Its meaning, as far as the idiom goes, is when a group of people try to find some sort of incriminating dirt on others based on irrelevant or misguided evidence. But, as we all know, when this shit happened in the past, they were really looking for witches, and if you got accused, you were dead meat!
Witch hunts date back centuries into B.C. There were witch hunts in Egypt, Rome and Babylonia, now known as Iraq. It was a part of religious takeovers and government upheavals. If there was drought, witches were hunted down and killed. A plague, same thing. It was so normal, that witches might be discovered and executed if someone in a village got sick!
Researchers tell us that during the time of Early Modern Europe and Colonial North America, this is from the mid-1400s to mid-1700s, somewhere between 35,000 and 100,000 people were tried, convicted, tortured and executed for witchcraft. This number doubles when the estimated, non-official executions are tallied up as well!
There were a variety of, not-too-scientific, ways the authorities could tell if a person was a witch. First, there was usually a testimony or accusation, and sometimes, that’s all it took. But, witch hunters might also look for moles, birthmarks and blemishes. According to the officials, these were nipples where witches would suckle Satin’s familiars. These spots on the skin were poked with needles and other sharp objects, and the reaction of the suspect would determine any evidence of which craft.
There were other ways to determine sorcery as well. If a person was tied up, thrown in a pond and floated, they were a witch. If they sunk, they were innocent! If the accused could say the Lord’s Prayer, no mistakes allowed, they were innocent! Baking a cake made out of ash, rye meal, and a victim’s pee could be fed to a witches dog or cat! If the animal revealed the truth, the owner was a witch! The list of these witch tests is long and disturbing!
Unfortunately, in some parts of modern day India, the Middle East and Africa, which hunts are still a somewhat normal occurrence and result in execution. In Papua New Guinea, white magic is legal, but black magic earns the witch a two-year prison sentence. Saudi Arabia is the only remaining country where witchcraft is still legally punishable by death!
I think most folks believe that if someone does something wrong, and there’s sufficient evidence to prove their guilt, hopefully the sentence fits the crime.
But, if the evidence is sketchy and the judge is going on weird birthmarks, foreign accents, reports of someone talking to them self, what the nosy neighbor says, and the Fox Newscast, then God help us, we’ve got a witch hunt!