How Social Turmoil Has Increased Witch Hunts throughout History
It’s an old story: A woman is accused of witchcraft by someone close to her—a neighbor, a relative, a rival. Often the original accuser resents or envies the woman or has a property dispute with her. At first the complaints are just whispers. But then something happens—a child gets sick, or an accident occurs. The woman’s name is said again, loudly this time, and more people echo it. Then she is dragged from her house and killed.
This is what happened to Iquo Edet Eyo, a 69-year-old woman from Cross River State in Nigeria. Along with four others, she was murdered in October 2022, allegedly by a group of young men who charged that her witchcraft had caused a recent motorcycle crash. Her family says that suspicions had been dogging her for years, arising from jealousy of her prosperity. It is also the tale of Martha Carrier, the ancestor of one of us (Markham-Cantor), who was hanged in Salem, Mass., in 1692. Of the accusations against her, one of the most salient was by a neighbor with whom her family had a property dispute. Carrier became one of 35 people executed for witchcraft in the British colonies of New England—“crimes” of which some of them still have not been exonerated.
The narrative could be set in Germany in 1581, India in 2003, Uganda in 2018 or Papua New Guinea in 2021. Every year more than 1,000 people around the world, including men and children, are tortured, expelled from their homes or killed after being charged with witchcraft—using magic, usually to cause harm. Far from declining with modernization, as some 20th-century scholars predicted, witch hunts are holding steady in some places and may be happening more often in others.
Multiple roots entwine to produce a witch hunt. A belief in sorcery, a patriarchal society, sudden and mysterious deaths resulting from a paucity of health care, inaccessible justice systems that give impunity to attackers, a triggering disaster—all of these contribute. But as one of us (Federici) has argued in her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch and subsequent publications, what sustained periods of witch-hunting have in common, across time, space and culture, is a backdrop of social and economic dislocation.
Witch hunts can erupt suddenly, as during the COVID-19 pandemic, when terrified people searched for scapegoats. But when rates of these assaults have stayed high over decades—such as in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and in parts of Asia and Africa in the past 50 years—subsistence economies were in the process of being replaced by monetary and capitalistic systems.
During these times the powerful and the wealthy were privatizing fields, ponds and forests previously held as commons, evicting villagers from the natural resources that had sustained them for centuries. Close-knit communities with relatively self-sufficient economies disintegrated, leaving the newly dispossessed with wage work as the only option for survival. This disruption of rural society caused bitter conflicts between the emerging classes of haves and have-nots that in places manifested as witch hunts.
As Federici and other scholars have further argued, in medieval Europe, as well as in much of the Global South, women harvested food and medicinal herbs and had a close relationship with the natural world. During expansions or intensifications of capitalism, many rural women lost access to land and, along with it, the economic and social power they had previously enjoyed. Among the worst affected were older women, who in the new dispensation were regarded as unproductive. Lacking social support and believed to have destructive magical powers, in many places they came to be targeted as witches. The pattern began six centuries ago with the witch hunts in Europe.
In the Medieval period, Europe had a feudal system in which kings granted land to nobles, landlords and knights in exchange for military assistance in wartime. Despite often brutal exploitation, peasants could supplement whatever they earned from laboring on landlords’ fields with food and other resources harvested, hunted or fished from commonly held fields, meadows, ponds and forests. Women enjoyed relative economic independence. Apart from tending crops, women worked as brewers, bakers, butchers, ironsmiths, retailers, and much more. Between 1300 and 1500 in Frankfurt, Germany, for example, women participated in more than 200 professions, with the municipality hiring at least 16 female doctors for its public health-care program.
With the conquest of the “New World” in the 16th century, however, silver from the mines of South and Central America began pouring into Europe—paradoxically deepening the immiseration of the poor. Inflation skyrocketed, and the purchasing power of wages collapsed, making even the most basic foodstuffs prohibitively expensive. The consequences were especially disastrous for women. They were primarily responsible for feeding and caring for their families but could not travel long distances to look for better-paying jobs. In the 14th century, for example, women received half the pay of a man for the same task; two centuries later they made only a third of the (reduced) male wage—and that money went to the husband.
Landlords and wealthier peasants had been fencing off communally held fields, forests and meadows since the 13th century, and this process intensified. Rents escalated on whatever land was still available to the poor for farming. In the 1500s, writes historian E. B. Fryde, enclosure destroyed more than 2,000 rural communities in England alone. By the end of that century a full third of the English population had no access to land—and thus no ability to grow food necessary for survival.
