What evil spirit have you familiarity with?
Have you made no contract with the devil?
Why do you hurt these children?
I do not hurt them. I scorn it.
Who do you imploy then to do it?
I imploy no body.
What creature do you imploy then?
No creature. I am falsely accused.
(The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Book II, page 355).
This dialogue is based on the examination of Sarah Good by Judges Hathorne and Corwin. Sarah Good was living in Salem when the accusations began. She was one of the first women to be tried, convicted, and executed for the “crime” of witchcraft. Close your eyes, and picture the word “witch” for a minute. What image comes to your mind? More than likely, it will be a dark robed, crooked old crone with a Roman nose, probably a fair few moles and warts, and a black pointed hat. Wilson Lori Lee emphasizes the fact that in famous stories or folk tales, such as Hansel and Gretel by the German writers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the witch is a wicked old woman who tricks children and lures them inside. Lee adds, “In the story of Rapunzel, also by the brothers Grimm, there is a witch of great might, of whom the whole world was afraid. She kept the beautiful, young Rapunzel in a tower without stairs or a door. In all these fairy tales, good wins out over evil, but all witches have supernatural powers and are associated with evil.” Have you ever questioned why the stereotypical witch is always evil, and above all, always a woman?
The Woman Hunt
The association of women with evil dates back to Europe in the Middle Ages and the Patriarchal Christian society. The hate and fear of feminine power and everything it symbolized grew so much that witch hunts raged throughout Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, reaching New England in the 17th century with terrible consequences. Tens of thousands of women were accused of witchcraft, tortured and executed cruelly by the government and church. According to the church, witches were servants of Satan who had sold their souls to gain power. It would not be incorrect to rename the witch hunt as the “Woman Hunt,” because over 80% of the accused witches were women. Most of them were widows or women living outside the traditional family setting. They usually owned a small business or a small piece of land and worked as healers, just enough to enable them to live outside male control. Furthermore, the witch craze also had some connections with the old religion of the Goddess, the followers of which the church denounced as “Pagans.” What was the aim of this shameful mass hysteria, and who was to blame? If examined carefully, the answers can be easily found. The witch hunts and trials—which resulted in executions in both central Europe and Salem, New England—were a way to silence the female power that had begun to threaten the patriarch’s role in society.
The Religion of the Goddess
Before Christianity, the religion of the Goddess was commonly accepted. The creator was not male, but female, indicating the matriarchal structure of society. Recent archeological evidence indicates that goddess worshipping existed in all areas of the world at the same time, beginning in the Neolithic period from 7,000 BCE. In those times, society was organized like a beehive. Men would carry out physical labor, father children, and protect the society, but they didn’t have the right to vote or make major decisions. A Goddess figure was worshipped, and high priestesses acted as the avatar of the Goddess. Eventually, men discovered fear, and they asked each other, “What if women are wrong?” and, “What if the way women rule the world is wrong?” At first, they didn’t have any supporters, because women were in direct contact with the Goddess and created in her form.
“Wasn’t the Goddess fair?” The matriarchal doctrine was so powerful that men had to create “The Devil” out of necessity. The power of the Goddess had to be restricted. The society knew what “Bad Seed” meant. From their old experiences, they also knew that some boys were harder to control. Thus, the myth was created. According to the myth, one day the Goddess, the great Mother, gave birth to a boy. He was evil, and the Goddess could never make the boy good. Creating an “evil male child” myth was not that hard. Males were the weaker gender after all, right? Eventually, the child battled with his mother to dethrone her. That was too much even for his fair and forgiving mother, so she cursed him forever. However, the nasty boy/devil could masquerade as anything he wanted. He could even sometimes take the appearance of the Great Mother. That myth made men ask the question, “How can we be sure of the Goddess we worship now? Maybe that evil child has grown up, and he’s deceiving us in the form of his mother?”
Now It’s Time for the God
Men began to questions things more and the creation process continued. If the devil was male, only a male equal to him in muscular power could protect the Great Mother from her son. Slowly, societies changed the role of the male in spiritual mythologies. From then on, a male partner took a part next to the Goddess, someone equal to her. For some time, Goddesses and Gods ruled the mythologies together. Gradually, the role of the God grew. The need for protection and power replaced the need for wisdom and love, and a new kind of love was born: a love protected by brute strength, that owned what it loved, and that felt jealousy. Then, men not only served their females but also fought and died for them. Gods with magnificent powers who fought for Goddesses of magnificent beauty began to appear in mythologies, and so a jealous God was born.
