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Malleus Maleficarum?
October 22, 2009 9:13 AM   Subscribe

"Five women were paraded naked, beaten and forced to eat human excrement by villagers..."

Just last week, this post brought our attention to mistreatment of "witches" in Africa. Religious repudiation of "witchcraft" certainly has a long and dismal history. But new video today of public torture of women accused of witchcraft in India is promoting remarkable outrage.

Warning: the video is disturbing.
posted by jefficator (80 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm starting to think my plan for a Wiccan missionary program in Africa might not be as well-received as I hope.
posted by mullingitover at 9:27 AM on October 22, 2009 [12 favorites]


Still, winner of Attention-Grabbing Pull Quote Of The Day.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:28 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was ready to laugh at the absurdity of witch-hunting until I realized that this is, you know, a serious violation of human rights.
posted by battlebison at 9:29 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did - if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather - surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? ... It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house. - C.S. Lewis
posted by Joe Beese at 9:36 AM on October 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


From the article: "Experts say superstitious beliefs are behind some of these attacks, but there are occasions when people - especially widows - are targeted for their land and property. "


dingdingdingding we have a winnah! Awfully convenient how these witches so often have money.

The incident in question here happened in India, which does have a functioning legal system. The wingnuts involved should go to prison and, if they aren't totally destitute, be cleaned out in a civil suit. If they are, they should have their huts taken away and be forced to work in call centers.
posted by mullingitover at 9:38 AM on October 22, 2009 [11 favorites]


certain women in their village are possessed by a "holy spirit" that can identify those who practise witchcraft.

I do not think this spirit is what you think it is.
posted by benzenedream at 9:39 AM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I may be a pinko-commie-atheist-artsy-freak, unemployed, alienated from the mainstream and all that, but stories like this one make me feel profoundly grateful to have been born in the USA.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:39 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Imagine this scenario: You capture a witch. She tells you that she's put a death curse on a major metropolitan city -- say, New York. The curse is due to take effect at noon -- only one hour from now.

NOW what are you going to do, libtards? If beating, stripping and force-feeding excrement is the only way to get the counter-spell, my only questions are, "how much excrement do you need, and where do I leave it?"

Anyway, this is no worse than some of my frat hijinks from college.
posted by PlusDistance at 9:39 AM on October 22, 2009 [44 favorites]


I'm starting to think my plan for a Wiccan missionary program in Africa might not be as well-received as I hope.

Sorry, I'd usually let it go, but I can't this time. There is a place for snark and this really isn't it.
posted by drpynchon at 9:40 AM on October 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


They have lodged a case against 11 villagers, including six women.

So, that's five men, then?
posted by stinkycheese at 9:40 AM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


this is dismal.

although from the description I thought it was a summary of the new Lars Von Trier movie.
posted by pinky at 9:41 AM on October 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


odd that i should agree with c.s. lewis, but who needs witches when you got teh gays?
posted by klanawa at 9:41 AM on October 22, 2009


stories like this one make me feel profoundly grateful to have been born in the USA.

Where people never hurt other people!
posted by stinkycheese at 9:42 AM on October 22, 2009


'The Great Indian Witch-Hunt' is a great documentary on the subject, if you happen to find it.
posted by CKmtl at 9:43 AM on October 22, 2009


Ugh.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:44 AM on October 22, 2009


Hang them! Hang them high! Who weeps for them weeps for corruption!
posted by klangklangston at 9:46 AM on October 22, 2009


I doubt the villagers actually believe in witchcraft, either.

I mean if you REALLY believe that these women have supernatural power to maim or kill, are you going to go out of your way to target and humiliate them?
posted by leotrotsky at 9:48 AM on October 22, 2009 [16 favorites]


I have to be honest here, and I really hate to be "that guy," but I'm more than a little shocked at some people's reactions. Maybe its gallows humor to deal with something outside of the realm of the normal, but my goodness. All of humanity's modern technology has coalesced to bring to your desk a depiction of one of the world's oldest forms of discrimination, cruelty, and oppression. I for one was to appalled by the realization that suspicion of witchcraft and public beatings of this kind could coexist with cell-phone cameras and the internet. Perhaps I'm just naive.
posted by jefficator at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


... the aristocrats!
posted by wcfields at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


Well India successfully banned widow burning (sati), so there's hope this practice can also be changed.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


leotrotsky: "I doubt the villagers actually believe in witchcraft, either. "

Do right-wingers actually believe gay marriage will destroy America? Or is it merely an unexamined prejudice that they cite to support their persecution of people they don't like?