Entire communities that had survived through cultivation in common fields found themselves facing mass impoverishment, with two main choices: emigrate or become wageworkers. Older women were particularly affected. Previously, in many feudal estates, a widow had rights to parts of her husband’s holdings, as well as the right to glean crops from other fields. The breakdown of this “manorial” system left many of those women dependent on charity.
Caught between the collapse of wages and the loss of land, peasants rioted across Europe. In Germany, the aristocracy brutally suppressed a peasant rebellion between 1522 and 1525, murdering some 100,000 people. In most of these rebellions, men took the lead, but some of the protests against enclosures during the reign of King James I of England were made up only of women. In 1602, for instance, “Captain” Dorothy Dawson led 37 women in an attack on laborers who were fencing in a village commons in Yorkshire, England. Historian Yves-Marie Bercé similarly notes that in six out of the 31 food riots he studied in 17th-century France, all the protesters were women.
This is the economic ground on which the “Great Hunt” of witches in Europe took place. Although popular imagination regards the trials as outbreaks of mass delusion or superstition, the fact that they peaked between the 1580s and the 1630s, a time of massive upheaval as a capitalist economy emerged, suggests a different story.
Church leaders had initiated witch hunts in the late 15th century, in part as a way of policing social mores. Now the state, which was closely allied with religious, political and economic elites, took the lead. In the 16th century rulers across Europe introduced new laws to make sorcery punishable by death—and the trials moved from ecclesiastical to secular courts, such as in duchies and towns. Historian Christina Larner writes that in Scotland, authorities systematically incited panic against witches, traveling from village to village to instruct people on how to recognize them and sometimes even bringing along lists of women to denounce.
Many of those accused as witches were older women who no longer had a legitimate means of survival. As listed by historian Keith Thomas, the following were the crimes of 65-year-old Margaret Harkett, who was hanged at Tyburn, England, in 1585:
She had picked a basket of peas in a neighbor’s field without permission. Asked to return them, she flung them down in anger; since when, no peas would grow in the field. Later, William Goodwin’s servants denied her yeast, whereupon his brewing-stand dried up. She was struck by a bailiff who had caught her taking wood from his master’s ground; the bailiff went mad. A neighbor refused her a horse; all his horses died. Another paid her less for a pair of shoes than she asked; later he died. A gentleman told his servants to refuse her buttermilk; after which they were unable to make butter or cheese.
Not all alleged witches were poor and landless, however, and sometimes hunts served to dispossess them. Witch-hunting escalated when local edicts permitted officials or judges to seize the property of the accused. And it declined when the laws were modified to punish witchcraft without such confiscation. Witch finding could also be lucrative. Matthew Hopkins, England’s most famous witch-hunter, reportedly made £1,000 over his career—almost $200,000 today.
Anyone who tried to save a witch, such as a “gossip,” or a female friend, also risked being killed. Women had organized protests against enclosures with the help of other women, but conversations among them were now so stigmatized that “gossip” came to mean frivolous chatter or backbiting. To save their lives, gossips had to denounce their friends as witches.
Although the hunts targeted only some, the threat of being accused affected the behavior of most women. The persecutions contributed to the construction of a new patriarchal divide that degraded and limited women, ranking them below men. Over the course of the witch hunts, craftsmen in Germany pushed women out of guild membership, and even practicing certain trades, like selling goods in a market, put women at risk of sorcery accusations. In France, women lost the right to make their own contracts. And when they married, women and all that they owned effectively became the property of their husbands.
With a large population of laborers regarded as essential to prosperity, sexuality came to be rigorously policed. Those accused of witchcraft were often women who were believed to have sex outside of marriage or village healers and midwives, among whose many tasks was to provide contraceptives or abortifacients. As industrialization proceeded, many women were allowed back into the workforce in manufacturing centers and factories—but their husbands still received their wages.
In sum, witch-hunting was a systematic campaign of terror that eliminated the resistance to dispossession that had simmered for decades after the peasant protests were crushed. The accusations and persecution died down only in the latter half of the 18th century. Historical records indicate that by that time, roughly 50,000 people had been executed for sorcery.
