What centuries of witchburning has done to womanhood

Whether it’s the Wicked Witch in Oz, or Sleeping Beauty’s sorceress Maleficent - it only takes going out on Halloween night to witness that our understanding of witches paints them as evil, spell-casting, outcast, old, lonely women. What happens when we contextualize our contemporary understanding of witches (and more generally: women) within the broader framework of historical witchcraft? What is it exactly that is feared in witches? Why is the ongoing burning of millions of women who were, and continue to be, tried as “witches” not acknowledged? 

One reason is that we have been living in a women-hating society for centuries now. Historically, the term “witch” was used interchangeably with wise woman or healer. A witch was the elder village wisewoman, associated with teaching ancestral knowledge. Hag refers to women who refuse to conform, reluctant to yield to patriarchal expectations, willful and unchaste. And yet, with such seemingly empowering qualities, hags and witches have been re-framed to represent the undesirable. Undesirable, because independence and willfulness are not qualities which men have historically desired in women. And that is precisely what defines a patriarchal society: one in which men legitimize the rules and women are docile participants. 

With the Catholicization of Europe and the eradication of pre-Christian Pagan traditions, witches and women’s authority presented a huge threat to the Catholic institution. The narratives told about witches painted them into man-hating and devil-worshipping. Witch hunters sought to purify society by getting rid of “indigestible” members: women whose physical, intellectual, economic, moral, and spiritual independence and activity profoundly threatened the male monopoly in every sphere. (Daly, 1978) The book which re-animated witchburning throughout Europe more than anything was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, titled Malleus Maleficarum which translates to “Hammer of the Witches”. Witchcraft was defined as “crimen exceptum”, or: a crime distinct from all others, an exceptional crime. Ordinary punishments would not suffice, for the intent was to break down and destroy strong women who threatened the patriarchal institutions, to dismember and kill the Goddess, the divine spark of Sisterhood in women. The invention of the printing press and mass distribution of witchburning propaganda signalled a new era of a phallotechnic society which had just launched its first massive campaign against “dangerous” women. 

That which was feared in witches was not material wealth or physical superiority - rather the spiritual, mental and moral philosophies embodied within women and shared amongst sisters. The patriarchs used mothers and daughters as witnesses against each other, creating a culture of mistrust amongst women. The prosecutions of witches were done in the name of “Mother Church”, further warping the deepest feelings of Sisterhood within women and encouraging self-contradictory emotions of love-hate. Continuing until this very day, historians tend to wipe out witchburning and fail to mention the ways in which the erasure of women become normative in Renaissance Europe. Such historical erasure is consistent with the initial goals of the witch trials; the history of witches is, after all, a history of the persecution of women. 

Fast-forward to a conflicted 21st century, in which women have seemingly breached many restrictions of patriarchy, and yet: eating disorders have risen exponentially, cosmetic surgery is the fastest growing medical specialty, consumer spending on female beauty products has tripled, and pornography is one of the largest consumed media categories. Our superficial “freedoms” as women of being able to work and vote are infused with self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging and mistrust in other women. Women as a class are being oppressed and kept docile by using the beauty myth against them. As Naomi Wolf laid out elegantly almost a decade ago: “The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to assess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual and evolutionary: strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.” 

This beauty myth becomes difficult to uphold when we take a look at matriarchal Goddess religions that dominated the Mediterranean from 25,000 BCE to 700 BCE. It is important to acknowledge these societies as women and to realize that our “place” has not always been dictated by men, that we are not “naturally” subordinate, and that “beauty” has looked/behaved very differently throughout time. There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for today’s beauty myth. Moreover, the myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power. Older women fear younger ones, young women fear old. Does this ring a bell? It should. Just like the patriarchs who initiated witchburnings, today’s patriarchs benefit from keeping women oppressed and in perpetual mistrust of each other. 

Still today, male-dominated institutions are threatened by women’s freedom, exploiting female guilt and apprehension about our own movement. What would the pornography industry do if women refused to re-enact male desires? What would the cosmetic surgery industry do if women embraced the unchanging beauty within, instead of obsessing about the ever-changing patriarchal representation of beauty? These questions are not meant to put more pressure and responsibility on individual women, but rather highlight that there are billion dollar industries invested in keeping women subordinate. In other words: misogyny and sexism make money. Centuries of women’s minds being colonized by patriarchs has lead to both men and women relying on women’s oppression. “Why does the social order feel the need to defend itself by evading the fact of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to these formulaic and endlessly reproduced “beautiful” images?”

So, what can we learn from the seemingly distant history of witchburning in Europe? Well, perhaps that it isn’t so much “distant history” as it is contemporary reality. The United Nations estimates that witchburnings still occur by the thousands each year in Africa, the Pacific and Latin America, and even increasingly in the United States and Europe. But this should really come as no surprise within a cultural climate ofmaking women feel perpetually guilty about being women. We may look at the witchburning trials and be appalled that women had to defend themselves in front of a jury at all; that the jury had made up their mind of her guilt before the trial had even begun. It really isn’t so different today when women feel the need to convince men of their status as an equal human being, for their need of liberation. Women today are guilty of being women and have learned to accept the punishments. Women who identify their deepest Selves with theessence of a witch are not being merely metaphorical or “cute”. Rather, there is a much deeper political implication of connecting with our ancestral witches. Women who embody witches embrace being untamed, angry, joyous and unapologetic - qualities which may have gotten us burned at the stake not so long ago (and in many communities they still do). 

Humankind currently finds itself in a unique situation; one in which environmental crises demand new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding economies, collective methods of behaving for future sustainability, and an attitude of humility towards the resources available. “We can pray and hope that male institutions evolve this sophisticated, unfamiliar way of thinking within a few short years; or we can turn to the female tradition, which has perfected it over five millennia, and adapt it to the public sphere.” (Wolfe, 1990) This is a call to all witches, all women who cackle and roar, who feel angry and ache, who grieve for their foremothers, who see themselves in the millions of women burnt and burning for their vilified womanhood! Do not feel guilty for embodying your inner witch, it isn’t trivial but necessary for both men and women, the entire planet we inhabit, to learn from the mistakes of patriarchs and listen to the wisdoms of our witches.