02/15/2013 07:53 EST | Updated 04/17/2013 05:12 EDT

"Witches" Are Still Being Burned at the Stake

In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 photo, bystanders watch as a woman accused of witchcraft is burned alive in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. The 20-year-old mother of one, Kepari Leniata was stripped naked by several assailants, tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash. (AP Photo/Post Courier) PAPUA NEW GUINEA OUT

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.

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