How Witch Hunts Came to Be

witch hunt, witch, bigotry, prejudiceWhen I used the term witch hunt, I am in fact using it in its broadest sense. That is, where a group sets out to get specific people.  Witch hunts have happened throughout history for various reasons.

Here are a few of the more notorious ones:

  • The people of Navarre around the 14th century pitchforked, chased and killed the Gypsies (Rom), itinerant wanderers who were different and were blamed for the plague.
  • Hitler’s pogroms in WWII, caused the death of millions of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, the three groups he targeted.
  • Canada’s internment camps for the Japanese in WWII in fear that every Japanese-Canadian would turn against Canada.
  • The Salem witch hunts in Massachusetts.
  • The Spanish Inquisition and its infamous tortures.

Some of these were classified as actual witch hunts, but in fact they were rarely about witchery or supposed magic or cavorting with the devil. They were about property and jealousy and conformity. In some cases, every time something went wrong, a person grew ill, cattle sickened or crops failed, people who had been farmers for generations took leave of their senses and blamed anyone who was different. In many cases it was the single women, whether widows or unmarried, that suspicion landed upon.

In Europe many of the supposed witch hunts began as ways to get property from a woman who had no husband. The church had many ways of gaining property off of the people. It had very little to do with the supposed power someone wielded in consort with the devil or forces unseen. It had to do with gaining power.

As I’ve said before, many cases of witch hunts come from ostracization or a need to blame the “other” when things go wrong. It doesn’t matter if the events that happen are caused by stupidity, weather, fear, greed, hatred, bad luck, illness, acts of nature or some other unforeseen accident, there is a great number of people who will need to find a specific thing or person to blame.

There were cases throughout the middle ages where animals were put on trial. Hence came the term scapegoat, which came to be given to a person being blamed for ills that befell others. Scapegoat, fall guy, they all mean the same thing. If you are other or different, then you are under suspicion for anything that goes wrong. If your skin is a different color than those around you, or you believe in a god different than those in your village, or you walk or talk or look differently, or your traditions are unknown, or your lifestyle is to live alone when everyone else is couples–then these are all reasons for suspicion and doubt and blame.

Dr. Frankenstein knew this well. In Mary Shelley’s book it is not just that the doctor creates a monster, it is also that he is “other,” living differently than the village. The monster is other as well and because it is different, an abomination (though maybe it’s misunderstood) it too is the scapegoat. It strikes out when attacked but otherwise is much like the village idiot in innocence and ability to perceive.

So, how does all this happen? Some ostracizing happens because people are afraid, and they crave a reason for the unexplainable ills that befall them. And some blaming happens because people let it. This comes to the other side of the coin of the witch hunt, that of “If it’s not my house burning, then it doesn’t affect me.” It’s called turning a blind eye.

Many of those witch hunts, of those Jews, of those Gypsies or various groups being banished, hunted, burned, murdered would not have happened if people stepped up to say something. But humans as a whole seem to be notorious cowards. Or, even worse, they’re not cowards but they just don’t care if it doesn’t affect them. Maybe we are all selfish, self-centered creatures.

I heard a little phrase recently, which I will paraphrase. When they came for the Jews I did nothing because it wasn’t about me. When they came for the black people I did nothing because I wasn’t one of them. When they came for the (put in any group for any of these) I did nothing because it didn’t affect me. When they came for me, there was no one left to help. So what are you going  to do the next time you seem someone being unfairly singled out, whether verbally or physically? Will you turn a blind eye and let them be the scape goat. Will you stand by and watch or will you do something?


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