The New Witchcraft

In his 1974 book Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, the anthropologist Marvin Harris writes:

If witchcraft was dangerous heresy, as the Inquisition insisted, there is no mystery about why the Inquisition should become obsessed with suppressing it. If, on the other hand, witchcraft was a relatively harmless, if not largely hallucinatory activity, why was there so much effort spent on suppressing it – especially when the Church was being pushed to the limits of its resources by the great military-messianic upsurge of the fifteenth century ?

[…] The assumption that the main business of the witch hunters was the annihilation of witches rests on the professed lifestyle consciousness of the inquisitors. But the contrary assumption – namely, that the witch hunters went out of their way to increase the supply of witches and to spread the belief that witches were real, omnipresent, and dangerous – rests on very solid evidence. […] The situation demands that we ask not why the inquisitors were obsessed with destroying witchcraft, but rather why they were so obsessed with creating it. Regardless of what they or their victims may have intended, the inevitable effect of the inquisitorial system was to make witchcraft more believable, and hence to increase the number of witchcraft accusations.

[…] The principal result of the witch-hunt system (aside from charred bodies) was that the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes. […] Against the people’s phantom enemies, Church and state mounted a bold campaign. The authorities were unstinting in their efforts to ward off this evil, and rich and poor alike could be thankful for the energy and bravery displayed in the battle.

The predictable significance of the witch mania therefore was that it shifted responsibility for the crisis of late medieval society from both Church and state to imaginary demons in human form. Preoccupied with the fantastic activities of these demons, the distraught, alienated, pauperized masses blamed the rampant Devil instead of the corrupt clergy and the rapacious nobility. Not only were the Church and state exonerated, but they were made indispensable. The clergy and nobility emerged as the great protectors of mankind against an enemy who was omnipresent but difficult to detect. […] You could actually see the authorities doing something to make life a little more secure; you could actually hear the witches scream as they went down to hell.

It all sounds so depressingly familiar that the witch hunting season must be back again. The last time around, we were better dead than red. Now, of course, the new witchcraft is terror. However, there’s no need for conspiracy, because the method is so ingrained and has proven its worth so often that everything falls into place automatically.