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Why Do Witch Hunts Still Happen?

Across the globe, witchcraft fears still lead to torture and murder

(Nathan Griffith/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

To most people, the witch hunt only exists as metaphor. The idea can seem like a morbid relic of history. But around the world, innocent people are still attacked and killed for witchcraft.

Modern-day witch hunts happen in Africa, the Pacific, Latin America and even in the U.S. and Europe, writes Mitch Horowitz for the New York Times. And in a new, harrowing story for The Huffington Post, Kent Russell travels to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where ritual witch hunts and burnings still occur. He writes:

Witch hunts, which had been a part of many if not all traditional Papua New Guinean cultures, are now commonplace throughout the villages, townships and small cities dotting the country. Mobs are publicly humiliating and brutally torturing neighbors, family members, friends—often but not always women—and then murdering them, or else forcing them out of their communities, which in a deeply tribal society like Papua New Guinea amounts to much the same thing.

Russell tells the story of a hunter-gatherer society as it abruptly collides with the wider, wealthier world. Witch hunts are more violent now, he reports, and often include torture. "It is not just that it’s practiced," Monica Paulus, a Papua New Guinean who was accused of witchcraft, driven from her home village and now aids other victims, tells Russell. "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."

"I believed in it, before I was accused," Paulus adds. Witchcraft is blamed for any tragedy that can’t be explained, Russell explains, such as the unexpected death of a child. By destroying witches—by killing innocent people—the community believes it defends itself from malevolent forces.

It may be tempting to blame lack of education for these witch hunts, but Russell writes that the fear of witchcraft has appeared up in societies at various levels of development. Legal and social awareness can bring change, he writes, but for the people living in a society that hunts witches, progress is agonizingly slow. "It will take generations for it to change," Paulus tells him. You can read the full story at the Huffington Post.

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