Sunday, 5 February 2012

Memories of Satan

Of late I have become more interested in the history of witchcraft and its place in Western history. Here’s a nasty little story I came across recently.

An abiding memory from my youth is Dear Dad describing the hysteria the press whipped up in the early 90s for cases of ‘ritual’ or ‘satanic’ abuse. These were stories alleging that remote communities were practicing satanism and sexually abusing children as part of the rituals. These stories, it transpired, were based on nothing more than hearsay, speculation and, most importantly, the assessments of some excitable psychologists and counselors who had ‘uncovered’ memories of abuse from ‘victims’. The allegations were exposed as baseless and the accusers were left rather red-faced. It emerged that the memories ‘recovered’ in therapy and counseling were highly dubious and often extracted with some coaxing from the clinician.

I was appalled to read an article in The Guardian which seemed to indicate that this rather horrible form of over-zealous persecution has reared its head again. Carole Myers was clearly a troubled woman who had become estranged from her family. She appears to have had contact with therapists before her death, some of whom have rather a keen belief that things were erring on the side of ritual abuse. Her family are not only having to come to terms with her death, but are also fending off faceless (and, if history is indeed repeating itself, baseless) accusations of cult-ish behavior.

The point of this post is twofold: first it seems  we are never far away from the urge to accuse, purge and purify. Any hint of witchcraft (or, as it has become, Communism, pedophilia or terrorist sympathies) provokes wild overreactions. Second, our faith in the infallibility of ‘experts’ is probably slightly misplaced. Today we put trust in scientists and doctors while in the past it was priests and astrologers. They can prove as culpable, gullible and credulous as the rest of us and their testimony should not be taken as gospel.

Alas it seems witch hunts, rather than witchcraft, seem to be alive and well even in the modern, developed, secular world.

 Photograph: Will Storr for the Observer


  1. Interesting, though I'd add one clarification if I may - people may have too much faith in 'experts' calling themselves scientists and doctors, but public faith in priests, astrologers, faith healers, psychics, homeopathy etc etc is still at a ridiculous high.

    The problem, I think, is not with science or doctors per se, but the fact that people are not exercising or understanding the essential skill and practice of critical thinking. It seems many prefer to build their prejudices on an hysterical media, hearsay, or a opinion-based internet than actually go to the trouble of researching the facts.

    I agree that it's a sad fact of human nature that the mob always seems to need some witches to hunt...

  2. This is a very disturbing trend that seems to have no end in sight. For example, in addition to the Carole Myers case you mentioned, there's also the problem with Helen Ukpabio, a Nigerian evangelist and self-proclaimed witch hunter whose exploits have led to horrifying cases of child abuse and murder:

  3. "What is this? We live in a secular society! *bafflement, dismay*"

    It shouldn't be shocking; secularism is a set of ideals, not necessarily a reality. Does such shock reveal a faith in secularism?

  4. @ Univeral Head - good point, any 'expert' needs to have their credentials checked!
    @ phiq - I agree that secularism is a set of ideals, but if it's Rationalism upon which its founded (and I'd like to think it is in the West) then we should, presumably, see fewer witch hunts.

  5. I think the assumption you are making there is that upholding secular ideals necessitates upholding the various philosophical arguments that comprise its intellectual foundation. I don't think this is true for most (Western) people. Secular ideals are taken for granted and the reasons as to why such ideals should/shouldn't be maintained are unfortunately not often discussed. People are people, whatever the label... except for a few, lol.

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