Centuries have passed since the Witch Trials. However, we are still living by the prejudices and beliefs stemming from medieval Europe. Or did we construct new myths revolving around this witchy archetype? Witches in Hollywood and their portrayal in today's pop-culture, embody and propagate some myths we still hold on to today. So in the spirit of Halloween, let's delve in and demystify the real lives led by these condemned, yet fierce beings.
Demystifying the Medieval Europe WITCH
Life in medieval Europe was fairly different: a question of survival. Among the many accused, those aged, neurodivergent, sufferers from ailments and women were the common targets. Once accused, your fate is sealed. Only about 25% of the accused, make it to court to defend their charges. However, none survived.
It is interesting to note here that the accused often stand alone, with zero support from the village and in a highly patriarchal society, they very rarely are under the "protection of a man". Consequently, making it easier for the villagers to exact their revenge on someone they have a disagreement with.
The Ugly Duckling Label
In a patriarchal society, a woman is nothing but property, and her only assets are beauty and youth, tolerated in conditional quantities. For the rising popularity of the Church, free will, education, independence and money with respect to women were not only frowned upon, but those possessing such assets were condemned.
The success of the Patriarch, their strong-foothold upon their followers, heavily depended upon the Chambers of Oppression they had erected. A woman's primordial importance in this society is her role in marriage and motherhood. Any woman who digresses from this idealized concept of "Womanhood", was often dealt with harshly.
A witch was portrayed with boils and pimples, short, plump, aged, grey haired, barren, sick and presenting thyself with all sorts of ailments known to humans at that time. It is interesting to analyze the concept of beauty that quite often accompanies this idealized version of womanhood. For a woman, to the patriarchal society, was nothing but an object that could be owned, showcased and often bedded.
The challenge presented itself when those accused of witches were highly independent and no longer dependent on a man for their survival. Of course, society has always piggy-backed upon eliminating women who could not only fend for themselves but also think and exist in a narrative beyond a "hole that needs penetrating."
With lack of access to healthcare at the time, many individuals presented a variety of ailments at once. However, women were often the accused for it is their "beauty" that the ailment tarnished, thus ruining her reputation and rendering her unable to marry or bear children. Those aged, were the most disliked for not only were they not fulfilling societal expectations of the time, they would quite often disregard any societal politeness they were asked to adhere to. With no guardian, of course their fate was sealed.
The Eve and the Satanists
Often reminded of the subjected cruelties once accused, we are also introduced to this ideology of the Eve, biblical reminders of the woman's position within a society: the ideal domesticated woman corrupted by knowledge and power, aiming to overthrow the patriarchy.
To possess such an unimaginable wealth of knowledge and power, independent and able to survive without a Male entity playing its role, was terrifying to the Patriarchy in its attempt to control women's autonomy over their bodies.
To justify the existence of these non-submissive and opinionated women, foundations were set to link them to Satan, as sexually explicit, insatiable lovers, apprentices or even as child-bearers, thus reducing a woman's imprint to her sexual expressions. The justification was essential in ensuring a righteous passage through the Christian faith.
...the witch has offered herself completely and has bound herself to the devil really and in truth and not fantastically and in the imagination only, and thus it ought be understood that she cooperates with the devil in body and in truth; for all works of witches are to this end, whether they always carry out their witch-craft through the pact, or through a glance, or through the spoken word, or through the operation of some instrument of witchcraft deposited under the threshold of a house.
Demystifying the Feminist WITCH
In 1968, a holocaust was constructed: the WITCH, an acronym for Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell with one mission: quieten the oppressor. Unknowingly, these over-zealous forces fed into the gendered ideology of being a witch, alongside reinforcing several myths.
Recast in a protofeminist ideology, the WITCH, rebirths herself in the 21st century. Au contraire to popular belief, witches were not burned alive at the stake, be it in the United States or in Europe. They were hung and most probably given a mass cremation as it was believed that they don't deserve a Christian burial. To further topple the feminist backbone of the Witch theory, accusers were mostly disgruntled women.
In many retellings, we hear of witches of the midwifery and herbalism profession, when there exists no reliable source suggesting that the accused were midwives and healers. In fact, historians such as Diane Purkiss once wrote: "midwives were more likely to be found helping witch hunters." Further, a thorough knowledge of medicinal plants was a necessity for all housewives.
Apart from popular media, there also exists no reliable source to suggest that witches were unmarried, sexually liberated or lesbians. Most witches were married, with kids and coexisting with husbands. Yet we still believe in these modern myths.
We humans, are very suggestible. A slight change in the wording an argument and we can trigger our own perceptions. Poems, songs, imageries, videos, colors, all contribute to a perception we create of the world around us. The myth of Burning Times was introduced to us by Elizabeth Brooke.
I remember, how I remember the smell of burning flesh, the hair catching alight, the awful awful agony of your feet slowly burning up. I remember the jeers of me who all watched, and the frozen dread of the women and children who were forced to watch my ending.
Hysterical fantasies posing as historical facts and yet, the story is too good to let go off. A majority of these radical feminist poems are considered found poems. One such is Anne Cameron's poem entitled "Witch", which in essence, bits of Barbara G. Walkers' Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, tagged along with the ideology that a witch is essentially fighting the submissive ideal pushed down her throat.
Witches, Fairies and Paganism, now stands on speculative grounds of existence, their history and stories bearing the mythical imprints of time.
Broedel, H. P. (2003) The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft: theology and popular belief .
Purkiss, D. (1996). London and New York: Routledge.