The medieval model of witchcraft retains its primary categorizations which were developed from Christian epistemological theories and hagiographies that demonized differing beliefs as heresy and can be observed in the Malleus Maleficarum. I contend this model continues to be used by various evangelical Christian organizations today and I will demonstrate this by comparing the medieval Christian model of witchcraft articulated by contemporary scholars, with the present day Nigerian witch hunts promoted by Evangelical pastors such as Helen Ukpabio of the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries. I will demonstrate how these two models of witchcraft are similar in many ways and also where they are also unique. I will briefly identify the theorized causes of the Witch-Hunts and conclude with acknowledging the institutions of power that profit from the phenomena and suggest secular methods to end their influence.
Evolution of Heresy
Scholars who study the evolution of heresy trace evidence of its existence near to Christianity’s inception and clearly account for its dogma originating with the early canonization of Christianity at its institutionalization.
“All survivals of pagan belief, worship and practice were condemned as demonic and gradually suppressed by Christian theology and law. Roman law had been stern in dealing with sorcery. Teutonic law was much milder. But in the course of the eight and ninth centuries, the growing influence of theology upon civil law produced a legal association of sorcerers with demons” (Russell & Alexander pp 52).
In the early Medieval Church, heresy included the identification of theological and orthodox interpretive errors of the European indigenous community, and problems with a reversion back to the pagan practices of their ancestors which the Church actively preached against, believing that the education of orthodox cannon and penance would remedy these errors over time. Unfortunately, this measure was unsuccessful and by the central period of the Middle Age Church, the concept of heresy evolved to become a bitter, dualistic battle of good against evil; an explosion of diabolical charges of witchcraft occurred which was no longer remedied by penance but instead, it became an unforgivable sin against God and Church punishable by torture and death. There have been numerous theories proposed to account for the cause of the witchcraft hysteria that reached a peak during the period of 1200 – 1300 CE. Some theories identify gender and socially marginalized groups, indigenous and superstitious traditions, medical, political, and economic, all of which are valid and give historians a holistic view of the many causes rather than simply a Christian religious war fought against pagan and unorthodox beliefs and practices.
Profile of a Witch
During and by the end of the witch-craze in the late medieval period, a construct had been formed that could be used as a template to distinguish and charge someone as a witch. This involved the following fantastical identifying features: pact with the Devil and promise of malefic acts, night-riding or flying, supernatural power, secret meetings with other witches and recruits presided over by Satan, repudiation of God and church, desecration of holy objects, a new identity, sex with a devil and orgy, cannibalism and infanticide.
Lastly, whether rich or poor, the witch was almost exclusively described as lustful, power hungry, ignorant, perverted women who were willing participants of a type of Anti-Church whose sole mission was imagined as the destruction of the Catholic faith and the overthrowing of God. The identity of the Witch became someone more than a mere mortal. Her supernatural powers set her apart from the medieval laws of nature which, in the medieval mind, were made by God for man, and placed her within another realm where she became a dangerously powerful object that was beyond human control and required Divine power to exterminate.
To facilitate the extermination of witchcraft a specially trained monastic order, the Dominican Order, was used to hunt out heresy and find witches. The Dominicans were originally founded in 1170 CE and were at one time popular in managing community affairs. Their ability to remain an ‘outsider’ of a community and not engage in local affairs was believed to give them immunity to pressure and to hold a distant and objective role in prosecutions. It was believed that witches were well versed in scripture so the Dominican Order was academically trained in scriptural verse, rhetoric, philosophy, theological writings and law. “Their zealous defense of traditional orthodoxy and tenacious advocacy of papal prerogatives meant that they could be trusted to make an accurate assessment of potential heresy, and that their learning would allow them to deal with the evasions of accused heretics” (MacKay pp 13). The most infamous Witch Hunters are immortalized in the Malleus Maleficarum of 1487, written by Dominican Friars, Henricus Institorus and Jacobus Kramer. It remains today as a sinister treatise of theological ontology, folklore, fear-mongering, torture, and misogyny. Though some scholars have shown that the medieval inquisition was slowing down at the time of its writing, it should be noted that it did not die and in fact, Christian inspired Witch-Hunts have continued to present day.
Modern Witch Hunts
Though the age of the Enlightenment placed an ethical and rational hold on the torture of women accused of witchcraft, and modern secularism looks unfavorably upon superstition over science, modernity has not stopped violence incited by ideas of heterodoxy or religious demonization. More than 500 years of civilization since the craze of the middle ages yet the diabolical witch stereotype still plays an important role as a scapegoat masking religious intolerance, predation of the weak, sexual discrimination and violence.
“Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person. We see it with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism. It’s always the same process. The person is dehumanized and violence becomes inevitable. And that step is already and constantly taken with women” (Killing Us Softly 4 video lecture, Jean Kilbourne.)
Christianity spread to Africa through Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, the diversity of people, languages and cultures made translations of scripture a difficult process. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries have colonized Sub-Saharan Africa and have traded, exploited and educated those they contacted with questionable degrees of success. Indigenous faiths, language and culture have held perniciously to practices considered superstitious by Christian orthodoxy and in need of salvation and assimilation. Even among academics, Indigenous healers were mis-labeled ‘witchdoctors’ by eager 18th century ethnocentric Christian European anthropologists who were excited to reveal the secrets of ‘primitive religion’ as the origin of religious belief. Missionary agencies actively preached with evangelical zeal in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa during the 19th century and though they were often rejected, a slow integration of conversion continues to this day. Charismatic forms of Christianity have taken hold in parts of Africa, each with a unique synthesis of indigenous culture and Pentecostal evangelical worship. As the new forms of Christianity spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, witchcraft and witchcraft accusations came along with it.
Today, thousands of women are living in safety by being exiled from their communities to live in “Witch Camps” north of Ghana while south of Kenya, mobs are cutting witches to pieces or burning them alive, meanwhile in Nigeria thousands of witch-children are mutilated, abandoned or murdered. An epidemic of deep-seated fear of witches and devils had been created that is so thoroughly entrenched in the belief structure of the continent that the African National Congress began a Commission of Inquiry in 1999 (Federici, 22). In some areas of the continent there are official laws prohibiting the practice of witchcraft and accused witches are jailed. Many are found guilty because individuals in authority positions such as in the judicial system, police or government agencies don’t want to be associated or accused of being a friend to witchcraft.
Medieval to Modern Witch Accusations
A graphic portrayal of witchcraft fear-mongering is projected by Helen Ukpabio, a self-proclaimed Pentecostal prophet, Witch-Hunter, faith healer and leader of the Liberty Gospel Mission Church. In Ukpabio’s self produced video End of the Wicked her propaganda serves to demonstrate that the medieval personification of diabolical witchcraft is still promoted in present day Witch-Hunts. In documentary style, Ukpabio’s twisted imagination is let loose to compose a horrifying story of child-witchcraft that clearly identifies the familiar medieval themes. First, the child-witches are summoned out of their bodies in a supernatural flight to attend a secret witch meeting. They are called by a leading witch-boy dressed all in black, who uses the sound of a baa-ing sheep to summon and collect recruits. They arrive at the meeting and it is presided over by a Devil on a throne who uses his power to transform the innocent children dressed in white into a witch-children now dressed in black. The new witches make a commitment to engage in tormenting and wicked acts. They are given a new witch-name by the leading witch-boy who is now plagued with a skin disease, and each new witch is told to obey individual commandments that will cause problems to their family and community. For example in the film they are to invite poverty, create loss of food, to act stubborn, show lack of interest in school, “waywardness”, become bad company and use destructive powers to break glass and cause fevers. The witch-children are magically teleported into a dead man’s bedroom where they engage in cannibalism. The leading witch-child invokes a grown man’s spirit to appear at their meeting and he takes out his eyes through a demonic power transmitted by a scepter that appears very reminiscent of an indigenous wand or rattle as it is covered in feathers. The documentary flashes back to the same man who awakens suddenly from his nightmare and is in great fear. Then the Devil appears in the secret meeting and commands everyone to cause wickedness in the world and this is done by the witch children ‘having lunch’, which means they cause sudden deaths in their community. This is shown by a man having a heart attack and a child murdered during a football game. It is expected that the witch-children will later engage in cannibalism. The documentary ends with a woman being sexually violated by a female incubi / succubi in a nightmare from which she wakes up screaming having been dream-raped. The only thing that Ukpabio is missing from the original medieval categorization of diabolical witchcraft is the desecration of holy objects and the repudiation of God and Church. I expect that with further research into accounts of modern Witch-Hunts we may find these categorizations however, with the rise of the modern witch-hunts coming out of the Protestant streams of Christianity as opposed to the Roman Catholic stream, their absence may be understandable because of the lack of emphasis on relics and objects in Protestantism and its offshoots.