Does it really make a difference?
posted by Joe Beese at 9:57 AM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


"Awfully convenient how these witches so often have money."

'Twas ever thus.

Property disputes are thought—along with adolescent delight at making the grownups flip out & good old mass hysteria & delusion—to be one of the true causes of that quintessential American story, the Salem, MA, Witch Hysteria of 1692.

See Boyer & Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed, & Three Sovereigns For Sarah, a film by Philip Leacock.
posted by Forrest Greene at 9:57 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm more than a little shocked at some people's reactions

You and me both....

Anyway, this is no worse than some of my frat hijinks from college

Although clearly a 'joke' (?) i'm still left wondering exactly what sub level of humiliation / torture / shit related japery happened in this particular frat house
posted by Boslowski at 10:01 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


"...certain women in their village are possessed by a "holy spirit" that can identify those who practise witchcraft."

Hmpf. Wives of police officers, no doubt, as in the story of dirty Eric Williamson, two posts prior to this one.
posted by Forrest Greene at 10:02 AM on October 22, 2009


I for one was appalled by the realization that suspicion of witchcraft and public beatings of this kind could coexist with cell-phone cameras and the internet.

I understand what you're saying - Witchcraft?! In MY Century? - but honestly, I'm less blown away by the rationalizations people use in order to be cruel to one another than the cruelty itself.
posted by Pragmatica at 10:04 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


You're naive, jefficator. Compare the date on which we offensively used our first nuclear weapon to the date on which we had our first practical nuclear power plant. Technology just means new, sharper rocks in the hands of the same old monkeys.

People basically suck and our modern technology serves that suckitude. Hold onto your naivete, if you can; my hands are a little slippery at the moment.
posted by adipocere at 10:04 AM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Although it is true that it is not particularly morally laudable to not execute "witches," there is a nasty undertone to that C.S. Lewis quote (and I say this as a Christian and an admirer of much of Lewis' body of work) that conversely, the witch-burners or yore were not guilty of any moral failing because they were acting on their sincere beliefs regarding countering a terrible evil.

While I will speak only for Christianity, it is worth pointing out (again) that in the Gospels Jesus never incites his followers to violence, that he specifically forbids his disciples to resist evil by force, that the actions of Jesus' followers in the gospels and later Acts and epistles are almost exclusively non-violent and that the sole act of violence committed by a follower of Jesus in the Gospels is immediately rebuked by Jesus, and that in the instances of capital punishment described in the New Testament the only roles played by Jesus or his followers are obstructing it or being victims of it.
posted by nanojath at 10:10 AM on October 22, 2009 [18 favorites]


public beatings of this kind could coexist with cell-phone cameras

Not sure why this surprises you.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:15 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course, as Arthur Clarke noted, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (or witchcraft). And when people don't understand technology, they treat it in the same way, e.g., Louis Farrakhan is telling people that the H1N1 vaccine has been developed to kill people.

Suspicion and ignorance is dangerous anywhere in the world.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:16 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


The incident in question here happened in India, which does have a functioning legal system.

This is far from a wholly accurate assertion. The constitutional ideal and street-level practice of Indian democracy operate in spheres so distant from each other as to be essentially different systems entirely.

In this case, the offences occurred in a village in Jharkhand, a dirt-poor and caste-bound state carved recently off the southern end of Bihar, India's poorest and arguably its most corrupt state. (Among other things, its former premier, Laloo, once had his wife installed in his place from prison after he was jailed on an extensive laundry list of corruption charges.) On top of that, the victims were Muslim, which would almost certainly erode the willingness of the almost-certainly-Hindu local officials to seek prompt prosecutions.

And even if their case was somehow brought to court, it'd smack up hard against the broader Indian legal system, which is functioning in the sense that it actually operates and holds trials and sees evidence but is in no way functioning in the sense that it dispatches justice in a timely and efficient manner. By one recent estimate, the current backlog in the lower Indian courts stands at 26.4 million cases.

So imagine, American Mefites, if every man, woman and child in California was currently awaiting trial. (Canadian Mefites like myself can imagine essentially the entire country over the age of 10 being ahead of them in the queue; Europeans can imagine if all of Belgium and the Netherlands was waiting for a hearing ahead of them.) Now imagine you're a victim of a crime with about the de facto legal status of a female migrant farm worker in the Central Valley on an expired visa. Even with shocked international press coverage (which will be gone in a news cycle or two), this is where these poor abused women stand on the broader scales of Indian "justice." Which is in part why mobs in rural India feel free to carry out acts of backwoods justice of their own.
posted by gompa at 10:16 AM on October 22, 2009 [18 favorites]


And now that there's video, people are outraged. All the print stories on this over the years (and I've read several) and very few took any notice. *sigh* I guess I should be glad for the ubiquity of video cameras bringing this kind of shit to life and shut up now.
posted by threeturtles at 10:16 AM on October 22, 2009


nanojath: "...in the Gospels Jesus never incites his followers to violence, that he specifically forbids his disciples to resist evil by force..."

I don't think Lewis was arguing that witch-burners were acting in accordance with Christianity. Only that we shouldn't consider ourselves morally superior to them.

And, agreeing with adipocere, I don't think we are.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:18 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


If they are, they should have their huts taken away and be forced to work in call centers.

Call-center jobs are highly sought after and socially respected in India. They are well-paid, and in air-conditioned offices. Indians think they are great jobs, with only one drawback: you talk to ignorant, xenophobic, half-witted Americans all day. The snark, it cuts the other way.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:22 AM on October 22, 2009 [28 favorites]


I'm with mullingitover and leotrotsky on this. It's unlikely that belief in witchcraft was the real motivation behind these acts. Instead witchcraft is a convenient excuse to control and disempower single women.

The dominant family system in North India tends to put women at a severe disadvantage; it's patrilineal and patrilocal, and clan exogamy is widely practiced. This means that women are traditionally married out of their natal family-- where they have parents, siblings, and other relatives as allies-- and into a new family, where they are a veritable stranger. Women also often leave their home village and travel to that of their new husband and his family. At a young age-- half of Indian women are married before 18-- these women find themselves in a strange new environment where they are subject to the whims of a group of people whose primary interest is not in their well-being as people, but in controlling their fertility, as the bearer of the family's heirs, and their productive capacity, as household and agricultural laborers.

When a woman's husband dies, she loses one of the few sympathetic members of this new social scene. As an outsider, but one with some claim to the family's possessions-- namely, its land, inherited from her husband, and its sons-- they constitute a major threat. This is particularly problematic today, now that the Indian legal system guarantees inheritance rights to women, and offers some means for them to pursue these rights through the legal system. And as newly single women, they have the option to find new sexual partners and bring outsiders into the family and into the family's property disputes. It's in everybody's interests to neutralize this threat, and traditionally India deals quite harshly with its widows.

In some places widows are forced into widow's ashrams, often associated with temples; Deepa Mehta's film Water follows the life of a woman in such a home. In other areas women are encouraged to commit sati by throwing themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. In parts of Bihar, Jharkhand, and elsewhere, they're often vilified as witches and controlled through either outright persecution-- as in this case-- or the mere threat of such persecution occurring if they don't cooperate with their husband's family and village. It's in the whole village's interest to go along with this kind of scheme, because they too will bring in wives to serve their family, and they too need to control these outsiders and maintain the traditional social rules.
posted by bookish at 10:24 AM on October 22, 2009 [26 favorites]


I do not mind being "that guy" at all. The only acceptable human response to this is disgust and outrage. Humor, gallows or otherwise is completely misplaced here. I am sickened by those that would joke about such horrible actions.
posted by Jeeb at 10:26 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think it's time to move from the village to the big city.
posted by borges at 10:26 AM on October 22, 2009


Although clearly a 'joke' (?) i'm still left wondering exactly what sub level of humiliation / torture / shit related japery happened in this particular frat house

<joke_explain>I was attempting to humorously demonstrate the proposition that witch-hunters and the idealogues who empower them, far from being uniquely indigenous to rural third-world villages, may exist even in the heart of our United States. I did not join a fraternity in college, although the fictional persona I adopted for the purpose of this jape presumably did. I have not yet explored what activities he may or may not have partaken of as a member therein.</joke_explain>
posted by PlusDistance at 10:27 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks, Jeeb. I'm glad you cleared up for us.