In the Colonies
The demand for silver and gold among Europe’s elites also spurred witch hunts in South America, where repression helped to crush rebellions against colonization and round up laborers for the mines. In 1562 in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Spanish authorities tortured some 4,500 people on the charge of worshipping idols, flogged them in public to terrify the populace, and enslaved the survivors in mines. When the Taki Onqoy movement in Peru sought to invoke the power of huacas, or deities, against Spanish rule, a Catholic council convened in 1567 decreed extirpation of “witch doctors,” and a century of persecution followed.
As Indigenous people were being executed for devil worship in South and Central America, witch trials arrived in the North American colonies. When the elites of New England wrote Bible-inflected legal codes in the early 1600s, they included witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. The first official trial, in 1647 in Connecticut, was probably influenced by a wave of executions in England. By 1725 more than 300 people had been accused of witchcraft in New England, nearly four fifths of whom were women.
As in Europe, those persecuted as witches in the colonies were commonly poor and marginalized, but women who transgressed Puritan behavioral norms or who attained wealth or property were also at risk. Martha Carrier did both. She became pregnant out of wedlock, and after her immediate male relatives died in a smallpox outbreak, she may have stood to inherit much of her father’s land. Carrier refused to confess, and in August 1692 she became one of the 19 people hanged for witchcraft in Salem.
Across the world, including in other colonies, witch hunts spiked for diverse local reasons but almost always in periods of social or economic upheaval. Tanvi Yadav of the Central University of Rajasthan writes that in 19th-century British India, when colonial authorities seized the land of upper-caste people, the sufferers blamed the loss on witchcraft by Dalit, or oppressed, women and started a campaign of witch-hunting against them. Unable to punch up, the recently dispossessed focused on the vulnerable target of the lower-caste witch.
Modern Witch Hunts
Like those in premodern Europe, many contemporary witch hunts can be traced to expansions or intensifications of capitalism. Across the Global South, governments and corporations have appropriated fields, forests and rivers for development projects such as highways, hydropower plants and mines, displacing between 90 million and 100 million people in the 1990s alone. The new wave of enclosures increased inequality; fragmented communities; worsened child and maternal health; and deepened social, gender and intergenerational conflicts. The economic decisions that enriched some people while impoverishing others were made in distant cities and, for the most part, in foreign languages, and few people could discern their origins.
In a detailed analysis of the Gusii region of Kenya, anthropologist Justus Ogembo, then at Harvard University, held international development policies responsible for an explosion of witch-hunting in the 1990s. To meet stringent conditions attached to an International Monetary Fund loan in 1981, Kenya slashed public spending on education and health care—just as the AIDS epidemic hit—and removed price controls on food and other necessities. Witchcraft accusations surged as people sought to assign blame for their suffering. Umar Habila Dadem Danfulani, a professor of religious studies at the University of Jos in Nigeria, similarly indicts the economic stresses induced by austerity policies, noting that at that time fear of witchcraft beset some ethnic groups with no prior history of it. The numbers of homeless children in cities rose, as did an increase in witchcraft accusations in the 1990s—especially of children.
Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigeria-based group Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW), which assists victims of witch hunts, observes that when social welfare programs are cut, the accusations increase. The less the presence of the state in people’s lives, he says, “the more of people scapegoating the disabled, scapegoating children, scapegoating the elderly, scapegoating women in trying to make sense of stressful economic situations.”
Economic rivalry contributed to an outbreak of witch-hunting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003. Members of a faction competing for control of the Mongbwalu gold mines accused women who were ethnically linked with an opposing group first of spying, then of witchcraft. Human Rights Watch estimated that as many as 70 women and men were executed in the resulting witch hunts.
Historian and missionary Hugo Hinfelaar similarly notes that in Zambia in the 1990s, witchcraft allegations were “particularly rife in areas earmarked for game management and game ranching, for tourism, and for occupation by potential big landowners.” Because of the paucity of reporting, just how many witch hunts derive from such competition over resources is unknown. As Hinfelaar writes, however, some chiefs and village headmen profit from selling land used by the community to international investors, “and fomenting social disruption in the villages facilitates such transactions.” A village torn apart by sorcery allegations, he explains, “will not have the power to unite and oppose attempts to having the land they cultivate being taken over by someone else.”
As fertile fields available to the marginalized become scarce, conflict over even a small plot can indirectly precipitate a “witch” killing. In cultures that fear sorcerers, says Miranda Forsyth, a researcher with Australian National University’s Sorcery Accusation Related Violence Project, “if you are in a land dispute already and a misfortune happens to you, then you’re far more likely to think, ‘It must have been those people who have caused this.’”
