Suspected of being a witch, a young woman in a rural area of Papua New Guinea was burned to death by vigilantes. On the morning of Tuesday, January 6, 2009, a group of villagers in the Highlands region dragged the woman to a dumpsite, stripped and bound her, stuffed a rag in her mouth, and tied her to a log. She was then set ablaze atop a pile of tires. According to the country’s Post-Courier newspaper, last year more than fifty persons were put to death in two Highlands provinces for allegedly practicing sorcery.
Such practices occur elsewhere around the world, for example in South Africa and neighboring tribal areas, as I learned from Joachim Kaetzler, author of Magie und Strafrecht in Südafrica (“Magic and Criminal Law in South Africa,” 2001). As he told me in an interview in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2007, he conducted research in the mid-1990s while living in various South African townships and villages. He was investigating what he called a “powerful belief in magic,” which extended, he said, even to the well-educated, and had strong implications to the legal system. A poll of 400 black Afrikaner law students revealed that between eighty and ninety percent believed in witches, and more than half had actually consulted a witch doctor.
According to Kaetzler, a witch doctor functions as an intermediary between the living and the ancestral spirits of the dead. He typically acts as a fortuneteller, herbal doctor, informal tribal chief, and diviner of witches. As well, priests may embrace superstitious beliefs and adopt magical practices in their churches.
As in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere, the South African “witch” is often a scapegoat for some accidental misfortune or even the crime of another. In one instance, a drunk man had an accident in which a child died, but his guilt was supposedly mitigated by a diviner’s uncovering of the one who “bewitched” him. That man voluntarily confessed (as do about a third of all “witches”), walked to the center of the village, and was stoned to death. Each year in South Africa, some seven- to eight-hundred persons perish in witch-related incidents.
Belief in witchcraft—whether sweeping Europe from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, or Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, or some of the world’s tribal villages in the twenty-first century—is a frightening delusion. It not only continues to claim lives, but even in its milder manifestations, such as soothsaying and spirit communication, it promotes fantasy—always at the expense of science and reason.