At the end of last week, a 20-year-old woman, Kepara Leniata, was doused in gasoline and burned at the stake for witchcraft in Papua New Guinea. Her persecution and murder was apparently initiated by the relatives of a six-year-old boy who had died. Obviously the death of a child is a terrible event, but even accusing Leniata of witchcraft seems archaic.
According to British scholar Robin Briggs, accusations of witchcraft can be either petty or extraordinary. Extraordinary: he blighted my crop, she gave my child scarlet fever, she made my pigs ill. Or the more petty examples: a British man once claimed witchcraft when a woman arose from her seat and offered it to him. A woman who had lost all of her children through miscarriage and stillbirth was accused of witchcraft because she no longer cried at the death of others' babies.
But in the 21st century it is a culture, not witchcraft, that should be scrutinized when a witch-hunt takes place. In Papua New Guinea, for example, Prime Minister Pete O'Neill said he had instructed police to use all available manpower to bring the killers to justice. Good. But Police Commissioner Tom Kulunga described the murder with unintentional irony as "devilish" and advocated the creation of courts to deal specifically with sorcery. It's hard to say which -- witch hunts or state-sanctioned witch trials -- would be worse.
When you hear the phrase "a witch trial," you probably think of a group of 17th-century villagers in Salem or Samlesbury deciding a local woman is a witch and inventing hopeless tests for her to prove herself otherwise. But there has been one trial in history where a witch used the courts to his advantage. Where a witch was the plaintiff, not the defendant.
In 19th century France a male witch, Felix Thorel, was accused by the local priest of Cideville, France (a village in Normandy), of causing a poltergeist in the priest's parsonage. This poltergeist went on for months and was loud enough to be heard from 2 kilometres away. The priest slandered Thorel in the community for causing the poltergeist and, perhaps driven a little batty by the noise, eventually beat Thorel severely over it.
The witch's response was, incredibly: I'll see you in court. Thorel sued the priest and the ensuing trial, with its own twists and complications, took place in nearby Yerville in 1851.
Briggs writes that the prelude to accusations of witchcraft is usually a quarrel, followed by a misfortune. In The Priest, the Witch & the Poltergeist, my novel based on the true story of the Cideville witch trial, the "quarrel" between the witch and the priest actually began when the priest had the leader of the coven, a man Thorel admired, put in prison for medical charlatanry. The poltergeist is the "misfortune." It may be possible that the misfortune in Papua New Guinea leading to the burning at the stake of Kepara Leniata was the death of the six-year-old boy, but misfortune has spread far and wide beyond that, and according to Oxfam International will continue in the future, well beyond this tragedy, because sorcery in Papua New Guinea is so entrenched.
There is a key difference between these two cases. Felix Thorel was a citizen 70 years after the French Revolution, who may have been unschooled but who knew he had the right to sue when he felt wronged. The witch trial was not a lynching but a French civil trial with affidavits given before a judge. Despite its faults, 19th century France believed in the rights of the individual no matter whether he or she was considered a witch or not. That is the distinction between witchcraft-persecuting societies and witchcraft-practicing societies. Modern Wiccan lawsuits in Britain and North America are more often launched by witches trying to get Wiccan-ism recognized for statutory holidays or standing up for their rights, not trying to save themselves from the stake.
The famous case of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai is really no different than Kepara Leniata except for its happy ending. The Taliban shot her because she wanted to attend school; in their myopic eyes she was practicing the sorcery of fomenting girls' desire to learn. They used bullets rather than a stake. But she is alive today both because of modern medicine, and because she has left Pakistan and is now living in Britain. To end horrors like the burning in Papua New Guinea, Oxfam says, criminalize accusations of sorcery instead of allowing a citizenry to persecute sorcerers. Oxfam concludes, "Education is essential." For societies in Papua New Guinea, Africa, Pakistan, and many others, left foundering in medieval modes of thought.
Fireworks light up the Singapore skyline during the public opening of the 2013 River Hongbao Festival at The Float at Marina Bay on February 8, 2013 in Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
A woman releases sparrows as an offering to mourn Cambodia's former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. Sihanouk's body had been lying in state at the Royal Palace after being flown from Beijing where he died Oct. 15 of a heart attack at the age of 89. The cremation, the climax of seven days of mourning, will take place Monday. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
An Indian Hindu devotee dries her clothes after taking a dip in Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati River, during the Maha Kumbh festival, in Allahabad, India, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. Millions of Hindu pilgrims are attending the Maha Kumbh festival, which is one of the world's largest religious gatherings that lasts 55 days and falls every 12 years. During the festival pilgrims bathe in the holy Ganges River in a ritual they believe can wash away their sins. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
A horse nibbles on a fence as others graze in a field under a blanket of snow during the cold winter weather in Akron, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
Members of the murga "Los amantes de La Boca" rehearse before participating in carnival celebrations in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Argentinas carnival celebrations may not be as well-known as the ones in neighboring Uruguay and Brazil, but residents of the nations capital are equally passionate about their murgas, or traditional musical troupes. The murga "Los amantes de La Boca, or The Lovers of The Boca is among the largest, with about 400 members. Its a reference to the hometown Boca Juniors, among the most popular soccer teams in Argentina and the world. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Herring worth billions in exports are seen floating dead Tuesday Feb. 5 2013 in Kolgrafafjordur, a small fjord on the northern part of Snaefellsnes peninsula, west Iceland, for the second time in two months. Between 25,000 and 30,000 tons of herring died in December and more now, due to lack of oxygen in the fjord thought to have been caused by a landfill and bridge constructed across the fjord in December 2004. The current export value of the estimated 10,000 tons of herring amounts to ISK 1.25 billion ($ 9.8 million, euro 7.2 million), according to Morgunbladid newspaper. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti)
United States Lindsey Vonn is airlifted after crashing during the women's super-G course, at the Alpine skiing world championships in Schladming, Austria, Tuesday, Feb.5, 2013. Lindsey Vonn has been helicoptered to hospital from the Alpine skiing world championships after crashing and apparently hurting her right knee in the super-G race. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
In this Feb. 5, 2013 photo, Anaplastologist Hernan Baron displays a prosthetic eye at his studio in Bogota, Colombia. Baron has been making silicone prosthetic body parts for over 15 years for patients with disfigurements and specializes in the reconstruction of ears, noses, eyes and hands. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
An Afghan refugee girl holds on to her headscarf against the wind while making her way along a muddy alley of a slum during a rainy day, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. Pakistan has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees dating back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan three decades ago, thousands of them still live without electricity, running water and other basic services. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
Shirtless South Korean Marines and their U.S. counterparts from 3-Marine Expeditionary Force 1st Battalion from Kaneho Bay, Hawaii, run on a snow covered field during their Feb. 4-22 joint military winter exercise in Pyeongchang, east of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. More than 400 marines from the two countries participated in the joint winter exercise held for the first time in South Koreas. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)