Ukpabio identifies child-witches saying, “if a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health he or she is a servant of Satan” (Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft). Unfortunately, Ukpabio`s deplorable religious charlatanism is not unique but is one of the most widely marketed to western media by child protection and social agencies such as Stepping Stones and Unicef who are attempting to bring global awareness to the plight of children in Africa. Indeed, there are 1000`s of self-appointed prophets like her promoting their own brand of witch-hunts and religion. Accusations of Witchcraft do not specifically pin-point children alone but include them in the highest vulnerability group along with women, albinos, the elderly and the ill in areas where the community is under excessive stress.
The Modern Witch-Hunt
Witchcraft accusations have been attributed to various causes ranging from the personal to political. Community and social tensions where interpersonal relationships break down inciting feelings of anger and hatred are frequent as well as jealousy arising from extremes of economic disparity. Attempts to define a cause for natural disasters, famine, ecological changes, illness (HIV) and death are also contributors. It has been noted that there is a consistent rise in requests for ‘faith healing’ and its promotion by both Pentecostal prophets and indigenous healers. People are seeking to define the age old philosophical question of ‘why me’ or ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ and the only explanation they have to justify their misfortune is that ‘evil’ is the cause and witchcraft is its form. Christianity and specifically the Pentecostal revivalist churches have had a striking influence on the rise of witchcraft accusations fuelling superstitious fears and stoking a zealous fire in an attempt to gain converts and wealth though the witch-hunt hysteria.
“ In many countries witchcraft accusations are exploited by revivalist, charismatic or Pentecostal churches. Their pastor prophets fight against witchcraft in the name of God, identifying witches through visions and dreams, and then offering treatment – divine healing and exorcism – to the supposed witches. This “spiritual” work, often of a violent nature, reinforces beliefs in witchcraft and increases accusations. “The more God’s servants fight against witchcraft, the more they get involved in treating witches, and at the end of the day, the more they extend the resources of witchcraft” (Tonda, 2002) as well as their own income” (Cimpic pp. 3).
Many NGO’s such as Stepping Stones, the UN and Unicef, identify religious profiteering as a motivating cause of accusations. Pentecostal charismatic preachers not only diagnose witchcraft in communities but for a negotiated fee will remove or ‘deliver’ the witch through religious faith healing or more violent methods. Those who don’t have the funds to be saved from such accusations suffer horrendous abuses. Accused Witches are sometimes tortured by religious mobs to extract confessions in methods gruesomely similar to those used during the medieval Inquisitorial period. Many are physically mutilated with acid or knives and if they survive they suffer a lifetime of physical, psychological and emotional damage. Some accused witches, often children, are abandoned and saved by welfare organizations whereas the unlucky ones are often picked up by predators for sexual exploitation and trade. Lastly, if the accused witch is not murdered outright, they are outcast from their family and community. Though women’s groups are calling for a uniting of staged ‘incivility’ of women to shame the Witch-hunters, it is certainly hard to implement when these women are being surrounded by gangs with ropes and petrol.
The modern Witch-Hunt is the demonization of a vulnerable group to justify their victimization by their oppressor. Children, women and the elderly are the ‘oppressed of the oppressed’ in African society because they are dependent on others for survival. Similarities between Witch-Hunters in both ancient and modern times lead to the understanding that Christian theological and cosmological ontologies of evil provide credence for the continued violation of marginalized people’s basic human rights and allows the continued commitment of atrocities against other human beings. We have observed that Witch-hunts are not unique to a historical timeframe but have continued throughout the ages whenever people have been dehumanized. However, what supports the continuation of Witch-hunts needs to be examined and brought to light. NGOs like Stepping Stones identify five major causes of the Child-Witch accusations which are “religious profiteering, extreme poverty, disintegration of the family structure, ignorance and superstitious beliefs and lastly, broken marriages,” however this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Social, political, religious and economic structures of power and privilege must also be clearly identified as assisting perpetrators and they need to take responsible actions if we are to end the Witch-Hunts. Judicial bodies must address the problem of witchcraft abuse, outlaw accusations and charge the persecutors who incite hatred and commit violence. It has been suggested by the United Nations that religious organizations that profiteer from accusations through ‘deliverance’ of accused Witches be either regulated or outright banned from missionary work in affected countries.
Laws passed such as the ‘right of ministerial exception’ that allows intolerance and hate speech towards minority groups based on “religious belief” must be recognized for its power to allow the demonization of others and continue the perpetuation of crimes against human rights, equality, dignity and freedom. At the core, secular authority must take a strong stand against polarized religious fanaticism and wipe out religious intolerance, ignorance and hatred of others through education and law or Witch-Hunting will continue to spread like a wildfire in its many guises.
