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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Witchcraft and Trauma

Witchcraft and Post Traumatic Stress

Throughout the ages witchcraft beliefs and post traumatic stress have been closely related.  Many people accused of witchcraft in medieval Europe have been sufferers from post traumatic stress.  Their communities unable to make sense of the often bizarre, aggressive and self-destructive behaviour interpreted these symptoms in accordance with their magical frame of reference.  The same happens today in societies where the dominant worldview includes many magical beliefs.

In societies where misfortune, hardship, suffering, unemployment, disease and death are attributed to the work of demons or evil spirits who are believed to work in league with human agents it is a very easy step towards scapegoating people who are perceived as different.

Many studies have shown that foreigners, people with a disability, people with a mental disease, refugees, orphans and other people suffering from psychological trauma become easy targets for witchcraft related scapegoating.

Orphaned children, children who have been subjected to sexual and physical abuse as well as other people suffering from post traumatic stress are more vulnerable than other people groups because they can easily be forced to confess to anything evil as they already feel very dirty, very angry, very guilty, very powerless and very violated deep inside (Herman 1997:96-97).  Issues such as altered states of consciousness, dissociation and multiple personality syndrome are all symptoms of complex post traumatic stress and yet easily misidentified as demon possession and witchcraft in a magical belief-system.

Children subjected to the cruel horror of child abuse develop the wrong belief that they must somehow be responsible for the terrible things that are done to them by the powerful people in their world.  Why else are they deprived of love, care, kindness, goodness? Something must be wrong with them, maybe they are witches, demoniacs, whores, vampires, evil goblins, dogs, rats, snakes..... The perpetrators often try to re-enforce this perception the child has of him or herself by reminding them how evil they are and sometimes by forcing them to do horrible things to other children as well (Herman 1997:105).

To an outsider these children often appear very good as they strife so hard to be good and perfect. The child victim becomes an excellent performer, hardworking, perfectionist in all she does in the hope that somehow the abuse will stop one day and he/she will be loved and cared for. Even when such children become adults they keep being torn between a sense of inner malignant badness and outward perfectionist performance in order to be accepted.  Yet even when people accept him or her, it is never truly believed by the victim as deep down the feeling of ‘I am evil’ is still there.

 The only way out of their prison is counselling in love and in truth, whereby falsehoods the victims believe about themselves are countered with truth, where victims open up about what was done to them and also what they did to others. It is a very painful road both for victim and therapist, full of dangerous pitfalls but it is also the road towards full freedom and recovery.   

We should therefore not be part of the problem and heap more abuse on victims of abuse by labelling them as witches, mad or evil, they need proper psychological help to deal with their trauma.


Judith Lewis Herman 1997. Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora.