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What are witch-hunts?

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A very old word The term witch hunt comes from medieval Europe. Originally, its sole meaning was literal: it meant hunting for witches.

In the Middle Ages, spirituality, morality and even politics were heavily influenced (some would say dominated) by Christianity, especially through the Roman Catholic church. In medieval Christian ideology, the universe was roughly split into two opposing forces: God and Satan. Thus medieval clergy believed that one could either be good and enlightened (by being Christian), or deceived by evil (by believing in any other religion); there was no other alternative. This world view motivated religious fanatics to hunt down any person or belief that they deemed un-Christian or anti-Christian. Thousands of people fell under that definition for various reasons: some were targeted for openly following other religions than Christianity, many were killed for opposing the church's political decisions, and some were merely scapegoats who were superstitiously accused of causing natural disasters such as floods and storms. One of the accusations most frequently used by church officials to imprison, torture or kill their victims was the "sin" of witchcraft.

The Christian concept of witchcraft as a sin has a long history. The original Hebrew and Greek books of the Bible contained a few verses condemning the use of poisons and curses to kill people. Those verses were mistranslated into less specific verses forbidding all magical potions instead of poisons, and all spells instead of curses. As the church gradually built its beliefs and laws based on the Bible, it incorporated the idea that supernatural power was meant to belong to God alone, and that any kind of witchcraft was a rebellion against God's biblical rules. This made witchcraft one of the most horrible sins one could be accused of, and it became a symbol of everything anti-Christian.

The use of witchcraft as a symbol for evil eventually culminated in a book known as the Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval witch-hunting manual that was supposed to help the clergy by explaining how to detect witches, how to nullify their powers, and how to make them confess their sins through physical and psychological torture. Even though the theories and descriptions in that book were mostly imaginary, the Malleus helped to spread the false belief that the world was threatened by devil-worshippers who killed Christians in gruesome human sacrifices. Fear and hysteria based on that book spread everywhere across Europe, and later even reached America (remember Salem, Massachusetts, were a witch trial started by a hysteric teenage girl led to the execution of many innocent citizens).

As a result of this blend of ignorance, fear, intolerance and dogmatism, thousands of human beings lost their lives. The majority of the victims were women, as the clergy thought them more open to the Devil's influence than men, but thousands of men and even children were killed too. Some of the victims were lynched by angry mobs, while others were ceremoniously executed in church-approved public gatherings by hanging, decapitation, pressing with heavy stones, or burning alive at the stake. Today, those dark times when people could be arrested and killed under accusations of witchcraft are often called The Burning Times, in memory of those who died back then.

Fortunately, the fear of being attacked by evil, devil-worshipping, human-sacrificing witches has declined in the Western world with the evolution of society. Today most Occidental people are more educated and less vulnerable to superstition and religious fundamentalism than their old European ancestors. However, literal belief in an organized, anti-Christian cult of evil witches is still held by some modern conservative Christians. Even today, they confuse real Neopagan witchcraft (such as Wicca) with the imaginary satanic cult invented in the Middle Ages. This false belief leads a minority of Christians to discriminate against witches and condemn them as evil-doers.

 Newer derived meaning Now that literal wich-hunting is over in most developed countries, the word witch-hunt has come to mean any exaggerated and irrational search for culprits, trouble-makers or evil-doers. It is no longer tied only to religion and the occult. For example, if a company that is struggling financially starts aggressively firing staff members instead of restructuring carefully, it may be accused of witch-hunting.  More I would agree with the above, except that the witch hunts were not medieval. They were more a thing of the Renaissance and Reformation. The book, Malleus Maleficarum, which was important in promoting early witch hunts, was written in 1486 and published the following year. The dates for the Middle Ages most historians use put this after the Middle Ages ended.

Medieval legal codes of the Carolingian Empire forbade belief in witchcraft as a superstition, and arrived at the logical conclusion that executing a person for witchcraft was murder and was a capital crime. Similar provisions were made in Lombard law. These laws applied to most of western Europe, though some areas had laws against witchcraft.

The rise in prosecutions for witchcraft was contemporaneous with the beginning of the Renaissance, and came in the form of episcopal inquisitions. These were not witch hunts, because they were not proactively seeking out witches, but responding to accusations. Also, they had no prescribed punishments, and may have been aimed more at confession and penance than at punishment.

The actual witch hunts, in which people actively sought to find, prosecute, and execute witches, did not start until just the time the Middle Ages were ending, in the 15th century. They reached a peak in the the 16th and 17th centuries. They were fueled by books like Malleus Maleficarum, but also by the bounties paid for each witch punished. The people conducting the witch hunts were mostly secular, lay people, who increased their wealth by receiving a small payment for each person they burned to death. The people who paid them were mostly secular authorities, such as James VI, King of Scots, or King Christian IV of Denmark.

There is a link to an article on witch hunts below.
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