just a quick follow-up on my witch hunt post … a very kind reader very kindly sent me a copy of this article — Witchcraft Beliefs and Witch Hunts: An Interdisciplinary Explanation — by niek koning (thanks very kind reader! (^_^) ).

to be honest, i didn’t quite follow koning’s explanation for where belief in witches comes from as it was a little … involved. something about how our innate fear system was fine-tuned during our hunter-gatherer evolutionary history to pick up on cheats and sneaks, but that this combination of behavioral traits got a bit out of whack once we settled down in larger, agricultural-based societies. then people started suspecting strange neighbors of putting the ‘evil eye’ on them whenever crops failed or they became ill.

not sure i bought koning’s entire explanation, but he did include some interesting data on what sorts of societies tend to believe in witches and witchcraft. basically, hunter-gatherers not so much — simple agriculturalists and agriculturalists quite a bit — and pastoralists off the charts. belief in actual witches pretty much disappears with modernity (although, as i argued in my post about the jason richwine affair, the basic elements of the witch hunt, including all the irrational behaviors, are very much still around!).

here’s a neat table from koning (click on table to EMBIGGEN it):

koning withcraft beliefs

here are the percentages of those with the strongest (4) beliefs in witchcraft for each type of society:

nomadic foraging = 28.6%
(semi-)sedentary foraging = 30.0%
shifting cultivation without metal hoes = 35.0%
other hand-tool farming systems = 44.7%
plow agriculture = 69.2%
pastoralism = 72.0%

apart from degree of complexity, i can’t see any other obvious pattern there (like iq). pastoralism doesn’t really fit the complexity pattern, though — you’d think that the plow agriculturalists would have the most complex societies (maybe i’ll have to see if i can find out exactly which societies koning was looking at). -?-

one interesting characteristic that i can think of wrt the pastoralists is that they are usually some of the most inbred, so perhaps “genes for belief in witchcraft” can pile up in those populations rather quickly? dunno.

koning also points out that in times of crisis (echoes of the anthropologists i referenced in the previous post) — in particular economic crisis — a population which doesn’t believe in witchcraft can revert to holding such a belief [pg. 10 in the pdf]:

“The conclusion that resource stress may revive witch paranoia in more-evolved agrarian societies is also confirmed by the witchhunt in Europe. In contrast to older studies that cited the role of elites or the emergence of rural capitalism (e.g., Levack 1987; Macfarlane 1970; Muchembled 1987; Trevor-Roper 1969), researchers such as Briggs (1996), Behringer (1995, 1999, 2004) and Pfister (2007) have convincingly argued that this historical event was stirred by popular fears induced by demographic pressure and socioenvironmental crisis. Quantitative analysis in Oster (2004) confirms that witch hunting was related to demographic stagnation and de-urbanization.5 Although some witch trials and a series of demonological studies occurred during the fifteenth century, the witch craze was largely between 1570 and 1630.6 In this period, the exhaustion of a cluster of medieval farm innovations (Mazoyer and Roudart 2006) and the onset of the Little Ice Age caused a steep increase in real grain prices, on top of the inflation caused by the influx of American gold and silver. The first witch hunts occurred in Alpine valleys, where population pressure became critical earlier than in other places and farming was sensitive to climatic cooling (Behringer 1999, 2004; Ostorero 2008; Pfister 2007). In more peripheral areas, where overpopulation occurred later, the outburst was delayed by several decades (Ankarloo and Henningsen 1990; Goodare et al. 2003; Karlsen 1987; Ostling 2011; Thurston 2007; Woodward 2003). The northern Netherlands, which avoided the crisis through specialization and commercial expansion, witnessed few witch trials (Gijswijt-Hofstra and Frijhoff 1991)….

“5 That economic slowdown and an increase in witch hunting were mainly caused by the Little Ice Age, as these authors assert, is less clear. Climate studies differ about the precise timing of the Little Ice Age, and in Oster’s analysis the statistical correlation of population and de-urbanization with witch hunting is much stronger than that with climate change.

“6 The decades of economic growth in the early sixteenth century saw a leveling off in the number of witch trials and an actual decline in some areas (Behringer 2004; Levack 1987).”


previously: “to disbelieve in witchcraft is the greatest of heresies” and a loaded question

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