September 28, 2004

Magic, Murder and the Weather

Last week, I titled a post "Victory of the Sadducees." In the context of the late 17th Century, the Sadducees (as Steve H. surmised in a comment to that post) were what we would call materialists or rationalists. They certainly wouldn't have thought much of scenes like this:


...which is a representation of the trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft. Interestingly, Magistrate John Hathorne (Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestor) took spectral evidence -- that is, the "testimony" of the afflicted girls that Jacobs' spirit or apparition or specter was tormenting them -- as proof of his guilt during the preliminary investigation. Jacobs defended himself by arguing that God permitted the devil to take the form of an innocent man (something that no less an authority on the invisible world than Cotton Mather believed).

Mather believed that witchcraft -- not the Salem case, but rather an earlier episode, about which he wrote at lenght -- provided empirical evidence that the supernatural plane did intrude and act upon the natural world. His philosophical opponents, the Sadducees (perhaps best personified by Thomas Hobbes), would have none of it, of course.

I assumed in that earlier post that, for the most part, we've internalized the lessons of the Sadducees (optimist that I am, I'm not entirely prepared to give up that notion). When we see lightning, we understand it's an atmospheric discharge and not the wrath of the gods or God; when a loved one is afflicted, we look for the bacillus or virus at fault, and not the evil eye of a neighbor.

Reading the preliminary examinations and the trial transcripts from Salem (available online here, part of this excellent site), one is reminded that one is in a different world:

Magistrate: Look there, she accuseth you to your face, she chargeth you that you hurt her twise. Is it not true?

Jacobs: What would you have me say? I never wronged no man in word nor deed.

Magistrate: Here are 3 evidences.

Jacobs: You tax me for a wizard, you may as well tax me for a buzard I have done no harm.

Magistrate: Is it no harm to afflict these?

Jacobs: I never did it.

Magistrate: But how comes it to be in your appearance?

Jacobs: The Devil can taken any likeness.

Magistrate: Not without their consent.

Jacobs was one of 19 who were hung for witchcraft in 1692 -- interestingly, his protestations of innocence probably sealed his fate. Chadwick Hansen noted in Witchcraft in Salem:

Most seventeenth-century witchcraft courts executed everyone who confessed themselves a witch. But this court, good Puritans that they were, had apparently decided that confession was evidence of possible regeneration.

It's fairly easy to find places that have been immune to the Sadducees -- one need merely put the word witchcraft into Google News to see examples:

[India News] Patna, Sep 16 : A man in a Bihar village stabbed two women, including one who was pregnant, because he suspected them to be witches.


An Australian researcher has linked Papua New Guinea's burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic to the torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft.

It was revealed yesterday that one woman died after having her uterus ripped out with a steel hook and others were held down and burned with hot metal.

In one of the worst cases, witnesses say women were publicly tortured over almost two weeks to extract confessions they had killed people using sorcery.

Then, of course, there's these folk, harmless, perhaps a bit confused. I rather enjoyed this site, which is intelligent, engaging, and shows signs of a wicked impatience and exasperation.

Except for the Third World (and then only fractions of it), I tend to think that the Sadducees still provide the intellectual construct in which modern witches -- and Christians -- live. Occasionally we hear of the extremely devout who eschew bio-medicine for prayer, but I'd be willing to bet that most of our modern witches, on developing a fever, aren't above using aspirin or antibiotics, and do so without a second thought.

Posted by Ideofact at September 28, 2004 11:56 PM

"fractions of the Third World?"

Although places like Papua New Guinea are "small"...
There are approximately 1 billion people in India, and their culture hasn't gone through the diminution of the supernatural, and rejection of theories involving supernatural intervention in the natural world, that Western culture undertook during the Enlightenment.

Can we call the Enlightenment the one thing that makes our world different from the world inhabited by 17th Century Puritans? (and Anglicans, Quakers, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Catholics, etc. )

Admittedly, Mather was showing signs of the burgeoning of Enlightenment-era thinking. He wanted proof that he could put his finger on, proof that was equal in authority to Scripture, but unimpeachable as "this sect's interpretation of Scripture". He wanted evidence that would convince the Sadducees of his day.

Posted by: steve h at September 29, 2004 11:34 AM

I'm not sure I'd say that all 1 billion of India's people believe in witchcraft, but the point is well taken. There are quite a few African villages, throughout the continent, where witchcraft is believed in as well.

So is there merely a thin veneer of enlightenment thinking, with most of the world mired in superstition? I don't know, but I suspect it's not nearly as bad as that.

As for Cotton Mather -- it is sort of fascinating to see him approach his argument with the Sadducees on their terms, rather than resorting to authority. But then, Jonathan Edwards, in addition to being a fire and brimstone Puritan preacher, also dabbled in science, and I believe some of his observations of natural phenomena are as rigorous as anything his contemporaries were doing.

Posted by: Bill at September 30, 2004 12:19 AM