*does his hair up new wave, then begins to dance, singing "But I'm quite sure that you'll tell me / Just how I should feel today"*
posted by adipocere at 10:28 AM on October 22, 2009



Thanks, Jeeb. I'm glad you cleared up for us.


I'm obviously just stating my personal views on the matter, you can feel free to react however you want, and I will feel free to react to your reaction as I see fit.
posted by Jeeb at 10:35 AM on October 22, 2009


I'm not going to tell other people how they should respond to this story, with humor or otherwise, but I find it so inhuman and repellent a tale that it's sucked all the humor out of me for the moment. People deal with things different, I know. If you need humor to address this, I'm not going to knock you.

I think I will response by crying.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:40 AM on October 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


People deal with things different, I know. If you need humor to address this, I'm not going to knock you.

point taken, I could've phrased my opinion better. I guess I was just a little overcome with anger...
my apologies
posted by Jeeb at 10:45 AM on October 22, 2009


nanojath:While I will speak only for Christianity, it is worth pointing out (again) that in the Gospels Jesus never incites his followers to violence,

Well, there was that moneychangers in the temple incident, the only place I can remember Christ completely losing his cool (and not, as one would guess from the preoccupations of many, over sex but the commercialization of religion)...

I am currently reading Carol Karlsen's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England Amazon, which has some fascinating data about the targets of Colonial United States witchcraft accusations, the accusers, and what these things say about property rights, the status of women, Puritan anxieties, etc. The impression I have so far is that there was an complex stew of "real" fear, personal dislikes, social anxieties, and fear/anxiety/covetousness toward property involved. I can only imagine the situation in this story is the same -- some cynical exploitation of the women involved but also some genuine fear of malediction.

Not that understanding indicates excuse. The situation is horrible, made worse because these women have likely no way out of the situation at all -- no chance to strike back, defend themselves, or even get away.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:50 AM on October 22, 2009


There is a verse in the Bible that says "You shalt not suffer a witch to live." That verse has been the source of much wickeness throughout history.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:54 AM on October 22, 2009


The really sad part is that the real translation is "poisoner".
posted by lysdexic at 11:07 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Damn. Just hearing the cacophony of the mob in the video was enough to make my stomach turn in some kind of vicarious terror.
posted by hegemone at 11:07 AM on October 22, 2009


Sarah Palin and the witch doctor
posted by hortense at 11:18 AM on October 22, 2009


Technology just means new, sharper rocks in the hands of the same old monkeys new, even more dangerous monkeys.
posted by rusty at 11:19 AM on October 22, 2009


"I do not mind being "that guy" at all. The only acceptable human response to this is disgust and outrage. Humor, gallows or otherwise is completely misplaced here. I am sickened by those that would joke about such horrible actions."

If outrage and disgust are the only acceptable human responses, why bother posting this at all? Woo hoo, we can all get ginned up about something we have no power to control!

And seriously, the only human response to the sort of high-handed, imperious piety of your offense is to mock you ruthlessly.

(Though I do apologize for misremembering my quote. It's "Hang them high over the town. Whoever weeps for these weeps for corruption.")
posted by klangklangston at 11:20 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm more than a little shocked at some people's reactions.

I would like to respectfully suggest that you haven't been reading the same threads here that I have been reading, then.
posted by jessamyn at 11:22 AM on October 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


Actually, let me explain slightly more.... you included a pullquote on the front page of MetaFilter that talked about women being stripped naked forced to eat shit. Now, some of us may be able to sit back and read the article and ruminate on what's going on there and view it sort of abstractly and as something that is happening far away. Other people can't. Other people have some sort of visceral reaction and don't know what to do with it and humor is their outlet. Other people, it makes them feel bad in an undescribeable way and that makes them look at other people's humor in a less tolerant than usual fashion.

