The Code of Hammurabi (18th c. BC) prescribes for sorcery that the person on whom the spell was cast should be made to walk into the river. Should the river consume him and thus find him guilty, the man who cast the spell should acquire the guilty man’s house. Should he live and be found not guilty, then the accused shall get the house, and the man who cast the spell put to death.
But that’s not to say the Babylonians had anything unique going on; in the twenty centuries succeeding the laws put forth by the king, tens of thousands more would be put to death for sorcery – or even the mere allegation of it. Ancient Egypt followed close on the Babylonian style, and pagan Rome perhaps leads them all in executions on suspicion of sorcery, especially if the crops were bad. The Middle Ages define for many of us the image of the witch hunt, if not the Salem Witch Trials of early America.
But for much of the civilized world, witch hunts largely ceased after the mid-18th century. In England, the last executions for witchcraft occurred at Exeter in 1682 when three woman were put to death. Nearly thirty years later, in 1711, Joseph Addison would publish an article in the highly respected The Spectator journal (No. 117) criticizing the irrationality and social injustice in treating elderly and feeble women as witches.
Still, not everybody gets The Spectator. (*NSFW Warning: May Be Graphic To Some Viewers)
Witch hunts still happen today, particularly in places where the belief in magic is prevalent – largely Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Papua New Guinea (though it should be noted that Saudi Arabia is the sole remaining country where witchcraft is legally punishable by death). A 2010 estimate places the number of “witches” put to death annually in India at around 200; and the Simbu province of Papua New Guinea alone! accounts for nearly 150 deaths annually for acts and accusations of witchcraft.
Just the same, it’s hard from where I sit to imagine such a thing. We read about it in old books and forget about it as quick as it came upon us. Hell, the idea of witches and witch hunting is more foreign to most of us than walking on the moon. Think about that.
Still, don’t think I have looked beyond the evil that swells upon our own shores; everyday callous people rape and torture and murder other human beings for nothing more than sport; they target strangers in a now-popularized “game”; they shoot up schools and malls and public places because they are unhappy. Or perhaps because they’ll become famous.
Considering that, perhaps it isn’t the action that still shocks me so much as the inaction. That people would walk themselves to their death, never giving back the fight. It’s sad, really, that a person can be made to be that way.
Lord help the men who come to take me to the pyre.
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.
– General Sir Charles Napier