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In early February 2013 in Papua New Guinea, a 20-year-old woman, Kepara Leniata, was doused in gasoline and burned at the stake after being accused of the death of a child. “Fables of witchcraft have taken… fast hold and deep root in the heart of man,” lamented Reginald Scot in 1584, and 500 years later, it’s still true in some countries.
According to scholar Robin Briggs, accusations of witchcraft may be either powerful (as in: he blighted my crop, she gave my child scarlet fever, she made my pigs ill)—or heartbreakingly petty: a woman who had lost all of her children through miscarriage and stillbirth was accused of witchcraft because she no longer cried at the death of others’ babies.
But in the 21st century it is a culture, not witchcraft that should be scrutinized when any witch-hunt takes place. After Leniata’s killing, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Pete O’Neill instructed police to use ‘all available manpower’ to bring the killers to justice. Good. But Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga described the murder with unintentional irony as “devilish” and advocated the creation of courts to deal specifically with sorcery. It’s hard to say which – witch hunts or state-sanctioned witch trials – would be worse.
When you hear the phrase “a witch trial,” you probably think of a group of 17th-century villagers in Salem or Samlesbury deciding a local woman is a witch and inventing hopeless tests for her to prove herself otherwise. But there has been one trial in history – and it was in France – where a witch actually used the courts in his favor. Where a witch was the plaintiff in a witch trial, not the defendant.
In 1850 a male witch, Felix Thorel, was accused by the priest of Cideville, France (a village in Normandy) of causing a poltergeist in the priest’s parsonage. This poltergeist went on for months and was loud enough to be heard from 2 km away, so it would definitely be placed in the “powerful” category of a witch’s hex. The priest slandered Thorel in the community for causing the poltergeist and, perhaps driven a little batty by the noise, eventually beat Thorel severely over it.
The witch’s response was, incredibly: I’ll see you in court. Thorel sued the priest and the ensuing trial, with its own twists and complications, took place in nearby Yerville in 1851.
Briggs writes that the prelude to accusations of witchcraft is usually a quarrel, followed by a misfortune. In The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist, my novel based on the true story of the Cideville witch trial, the ‘quarrel’ between the witch and the priest actually began when the priest had the leader of the coven, a man Thorel admired, put in prison for medical charlatanry. The poltergeist is the ‘misfortune.’ It may be possible that the misfortune in Papua New Guinea leading to the burning at the stake of Kepara Leniata was the death of the six-year-old boy, but misfortune has spread far and wide beyond that, and according to Oxfam International will continue in the future, well beyond this tragedy, because sorcery in Papua New Guinea is so entrenched.
There is a key difference between these two cases. Felix Thorel was a French citizen 70 years after the French Revolution. He may have been unschooled but he knew as a Frenchman he had the right to sue when had been wronged. The witch trial was not a Salem or Samlesbury lynching, but a French civil trial in which affidavits were presented before a judge. 19th Century France, despite any of its faults, believed in the rights of its citizens no matter whether he or she was considered a witch or not.
That is the distinction between witchcraft-persecuting societies and witchcraft-practicing societies. Modern lawsuits in Britain and North America on the subject of witchcraft are, post-Felix Thorel, launched by witches trying to get Wiccanism recognized for statutory holidays or standing up for their rights to public practice. They are no longer, thank goodness trying to save themselves from the stake.
The recent case of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai is also a witchraft-persecuting one, except for its happy ending. She was shot by the Taliban because she wanted to attend school; in their myopic eyes she was practicing the sorcery of seeking an education, and they used bullets rather than a stake. She is alive today because she was able to leave Pakistan for Great Britain. To end horrors like the burning in Papua New Guinea, Oxfam says, criminalize accusations of sorcery instead of in any way conceding a citizenry may persecute sorcerers. “Education is essential,” Oxfam adds – for societies in Papua New Guinea, Africa, Pakistan, and many others, where a concept of citizenry resides in the dark ages.
Barbara Wade Rose is a former journalist and author of The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist, a novel based on the true story of the Cideville poltergeist and witch trial.
Painting, Wylie La Sorcière bretonne (1872) by Robert Wylie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons