So, I posted the following in an Ancient and Medieval Civilizations history college class. This is really my first time throwing wide the broom door in an open environment. It is incredibly short for the subject matter. The discussion direction is first, in orange then my response is in purple and black.
One of the more fascinating aspects of medieval history is the concept of witchcraft. While romanticized in books, movies, and tv shows, being accused of a witch was one of the most intimidating and dreaded events of medieval life. Witch hunts raged on and off throughout Europe and the New World on a irregular basis for over 300 years. Overwhelming the majority of those accused, tried, tortured, and executed for witchcraft were women. Why? What about women made them targets for these accusations? Was it a means of control of women who acted outside traditional gender roles? If you look at some of the women who were “uppity” were often accused of witchcraft. Joan of Arc who led France to victory over the English–burned at the stake. Anne Boleyn–King Henry VIII’s second wife was accused of “bewtiching” the King before she lost her head. Anne Hutchinson who dared to speak out in colonial America–denounced as a witch. Did witches really roam loose brewing up good and evil or was it a scare tactic to keep women in their place? Was the devil really at work in the form of a woman? Or was this an extension of original sin and the inherent weakness of women?
Before I address this discussion, I am not Christian. I believe everyone has the right to believe what is right for them and I hope each individual follows their beliefs in thought, word and deed. Because of my personal beliefs I have not climbed on my soapbox and preached for respect and acceptance, instead I have tried to answer the questions tactfully and respectfully. I am not against any religion but do not wish to be converted nor do I wish to change anybody else’s faith, however I do like to discuss beliefs and so I apologize for the length of this post.
Real or scare tactic? Is witchcraft real, what about the Devil or original sin?
I feel the answer to all three of those questions is both yes and no. How can it be both? I do not believe that a person can speak some angry words and the target person will receive something negative but I do believe that the person who prays or casts a spell or charm to protect or heal can influence another. This has more to do with willpower than the supernatural and, to me, is kind of like a placebo effect. These questions have to do with an individual’s belief and faith plays a large part in the formation of those beliefs. Religion is not the only aspect to play into beliefs. Traditions, fairy tales, superstitions, entertainment and literature all impact a persons view. As we approach Halloween there are many who will be unknowingly quoting Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Even the t.v. series Doctor Who paid homage to “Double, double toil and trouble.”
Are women inherently weaker than men? Original sin/Women’s weakness?
In the patriarchal society, which was reinforced by many of the teachings of the Christian Church during the Middle Ages, women were believed to be weaker because, as the stories go, Eve caused the downfall of humanity. Having the witch-hunts focused on women allowed male control to be reinforced by women caught up in the mass hysteria. The hunts also allowed grudges to be acted upon and inexplicable events (plagues, natural disasters and the like) to be blamed on someone/thing. The reasoning went that if the cause could be found and purified (fire had been traditionally purifying in many pagan societies) then the ‘trouble’ would stop.
The Witch-Hunts Targets
Women were specifically targeted and some relate this to the relative success of the witch-hunt hysteria. The Gendercide Watch site does a fantastic job of lining this point out. This site was really interesting to me because it relates the hysteria to both women and timing of other rapid transformations happening. It makes a great point later on about the countries which were strongly Catholic had fewer burnings (“4 in Ireland vs 26,000 in Germany) than those in transition and turmoil with the Reformation. Women were not the only target but were undoubtedly the main focus. This may have something to do with holding onto traditions or superstitions surrounding fertility practices. The Catholic church had declared, or was working on declaring, some pretty specific beliefs/principles regarding fertility and the place of women.
Did/do personalities play any role in the label of witch? Control: gender roles?
As is the case with Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn and Anne Hutchinson many of the first targets were strong willed women who did not stay in their prescribed roles. Personality often times led to the naming of certain women as witches, now that label has changed a letter but the idea behind it still applies. The movie (based on the book) Practical Magic nods at this thought through the school children’s chant “Witch, witch, you’re a ***ch.” The carryover of this chant generationally also speaks to how prejudices, as well as traditions, are passed on and how change can take so long.
Was geographic location a factor?
Absolutely. If you study Africa and South America many magical practitioners are called Witch Doctors or Shamans and are male. However, in North America men or women could be Shamans, depending on the tribe. In Europe women were traditionally the healers, those with the ‘evil-eye’ and is why I think it was so easy for this mass hysteria be focused on women. We as a global society have not left these practices or prejudices behind. There was a witch doctor that cursed a soccer star at the 2014 World Cup! Not to mention the millions of women dead or maimed across India specifically, but Asia and Africa as well, by being accused of witchcraft. Even now, many who consider themselves pagan in America hide their beliefs for a long time, it is called ‘coming out of the broom closet.’ Assumptions are rarely accurate and can be very hurtful depending on the society.
I leave you with the quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
A dark Cave. In the middle, a Cauldron boiling. Thunder. Enter the three witches.
1 WITCH. Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.
2 WITCH. Thrice and once, the hedge-pig whin’d.
3 WITCH. Harpier cries:—’tis time! ’tis time!
1 WITCH. Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.—
Toad, that under cold stone,
Days and nights has thirty-one;
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot!
ALL. Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Seeing as it in now October, the timing was right. I have struggled recently in responding to a conversion effort. There is a traveling walk through theater called the 99. It is host by Christian churches and focuses on their belief in response to drugs, suicide, gang violence and the consequences as they see them. It is a good experience but at the end there is a opportunity to commit/rededicate oneself to Jesus. When talking with the lady I evaded her questions of “Are you saved, when were you saved” and so on. I could have taken the opportunity to speak to her about not being Christian and why I don’t believe I will go to Hell because of it. But I didn’t. Instead I kept silent. 3 days later I had the following discussion assignment in class. In response to my actions at the 99 I feel I was more open in my class. Long story short: it isn’t easy being open.