This article by Slate’s “Undercover Economist,” Tim Harford, discusses witch-killing, ancient and modern, and concludes that it’s often a way of getting rid of excess family members in lean years.
If you are a believer in religion, or even just, like me, someone who hopes, there’s a lot to answer for, and witch-killing has to be high on the list. Modern Western sensibilities are shocked by it, even though it’s a significant part of our cultural heritage, and not just because of Exodus 22:18. If you’re white, chances are good your ancestors burned a witch — so no getting all indignant about the Tanzanians doing it now.
Good liberal types like me, of course, deny that it was ever God’s intent that people go around murdering old ladies, least of all because times are tough and we need the cash. (Though I did just advocate that we re-think how much we’re willing to spend on end-of-life care and Social Security, so, tomayto, tomahto….) But if that’s right, then we’re faced with only a couple of options, neither of them terribly easy. Either someone other than God has been making up laws and passing them off as divine decrees, or God meant something else that got lost in the mix.
The skeptic, of course, leans towards the former, and there’s certainly plenty of evidence for that. Nearly all serious scholars of the Bible, including most Christian ministers, now recognize that the Bible is the work of many hands, and as I’ve argued before, even a layman’s reading of the Bible reveals that it by no means claims to be a direct transcript of God’s word. Still, as has been pointed out by evangelical preachers and atheists alike, once we start taking apart the Bible, it’s a difficult task to say for certain that one passage is the word of God and another is a mere interpolation. (If you’re a Baha’i, you may be comforted by ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s distinction between “the Torah” — that which was specifically revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, or “that to which He was bidden” — and the “stories,” which apparently form no part of it. The Baha’i view of the Bible is efficiently summarized here, though this collection of quotes arguably raises as many questions as it answers.)
But whether it was God or some clever ancient lawmaker who first outlawed witchcraft, there are surely very good reasons for it — reasons that ought to appeal to the stoutest and most scientific skeptic. Namely, witchcraft is fraud, pure and simple. Witchcraft was to the ancient world what astrology, homeopathy, “energy work,” Scientology, and the Atkins diet are to our own era — a dishonest attempt to use confirmation bias and other psychological effects to convince people that they can have something for nothing, that the world doesn’t work the way it appears to, that there’s a “secret knowledge” that’s available only through initiated practitioners and that can enable one to step around the rules that apply to everyone else.
Belief is a powerful thing. There’s some evidence, albeit not rock-solid, that simply believing in the power of a curse can kill you. At a minimum, in a time before organized science and medicine superstitions could be easily stoked, leading to undue anxiety for some and false hope for others.
What of the argument that “witches” provided a link to an earlier, more maternal, form of folk wisdom, including folk remedies that would have constituted the ancient world’s only source of medicine? There’s certainly some compelling speculation that male-dominated Abrahamic monotheism ruthlessly stamped out all rivals, including earlier goddess-based cults. On the other hand, the “folk medicine” trope seems overplayed. Sure, the ancients found some useful stuff, apparently by the tricky route of trying to eat everything and seeing what happened. This is actually not a bad idea — sure, it results in a lot of dead grandchildren (“Og, eat a bit of this bark and let’s see what happens!”), but at least it’s scientific, and sometimes, as in the case of salicylic acid
and peyote, they got lucky. Whenever someone created an esoteric system and then started arbitrarily mixing things based on their theories, though, things had a tendency to get stupid — “traditional” medicines are often actually quite poisonous, with no demonstrable benefits.
So were witches helpful or harmful? Probably that varied widely from place to place and society to society. At their best, they might have been talented herbalists who could help you with a headache or constipation. But this hardly seems like the kind of witch who would have inspired the author (or Author) of Exodus to write, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” or whose mere potential existence might excite such fear in modern-day Tanzanians. Ironically, the original taboo on witchcraft was probably intended to avoid exactly the evil of witch-hunters run rampant. The trouble is that the taboo-setter wasn’t explicit enough about the reasons for the taboo — e.g., “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, because she is a fraudster who will take your money and then take credit for making it rain when it would have rained anyway, and also because having people running around claiming to be witches will cause other, superstitious people to go all batshit with panic and probably cause riots. So, no witches.” Then again, maybe he/He was explicit — and maybe that part was edited out later by priests who realized that they, too, wanted to take your money and then claim success when the rain came.