Witch Persecutions and the Perils of Shadow Projection

Image Credit: Hjoranna/Deviant Art

Image Credit: Hjoranna/Deviant Art

The history of our race is highlighted by many bright peaks and shadowy valleys. We have seen lofty heights and despairing lows. Occasionally there have been black gulfs almost too horrible to contemplate. The Holocaust in Nazi Germany is assured a permanent place on this list. Another black splotch upon the tapestry of human history is the rampant and mindless persecution of alleged witches, which cast its cruel shadow over many parts of Europe and the New World over a span of nearly three centuries (roughly 1450 to 1750). Oh, and let’s not forget 2013

This former atrocity culminated in the rise of the Inquisition, which spread its influence into great portions of France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and eventually Colonial America – most famously, during the witch “trials” in Salem, Massachusetts. Neighbor could not trust neighbor during those times, as hearsay and gossip was sufficient to cast suspicion upon an alleged witch. Once suspicion was established, the victim was almost never “found” innocent.

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

Such proceedings bore little resemblance to anything that we would consider a justice system. The burden of proof lay upon the accused, and it was a no-win situation. Typically, the available means through which victims could “prove” their innocence were fatal anyway, such as by drowning (because only witches could float) or bearing Inquisitorial torture unto death.

At the sickening peak of its influence, the Inquisition was big business, too. Many of its victims were wealthy landowners whose properties were forfeit to the Catholic Church after their conviction. The persecution of witches also profited those who built the stakes as well as the innkeepers who housed all the people who came to watch the burnings.

The witch hunts are but one example – albeit a very dramatic one – of the tendency that human beings have to project the darker side of their nature upon specific individuals.  These individuals are then obliged to play out the role of scapegoats. Psychologically speaking, there isn’t much difference between the way in which alleged witches were demonized centuries ago and the ways in which minority groups – racial, political, or sexual – can be demonized in our day.

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the term shadow to denote those aspects of the unconscious that a person fears and/or finds repugnant. The shadow is something inside ourselves that we don’t want to be aware of – so we project it upon others instead. In Jungian psychology, this is the true root of all hatred. The object of hatred always resembles something that lies, unrecognized, within the hater.

Persecution in any form will only disappear from our world when enough people resolve to take personal responsibility for their inner reality and face what is within them without projecting it upon others. The people in power during the reign of the Inquisition hated many aspects of human nature that the official religious beliefs of the time had made taboo, such as sexuality, personal spiritual revelation and a sacred sense of nature. Such hatred, spawned by ignorance and projection, led them to become a malignant force themselves. Philosophies that encourage us to see the worst in human nature must always bring about such results.


Reeves, K. (2000). Racism and projection of the shadow. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 37 (1), 80-88 DOI: 10.1037/h0087844

Woolf, A. (2000). Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials Clinical Toxicology, 38 (4), 457-460 DOI: 10.1081/CLT-100100958

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