A witch-hunt is a search for suspected witches; it is a type of moral panic. If a "witch" is found, then there might be a witchcraft trial. While actual witchhunts occasionally occur in the modern era, there is a general scientific belief that witchcraft is mythological, and thus is not a crime which can be committed. However, this may be countered by the fact that, whether or not it is possible for witches to magically influence events or individuals, witches do exist at least to the extent that a number of individuals state that they are witches.
The term is usually used more metaphorically to refer to a search for a perceived enemy, with the implication of the hysteria, prejudice and injustice that was often seen in the great early modern witchhunts.
Methods used at witch trials
See Witch trial.
Early modern Europe
For several centuries, dominantly Christian societies believed that Satan was acting through human and animal servants. These beliefs can be seen as a reaction to emerging alternatives to the Christian hierarchical order, such as the worldly knowledge and cultural practices brought into a relatively backward Europe from the Middle East by those returning from the Crusades. Also targeted were surviving rites of Europe's indigenous pagan faiths, many of which still persisted among folk in the countryside, despite centuries of official Christianity. Over the centuries, there were extensive efforts to root out the supposed influence of Satan by various measures aimed at the people that were accused of being servants of Satan. People suspected of being "possessed" by Satan were put on trial.
Many of the suspects were women who lived in towns, villages or rural areas and who may have been practitioners of herbalism, natural healing or midwifery; but often it was simply poor, uneducated women who did not have influential friends. Early Modern Christian authorities in Europe (both Catholic and Protestant) regarded any such expression of non-Christian, natural spirituality with intense paranoia and hatred. This was in accord with literal readings of the Old Testament, which contains fierce attacks against the polytheism of non-Hebrew peoples.
The most important form of evidence in many of the witch trials was attained by "ordeal". These efforts included torture of the most horrific nature including hot pincers, the thumbscrew, the iron maiden, and many other such methods. Torture methods varied by region and the person carrying out the ordeal.
The East Anglia region of England at one point during the chaos of the Civil War had a self-proclaimed "Witchfinder General", one Matthew Hopkins, who led searches, and who claimed to be able to identify a witch using techniques such as witches' marks. Today it is not believed that most of the accused ever regarded themselves as witches.
Research into the laws and records of the time show that the witchfinders often used peine forte et dure and other torture to extract confessions and condemnations of friends, relatives and neighbors. Virtually everyone today looks on this period of history as a very dark time.
And more research into the records of the time reveals events like this:
"At the height of the Great Hunt (1567–1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight "compurgators", people who were willing to swear that he wasn't a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment."  (http://www.cog.org/witch_hunt.html)
However, most witch trials were held before secular courts, not church courts, and the secular courts were decidedly less scrupulous in their methods.
The measures employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever practiced in the Western world. In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:
- The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.
Part of a larger culture which was very religiously and socially intolerant, the witch-hunts resulted in the loss of much traditional knowledge and folklore (or so it is alleged, without the least bit of solid evidence) among Europeans when the practitioners were "lawfully" killed.
See also: Inquisition
Sociological explanation for witchhunts
Sociology has attributed the occurrence of witchhunts to the human necessity to blame problems on someone. For example, Europe during the periods in which witchhunts prevail relied upon agriculture; if this failed one year, the consequences would very likely be disastrous. Crop failures often correlated with the occurrence of witchhunts, leading sociologists to state that communities often took out their anger of a lack of food on supposed 'witches'. This can be paralleled in more recent examples such as the Nazi use of anti-semitism to apportion blame for economic problems. A perception of moral righteousness, by the community, is a necessary psychological element that enables rationalization.
While the modern notion of a "witchhunt" has little to do with gender, the historical notion often did. In general, supposed "witches" were female. Noted Judge Nicholas Rémy (c.1595), "[It is] not unreasonable that this scum of humanity, [witches], should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex." Concurred another judge, "The Devil uses them so, because he knows that women love carnal pleasures, and he means to bind them to his allegiance by such agreeable provocations." (Joseph Klaits)
"The Burning Times"
"The Burning Times" is an English term referring to the time of the Great European Witchhunts (1450-1750). Its first recorded use is by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s and was probably created by him according to Ronald Hutton (344). Gardner used the phrase in reference to his claim that Wicca was an ancient persecuted religion, relying in turn heavily on the work of Margaret Murray. Gardner believed Wiccans should remember their forebears who were burned by the Church. In fact, witches in England were never burnt, but were hanged; burning of heretics and witches was practiced on the European continent. Modern historians agree the witchhunts had nothing to do with persecuting a pagan cult, but is the result of an interplay of a series of complex historical and societal factors. The actual religion of those killed in the witchhunts, if they had any, was Christianity of some kind. [Keith Thomas 514-7, Hutton passim]
The term was adopted by various American feminist historians and popularised in the 1970s for all historical persecution of witches and pagans, often citing a figure of nine million casualties, drawn from nineteenth century campaigner for women's rights, Matilda Joslyn Gage. They also referred to it as the Women's Holocaust (see Hutton chapter 18 for his exploration of their ideas). Modern historians have shown that the victims of the witchhunt were not always female, though they were in the majority and misogyny was an important part of the forces behind it. In Iceland, for example, 80% of those accused were men. Generally accepted figures amongst historians today range from Levack at around 60,000 to Hutton at around 40,000.
