Sunday, 18 November 2007

Cyprus Egg-witch case cracked open

What are we to make of reports from Cyprus concerning the court appearance of a 69 year old woman on charges of sorcery?

According to last Friday's Cyprus Mail, Hariye Rezvanoglu allegedly charged a 35 year old man £500 for a "marital harmony" spell that included cracking an egg into a pair of his underpants before adding nail clippings and pubic hair.

The man told a court in Nicosia that Ms Rezvanoglu had managed to persuade him that his former wife and stepmother had cast a spell on him and that she would rid him of the hex for a fee. On a previous occasion he had paid her £20 for a psychic reading.

At first, I believed her because she predicted most things about my life correctly. The first time I met her, she placed her hand on my head and told me about my wife and stepmother putting a curse on me. I gave her £20 because I felt sorry for her.

In the second meeting, she told him that she needed £500.

I wasn’t happy about it but I paid her… When she asked me for £5,000, I went to the police.

The eggs-in-underwear angle has ensured that the story has swiftly gone global. But, behind the obvious puns - "Egg spell is no yoke", said the Mirror - a serious (kind of) story might be lurking.

Sorcery is illegal on Cyprus, which is one of the newer members of the E.U. Section 304 of the island's criminal code states: “Any person who profits from or earns rewards from the practice of magic, witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, or undertakes to tell fortunes or uses skills or knowledge of the occult sciences to discover where or in what manner anything supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found, is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to prison of one year.”

This does not stop adverts for psychics, astrologers and healers appearing in local newspapers. But it would be a mistake to think that the law is treated as no more than a quaint anomaly, like the Witchcraft Act which lasted in Britain until 1951 and saw the fraudulent Scottish Medium Helen Duncan (here she is materialising some "ectoplasm") go on trial at the Old Bailey in 1944.

Police investigations into sorcery on Cyprus are actually far from uncommon. In another recent case, Nicosia CID arrested 39-year-old Vera Georgiou on suspicion of fraud, sorcery and intention to conceal a crime. She is alleged to have defrauded £496,000 from a female bank clerk between May 2005 and July 2006, telling her she was cursed and that the curse had spread to her two children.

Police deny that they are on a witch-hunt. According to a spokeswoman, only cases which involve fraud or deception are taken seriously. "It would be impossible for police to go around arresting psychics on suspicion of profiting from their trade because it would be so difficult to obtain the evidence. If it’s being done for fun it’s not a crime," she said.

Nevertheless there has been a steady stream of cases in recent years in which psychics have been busted for activities no more sinister than those undertaken by any number of Glastonbury-based healers or suburban shamans in this country.

In 2004, a woman described as a "hard working single mother" and astrologer was fined for conducting a series of spells and counter-spells for which she had charged a mere £10 or £20 a time. Her books on astrology and magic were destroyed by order of the court.

In June of this year, police arrested three members of a "sorcery ring", including a self-described African medium, after a sting operation in which an undercover police officer posed as someone seeking a cure. The police also seized money, accounts and supposed magical equipment including seashells, rosary beads, wooden bowls and bottles covered with leather. The Guinean voodooist at the centre of the scam, Toura Gassama, was jailed for two months.

The rationalist in me has no problem with going after obvious fraudsters who prey on the vulnerable. But such people can be dealt with quite satisfactorily by charging them with extortion. By retaining a specific offence of "sorcery" not only illiberally restricts the activities of patently honest (if foolish) mediums and their clients, it also institutionalises superstition. That magic is serious enough to merit police investigation and even undercover "sting" operations implies that there is something in it.

A get-tough policy on witchcraft, moreover, is rarely a sign of a healthy and functioning democracy. Saudi Arabia, that progressive country with which we have so many "shared values", beheaded a man for sorcery just the other week, while Robert Mugabe has recently introduced new laws against witchcraft in Zimbabwe.

I wonder, too, what our masters in Brussels have to say about these cases. Don't they stand in the way of free competition? Hasn't a Cypriot witch got as much right to summon up the supernatural powers as one based in Surrey? Or perhaps the new-found enthusiasm of the island's police for pursuing diviners will see an influx of Cyprian sorceresses to these shores, hot on the heels of all those Polish builders and Lithuanian lapdancers.

In which case Hariye Rezvanoglu may not be the only one to end up with egg on her face.