Me, I just think about whether we're going to fight about rape again and basically about how I'm tired of reading graphic descriptions about women being tortured even if it's to drive home the point that torture is bad. There are lots of ways one could represent this topic, you chose this one, the punch-to-the-gut way. I don't think that the reactions of people to that presentation of this [admittedly terrible] material is at all surprising, it's downright 1) normal 2) normal for MetaFilter even.
posted by jessamyn at 11:25 AM on October 22, 2009 [14 favorites]


This popped up on digg earlier this week and is related to this previous mefi post. In Africa, as in India, the victims are on the margins of society and powerless. I am ashamed to be human.
posted by Tashtego at 11:27 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: new, sharper rocks in the hands of the same old monkeys
posted by davejay at 11:27 AM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]



If outrage and disgust are the only acceptable human responses, why bother posting this at all? Woo hoo, we can all get ginned up about something we have no power to control!

And seriously, the only human response to the sort of high-handed, imperious piety of your offense is to mock you ruthlessly.


Umm...ya, I apologized for my admittedly heavy-handed reaction to those using humor about this subject.
but, if you still feel I deserve to be ruthlessly mocked, knock yourself out.
posted by Jeeb at 11:38 AM on October 22, 2009


Sounds like West Virginia...or not.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:40 AM on October 22, 2009


I just think about whether we're going to fight about rape again

Not until Thanksgiving, you know the tradition!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:01 PM on October 22, 2009


I am curious about the CS Lewis quote, as well. What's the context of it? Did he say it in response to a skeptic citing witch burnings as a moral failure of religious people? Or did he mean it in a way to explain that the death penalty is wrong, because we can justify executing innocent people when in reality we can be far more ignorant that we imagine? Or did he mean to say that education is important because ignorance can justify awful things?

My perspective that may be biasing my interpretation: Executions are always wrong when life imprisonment is possible. I think it's amoral for the state to kill its own citizens, and I also think there are too many practical concerns, what with the cost of a trial to get a death sentence and the fact that DNA evidence shows that many people we executed were actually innocent. Even with the best technology and no corruption in the system, the DOJ will not be batting 100.

/digression
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:19 PM on October 22, 2009


Worst of the world.
posted by weston at 12:24 PM on October 22, 2009


I doubt the villagers actually believe in witchcraft, either.

maybe i'm wrong in assuming the people beating these women were muslim, but it says these were muslim widows, so i'm going out on a limb to say this was a muslim village. while i would prefer to think that these people didn't really believe these women were witches (like it would make this story any more palatable), they belong to a religion that has as it's prophet/centerpiece an uneducated orphan who grew up roaming the desert and later in life cruised around on a winged horse that eventually he rode on up to heaven to kick it with god, banging tight virgins, for all eternity.

so from there witchcraft isn't much of a stretch.

(this isn't a slam on islam, per se, 'religion x' is interchangable with 'religion y' in my eyes)
posted by rainperimeter at 12:24 PM on October 22, 2009


Wow. The level of ugly is awfully high in some of these snarky comments.
I'm glad some of you folks are just sitting around my computer and not around my dinner table saying these things.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:29 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Excellent post by bookish, above. Gender inequality in many regions in India is horrendous. Although I understand, on an abstract level, how that can persist, it's just so very hard to square with how we here in the West think about these things. Like there being a shortage of women of marriageable age, due to female infanticide among many other horrible reasons. There is therefore a huge surplus of men. How can it be then, that it is the parents of the bride who have to come up with dowries - huge, enormous dowries - when market forces of supply vs demand (Western thinking) should indicate the opposite (as is the practice in many other cultures)? Yes, I understand issues of husband/wife earning power disparity, family name and lineage etc., but you'd think that at some point market forces would push through changes in the system. And given the position of women in these new marriages (see bookish post), how is it that any woman wouldn't fight to the death not to get married at all - or that any loving parent would want their daughter to enter into this situation... yes, I realize, cultural forces are extremely powerful. Obviously, the overall economy is a big factor - these women have nowhere to go, cannot get jobs, are not being educated and as a result have no skills, and the entire social system seems designed to keep them down. Wasn't it somewhat like that also here in the West (although only in some respects), until women were allowed into the workforce? And mere prosperity as counted in income per person and GDP is not the whole answer - see Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, there is no escaping it - there needs to happen a huge cultural shift, and with it legal and economic changes. Until that occurs - probably not in our lifetimes - these kinds of stories will continue to happen every single day all over the world.
posted by VikingSword at 12:50 PM on October 22, 2009


Bookish, I would like to thank you for educating me. I had no context for understand this event except reference to Salem and Medieval Europe. Your comment was very helpful.
posted by jefficator at 1:25 PM on October 22, 2009


jessamyn : ...and basically about how I'm tired of reading graphic descriptions about women being tortured even if it's to drive home the point that torture is bad. There are lots of ways one could represent this topic...