However, the Gods were not just jealous of their Goddesses’ other desires. People had to love that God and worship him, or else! The vengeful God was born. Congratulations! The image of the Great Power changed, and now it wasn’t a source of pure love, but pure fear instead. The love model of the Great Power was feminine; it was the Goddess. The love of a mother for her child was limitless and forgiving, but the Great Power was now a demanding, jealous, vengeful, stern, and dictatorial God. The Goddess, with her boundless love had smoothly carried out nature’s laws, whereas the sulky God exerted power to control nature’s laws and even stipulated and limited its eternal love. This information is necessary to understand the seamless transition from a Matriarchal to a Patriarchal society.
When Christianity spread through Europe, many accepted it, but some still held on to their old beliefs. The Church labeled anything Pagan (i.e., of the old religion) as “evil” or “satanic” and banned the old traditions and rituals. As sexuality became taboo and evil, the old religion, which was sex-positive, was associated with the Devil by the church. Plague, famine and poverty was rising in Europe, and a scapegoat had to be found. Who was weaker? The Devil had tempted Eve, so she would eat the forbidden fruit and convince her husband Adam to do the same. And so womankind was related to the Devil and the root of all evil.
The statements of some respected religious men of the time show the opinion of women in Christianity and Medieval Europe:
Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine law. You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.
St. Tertullian (~155–225 CE) made these statements to describe the female gender. These quotes belong to St. Thomas (1225–1274 CE):
As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.
Aquinas also called women “mas occasionatus,” meaning “a failed man.” St. Jerome, who was the first to translate the Greek Bible into Latin, stated that, “Woman is the gate of the devil, the way of evil, the sting of the scorpion; in a word, a dangerous thing.” Finally, Martin Luther is the owner of these words: “No marital duty takes place without sin. Wives are to be beaten. If they [women] become tired or even die in child-birth that is why they are there.”
Luther also introduced the phrase, “A woman’s place is in the home.” These statements clearly show how the patriarchal society perceived femininity. The female gender was weaker, lesser, vulnerable, and inherently evil.
Fear has always been the main cause of anger and hatred, and people are afraid of what they do not understand. In his book, The World History of Psychiatry, John G. Howells states, “When champagne was developed in the 17th century, it was called the “Devil’s Wine” because no one knew how the bubbles came to be, so they were assumed to be the work of the Devil.” Champagne was witchcraft in Medieval Europe; champagne was women. Before the Inquisition, many women held important jobs within their societies. In Witchcraze by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, Barstow clarifies that a large number of women were not doctors (women weren’t allowed a medical education at all), but were healers such as midwifes, surgeons, physicians, barbers and apothecaries. However, some of those women also played spiritual roles in their work, continuing the old Goddess traditions, rituals and ceremonies. Those women’s so-called magical powers invoked fear in the authorities, in both men and other women, so they concluded, “she who can cure can kill.”
At this stage, priests and trained doctors noticed they were in direct competition with the female healers for business: Male dominance was under threat. The need to end this competition, along with the fear of magic, led to the exclusion of females from the realm of practiced knowledge. Suddenly, those who were once healers that owned a little land and held some power became witches capable only of evil. Natural disasters were often ascribed to witchcraft. Since women had always been associated with nature, their increasing link with “evil” could now explain events in nature that were previously a mystery, such as hailstorms, tempests, famine, and even plagues. The universal desire of men for women to be silent, submissive and obedient was now being sent out loud and clear. Male fury began to develop, focusing on women who tried to use what were considered to be masculine tools. Scapegoats were found.
One of the most significant facts that needs to be made clear is that most of the confessions were made under torture, so their reliability is extremely questionable. In The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol Karlsen, Karlsen explains the importance of some famous handbooks used in witch hunts by the authorities: “Two works stand out for stating the wisdom of the older European tradition on why women were more prone than men to witchcraft. These are the influential Malleus Maleficarum (1486) by Heinrich Institoris and Jakob Sprenger of Germany and the less well-known Tratado de las Supersticiones y Hechicherias (1529) by Spain’s Fray Martin de Castanega. Each of these works explained and justified the Church’s view that most witches were women.” In A History of Witchcraft, Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans, Jeffery Russell quotes an excerpt from Malleus Maleficarum:
What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted in fair colors… The word human is used to mean the lust of flesh, as it said: I have found woman bitterer than death, and a good woman more subject than carnal lust…. [Women] are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them [than men]… Women are naturally impressionable… They have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow women those things which by evil arts they know… Women are intellectually like children… She is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations… She is an imperfect animal, she always deceives… Therefore a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft… Just as through the first defect in their intelligence they are more prone to abjure their faith; so through their second defect of inordinate affections and passions they search for, brood over, and inflict various vengeances, either by witchcraft, or by some other means… Women also have weak memories; and it is a natural vice in them not to be disciplined, but to follow their impulses without any sense of what is due… She is a liar by nature… Let us also consider her gait, posture, and habit, in which is vanity of vanities.
