We like to think that we now live in a civilized society of science and reason, and that myth, monsters, and magic are all dead, those few pockets of remaining such beliefs mere vestigial relics of a lost, forgotten time and pushed into the shadows of our history. Yet there are places in this world, occasionally well-established within otherwise developed countries, where belief in dark and mystical forces is just as strong as ever, and magic is still considered to be a very real thing that permeates our reality. Unfortunately, where there is black magic there are also those who would seek to destroy it at all costs, and while many of us may consider the concept of witch hunts as strictly the denizen of centuries past, these hunts continue all over the world right on up into the present day with actually rather alarming frequency. Here we have an almost shadow world underlying our own, where for all intents and purposes dark magic and monsters are real, and a battle wages with these forces in which, whether there really is magic or not, people are definitely really dying.
Although the term “witch hunt” alludes to hunting witches, it is mostly used as a blanket term to cover any sort of retribution for any kind of perceived magical or spiritual crime. This could include witchcraft, sorcery, the use of charms, totems, or curses, and any sort of magical attack. Belief in such things pervades many regions of the world, including the Middle East, many countries in Africa, in particular sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the Pacific, Latin America, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and areas of South America, among others. Here magic in some form or other is considered to be very real, and is seen as a constant threat by the population, even in rather advanced countries such as India and Saudi Arabia, which I have covered here before, and even parts of the U.S. and Europe have not gone untouched by the modern day witch hunt.
There are many reasons for why someone may be suspected of being a witch. Sometimes it is due to a belief that the accused has brought some misfortune or suffering upon their village or people around them. All it takes is for a drought or earthquake to hit and for someone to be seen as acting suspiciously and they can labelled a black magician. Sickness, unexpected deaths, insanity, and other myriad calamities, as well as just plain bad luck can also be seen as having a malevolent magical cause. Physical abnormalities can also be seen as signs of a witch or wizard, and sometimes it can be something as seemingly innocuous as giving someone a strange look. In other cases the accusation might have nothing to do with magic at all, with a person being accused of being a sorcerer as a result of jealousy, greed, envy, revenge, or simply spite and sorcery merely a pretense for gain or to settle a score. Women in many countries are often accused of being witches for spurning sexual advances, and indeed women accused of witchcraft generally far outnumber men. There are also many cultures with so-called “witch hunters,” whose job is to sniff out and hunt down witches amongst us. Whatever the reason may be, in most areas that believe in black magic, all it takes is one accusation to get someone detained, and from there there are a variety of ways in which things can go.
If the accused is lucky, they will get a kind of justice in some form. In some of these places, suspected witches, warlocks, and sorcerers are given at least some semblance of a trial, although these are remarkably primitive, backward, and more of a formality more than anything else, just another part of the whole ritual of banishing evil magic and often killing those who perpetuate it. Many of the practices for determining guilt at these “trials” are heavily anchored in the very superstition that gave rise to belief in magic in the first place.
For instance, in the African country of Ghana, where witch hunts run rampant, one way of telling if the accused is a witch or not involves taking a live chicken and cutting its throat over a shrine, after which it is thrown into the air as it flops around and dies. If it falls on its back, the person is innocent, but if it falls on its front that means the person is a witch. In Zambia mirrors are sometimes used, with witches said to cast a different reflection than normal people. In other societies it may come down to, ironically, the judgement of a witch doctor or practitioner of beneficial “white magic,” or conversely a priest or specially trained “witchfinder.” Other societies try to get the person to willingly confess, either through encouragement, cajoling, shame, or, more likely, torture. In the more civilized trials an actual court trial takes place, but the evidence typically comes down to one person’s word against the other, with authorities often leaning towards the accuser’s side.
