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Seven Accused African Witches Burned to Death

Seven people in East Africa were killed earlier this week after being accused of witchcraft. Continue reading →

Seven people in the East African country of Tanzania were killed earlier this week following accusations of witchcraft.

According to a report in the "Mail and Guardian:"

"‘They were attacked and burnt to death by a mob of villagers who accused them of engaging in witchcraft,' the police chief for the western Kigoma region, which borders Burundi, Jafari Mohamed, told Agence France-Presse... Among those arrested on suspicion of carrying out the killings was the local traditional healer, or witchdoctor."

The victims, most of whom were elderly, were burned alive and in some cases hacked to death with machetes. Nearly two dozen people were arrested, and the fact that a witch doctor was among them is not unusual.

Throughout Africa belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered a normal part of everyday life. A 2010 poll of 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that over half of the population believe in magic. Witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing, or removing, curses or bringing luck. It is not unusual for people to consult witch doctors seeking magical assistance when preparing for a job interview, starting a business or seeking a mate.

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It's not clear what sparked the attack, but often witchcraft accusations follow some unexplained misfortune such as an accident, a sudden sickness or a village drinking well drying up. If there is no obvious, immediate explanation, the event may be blamed on a suspected witch - usually women and the elderly. Other times the witchcraft accusations are used as a pretext to settle personal grudges or confiscate the victim's property.

Witchcraft persecutions have been prevalent in East Africa and especially Tanzania. In May of this year an albino woman in a rural Tanzania was murdered for her body parts. Two witch doctors were arrested in connection with her death. Though she was not accused of witchcraft, she was killed for it. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti. Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts and other body parts from their living victims.

Belief in, and persecution of, witches is universal and dates back millennia. Often all that is needed is a belief in magic, though sometimes witchcraft is prohibited by organized religion. The Christian bible, for example, explicitly calls for accused witches to be put to death per Exodus 22:18, which states, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (KJV). The passage seems crystal clear in its murderous command to kill witches - but there's a problem.

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In his book "The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe," professor Brian Levack of the University of Texas at Austin notes that "the original Hebrew word translated as ‘witch' in this passage meant a poisoner or ‘someone who works in darkness and mutters things' rather than a sorcerer who makes a pact with the Devil." This misunderstood translation indirectly led to the persecutions, and in some cases deaths, of hundreds of thousands of people around the world because "the word was translated as ‘witch' in all Western European languages and used by preachers and judges to sanction an uncompromising campaign against witches" in Europe between 1450 and 1750.

Though witch hunts were common in Europe hundreds of years ago, the practice still occurs in India, Africa and South America. According to records from India's National Crime Records Bureau, over 2,000 people have been killed after being accused of witchcraft between 2000 and 2012. Belief in magic and witches may seem quaint or funny, especially around Halloween, but it can have very real consequences.

A modern of depiction of Satan in the likeness of a goat with horns and goatee.

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Images of devils proliferated in the Middle Ages. The devil was often depicted as a terrifying, horned beast. In this mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo (1225-1276) in the Baptistery of Florence, Satan is devouring the damned while monsters in the shape of a snake, frog or lizard come out from his body.

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In Christian art, the devil is typically portrayed as having horns of a goat and a ram, a pig's nose and teeth, and a goat's fur and ears. This image is a 16th-century painting by Jacob de Backer in the National Museum in Warsaw.

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Historically, the devil had many names and roles. He is the serpent who tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, the fallen angel who rebelled against God, the Dragon, Beelzebub, the Father of Lies, Lucifer, Satan, the Prince of Darkness. A giant beast, Lucifer, the King of Hell, stood frozen to the waist in a lake of ice in Dante's Divine Commedy. Engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri.

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A popular icon in the past, the devil appears to be alive and kicking also in Pope Francis' modernizing church. The pontiff has alluded to him ever since his first homily as Pope, describing the devil as a real presence even in the 21st century. Unafraid of criticism for bringing back what many see as the superstitions of the middle ages, the Vatican last month faced the demonic threat by hosting its largest convention on exorcism. Called "Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation," the meeting included a six-day course to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in the ancient rite of exorcism. In this 1519 painting, an exorcism is being performed on a woman who has previously killed her child and her parents.

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