It’s that time of year when children dress up as ghouls or witches and go door-to-door innocently collecting sweets. But the history of witchcraft is rather more complex – with a contemporary PR message.
Over the Hallowe’en period depictions of witches are everywhere. Kate Moss, she certainly isn’t, and her very ugliness makes her evil – a PR parable that disability rights groups have been fighting for years.
Early witchcraft was a rudimentary and localised religion, bound up in fertility and survival – the two over-riding concerns for our species, then as now. But, by degrees, the world progressed. The concept of society developed; so too the idea of established religion.
However, in the early years of Christian imperialism, the church much preferred to assimilate by stealth. For example, until 834, All Hallows was on 13th May – moved to 1st November by Pope Gregory to overlay the older pagan festival. So too, of course, Christmas itself, to overlay the pagan winter solstice (also known as Yule, hence our Yule log).
Witchcraft’s journey to demonic intolerance took several centuries. In 8th century Saxony, the death penalty existed for anyone killing a witch. In 11th century Hungary, Charlemagne decreed that there was no legal remedy against witches “since they do not exist.”=
Bit by bit, the church flexing its muscles, tolerance was chipped away. By 15th century Hungary, the memory of Charlemagne now dimmed, a first offender found guilty of witchcraft was made to stand in the town square wearing a Jew’s cap, a symmetrical punishment alongside Europe’s other principal scapegoat.
Indeed, in many parts of Europe, the social exclusion of the Jews was only matched by the social exclusion of witches. It was merely a matter for individual societies to pick the scapegoat which best suited their particular circumstances.
In the Alps and Pyrenees they burned witches, in Spain they burned Jews – for the simple crime of being either a witch or a Jew. In 14th and 15th century Germany, it was the Jews who suffered; by the 16th century it was the witches. In the 20th century, it was the turn of the Jew again, the cycle of persecution turning full circle in the ovens of Auschwitz.
The last person in the UK to be prosecuted for witchcraft was Scottish housewife Helen Duncan, jailed for nine months in 1944 because, a spiritualist, she seemed to know too much about the war effort.
The real story of the witch persecutions was the church’s successful PR campaign to define as evil everything that had gone before. It was brutally effective.
But the cult of the scapegoat isn’t dead, and has contemporary resonance. Take your pick from immigrants, benefits scroungers, health tourists, utility companies, investment bankers, gays, gypsies, Moslems, single mothers, young people… the list goes on and on.
And that’s the relevance for today’s news and PR professions, because by picking scapegoats we are also defining our own prejudices and intolerances, and looking for somebody to blame for society’s ills.
That’s particularly true in a fragile economy, where many of us are worried about income or job security, and when politicians can point accusing fingers and garner cheap votes. The rise of fascist Golden Dawn in Greece is a case in point.
Hallowe’en does therefore have a modern message – that intolerance can have unintended and unwelcome consequences. In helping to shape public opinion, the media and PR professions should remember that.