In other cases, there is no trial at all, with merely the suspicion alone enough to find someone guilty of black magic. Either way, once found guilty of witchcraft or black magic the repercussions also largely depend on the culture. In the African nation of Cameroon, people found to be witches, especially children, are in some areas force fed meat until they vomit, which is seen to purify them of the dark forces inhabiting them. In Gambia sorcerers are taken to detention centers and given noxious, poisonous concoctions to drink, which are believed to rid them of their dark demons and powers but which also kill a fair number of them. Similarly, in Zambia witches are forced to drink a special potion called kucapa, which supposedly will kill the witch if they ever try to cast another spell. In some places the convicted witch is merely publicly humiliated or given a prison sentence or lashings, although the stigma of being labeled a witch will forever haunt them and their families, and in other places the person might be banished or branded somehow as a witch, usually through a hot iron. Yet these are the lucky ones, and it is far more common for a conviction to lead to brutal violence, and being found guilty of witchcraft is often synonymous with a death sentence.
In some countries the government itself detains and later executes convicted witches in state sanctioned witch killings, as is the case in Saudi Arabia, where convicted black magic users are publicly beheaded. More common, in many places, being found to be a witch will lead to an almost immediate violent, blood-crazed mob of people and lynching, with severe beatings, torture, and death all par for the course. It is not uncommon for these people to be beaten, stabbed, or stoned to death, or even set on fire. Some of the accused choose to flee even before a verdict is reached, in anticipation of the rain of brutality they know is coming.
Even if the convicted is not outright killed, they at the very least can expect to be badly injured, raped, and/or often gruesomely tortured or mutilated. In many cases, even the family of the supposed witch can be targeted by this violence. If the accused manages to somehow escape the deadly mobs, their families and friends may still be killed in their stead, and there are also few places for them to go. In Ghana, a fugitive witch can choose to go to one of at least eight sanctuaries scattered about in the wilderness, which are often referred to as “witch camps.” Here these renegades can find some semblance of peace and escape from the ravenous forces that want to kill them, but life here is hard, with no running water or electricity, and overcrowded filthy huts to sleep in.
Strangely enough those who come to these sanctuaries are often met with the same kinds of superstitions that put them on the run in the first place. Most of the refuges are run by “earth-priests,” who are tasked with performing rituals and exorcisms, as well as providing potions to new arrivals for the purpose of disabling their powers, and the land itself is said to be a blessed place that is immune to dark magic and where wizardry won’t work. It is interesting that here in these camps many of the “witches” feel free to come forward to openly admit that they are magic users, and one refugee accused of using black magic to kill a child in his village freely admits to having magical abilities, after fleeing a mob to find sanctuary at a witch camp called Gnani. The witch, named Uposagn, saying of these experiences:
I inherited my powers from my grandfather. They arrived at my hut at dusk. By nightfall, I was running, pursued by a mob with machetes. They hit me with clubs and tried to kill me. I don’t know if I killed that child. I don’t know if my juju goes out at night killing people. What can I do? I know I am safer here in Gnani. My powers don’t work here. We are all safe.
Such violence against perceived witches happens at an astonishing rate even in these modern times, and indeed there are more “witches” killed every year now than there have ever been before in history. The cases of horrific violence leveled at supposed black magic practitioners are many, with the United Nations and various refugee and human rights organizations estimating that thousands of people are killed as witches around the world every year, and perhaps millions more who have been tortured, beaten, injured, or banished. This is not all that unusual in the places where these witch hunts take place, and law enforcement often turns a blind eye to the violence and violations, if not downright partaking in it all. Additionally, this is not always isolated to backwater rural areas with uneducated, superstitious people tied to their folklore and myths. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, belief in black magic and witches is incredibly pervasive, and goes all the way up to academics and government officials, with one villager saying:
It is not just that it’s practiced. It is that everybody believes in it. The prime minister believes in it. The police chief in the city of Kundiawa believes in it. They had a national sorcery conference last year, an academic conference, and more than half of the scholars in attendance said they believed in witchcraft.
