Monday, May 28, 2007

Fears of Occult Ritual Scenes, a Folk Forensic Archaeology

Next up in the class, we're looking at the historical development of Slavic vampire seers into the modern notion of religious or clinical vampire slayers in Bruce McClelland's Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. The witch trials and massacres of Western Europe helped influence this transformation.

This got me thinking. I'm no expert on Renaissance or Reformation-era witch hunts (though I've read and used to own Jeffrey Russell's Witchcraft in the Middle Ages on the beginning of witchcraft accusations in Europe), but from what I know accusations typically involved eyewitness testimony or confessions. The sabbat and its rituals were described.

Today, however, scenes interpreted as having Satanic or otherwise "occult" paraphernalia are a common part of reports and descriptions of supposed ritual activity. During the height of the Satanic Panic focused on evangelical American Christians in the 1970s through early 1990s, "occult paraphernalia" could include specific ritual items such as candles, bells, chalices, gongs, swords, though the Occult and Violent Ritual Crime Research Center continues the tradition to today (actually, I can't tell how active the organization is, or if it just a website reflecting or copying earlier beliefs and activities on the part of "cult experts," such as this example from 1994). Satanists or teenage "occult dabblers" would partake in crimes from vandalism to child mutilation up to murder, with "ritualistic" symbols or overtones. Physical evidence of Satanism can even take the form of black clothing and heavy metal music, according to the prosecutor that jailed the West Memphis Three. Even a report skeptical of this prosecution and conviction argues that a lack of paraphernalia is evidence for a lack of ritual activity.

These ideas haven't gone away, though their prominence has been overshadowed by other issues and concerns in the religious right. One Christian "expert on ancient and modern world religions, contemporary cults, paganism and the occult" notes that "As a sergeant at the Baldwin Park Police Department in Southern California and a British Parliament member point out, frightening, murderous Satanic practices take place around the world every Halloween." These ideas are propagated through documentary films in addition to literature and the internet, as discussed in some depth in an essay by a constable who is pagan.

Due to the popularity of these beliefs, and in particular the influence of self-taught experts on local law enforcement, law enforcement agencies have felt the need to investigate and report on how to handle cases that may be influenced by such beliefs. Here is such a report from the FBI, and another from the State of California. These "experts" and their activities have also been denounced by individual police officers (see the essay above, or an article by a former investigator now skeptical of such claims).

It struck me that the search for and importance of paraphernalia, graffiti, and ritual sites is a folk religious form of forensics or archaeology. Perhaps this emphasis today, and not in older witchcraft accusations, stems from the development of archaeology and other investigatory field sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And this activity continues. I'm not saying such signs or rituals aren't included in some crimes. But as noted in the reports above, religious beliefs often rode ahead of investigation in finding Satanism everywhere.

A murder suspect in Yorkshire had an "unhealthy" interest in tarot, numerology, and the occult. Rumors of a "Gothic" symbol involved in a well-publicized murder two years ago allow Christian websites to resurrect the exact same old lists of ritual activities and paraphernalia. Not in the traditional vein, there has been increasing focus on Santeria and other religions from Latin America and the Caribbean. A "voodoo pot" was uncovered during a murder investigation in Texas. Similarily, a cauldron with fake and real human bones was uncovered in Maryland. Red ribbons found in association with drug smuggling and production activities in Georgia are considered a sign of voodoo.

Possibly the best example of this comes from the beginning of the year in the UK. A goat was found dead in a cross-shaped ditch. This was reported as being potentially "devil worship." The sloppy handling of calling this pagan resulted in angry letters to the editor and a clarification. Within a week, however, it became clear the goat had died of natural causes, and the "cross-shaped" ditch was part of informal bike stunt tracks in the countryside. This was clearly an example of interpreting a "crime" scene through the lens of religious or religiously influenced beliefs.

There is no reason to believe this will go away anytime soon. Italy has formed a special police unit against Satanism that works with the Vatican, and a recent case there alleging Satanic child abuse could have been ripped right from the height of the Satanic Panic in the US twenty some years ago. Six years ago in Germany, in an article on a conservative site for the Concerned Women for America "'The occult scene is thriving in this region. They have had black masses in the ruins of buildings and in the open. They have rituals and swear oaths.' There has also been evidence of ritualistic animal sacrifice."

We should note, as I posted in my other blog, that urban archaeologists are interested in evidence for historical magical rituals, or at least the evidence for them walled and boarded up in houses and other structures. Of course, these generally don't show any evidence of metal albums or a spiral notebook Book of Shadows.

This of course pales in comparison with the execution of accused witches that occurs around the world with alarming frequency. But that may need another post.

EDIT: How did this become pagan?

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