An American Mystagogue

Psychic Plagues and Witch-Doctors: Part Two



~ Wiesensteig Witch Trials. Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland (1585), by Johann Jakob Wick

“I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink.” ~ Sarah Good

“Sometime the witch hunting takes on atrocious dimensions — the Nazi persecution of Jews, the Salem witch trials, the Ku Klux Klan scapegoating of blacks. Notice, however, that in all such cases the persecutor hates the persecuted for precisely those traits that the persecutor displays with a glaringly uncivilized fury. At other times, the witch hunt appears in less terrifying proportions—the cold war fear of a “Commie under every bed,” for instance. And often, it appears in comic form—the interminable gossip about everybody else that tells you much more about the gossiper than about the object of gossip. But all of these are instances of individuals desperate to prove that their own shadows belong to other people.” ~ Ken Wilber


Witch hunts. The words alone can bring to mind events ranging from the communist Red Scares in America, to the accusations of blood libel performed by Jews when Christian children would go missing, to the oft cited Salem Witch Trials  and beyond. The common theme is that misfortune strikes a cohesive social group of humans, and between them panic is escalated to proportions that cause them to enter into a mindset of fear, paranoia and guilt placing. For when something goes wrong, there must be a reason? To most people it is not simple enough to chalk things up to happenstance, or to accept that misfortune is an inevitable aspect of mortality. Without conscious planning, or coordination, they manage to root out a “witch” (archetypal in form) to blame the catastrophes on and often to kill so that they can break the curse they lay over themselves with their fear.

But what is a witch? While I may have alluded to the fact that the idea of ‘witch’ as in actuality being a sort of socio-cultural role within a group of people, history presents us with the common occurrence of catastrophes being labeled acts of witchcraft, black magic or maleficium. The term witch is not meant in this way to be used to denote actual workers of what they consider magic, since even practitioners of folk-magic or traditional medicine are generally accepted as “good” until opinion of them shifts otherwise. There is little evidence that the majority of those accused with witchcraft ever considered themselves witches, since the term itself was used to denote a wicked or evil person. One thing I’ve learned about people over the years, is that it is nearly impossible to find someone who actually considers themselves evil, barring pseudo-romantic anti-heroes who oft times do not even do anything particularly ‘wicked’. Since being a witch was in antiquity often a label placed upon a person who was the target of witch hysteria, or a way to explain crops failing or other natural disasters, we can safely assume for the most part that a “witch” (as used in antiquity) is actually more akin to a type of mass-fed psychic tulpa, which may account for more of their fantastical attributes, since they would not be flesh and blood entities, but rather psychological ones free from the restraints of physics and able to appear to the hysterical people in any way the people projected.

One case of witch-hysteria was the Wiesensteig witch trials of 1562-63, which took place in Germany. After social and political upheavals, natural disaster and disease, Count Ulrich von Helfenstein who was the leader of the city decided the reason for such calamity must be witchcraft. After subsequent disasters, over a period of about forty years, one-hundred-and-seven people (mostly women) were killed publicly. Their confessions were garnered before hand through torture.

Another example of ‘witch’ hysteria can be found in the Biami tribe of Western Province of Papua New Guinea, where as recent as a century ago ‘magic men’ would be located via an ecstatic ritual trance of the local spiritual leader, known as the “song leader”. When a disaster would occur, and the suspicion of puri-puri (magic) was high, the song-leader would follow a “spirit guide”, to the ‘magic man’ who had caused the calamity. They would then kill and eat the suspected offender, complete in their knowledge they had ended the “threat” of “witchcraft”.

Another more recent example would be the “witch” killings in Africa. 

And of course one cannot leave out the Salem Witch Trials. Other than going into the most commonly covered parts I would only like to direct you towards one of the accused, Sarah Good. A woman who had been married to a laborer who died, she later re-married and her new husband, William Good, were forced to take upon themselves the debt accrued by the previous husband. Not being able to pay off the debt they were forced into homelessness and into a life of begging. The only social interaction Sarah Good had with the other residents of Salem was when she was asking them for shelter, food, or work. One of the pieces of evidence towards her being a “witch” was that when refused charity, she would walk away muttering to herself.


~ Witches, Hans Baldung (1485–1545)

However, not all “witch plagues” were solved by blood sacrifice and scapegoating, such is the case with the Benandanti or “Good Walkers” of the Friuli district of Italy between the 16th and 17th centuries. Benandanta were thought to be born with a caul over their heads, a sign of their magical abilities. One Thursday a year, the Benandanti would gather to take part in a group ritual in which their ‘spirits’ would fly through the air to combat malevolent witches and ensure agrarian prosperity. Outside of these nights, they were still thought to have magical healing powers.
The effect of these kinds of figures is that they would help alleviate if not completely dispel local witch tulpas.  Unfortunately they were found by the Catholic Church to also be themselves malevolent witches, first coming into attention of the local priest by the name of Don Bartolomeo Sgabarizza, due to a charm to cure illness that was made by benandanta Paolo Gaspurotto and given to the miller Pietro Rotaro. Interested in the folk-magic, Sgabarizza questioned Gaspurotto.

“Sometimes they go out to one country region and sometimes to another, perhaps to Gradisca or even as far away as Verona, and they appear together jousting and playing games; and… the men and women who are the evil-doers carry and use the sorgham stalks which grow in the fields, and the men and women who are benandanti use fennel storks; and they go now one day and now another, but always on Thursdays, and… when they make their great displays they go to the biggest farms, and they have days fixed for this; and when the warlocks and witches set out it is to do evil, and they must be pursued by the benandanti to thwart them, and also to stop them entering the houses, because if they do not find clear water in the pails they go into the cellars and spoil the wine with certain things, throwing filth in the bungholes.”

~Sgabarizza’s  record of what Gaspurotto informed him, 1575.
The Catholic authorities however remained skeptical of if the nocturnal flights actually occurred, but remained worried about the witchcraft of the Benandanti. On either account, the Benandanti were eventually denounced but luckily avoided death penalties, instead being forced to give public abjuration and penance or having no action taken against them at all save for cultural disapproval, the term benandanti later becoming equivalent to ‘witch’.
Hopefully insight into historical ‘witch epidemics’ will aid us in the modern age and future to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. But considering that many people still think that the death penalty deters crime, or considering the “witch” killings of Africa, it seems our taste for blood sacrifice, for killing others to put one’s own delusional mind at ease, has no signs in the human collective of slowing down completely.
~ Seth Moris