The problem with witchcraft today (2023)

The scariest witchcraft tales are the ones that are true, like the tale of a mother and her grown son who thought a magical neighbor was making them sick. For months they retaliated with curses and evil prayers, chanting "Death by Fire" from the walls in the early hours of the morning and crying out to God to kill the "witch." They even told the poor woman's seven-year-old daughter that her mother was angry.

The worst thing about this "witch" sexual abuse case is that it has not appeared in the distant annals of British history. It happened in London last year.

Most sickening is the notion that children can be witches or possessed by demons.

Just the disturbed behavior of some paranoid Christian fundamentalists, one could argue. Oh good. But neither. Today, beliefs about witchcraft, curses, and black magic often cause real harm. Reports are patchy, but it seems that harmful magic has become more common in the UK in recent decades.

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"He is a very dangerous man who is taking money and telling families that they should cut ties with each other." The words of a Leicester woman who wrote to her local newspaper in 2018 to denounce a ruthless healer. She specialized in diagnosing and curing black magic. The curses, she claimed, caused her client's unhappiness, from business bankruptcies to adultery, cancer and depression.

Breaking spells is lucrative. It paid well enough for the Indian-born quack to regularly fly to the UK to work for British families living in Leicester, Birmingham and elsewhere. His therapies were not only expensive, but also destructive. The man sometimes broke up families by accusing a member of being the source of an evil that seemed to be poisoning their lives.

In case you're wondering, belief in curses and black magic isn't just a problem for people who are deeply religious or minority. Anyone can get involved when things go wrong and they are desperate. In 2005, a Leicester woman was conned out of £56,000 by a medium named Sister Grace. It all started with a seemingly innocent tarot reading, but ended with Sister Grace insisting that if she refused to pay, a curse would kill her client's son and husband.

Belief in curses and witchcraft is responsible for a variety of petty scams. In 2006, for example, around 170,000 Britons were targeted via spam by bogus psychics urging them to buy powerful items that would bring good luck and ward off evil. Most of the victims were elderly or vulnerable and lost an average of £240 each. If you don't hear much about these downsides, it's probably because victims are too embarrassed to report. Witchcraft is also a scary and mysterious subject that people don't like to talk about.

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Most hateful is the notion found in some Pentecostal churches and some Islamic jinn removers that children can be witches or demon possessed to emit evil forces. This idea inspired the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in London in 2000, along with five other black children between then and 2010.

Surprisingly, the problem of the spiritual abuse of children is much deeper and broader. The Department for Education is now crunching the numbers: in 2017-18 alone it logged 1,630 reports of "religious abuse" against children in England. This probably underestimates the problem. If you take a closer look at the numbers, you will see that some local authorities do not record any cases, which suggests that they are basically unaware of the existence of child mental abuse. As a society, we have barely scratched the surface of this deeply serious problem.

I think the story shows us how to deal with harmful magical beliefs. I'm not talking about the Tudor and Stuart "witch craze" period: the late 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, when witchcraft was a crime that could result in execution. Witchcraft was no longer illegal in Britain in 1736, but large numbers of people continued to wholeheartedly believe in it throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

You probably can't imagine Georgians and Victorians being afraid of witches. But many of them were. Newspapers at the time reported hundreds of cases of suspected witches who had been bullied, beaten, stabbed, spat at, harassed, mistreated, and in some gruesome cases, killed.

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It didn't just happen to rednecks, either. Suspected witches were attacked in industrial cities such as Sheffield in 1802, Manchester in 1826, Leeds in 1828 and Warrington in 1876. witchcraft and anti-ritual. Leeds was home to at least three White Witches in the 1850s. Despite its cathedral and university, Durham had four wise women who healed witchcraft.

This strange culture of witchcraft declined significantly in the late 18th and early 20th centuries. It's not like the British suddenly got smarter or better educated. The real change has been in surveillance, which has become more professional and widespread. First, the police stopped abusing the alleged witches. So the authorities cracked down on various esoteric healers who were teaching ordinary people what witchcraft was and how to believe in it.

There is a lesson here. With enough control and regulation, perhaps some covert work, we can reduce, if not eradicate, harmful magical beliefs. We could also consider making it illegal to accuse someone of practicing harmful witchcraft, following the example of countries from Malawi to India that did so in 2018.

While witchcraft inspires deceit, abuse, and violence today, I don't think it's all bad. Tens of thousands of Britons today identify as witches, be they Wiccans, Wandering witches, traditional witches or other variants. They are extremely good people, environmentally conscious, socially progressive and feminist. Like some of their peers in America, they can sometimes cast hexes on politicians they don't like. But since I don't believe in the reality of magic, I don't think it does much harm.

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It's harder to know what to make of the various spiritual healers who make their living offering everything from divination to cleaning houses to removing curses. There are probably tens of thousands of them working in Britain today, advertising their shady deals on the internet or in some newspaper classifieds. By one estimate, there are more spiritual healers and complementary therapists than general practitioners in the UK.

Modern spiritual healers come from every religion and background you can imagine: Hindu vaids, Muslim hakims, Christian exorcists, obeah therapists, aura readers, and energy purifiers. And there are white witches who have selectively revived the art of cunning, a tradition of white magic that I mentioned earlier that existed in Britain from the Anglo-Saxon period until the mid-20th century.

What are we to think of his work? Obviously scaring people into paying thousands of pounds to remove a supposed curse is wrong. And it is terrible to spread discord and discord by saying that another (innocent) person cast a curse. It is also unacceptable for witches to make ludicrous claims that they have a "100% success rate" in curing anything from witchcraft to depression, as a psychic from Chorlton, Manchester did in 2010. (Thankfully, the Agency for Advertising Norms prohibited him from doing so). in the future.)

But what about an energy purifier or white witch who doesn't make exaggerated claims and charges £100 for some curse removal rituals? Or a spiritual healer selling incense, herbal teas or bath bombs (yes, really) for £20 each online?

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Faith is powerful. The placebo effect is real. Faith and positive thinking can work miracles, if not magic. Some people find magical rituals psychologically therapeutic, as anthropologists studying foreign cultures have observed. The same applies to modern Britain. Given that, perhaps it's okay to live off magic, as long as spiritual healers don't encourage conflict, don't overwhelm them, and make it clear that belief-based systems are a complement, not a substitute, for rational thinking and scientific. . medicine.

Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times, by Thomas Waters, published by Yale (hardcover, £25)

Photo: "Old witch with spinning wheel", illustration by Hans Holbein the Elder. J., Augsburg 1537 (Alamy)


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