There have been a number of recent high profile cases that have brought into the light the dark world of modern day witch hunts. In 2008, a bloodthirsty witch hunting mob ran amok in Kenya, capturing and burning to death at least 11 people right there in full view of witnesses and police who failed to intervene in any way as the victims thrashed about wreathed in flames. In 2012 there was the brutal killing in Nepal of a 40-year-old mother of two named Dhegani Mahato, who was accused by a local shaman of being a witch when a relative of hers suddenly fell ill. Upon being accused, Mahato’s own family members beat her with sticks and rocks to within an inch of her life, then doused her with kerosene and set her on fire, killing her. At least in this case police did something, eventually arresting 10 people in connection with the murder, but the penalty in these cases is often severely out of balance with the crime. Also in 2012 was the murder of a woman named María Berenice Martínez, in the town of Santa Barbara, Colombia. She was thought to be guilty of appearing in people’s dreams, and her accusers reportedly ripped out all of her hair, severely beat her, and locked her in her house before setting the building on fire with her trapped inside to die.
There were a plethora of well-publicized, gruesome cases in 2013 as well. Perhaps most famous and upsetting is the horrific fate of 20-year-old Kepari Leniata, of Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, who was accused by the family of a 6-year-old boy of killing their son with black magic. The woman was dragged out into the street, stripped naked, sprayed with gasoline, and publically set on fire, and the crowd of hundreds of onlookers reportedly cheered on the gruesome killing and actively prevented police from approaching to intervene. In that same year there was another case in Papua New Guinea in which three women and two men were held prisoner and tortured with hot irons for 20 days on suspicion of sorcery, after which they were killed with red hot knives that had been stoked over flames. In yet another 2013 case, four women were tortured and one of them beheaded after being accused of witchcraft, again in Papua New Guinea. In India there was the killing of a couple in Assam, who were viciously hacked to death by machetes after being convicted of being witches, and a woman suspected of black magic was killed and her daughter raped as punishment the same year in Chhattisgarh.
There have even been such reports from such developed countries as the United States and England. In 2014, 44-year-old Carlos Alberto Amarillo ruthlessly bludgeoned to death his girlfriend and one of her daughters with a hammer in New York City after becoming convinced that they were witches. The two dead women, identified as Estrella Castaneda, 56, and Lina Castaneda, 25, were found dead with pillows covering their heads, and the other daughter, a 7-year-old, was found unharmed. Amarillo would tell authorities that he had been under magical attack from the two women, and that they had routinely cast “Voodoo spells” on him. In England there was the 2010 case of a 15-year-old boy who was tortured and killed in East London after being accused of being a sorcerer just for wetting his bed, of all things.
Unfortunately, there is a depressingly high number of such cases out there, and they are shocking not only because we have these witch hunts going on in modern times, but also because of their sheer, breathtaking brutality. Adding to the problem is that there are few official statistics on just how many people have fallen victim to being branded as witches or sorcerers, the full extent of the horror unclear, and few legal protections in place against such crimes. Indeed, in many of the places where these witch hunts take place it is all practically government sanctioned, with people officially executed as witches at worst and rampant police indifference to the matter at best. Even when justice is actually served, the punishments against witch hunters are often incredibly light considering the severity of their crimes. The United Nations and humanitarian organizations have made efforts to start compiling figures on the crimes and raising awareness of the issue, but much of this happens in murky places where the true scale of the problem is not clearly visible, and these are people firmly rooted in their superstitions and belief in magic. It is certainly a long battle ahead to stop these practices, and witch hunts will no doubt continue on into the foreseeable future.
It is somewhat sobering to know that even as we live in the age of reason and with our growing collective abandonment of such ideas as black magicians conspiring in the shadows to curse us that there are still so many deaths out there because of these beliefs, and that these marauding witch hunters still prowl the landscape out there even in modern times. It seems like something that should have long ago been relegated to the darker places of our history, and yet it still goes on to a shocking degree and there seems to be very little anyone can do about it. The battle rages on against magic on this planet, and most of us have no idea that it is even happening. Whether magic really exists in the world or not, these deaths are very real, and it it certainly seems that this sort of mindless brutality is something our world could do with less of.