Monday, September 15, 2008

It must be Witchcraft ...

Witchcraft was blamed when a riot broke out on Sunday during a football (soccer) match in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the BBC a keeper (goalie) was caught throwing something into the net of the opposing team. He was accused of engaging in witchcraft and a fight broke out. When police tired to separate the combatants the fighting escalated into a riot. The violence and the use of tear gas is blamed for causing a panic which resulted in the deaths of thirteen people.

What is meant by the term witchcraft has changed over the years, varying from country to country and over time. Its basic meaning today is simply the practice of performing ritual magic to gain power over people, affect events or to attain unusual personal powers - all by some extraordinary, supernatural means.

Some have tied witchcraft to paganism, an ancient religion practiced world-wide that placed an emphasis on the worship of multiple gods, most especially the gods and goddesses having influence over nature and fertility. The Celtic people of Western Europe practiced an elaborate form of paganism that included Druid priests and sacred forests and isles. When the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion, the Druids came to be viewed as enemies of the state and were all but obliterated.

Beginning as early as the late-Crusades in Europe, Christianity again took a violent and intolerant path when it began prosecuting those who were thought to be different or even heretics. Witchcraft came to be viewed as literally doing the Devil's work. Those who were accused of witchcraft were believed to be in league with the Devil and were treated as heretics. As heretics they were subjected to trial and/or torture to determine their guilt. Those who were found guilty were often sentenced to death, usually by being burnt at the stake.

These "Witch Hunts" continued until well in the 17th century and engulfed thousands of people all over Europe. Kings and Pontiffs made use of the hysteria to rid themselves of their enemies or those they feared were too powerful. The leaders of the Order of the Knights Templar, who had become rich and powerful as the bankers of Europe, were accused of horrible crimes to include witchcraft and some were brutally tortured and killed. The religious Order was subsequently dissolved. Many other groups were persecuted in the same manner.

In 1692 the Witchcraft hysteria reached the British colonies in America. It was in that year that throughout Essex county, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, witch trials were conducted. The most famous of these trials were held in Salem. The hysteria began when local children began having fits and behaving like they were mad or maybe even possessed. Upon questioning the children claimed to be the victims of witchcraft. They were also more than willing to accuse some of their neighbors as being witches.

From such a small beginning events took on a life of their own. Prominent members of the colony including the well-known Boston Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, took up the cause and actual trials by jury were conducted. Most of the victims of what came to be know as the Salem Witch trials were not surprisingly elderly women. One of the victims was Rebecca Nurse who lived in what is now Danvers. She was found guilty of being a witch by a jury and sentenced to hang. Her home still exists and is owned and managed by a non-profit organization. A monument was dedicated in 1885 to her memory and can be found on the property.

All together some 150 people were put on trial. Nineteen women and men were found guilty of practising witchcraft and were hanged. One man was pressed to death by stones as he was being questioned. At least four people accused of witchcraft died while in jail. Eventually the hysteria died down, the remaining prisoners were freed and the trials came to an end. But many years were to pass before any apology or admissions of guilt were made by those who were responsible for this great miscarriage of justice.

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