Most witch hunters were sadis­tic tor­tur­ers.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - [email protected] Rickard L. Sjoberg is a neu­ro­sur­geon at the Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal of north­ern Swe­den. He is also af­fil­i­ated with Umea Univer­sity, where part of his schol­arly work fo­cuses on the psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms be­hind the Swedish witch per­sec

The stereo­type of the witch hunter as a cruel inquisitor who de­lib­er­ately frames in­no­cent peo­ple is preva­lent in lit­er­a­ture, movies and art­works. One ex­am­ple is the char­ac­ter Lu­cas de Beau­manoir in Sir Wal­ter Scott’s novel “Ivan­hoe.” An­other is the witchsmeller pur­suiv­ant in the British com­edy show “Black­ad­der.” To­day the pres­i­dent im­plic­itly evokes this stereo­type when he uses the term “witch hunt” to de­scribe the work of Mueller and his team. And is it re­ally wrong to sug­gest that some­one who uses tor­ture to in­ves­ti­gate al­leged multi­gen­er­a­tional can­ni­bal­is­tic cults whose mem­bers can fly is either stupid or evil?

But the no­tion that witches could fly was un­con­tro­ver­sial among scholars at the time of the per­se­cu­tions. Fur­ther, ig­nor­ing what ap­peared to be cred­i­ble al­le­ga­tions of child ab­duc­tions, Satanism and cer­e­mo­nial can­ni­bal­ism would have been a grave over­sight by any­one in a po­si­tion of author­ity.

That peo­ple tasked with the ju­di­cial han­dling of witch per­se­cu­tions reg­u­larly ap­proached their du­ties with a se­ri­ous and crit­i­cal at­ti­tude is il­lus­trated by the fact that these very peo­ple were of­ten the ones re­spon­si­ble for putting an end to these ex­plo­sive events. As his­to­rian Bengt Ankar­loo de­scribes it, the Great Swedish Witch Panic of 1668-76 ended af­ter mem­bers of a royal com­mis­sion in Stock­holm de­cided to crit­i­cally re­ex­am­ine all ev­i­dence (ad­mit­tedly af­ter a num­ber of al­leged witches had al­ready been sen­tenced to death). The Basque out­break of 1609, Gus­tav Hen­ningsen writes, ended thanks to the ac­tions of the inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías. He rein­ter­viewed wit­nesses and sub­jects, ul­ti­mately con­clud­ing that no acts of witch­craft had oc­curred.

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