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A Modern Witch Craze in Papua New Guinea

News & Comment

Karen Stollznow

Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

Newspapers internationally reported a recent spate of witchcraft-related murders in rural Papua New Guinea. The media interest began with a case in which a young woman was stripped naked, bound and gagged, tied to a log, and set on fire by a band of villagers. She burned to death in the blaze. Local authorities believe she was suspected of being a witch. Within days, a man was accused of using magic to kill another villager. Pronounced guilty by an ad hoc court, the man was slashed to death with bush knives by an angry mob.

Belief in witchcraft is rampant in rural Papua New Guinea, and murder for suspected sorcery is a common practice. In 2008, some fifty people were victims of witchcraft-related murder in the Highlands provinces. While there are no exact figures, many incidents occur in remote areas and remain unreported. When a death occurs, the locals often close ranks and refuse to cooperate with the authorities.

This modern witch craze is worldwide. As Leo Igwe of the Center for Inquiry/Nigeria has noted, ritual killings and witchcraft-related murders are prevalent in many parts of Africa. These crimes are also widespread in South America and Asia, especially in India and Malaysia. There are scattered cases in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, and even in Australia.

The practice also exists in America. Last year there were two reports of witchcraft-related murder trials in the United States—the cases of Carla Mendez in Los Angeles and Lawrence Douglas Harris Sr. in Sioux City, Iowa. Voodoo, santeria, animal sacrifice, and other forms of “black magic” are still practiced in some parts of the country, particularly in communities in Miami and New Orleans.

Belief in sorcery is strongly rooted in Papua New Guinea. Many believe in the existence of sangumas, witches, sorcerers, or people with magical powers. Sangumas are accused of invoking curses, hexes, and spells to bring misfortune to their villages. These victims are held responsible for occurrences where natural explanations can be offered but aren’t recognized. Sangumas are often blamed for natural disasters and seemingly inexplicable deaths, for example, from cancer or HIV/AIDS.

The legal proceedings that follow the accusation are a sham. The victims are usually tried by church pastors and unqualified officials presiding over a kangaroo court. The inevitable punishment is execution, performed immediately in a public place by a frenzied group of tribespeople. Victims are sometimes hanged, stoned, shot, beheaded, butchered, buried alive, or burned at the stake after being doused with gasoline and set on fire. Others escape death but suffer attempted murder, sexual abuse, and torture, often to extract a confession.

Disturbingly, accusations of witchcraft are not invariably indicative of superstitious belief. Sometimes there are ulterior motives underlying the claims. Some deaths are crimes of vengeance or of an accuser seeking resolution in an ownership dispute. Some murders are drug-related. In a real-life version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, some victims have violated social taboos and are guilty of socially stigmatized behavior, such as infidelity, unmarried pregnancy, or homosexuality. To shift blame and avoid punishment for real crimes, charges are often laid against innocent individuals or even animals. In Kwara, Nigeria, a goat was held in custody for attempting to steal a vehicle. A literal scapegoat, it is claimed that the human culprit transformed magically into a goat to escape arrest.

Papua New Guinea is in dire need of skepticism, education, and legal reform. It appears that the latter is finally happening. These latest horrific killings, and no doubt the ensuing media outrage, have prompted the country’s Constitutional Review and Law Reform Commission to create new laws to prevent (or at least reduce) witchcraft-related deaths.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.