I've been just emotionally exhausted lately, and stuff like thinking about what is being done to these women is grinding away at me in ways that I don't like and can't articulate right now.

So in an effort to make myself feel better, I'll take up jesamyn's challenge, and I came up with a TV commercial concept.

Black screen, there is a low, menacing single chord playing. Suddenly the screen is filled with a cute picture of a tortilla wrapped puppy, it slowly fades to black. Now there are three high impact words revealed in rapid succession; Boom! Boom! BOOM!

Torture. Is. Bad.


It just hangs there, demanding that you recognize the implicit truth for a full fifteen seconds.

Before the commercial ends and we are treated to an ad for beer or Ford.

I actually don't feel any better.
posted by quin at 2:51 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


mccarty.tim: "I am curious about the CS Lewis quote, as well. What's the context of it?"

It comes from an early chapter in Mere Christianity. The cornerstone of his argument in favor of the existence of God is that there is a universally understood moral law - subject to insignificant variations according to time and place - that could not arise from human nature itself, and therefore must come from Outside.

Leading up to the earlier quote, he writes:

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [in morality among different periods and cultures], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts.

So his larger point could be paraphrased as "Despite our differing belief in the existence of witches, both the witch-burners and we agree that it is wrong to persecute the innocent and right to punish the traitorous."
posted by Joe Beese at 3:01 PM on October 22, 2009


I'm with mullingitover and leotrotsky on this. It's unlikely that belief in witchcraft was the real motivation behind these acts.

What makes you think this? You don't like to think bad things about religion and spiritual beliefs? You don't grasp the power of such beliefs? How do you explain people deciding to spend generations erecting cathederals? Belief as a pretext for economic stimulus programs?
posted by rodgerd at 3:18 PM on October 22, 2009


I remember the professor from one of my US Women's history class saying that some recent studies of the Salem Witch Trials showed that most of the women were either widows with land or property or single women who were about to inherent land or property because of lack of a male heir. Now I just need to find that stupid article . . .
posted by nestor_makhno at 3:19 PM on October 22, 2009


I took a whole class in "History of Religion and Witchcraft in Early America." My term paper was fun, but the basic thrust of the class, aside from more or less discounting ergotism as an explanation, was that there were a lot of reasons things went so horribly wrong in Danvers. Certainly, opportunists jumped on the bandwagon, but it wasn't purely a cash move, either.

That whole "poisoner of wells" thing as the original for "witch" in the famous quote was something I had heard a long time back, but it has since been under some effort to debunk it. I was guilty of repeating it myself, and it's pretty popular with pagans, but the best I found was ...
The Hebrew word here translated "witch" is kashaph — it does not refer to a "poisoner" or "poisoner of wells," but to one who performs incantations. The root of the word means "To mutter, to murmur," and is consistently used in Hebrew and Ugaritic manuscripts to refer to witchcraft, not to poisoning.

In the Septuagint, the word was translated pharmakeia, which can mean poisoner, but more frequently means "one who makes magic potions."
"Poisoner of wells" sure as heck makes sense if you're a little desert tribe without a lot of access to water. However, what little I've been able to find about the Greek (which I don't speak) or Hebrew (even less) suggests that, unfortunately, the King James Version was, in this case, not taking extraordinary liberties with the original. Pity. pharmakeia is probably what misled people into getting the "poisoner" aspect. The unfortunate "ex-witch" site has a paper on it somewhere that goes into great depth, and the reasoning is sound, as much as I dislike the exhortation to murder that arises from the conclusion. I could not fault their logic.

Do we have someone who can do Hebrew and Greek around?
posted by adipocere at 3:33 PM on October 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's a good thing these villagers didn't know about the duck test.
posted by cleancut at 3:34 PM on October 22, 2009


"What makes you think this? You don't like to think bad things about religion and spiritual beliefs? You don't grasp the power of such beliefs? How do you explain people deciding to spend generations erecting cathederals? Belief as a pretext for economic stimulus programs?"

We get it, you hate religion.

But given that the history of religion is rife with people doing stuff that benefits them and coming up with post hoc magical reasons, it's not a stretch to see this as one more example in that pattern. Further, your facile treatment of cathedrals makes your ignorance rather overt—Cathedrals reinforced the church's secular authority, provided jobs and promoted trade, all while glorifying God and thems that served 'im.

You've got that common atheist disease, assuming that religion is the cause of actions, rather than the means.

(And I'll elide my snark about how it's a shame you trotted it out to defend these "witch" hunters, as that'd be both petulant and unfair.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:10 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was attempting to humorously demonstrate..........

Yep, ok. Get it now. Made me laugh a bit. Made me think a lot. Fair play.
posted by Boslowski at 4:54 PM on October 22, 2009


The C. S. Lewis quote is disingenuous and, frankly, odious. Especially coming from someone in Britain in the forties.
posted by No-sword at 4:56 PM on October 22, 2009


No-sword: "The C. S. Lewis quote is disingenuous and, frankly, odious. Especially coming from someone in Britain in the forties."

Perhaps I know less about Britain in the forties than I thought... but I have absolutely no idea what you might be referring to. Would you care to make that indictment more explicit?

No doubt my impression of Lewis is glamorized by its unearned association with Anthony Hopkins. But in reviewing his Wikipedia article just now, I saw nothing that struck me as easily connected with odiousness.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:42 PM on October 22, 2009


Just rewrite his argument with Nazis and Jews instead of witch-hunters and witches.

if Lewis's argument, expanded, was just that we're all susceptible to crazy beliefs, no argument. We all need to be vigilant against this. But allowing yourself to fall into a belief unsupported by any evidence that just happens to be very politically expedient for you, and also allows (nay, requires) that you commit monstrous acts of cruelty, is in itself a moral failing. We can, do, and should make this judgement. We who do not torture and murder witches are in that respect morally superior to people who do, no matter how sincere they are. They are deemed to have known better.

And that's if you even accept that witch hunters, now or then, sincerely believe the things they said they do--which seems highly unlikely to me.
posted by No-sword at 8:39 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, let me just emphasize that this isn't some right-wing tough-guy talk: I'm not trying to argue that the people doing this are subhuman or irredeemable monsters, or that this constitutes a reason to bomb them, invade them, or vilify the various groups they belong to. Indeed I have no insight into this particular tragedy or solutions to propose. I was just irritated by Lewis's sophistry, particular since if Wikipedia is correct he was making these arguments during the Holocaust.
posted by No-sword at 9:16 PM on October 22, 2009


Funny you mention Nazis, since he refers to them just a few pages earlier...

Again, here he is arguing for the existence of a universal moral law:

When you think about these differences between the morality of one people and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or worse than that of another? ... If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. ... The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something - some Real Morality - for them to be true about.

If you feel that Lewis's use of witch-burners as a rhetorical device irresponsibly glosses over their historically impure motives, I can respect your opinion.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:23 PM on October 22, 2009


Fair enough. I guess my big issue is with this sentence:
It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there.
The two halves of that sentence aren't equivalent. When you stop believing that certain people are persecuting you through means imperceptible to science and should be punished for it, that's the great advance in both knowledge and morality. And since you have to experience that advance to get from "believe in them, execute them" to "don't believe in them, don't execute them," there is indeed moral advance involved, even if it's not at the point Lewis misdirects our attention to.

As for the argument about universal morality, I understand it, but I disagree. Even in this thread, for example, I'm not claiming to be the absolute arbiter of morality -- just applying the rule of thumb "Less torture and murder = more moral." I'll cheerfully grant that this is just my opinion, man, and that there's no philosophical or logical justification for it except maybe the pragmatic, like "World opinion, international law, etc. tends to agree."

Anyway, thanks for the respectful discussion. I appreciate you taking the time to give the background like that too.
posted by No-sword at 10:56 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


And that's if you even accept that witch hunters, now or then, sincerely believe the things they said they do--which seems highly unlikely to me.

Exactly, this is my problem with it as well.