- Burning Times (http://www.shadowdrake.com/neopagan/burning.html)
Witch hunters in African societies
In many African societies the fear of witches drives periodic witchhunts during which specialist witch finders identify suspects, even today, with death by mobs often the result. Audrey I. Richards, in the journal Africa relates an instance when a new wave of witchfinders, the Bamucapi, appeared in the villages of the Bemba people. They dressed in European clothing, and would summon the headman to prepare a ritual meal for the village. When the villagers arrived they would view them all in a mirror, and claimed they could identify witches with this method. These witches would then have to "yield up his horns"; i.e. give over the horn-containers for curses and evil potions to the witch-finders. The bamucapi then made all drink a potion called kucapa which would cause a witch to die and swell up if he ever tried such things again. The villagers related that the witchfinders were always right because the witches they found were always the people whom the village had feared all along. The bamucapi utilised a mixture of Christian and native religious traditions to account for their powers and said that God (not specifying which God) helped them prepare their medicine. In addition, all witches who did not attend the meal to be identified would be called to account later on by their master, who had risen from the dead, and who would force the witches by means of drums to go to the graveyard, where they would die. Richards noted that the bamucapi created the sense of danger in the villages by rounding up all the horns in the village, whether they were used for anti-witchcraft charms, potions, snuff or were indeed receptacles of black magic.
The Bemba people believed misfortunes such as hauntings and famines to be just actions sanctioned by the High-God Lesa. The only agency which caused unjust harm was a witch, who had enormous powers and was hard to detect. After white rule of Africa beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft grew, possibly because of the social strain caused by new ideas, customs and laws, and also because the courts no longer allowed witches to be tried.
Reference: A Modern Movement of Witch Finders Audrey I Richards (Africa: Journal of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, Ed. Diedrich Westermann.) Vol VIII, 1935, published by Oxford University Press, London.
Metaphorical uses of the term in the modern West
A witchhunt in modern terminology refers to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence.
The first recorded use of the term in this metaphorical sense (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) occurs in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). The term is used by Orwell to describe how, in the Spanish Civil War, political persecutions became a regular occurrence.
The term gained further currency in the 1950s with Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible. This was ostensibly about the Salem witch trials but was intended to criticize the hearings of United States Senator Joseph McCarthy as well as the general atmosphere of paranoia and persecution that accompanied them. Other anti-communist hearings in the 1950s were under the aegis of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC. Although revelations of the Soviet archives in the 1990s showed that some of those who were pursued were indeed communists (HUAC uncovered some genuine Communist infiltrators), the practice of McCarthyism left many innocent victims in its wake. Thus the "witch hunts" of the time were compromised by wild accusations and disregard for civil liberties and civil discourse.
Some have described the practice of involuntary commitment as a witchhunt, claiming systematic bias in the standards for involuntary commitment, the search for people to involuntarily commit, and the judicial procedures that may result in their commitment. However, this viewpoint is not widely espoused, and some people maintain that as there is a lack of general hysteria over the "need" to involuntarily commit people, the comparison of what they claim are the possibility of unjust individual hearings to witch-hunts is inappropriate. Those who compare the practice of involuntary commitment to witchhunts, however, would say that this fundamentally misrepresents their position, as they do not complain of the circumstances surrounding individual hearings, but of the standards for commitment as a whole, and further claim that many of the sociological and pretextual reasons for attempting to get individual involuntarily committed parallel the circumstances of the witchhunt.
Deprogramming as witchhunt
Hundreds of members of the Unification Church who were caught and harangued by so-called deprogrammers complained of interrogation technique similar to that reported during the European witchhunts.
Deprogrammers would tell the detainee that he had been "brainwashed" by the "cult" and threaten to hold him indefinitely unless he "realized" he had been brainwashed. Opponents of deprogramming claim that this parallels the tactic of accusing a prisoner of witchcraft and torturing them until they "confess" to witchcraft. Jeremiah Gutman, a lawyer with the ACLU, chronicled several hundred such cases in the U.S. before deprogramming as "therapy" was delegitimized there.
- Klaits, Joseph — Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (1985) p.68