As is clearly evident from the writings in Malleus Maleficarum, according to the respected authorities of the time, women were physically and spiritually weaker than men, so they needed Satan to satisfy them. Because of their weakness, they were more open to evil. Moreover, they even had evil in them: “In sum, women became witches because they were born female, not male…”
After a short period of calm in the 17th century, witchcraft rose again in New England, Salem. The Puritans were a religious group in England. They encouraged the Reformation because they wanted to “purify” the church, hence their name. When the king took a more moderate view, the Puritans were dissatisfied and formed their own church. They also thought that wealth was very important, as it was a blessing from God. In the 17th century, they moved to the New World seeking religious freedom. By 1640, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had around 10,000 Puritan settlers. They experienced crop failure, hunger, cold, war and attacks from both wild animals and hostile Native Americans, whose land the colonists had taken. They built churches, which doubled as the seat of Puritan government. At church, men would vote, elect officials, debate laws, and so on. The Bible was not only a religious text, but also a legal guide. They believed they were God’s select, chosen people, who would dwell with him in heaven.
However, they also believed God would withdraw his help if people continued to deal falsely with him and with each other. They wanted to purify themselves and their communities. Their opinions of women were also effective in their approach to purification and witchcraft. Puritan religious ideals tended to categorize women into three groups: the young, virtuous, obedient, daughter of a maidservant; the submissive and supportive wife; and the discontented, greedy witch. Women who fell into the third category tended to come under the close scrutiny of neighbors, who sometimes labeled them as “witches.” Puritan ministers equated women who wanted wealth, power, and knowledge to Eve, the first woman God created. Eve gave into the temptation of the Devil—who had taken the form of a serpent—and ate the forbidden fruit. She then convinced her husband, Adam, to do the same. Both the afflicted and the accused, most of whom were women, were at the mercy of male judges, sheriffs, advising ministers, and jury members. According to Elizabeth Reis, “The body, for the most part, also entangled women. Puritans believed that Satan attacked the soul by assaulting the body. Because, in their view, women’s bodies were weaker, the devil could reach women’s souls more easily and breach these ‘weaker vessels’ with greater frequency.”
And For Now…
Nowadays, Neopaganism is widespread and Wicca, a continuation of the old feminine Goddess- based religion, in particular is expanding rapidly. Neopagans are estimated to number about 200,000 to 1,000,000 in North America. Though many North Americans continue to view it as a form of Satanism, Silver Ravenwolf summarizes the term Wicca in Teen Witch: “Witchcraft is a nature-based life-affirming religion that follows a moral code and seeks to build harmony among people, empowering the self and others.”
The majority of Wiccans are women, and most of them worship the Goddess or the God and Goddess together. Followers of the Wiccan principle are often women who used to live under the pressure of the patriarchal society and the patriarchal religion they once belonged to. Amy Wall, whose mother is interested in witchcraft, clearly explains the personal reasons of a woman deciding to be a Wiccan:
…As my mother studied feminist thought, and began to learn exactly how powerless and limited women are in society, she became frustrated and turned to studying something that gave her a sense of power. Instead of picking up a picket sign and marching on Washington and outwardly fighting a repressive society, my mother turned inward to a spiritual power that has always been associated with women. In a world where women constantly feel vulnerable, threatened, and powerless, witchcraft is a secret, foreboding power that is untouchable in a society that, if it cannot uphold racial and gender equality, will at least uphold the right to free speech.
Nowadays, a disliked or extraordinary woman is still called a “witch.” It would certainly be correct to class the witch craze as genocide of the female gender made in the name of God. Power has always been the hidden ruler, and the patriarchal society blamed women, a gender that was both weak and threatening, so they could remain powerful. The representatives of a male-dominated society and religion blamed womankind, a weak and wicked gender, for everything they couldn’t explain, for everything the “evil son” or Satan could cause, such as disasters, illnesses, poverty, and so on.
Though the evil and ugly image that comes to most people’s mind when they visualize a “witch” is starting to be positively changed with the help of the appearance of “good witches” in some novels and TV shows—such as Hermione in Harry Potter and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—nothing can rewrite the past. Walter Stephens, a professor of Italian studies at Johns Hopkins University, proposes a new theory: “I think witches were a scapegoat for God.” Actually, replacing the word “witches” with “women” in that would not be a mistake, but a simple truth.
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(Written by Zeynep Oğuz)