Lewis' arguments are often as clean and as reductive as algebra, which makes them startlingly consistent and even a pleasure to follow, but there's no way of knowing whether the place they'll transport you to by the end is even in the real world. The Abolition of Man I think is my favorite example; it's as dead-on a reading of 1984 as I've ever seen - a holocaust of the soul - and yet it argues for an impossible thing: a packrat set of ultimate moral principles, pilfered here and there from every corner of antiquity, that somehow constellate the human soul. Here are a small few:

Duties to Elders:
"To care for parents." (Greek) Actually, Epictetus. Stoics, represent!
"I tended the old man, I gave him my staff" (Egyptian)

The Law of Mercy:
"The poor and the sick should be regarded as lords of the atmosphere" (Hindu)
"Who makes intercession for the weak, well pleasing is this to Samas." (Babylonian)

The Law of Good Faith and Veracity
"The Master said, be of unwavering good faith" (Chinese)
"A sacrifice is obliterated by a lie, and the merit of alms by an act of fraud." (Hindu)
"Anything is better than treachery." (Old Norse)

Now we'd recognize most of these as Sunday-school good, and that's kind of the point. These edicts are by definition good, because they are what man has always thought good. They are, according to Lewis, what man is. For us to unlearn them would be to step outside of man as defined; and for a future generation to transcend them would be the genocide of mankind. This is the final Winston and Julia of 1984 - inwardly alien, as empty as the surface of the moon. They are not here, they're not us. The bullet at the end is a favor. Even if they looked like gods and traversed the space between the stars, we'd have to look at them as we look at an inscrutable insect. Technology doesn't enter into it.

Lewis is unabashedly circular about all this. Man is what man is, and if we wish to remain man, we are compelled to inherit and maintain ourselves. We are not a hero's journey - we're a static thing, like Odin, left to tend this cosmic tree, this world as-is. As if the Little Prince never hitchhiked off the asteroid, and Sindbad never got wet, because they were already home. But that's not the strangest part.

Because what's amazing to me is that in an essay with no shortage on horrors, Lewis never really considers the ultimate shock: that the abolition has already occurred. That our present good is in fact some kind of poisoned tree, some dead letter passed down as the real true word of God. Maybe we even started out right. But there was an error. We're not home. We're lost. If we were such a dislocated tribe, the only reasonable course would be to set sail - by invention, dream, reason, technology, whatever - and abolish what we are. We couldn't call ourselves mankind otherwise. For all the moral certainty he gathers from the ages, and it is substantial, most of the stories we told then and now are about being lost. It's very strange that he leaves this blank.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:22 PM on October 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


kid ichorous: "Lewis' arguments are often as clean and as reductive as algebra, which makes them startlingly consistent and even a pleasure to follow, but there's no way of knowing whether the place they'll transport you to by the end is even in the real world. "

Indeed, such a pleasure that I'll read him on a subject - Christian apologetics - in which I otherwise have no interest at all. And while he would argue that the supernatural existence for which he's arguing is in fact the "real" one, he makes no bones about how far his argument is meant to take you.

... [This book] may possibly be of some help in silencing the view that, if we omit the disputed points [among Christian denominations], we shall have left only a vague and bloodless H.C.F. [Highest Common Factor]. The H.C.F. turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions within Christendom are not really comparable at all.

With respect to your charge of circularity, I'm reminded of when he cites Jesus saying he would return within the lifetimes of his followers as evidence for the reliability of the Gospels - noting that the mark of an honest witness is one willing to report details that might be initially damaging to their position.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:12 AM on October 23, 2009


I haven't touched much Lewis, for fear of exactly what happened when I finally hit The Screwtape Letters — as much as I enjoy the framing and the general concept, even as apology his Christianity is unappealing, even smug. I should have known better, really; when I hit the Chronicles of Narnia as a child (and I do stress child), it was way obvious that Aslan is Jesus, so I ought not to have expected anything more subtle than that. Maybe some of his work bears more investigation, but damned if I wasn't turned off.
posted by adipocere at 8:37 AM on October 23, 2009


Do we have someone who can do Hebrew and Greek around?

The only one I know personally has been deployed. She had this conversation with my husband a few years ago. She went to her concordances and Greek/Hebrew texts and came back and said "poisoner" was right.
posted by lysdexic at 10:29 AM on October 23, 2009


I haven't touched much Lewis, for fear of exactly what happened when I finally hit The Screwtape Letters

Try Till We Have Faces. It's a rewrite of Cupid and Psyche, and owes at least as much to his classics background as to his Christian apologetics. I think it's also his richest prose.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:08 PM on October 23, 2009


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