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Death Penalty of the Witches and the Micro-physics of Power

By Samita Manna & Soumyajit Patra 

…she is not to be altogether released, but must be sent to the squalor of prison for a year, and be tortured, and be examined very often, especially on the more Holy Days. But if, in addition to this, she has been defamed, then the Judge may proceed …and condemn her to the fire, especially if there is a multitude of witnesses and she had often been detected in similar or other deeds of witchcraft. [From The Malleus Maleficarum, 1486] 

In popular belief, witches, having a diabolic link armored by the religious or spiritual affirmation, use occult power, generally malignant in nature.  A witch is hence treated, in no uncertain terms, as someone who is extremely harmful and destructive. The supernatural power of the witch is something that originates within the witch herself as a result of her association with the devil on the one hand, and the god or spirit on the other. This power can be employed both consciously and unconsciously. Anthropologists sometimes distinguish between such categories as ‘witchcraft’, ‘sorcery’, ‘necromancy’ or ‘shamanism’ (see Stephens 2006). But in the minds of the people these are the same, in one way or another, and essentially harmful. Therefore when people collectively identify a person as a witch they stop every communication with the person, and in many cases, according to the gravity of the situation, believed to be created by the witch, she or he is publicly exterminated. Though witch killings, in politico-administrative discourses, are treated as incidents of murder, these are nothing but examples of capital punishments given by the community, based on the definition of the situation as per its customary laws, to the offenders – the witches, to avert further damages.

During the early Middle Ages in the history of Europe, leaders of the church categorically insisted that witchcraft was a ‘delusion’ and advocated the idea that no supernatural capacity was possible that could “cast spells or fly through the air in the entourage of a Pagan deity” (Melton, 2001). The Canon Episcopi of the tenth century discouraged any practice of witchcraft and noted that such belief itself was anti-Christian. This text, as a part of the general canon law, not only rejected the idea of witchcraft outright but also directed the priests to campaign against such beliefs. During the late eighth century, church organizations demanded the death penalty of not only persons identified as witches but also of persons who lodged such complaints.

Historians have found that while the persecution of witches was a rarity during the Middle Ages, their number reached staggering proportions during the early modern period – a period marked by a steady rationalization of the life world in Habermasian sense. An estimate shows that across Europe and the Americas between the early 1400s and the late 1700s, around fifty thousand people were given death penalty for practicing witchcraft. And about eighty percent of them were women (Stephens 2006). Geschiere (2001) tries to provide us some plausible causes for such changes in the attitude of people in general and that of church organizations in particular towards witchcraft and its associated “penal style.” According to him, this was related to the increasing belief of the people in the supernatural power of the ‘Devil’ – a process rightly termed as “the diabolization of local witchcraft beliefs.”

The Malleus Maleficarum (1496) had played a vital, perhaps the most important role to consolidate the process. By the fifteenth century, belief in witchcraft was common in Europe. Pointing out “the three necessary concomitants of witchcraft, which are the devil, a witch, and the permission of almighty god”, this infamous book provided a ready guide to identify a witch and to initiate the judicial procedures against the witch that ultimately culminated in gruesome capital punishments in most cases. The Malleus Maleficarum declared that witches were essentially women. Naturally, with such kind of feminization, the total control over the body of the supposed offenders became easier in a male dominated polity. But what Foucault (1995: 25-26) has shown is that for the “micro-physics of power”, as a part of the greater political technology of the body, to train and torture the subject, a technically-thought and organized mechanism is required. Malleus Maleficarum provided the knowledge and framework for the subjection of the body that was believed to be dwelt by the evil spirits. And, the judicio-religious justifications for killing a person, generally a woman whose supposed activities could not be stopped by any other mechanisms of social control, were created to ensure the sovereignty of the community or state.

Consequently many torture tools and methods like bootikens and red hot pincers were developed. Bootikens were boots that went up to the convicts’ knees. The wedges were inserted into it, breaking and crushing the bones of the persons’ leg. The process ended with the death of the person. Similarly red hot pincers were used to rip off flesh from the convict’s body till death.  Sometimes pincers were even inserted into the vaginas and rectum. Though Foucault (1995: 14) observes that at the beginning of the nineteenth century “the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared”, incidents of witch killing do not support this. The death penalty prescribed to the suspected witches has remained similarly brutal and similarly public, down in history, until today:

Police in the eastern state of Jharkhand (India) said a group of mainly female assailants beat the pair (an elderly woman and her daughter-in-law) to death, after earlier deciding that they were responsible, through their alleged witchcraft, for the recent deaths of several children from illness (The Telegraph, 14 June 2013).

Thus, in the last analysis, the absolute power of the community or the state is exercised as a ‘strategy’ to retaliate with the help of some, what Durkheim calls, repressive laws. In Durkheimian analysis this kind of law is generally found in societies having pre-modern traits in which the alleged perpetrators cross the moral boundaries and offend the “collective conscience.” “The great spectacle of physical punishment” of the witch helps revitalize the moral order and prove that community or the state is omnipotent.

Pic-credit: Here

Professor Samita Manna is Vice-Chancellor, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal, India.

Dr. Soumyajit Patra is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal, India.

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