Over 100 graves have been dug up in the West African country of Benin, looted by grave robbers seeking body parts for use in magic rituals.
According to a Reuters news story,
“The incident is the most serious case of grave-robbing in the West African state, the world capital of voodoo where most of the country’s 9 million residents practice a benign form of the official religion. Authorities in Dangbo, a village 6 miles from the capital Porto-Novo, began an investigation after a mason working at the cemetery said he spotted several masked men digging up the graves, from which organs and skulls were removed. ‘The desecration of graves is about money in this region,’ said Joseph Afaton, director of the cemetery. ‘It is for sacrifices, or for bewitching.'”
Many Americans only think of witches and witchcraft around Halloween. But in many countries belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered part of everyday life. In Africa, witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing (or removing) magic curses or bringing luck — much like many psychics and fortunetellers in America.
A 2010 Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa; on average 55 percent of Africans believe in witchcraft.
Though graves are the most common source of bones, organs and limbs, in the past few years albino children and adults in Africa have been attacked and killed for their body parts. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti.
Muti hunting was featured in the 2009 South African science-fiction film “District 9,” in which the hero’s body parts were sought after by a local warlord who believed that the limbs would give him magical powers. Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their living victims. Many of the albinos were beheaded, their heads carefully collected and preserved as gruesome good luck charms or for use in rituals.
Throughout most of history, medical knowledge of anatomy was poor and indirect, partly because of fear and taboos against cutting open corpses. The Renaissance brought an emphasis on practical, real-world knowledge, which necessarily meant examining and cutting up the dead.
In Europe, the rise of early medical centers created a strong demand for dead bodies; a few cadavers were made available by royal decree, usually the bodies of condemned criminals. In the 1700s, in fact, dissection was a punishment for serious crimes.
By 1720, theft from graveyards was common in London, England, and grave robbers (or “resurrection men,” as they were known) were making a profit digging up bodies and selling them to anatomists and doctors. Among the most infamous of these criminals were Irish grave robbers and murderers Brendan Burke and William Hare, who committed sixteen murders and sold the bodies to a well-known London anatomist in 1828.
By the 1900s most grave robbing in the West had ceased, though as the incidents in Benin demonstrate the practice lingers where belief in magic is common.