel that modern healers — doctors and therapists — would do well to study to study the kind of psychological dramaturgy that shamans and folk healers so often employ to good effect. We do have our sorcerors, too, though. In fact, I’d argue they’re running the show. But that’s a discussion for another time, perhaps.

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  5. I agree with you about religion needing to be more about healing than belief. I am not a big believer in belief. Shamanism seems to offer that healing much more than traditional Western religion does, though there are healing components to more mainstream religions, too, I suppose. And yeah, shamanic traditions doubtless have their manipulators and grabbers of power. as to their running the show, maybe you could say more about that sometime. That remark has my curiosity piqued. Thanks.

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    1. Oh, I just meant that the sorcerors of our time are those who use our own favorite technologies for ill. Didn’t have anything too profound in mind there. As for religion, if healing is about making whole, than all religions can be said to have a profound impact on health. Though many times I think they just reinforce unhealthy views — for example by fostering artificial conflicts between male and female or between humans and nature. So I guess I was speaking fairly figuratively in both instances.

      My friend Dale, a Vajrayana Buddhist, has a good post on religion vs. belief the other day.

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  6. I’ll check out that post. I suppose you could see this country’s financial wizards of disaster as sorcerers of a sort, too. A lot of magical thinking of a very profoundly deceptive nature going on there.

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    1. Exactly. A lot of our thinking about consumer goods and machines strikes me as magical, too. They are fetish objects that will make their owners young, sexy, etc.

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      1. So how, and I don’t mean to belabor the issue, is “culture” to find some sort of healing after the bloated excesses it’s been used to? Maybe it can’t…but it has struck me for awhile now that the involuntary renunciation of all those magical fetishes can engender a more real way of being, for more people. I don’t think it can be called renewal because I don’t think “we” have ever really been there. Maybe no large-scale epiphany is even possible. but the sorcerers and their playthings have surely not been restorative at all.

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        1. I don’t know. Do you ever look at Dave Pollard’s blog, How to Save the World? He answers — or attempts to answer — these kinds of questions far better than I could.

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          1. Thanks. Looks extensive. I appreciate the tip.

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