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