It’s not unusual to hear the term “witch hunt” in politics, but it has no greater devotee than President Trump, who uses it when complaining about the Mueller investigation. How does this modern meaning — which has to do with supposedly unjust harassment of an individual — map onto the historical phenomena that the term derives from? Perhaps we do not do the original victims of witch hunts justice when we carelessly compare contemporary events to their experiences, which remain clouded by myths. Here are five of the most common.
Most witch hunts happened in 17th-century New England.
During the 1692-93 witch panics in and around Salem, Mass., 14 women and five men were executed by colonial authorities. Because these events often show up in American plays, films and works of art such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” it should come as no surprise that these “witch hunts” are the most well-known to the American public. This might be the reason that National Geographic, when explaining the historical foundation of the term, exclusively refers to the Salem incidents and why an Oxford University Press advertisement points to these trials as “the greatest witch-hunt of all time.”
From a European perspective, however, the events in Salem were a relatively peripheral episode in the history of witch persecutions. In fact, scholars estimate that from the 15th through the 18th centuries, about 60,000 Europeans were executed for allegedly being witches.
One of thousands of examples occurred in the parish of Mora, Sweden, about 23 years before the Salem events, when 16 individuals were beheaded and burned at the stake. The sentencing, by a royal commission of inquiry, was primarily based on testimony from hundreds of local children. The New England theologian Cotton Mather mentions the “horrible outrage” committed “at Mohra in Sweedland” by “the Devils by the help of Witches” in several of his works, a fact that most likely played an important role in shaping the events in Salem.
European witch persecutions occurred during the Dark Ages.
Until the mid-1970s, most scholars believed that the myth of the Witches’ Sabbath — central to most witch panics — first emerged in the Medieval period, more specifically during the early 14th century. Transcriptions of documents that supposedly supported this premise, such as those describing mass trials in Toulouse, France, from 1335 to 1350, found their way into the authoritative set of original sources on witch panics published by Joseph Hansen in 1901. The enduring influence of that conviction is probably why Amnesty International still calls for countries to “stop the medieval witch hunt” or PRI compares a recent murder of an accused sorcerer to “a scene from a medieval witch hunt.”
Yet in 1975, scholar Norman Cohn demonstrated that these documents were not original and would be most appropriately described as early instances of research fraud. For instance, the description of the Toulouse trials includes several historical inaccuracies, and the original documents have never been located. If one disregards such dubious records, there is no evidence that large-scale witch persecutions occurred during the “Dark Ages.” Instead, the phenomenon first seems to have appeared during the Renaissance, which historians typically describe as the beginning of the modern era. In the words of historian H.R. Trevor-Roper, rather than being medieval, witch persecutions can be seen as the dark side of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the scientific revolution.
Witch hunts relied primarily on testimony from children.
In 17th-century New England, Sweden and the Basque provinces of Spain, children were the most important sources for allegations against supposed witches. Evidence from 17th-century Sweden aligns with modern psychological research; preschool-age children in particular are more vulnerable to suggestion and influence from interviewers and peers than are older children. These findings have contributed to legitimate concerns about suggestive interviewing of child witnesses in modern cases. But when experts in psychiatry and pediatrics, such as professors Susan Hatters Friedman and Andrew Howie, highlight the use of child witnesses during witch persecutions, they obscure the fact that children were the main driver of a small percentage of witch panics.
In fact, in most cases, far more testimonies came from adults and were provided under torture, as Brian P. Levack and H.C. Erik Midelfort show. During interrogations carried out with torture, suspects would not only willingly confess to deeds that were inconsistent with the rules of nature (like flying) but also provide the names of an abundance of alleged accomplices. As these accomplices were subsequently rounded up and interrogated, even more names of yet more suspects would appear. As a result, torture tended to lead to mass trials — and more victims.
European witches were members of a fertility cult.
The idea that witches were members of an ancient fertility cult was floated repeatedly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most prominent proponent of this theory was the Egyptologist Margaret Murray, who argued, for instance, in her 1931 work, “The God of the Witches,” that accused witches were actually followers of a religion far older than Christianity, which had been kept alive by a special race of beings known as “fairies.” These ideas helped inspire Wicca, whose adherents sometimes complain that Trump’s use of the term “witch hunt” in relation to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe evokes times when people who may have been practitioners of Wicca were rounded up and killed.
Despite their continued influence, Murray’s theories have been consistently and repeatedly debunked by scholars, and were never even taken seriously by the scientific community at the time they were presented. The most important reason is that Murray quotes her sources selectively and superficially to avoid the fact that the allegations made against witches were simply not credible — eliding that the initial accusations of witchcraft had no basis in fact. As Cohn notes, Murray must have been aware of the fantastic features of the accounts she quotes in support of her theory. As he puts it, “she nevertheless contrives, by the way she arranges her quotations, to give the impression that a number of perfectly sober, realistic accounts of the sabbat exist.”
Most witch hunters were sadistic torturers.
The stereotype of the witch hunter as a cruel inquisitor who deliberately frames innocent people is prevalent in literature, movies and artworks. One example is the character Lucas de Beaumanoir in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Ivanhoe.” Another is the Witchsmeller Pursuivant in the British comedy show “Blackadder.” Today the president implicitly evokes this stereotype when he uses the term “witch hunt” to describe the work of Mueller and his team. And is it really wrong to suggest that someone who uses torture to investigate alleged multigenerational cannibalistic cults whose members can fly is either stupid or evil?
But the notion that witches could fly was uncontroversial among scholars at the time of the persecutions. Further, ignoring what appeared to be credible allegations of child abductions, Satanism and ceremonial cannibalism would have been a grave oversight by anyone in a position of authority.
That people tasked with the judicial handling of witch persecutions regularly approached their duties with a serious and critical attitude is illustrated by the fact that these very people were often the ones who were also responsible for putting an end to these explosive events. As historian Bengt Ankarloo describes it, the Great Swedish Witch Panic of 1668-76 ended after members of a royal commission in Stockholm decided to critically reexamine all evidence (admittedly after a number of alleged witches had already been sentenced to death). The Basque outbreak of 1609, Gustav Henningsen writes, ended thanks to the actions of the inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías. He reinterviewed witnesses and subjects, ultimately concluding that no acts of witchcraft had occurred.
Rickard L. Sjoberg is a neurosurgeon at the University Hospital of northern Sweden. He is also affiliated with Umea University, where part of his scholarly work focuses on the psychological mechanisms behind the Swedish witch persecutions.