Around the world witch hunts have also been used to directly seize land. A 2021 report on attacks in Odisha, India, written jointly by a state government agency and the social justice organization ActionAid, found that a significant fraction of witch hunts involved explicit land grabs. In Kilifi, Kenya, where hundreds of men are accused of witchcraft every year, hunts often stem from a desire to liquidate an elderly man’s land. Mzee Samuel Kazungu, chair of a group of men from 15 Giriama subtribes in Kenya who convene to address land disputes, told the outlet AllAfrica in 2021 that children “start demanding inheritance … and since a father is not ready to release his property, his family will gang up against him and he will be branded a witch, killed and the land will be sold.”
A close relative of Iquo Edet Eyo, who was murdered last October in Nigeria, attributes the accusations against her to jealousy: she owned land she cultivated, and she also got financial help from her daughter, who lived in the U.S. “When I was growing up, there were always accusations of witchcraft, but there wasn’t anything like this,” he says. “People didn’t go and drag folks out in the square and beat them up and club them with the machete.”
In Namibia, Berrie Holtzhausen, founder of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia, a group that defends elderly people with dementia (which can be seen as signifying a witch) from accusations, notes that people who have become wealthy will often hide their assets when visiting rural family members. They arrive without their car, thinking, he says, that “if people see that I’m doing well now, they will believe that I somehow stole [through] magical powers.” There is also a generational conflict at work, pitting young men who see no future except through the monetary economy against an elderly population for whom security is having land, trees or cows.
Professional witch finders make matters worse. In some places, they double as pastors who, influenced by evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries, encourage believers to attribute their daily misfortunes to the work of Satan. Some witch finders may genuinely believe that they are protecting communities from danger, but just like Hopkins in 17th-century England, many find the profession lucrative.
In Malawi, witch-hunters sometimes charge accused witches up to $100, Igwe says. If the victims cannot pay, the witch finders may seize their land or hold them hostage until their family members pay up. In Namibia, “for a witch doctor to make a ruling on whether or not you are a witch, you have to pay him a lot of money,” Holtzhausen says. “To survive a witch-hunt accusation, you have to pay. The witch doctors are all rich people—and the witch doctors are almost all men.”
In recent years students and others have campaigned for justice for the 17th-century victims of New England’s witch hunts. Massachusetts has exonerated those who were charged of witchcraft there and issued a formal apology, but a similar effort in Connecticut this spring received unexpected pushback. “Do you have any evidence that this person was innocent?” State Representative Doug Dubitsky asked a descendant of one of the executed women—apparently suggesting that she could have been a witch after all.
Around the world women and organizations such as AfAW, Stop Sorcery Violence in Papua New Guinea and the women’s leadership nonprofit Anandi in Gujarat, India, are fighting back against witch-hunting. In the summer of 2021, after six years of lobbying by a coalition of witch-hunt survivors, nongovernmental organizations, academics and lawyers, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning witch-hunting and ritual attacks.
Laws against witch-hunting, such as those passed in a number of Indian states, make it easier to prosecute people who accuse others of witchcraft. But Eyo’s relative noted that in many places, poor people who are victims of witch hunts have little access to legal recourse. What may help reduce the persecutions, as in South Africa, is providing pensions to the elderly, which appears to confer social protection.
One of the most potent responses to modern-day witch hunts is the struggle to hold back, and even reverse, the process of land dispossession and wealth concentration that began centuries ago during Europe’s Great Hunt. In Brazil, women from a number of Indigenous groups have led an effort to defend the Amazon forest and waters from extractive industries. In Bolivia, they have marched repeatedly to prevent the construction of highways—which bring loggers, ranchers, settlers and oil drillers—through Indigenous lands. In Kenya, they have planted millions of trees as part of the Greenbelt Movement, an effort for which Wangari Maathai, its founder, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In India, they are engaged in numerous struggles against logging and mining. And in the U.S., Native American women played leading roles in the Standing Rock movement to safeguard water from contamination by an oil pipeline.
These initiatives are not only oppositional but also constructive. Even as they confront polluters and developers, women are involved in restoring forests, rediscovering forms of agriculture that support rather than destroy other creatures, and rebuilding a web of community relationships that represents the best form of defense against violence.