by Carole Linda Gonzalez
Why apologize for something you are not responsible for? Especially when no one is left alive who deserves an apology.
That was the first thought many doubtless had when reading that the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, offered a formal apology to those who had been accused of witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries and were subsequently executed. The apology was issued on International Woman’s Day, this past March 8. Sturgeon said she was taking the occasion to acknowledge an “egregious historic injustice.”
Her action was a result of a campaign by the group Witches of Scotland (WoS) launched by Claire Mitchell QC, criminal appeals court attorney, and Zoe Venditozzi, a well-known Scottish writer. The WoS was founded to win an apology for those executed under the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, and to build a national memorial to remember them. Historians believe up to 4,000, overwhelmingly women, were convicted under the law, with many burned at the stake. “Confessions” were often extracted by torture.
Recently, the Spanish region of Catalonia also pardoned 700 women who were tortured and put to death as witches centuries ago. On January 26, its regional parliament passed a resolution to rehabilitate their memory. Spanish historians have written that Catalonia was one of the first regions in Europe to carry out witch-hunts.
We may ask: What’s the point of apologizing? Everyone who suffered is long dead, and the Scottish government no longer executes people simply for being witches. Nor are the modern-day people of Scotland or Catalonia responsible for these ancient wrongs.
Making sense of it
But what does make sense is that in July 2021 the United Nations passed a resolution calling on countries to address their “witchcraft” accusation problems. This was undertaken in response to a rise in witch trials and mob lynchings in various countries around the world. Today’s victims remain much the same as those that suffered under the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563. They are vulnerable people—mostly women, children and the elderly, who in some countries suffer horrible punishments simply for being accused of “witchcraft.” Older widows are especially at risk.
Motives behind contemporary witchcraft hysteria may be anything from real fear of sorcery, desire for personal retribution, or financial gain. Most disturbingly, victims may be targeted as to provide ingredients for rituals as well—that is, their body parts.
In Indonesia, when the country’s leader Suharto resigned in 1998, his leaving office occasioned widespread unrest—and (for some reason) an intense frenzy of witch-hunts, resulting in the deaths of some 400 people. While there is widespread belief in Indonesia of magical practitioners called dukuns, some observers in the nation believed that these witch-hunts were meant to cover up simple murders with ulterior motives.
The horrific trial of a 90-year-old accused witch named Akua Dente was filmed in a rural community in Ghana in July 2020. She was tortured and forced into confessing. The next day a mob lynched her. Then, the video of the trial was published. It horrified the nation and news of it went global.
In July 2021, a year later, the UN make a formal statement on beliefs that lead to attacks like what happened to Dente. At the 47th Session of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, the draft resolution sponsored by Cameroon was adopted, entitled “Elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks.” The resolution reaffirms the human rights enumerated in the Charter of the United Nations, and especially recalls the commitment to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. It also stresses that States should carefully distinguish between harmful practices amounting to human rights violations related to accusations of witchcraft, and the lawful and legitimate practices of religious minorities.
One wonders if Starhawk, contemporary witch and author of the neo-pagan classic The Spiral Dance, knew how difficult her task would be when she wrote: “The word witch carries so many negative connotations that people wonder why we use it at all. Yet to reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful.”
The vast majority of victims of the witch-burnings in Europe were women, and Sturgeon’s apology connects easily to modern notions of witchcraft, women, and feminism in the Western world. But the necessity of the 2021 UN Human Rights Council resolution speaks to the persistence of the old notions of witchcraft that spurred the burnings.
In this light, the apologies take on a deeper meaning. Memorials to those who died unjust deaths serve to keep the victims in current memory, and keep in mind the conditions that lead to such injustices. So it is appropriate timing that the WoS Campaign was launched in 2020 on International Woman’s Day.
Carole Linda Gonzalez is a New York area neo-pagan practitioner and commentator.
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Reprinting permissible with attribution