Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary, Faith, conflict and archives

With a wave of her wand Circe turned Odysseus’s sailors into pigs—at least, that’s what Homer told us. Circe was a witch.

Witches are having a moment in the spotlight right now. U.S. President Trump regularly calls the investigation into Russian actions in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections a “witch hunt.” Any number of men accused of sexual harassment claim to be the victim of a “witch hunt.” A law firm in England is accused of conducting a “witch hunt” against British troops who served in Iraq. Check today’s news feeds and see how many references you find.

While the figure of speech is common, it hides the real problem of harm caused to people today accused of witchcraft. In 2009, Gambia’s leader “ordered security forces to round up hundreds of ‘sorcerers’” and over the next seven years, victims told the Washington Post, “armed soldiers targeted poor, elderly farmers, forcing them to drink a hallucinogenic liquid before pressuring them into confessing to murders by sorcery,” leading to “a pattern of kidnappings, beatings and forced confessions that have had lasting health implications for survivors and resulted in several deaths.”   In Cameroon, where the health ministry estimates that sickle-cell disease is responsible for 16% of all deaths of children under five, Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed 19 people with sickle-cell disease, of whom “16 said they were called ‘sorcerers’ and ‘devils’ as children, abandoned by their fathers and subjected to ‘demystification rituals’ that could have killed them.” A woman who murdered her 5-year-old son stricken with sickle-cell disease said she was told by traditional healers that he was a sorcerer who “came into the world to torture you.”     

The reality is that the ancient belief in witches has never gone away, and European pagan traditions have had a renaissance in the latter half of the 20th century as Wicca, a decentralized religion. Prejudices against witches are akin to the religious racism found in persecutions of one or another faith-based group in every geographical location. Mosques are attacked in the U.S.; a synagogue in Sweden was attacked in 2017; in May a family of suicide bombers attacked Christian churches in Indonesia killing 13 and injuring dozens; a church was attacked in the Central African Republic and in retaliation a mosque was burned; Hindus who were attacked in Pakistan in turn attacked Sikhs; Buddhists attacked Muslims in Sri Lanka: the list goes on and on, not to mention intra-faith conflicts such as that between Sunni and Shia.

While these may be actions by private groups, governments are also complicit. In 2014, the nongovernmental Pew Research Centre found that 18 of the 20 countries of the Middle East and North Africa criminalize blasphemy (lacking reverence for the sacred) and 14 criminalize apostasy (abandoning faith), with legal punishments ranging from fines to death. The persecution of Baha’i adherents in Iran was the subject of a February 2018 protest to the government by international legal experts (see HRWG News 2018-02).  In Russia in May, Jehovah’s Witness homes were targeted in 28 new raids leading to “detentions, house arrest, travel restrictions, and criminal charges.”   Also last month the Supreme Court in Chad required government members to be sworn in on either the Koran or the Bible, and when one non-Muslim refused to swear on the Bible the Supreme Court fired him.

With this destruction of persons and places comes destruction of the records of faith. Archival associations seem to know very little about the preservation of faith-based records other than those of Christian and Jewish groups. A quick review of the 590 members of the Society of American Archivists’ Section of Religious Collections turned up only a few members representing Jewish institutions and one Baha’i, while of the 74 members of the International Council on Archives’ Section of Archives of Faith Traditions (where it is much more difficult to identify representation), the overwhelming majority of members represent Christian groups. And yet we know all faith-based organizations and schools and fellowship bodies keep records, of adherents and rituals and rites. How are the records of these bodies preserved? What condition are they in? The professional associations appear not to know. As important as faith is to human society and as much conflict as it sparks, surely we must make sure that the evidences of those faith activities are well and truly preserved, just as we must make sure that the records of religious persecution are available for justice measures.

Meanwhile, I am taking a good look at pigs. You never know: one might turn out to be a sailor.