BIBLIOGRAPHY / REFERENCE CITATIONS
Chidester, David. Christianity a Global History. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2000.
Durschmied, Erik. Whores of the Devil: Witch-Hunts and Witch-Trials. Phoenix Mill, Gloucestershire, 2005.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, NY, 2000.
Institoris, O.P. Henricus and Sprenger, O.P. Jacobus. Malleus Maleficarum. Volume I & II. Christopher S. MacKay trans. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2006.
Kors, Alan Charles & Peters, Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe: 400-1700 A documentary history, 2nd Edition. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, NY, 2001.
Russell, Jeffrey B. and Alexander, Brooks. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, UK., 2007.
WEBOGRAPHY / VIDEO CITATIONS
Cimpric, Aleksandra. Children Accused of Witchcraft: An anthropological study of contemporary practices in Africa. Unicef, Wcaro, Dakar, 2010.
Federici, Silvia. Witch-Hunting, Globalization, and Feminist Solidarity in Africa Today. Journal of International Women’s Studies Online. Vol 10, 1, 2008. http://www.bridgew.edu/soas/jiws/Oct08/Federici.pdf
Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries.
United Nations Refugee Agency Authors. New Issues In Refugee Research: Research Paper No. 197 Breaking the spell: Responding to witchcraft accusations against children. United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Geneva, Switzerland, 2011. (Accessed 12/02/2011) http://www.steppingstonesnigeria.org/images/Breaking_the_spell_unhcr.pdf
End of the Wicked. Produced and distributed by Helen Ukpabio’s Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries. (Accessed 13/02/2012)
Child Witches Nigeria. The Guardian Films. Guardian News UK.
Killing Us Softly 4. Lecture by Jean Kilbourne Ed.D. Educational video.
 When using the term witchcraft in this discussion I am specifically using the Medieval Model as outlined by such academics as Jeffrey Russell, Brooks Alexander and Richard Kieckheifer and not the modern categorizations of the new religious movements Wicca and Neo-Paganism.
 Heresy comes from the Greek and literally means “choice”. Therefore, heretics in the Christian tradition were those people who chose to think differently than the cannon of the institution.
 Generally accepted as the period of the Roman Emperor Constantine from 307-337.
 The Medieval Church spans the period between 500 – 1500 CE
 For an example see Burchard (the Bishop) of Worms: The Corrector, sive Medicus written in 1008-1012 CE.
 This is a brief overview and the historical development is far more complex than noted. One could easily include the influence of the Inquisition on the Waldencians, Cathars, and Knights Templar as well as the waging of various holy wars against Islam influencing the development of heresy and medieval witchcraft characterization.
 Such as the treatise expressed by the notorious writers of the Maleus Maleficarium in 1487, Henricus Institoris and Jacobus Sprenger.
 This also created an idea of an anti-church that was lead by God’s Adversary, Satan.
 This realm would be the realm of folk-tales and myths. The enchanted places of faries, imps, goblins and giants.
 An odd note about Henricus Institorus is that he was also a significant player in the later medieval rise of veneration for the Virgin Mary according to Chidester which suggests that his view of women breaches both impossible psychological extremes of categorizing women as either sacred or profane.
 Indeed there is evidence of witch hunts and accusations in every century up to this present day.
 Including spiritualist, African prophetic and revivalist churches.
 The numbers of accused witches murdered in Africa are difficult to acquire however, what we can account for shows the magnitude of the problem. For more information on statistics see
 Albinos are killed and often their body parts are kept to act as a charm that wards off evil yet at the same time they are considered cursed holders of supernatural powers.
 Jill Schnoebelen, writing for the UNHCR points out stress caused by civil wars and political repression as a cause.
 It appears that Indigenous healers are also waging their own war against ‘evil’ and attempting to distance themselves from accusations of witchcraft though it doesn’t extend nor have the resources of the Pentecostal mission movement.
 Pentecostalism takes the stories of Indigenous religions and folk-lore very seriously by giving them an sinister exalted status, demonizing them as agents of Satan’s minions and power.
 By either family members or zealous mobs.
 Sometimes called “sitting on the man”, African women have been grouping together to perform shaming circles on the doorsteps of the accusers. This is not always a successful act of civil disobedience and has let to sever acts of counter abuse. (Frederici pp 20)