Witches were once known as wise women. You couldn’t help staring. Dressed completely in black, her eyes outlined with black, a pentagram dangled from a chain, her presence demanded attention. No, this wasn’t Hollywood — it was NYC years ago when I was on a buying trip for my store in Ottawa. Standing next to me in a check-out line stood Laurie Cabot, the official witch of Salem, Mass. Admittedly disconcerted by the woman in black, I suddenly felt a twinge of fear– or was it admiration? Every Halloween we are confronted by witches. Ugly hags, powerful and evil, handmaids of the devil. Few images are so frightening; few are so completely wrong.
Until the Christianization of Europe, the Old Religion, with its goddesses and gods, marked cycles of time and fertility. Wise women – healers, midwives and counselors – practiced magic and folk arts of ancient earth-based spiritualities. Even as people converted to Christianity, they blended these old mysteries with the new beliefs. Male clerics, however, eventually redefined folk practices as Satan’s work or witchcraft In 1484, Pope Innocent sanctioned witch-hunting. Two years later, two Dominican inquisitors published the Malleus Mallefi-carum (“Hammer of Witches”) as an instruction book for zealous Christians to aid the cause.
An instant best-seller, the Malleus argued that women were more susceptible to the Devil’s wiles than men. By nature, women were feeble-minded, morally and sexually lax, inclined to lie, weak in faith, and prone to evil. Clerics and medical doctors identified women’s ancient arts – contraception, abortion, birthing, healing -as witch’s work. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Thus armed with the Malleus and the Bible, the medieval church launched one of its most successful crusades – killing women.
Although reliable numbers are difficult to discern, some scholars estimate that from the 15th to 18th centuries, approximately 2 million people were executed for witchcraft- 80 per cent of them women. During the burning times, the church terrorized women suspected of practicing the old religions. In 1585, in the Bishop of Trier, had the entire female population was murdered. Ancient beliefs died by harassment, inquisition, torture and execution. In the midst of this violence, the church – threatened by the rival female spiritual power – constructed the modern image of the witch, a misogynist image haunting our culture still.
Once, before the burning times, people revered old women, wise women – “witches” – as healers and givers of life. Now they are hags. On Halloween, some Christian women commemorate the burning times in what theologian Rosemary Ruether calls a “remembrance of the holocaust of women.” After reciting a litany of women executed as witches, participants pray, “We weep for them. We do not for get them. And as we remember them, we dedi cate ourselves to making a new world where we and our daughters can live free.”
Other women, however, have rejected traditional religion completely and embraced revitalized forms of the old ways – now referred to as wicca, god dess worship or neo-paganism. The re-emergence of witchcraft as a serious religious practice coincided with contemporary feminism. Many women believe Christianity and Judaism to be hopelessly patriarchal and, not surprisingly, violently oppressive to women. Thus, many well-educated, urban professional women have turned to the Goddess as an alternate source for spirituality According to modern witches, “the craft” is not a pact with the Devil (and not to be confused with Satanism, a separate belief.
Rather, it is a set of ritual practices aimed at healing as one connects with the universe – related to other pre-Christian beliefs found in tribal religions around the world. Halloween, or Samhain, is one of witchcraft’s most important ritual festivals. It is the witches’ New Year, the time when the veil dividing the world of the living and the dead is thin. At this time, the witches’ spiral dance celebrates death, fertility and renewal. I don’t fear witches. Rather, I fear the witch hunt – the real work of the Devil.
Pakenham Witches. —Because we are deriving very little and in some cases no butter from our travelling starved cows, many believe the cream is bewitched by a maliciously inclined man or woman, supposed to receive power from the devil. It is astonishing how many Protestants, even church members,believe as strongly in superstition than they do in the Bible. We are inclined to ask what Protestant religion is doing when superstition is cultivated to such an alarming extent, W e must be getting back near the time when the witches were burned, and perhaps in our next we can give you the gratifying news of the capture and burning of this one.–Almonte Gazette Pakenham August 6 1880 read-The White Witch of Lanark County–Having the Sight