The eternal fear of witches

Recently watching another new show on the theme of witches (not as bad as most of the others, which still very much tend to just perpetuate the old magic/evil myths – there’s quite a few feminist bits), what seems to me like an interesting realisation occurred to me: unlike most other collectively persecuted peoples in history, the witches were never rehabilitated, never (officially) celebrated, never given back their good name by an authority of any kind…

You might think that this is an odd thought to have while watching what’s supposed to be entertainment tv. But, for a while, it seemed to me that it was more or less obvious, in this day and age that, regardless of our definition of exact definition of witches, in historical terms, they were mostly just women persecuted for being rebels, wise women, healers… whatever. And yet, we still seem to suffer from some form of denial: somehow, at the same time, we are capable in not believing in magic and still denying the persecution against those women were simple acts of women hating. If you think about it just for a second – it cannot be both of these things. One either believes in magic – and therefore also the patriarchal definition of witches as evil creatures – or not – and therefore would have to accept that witches, as servants of the devil, were just a concept invented by men and their patriarchal institutions to get rid of ‘inconvenient’ women.

Many studies of the history of witches and the persecutions have by now led to the same – rather obvious – deduction – one that confirms that witches were really just wise women. From a feminist perspective, one could even say the first feminists. And yet… We still love to tell tall tales about witches – which is fine to an extent, I guess: there’s nothing wrong with a bit of imagination and fantasy. Still, it is no excuse for the elephant in the room: why do we allow the continued lack of rehabilitation of the thousands of women who fell pray to the hideous reality of witch hunts and persecutions. The perpetuatiom of the mythology in modern storytelling seems to me a contributing factor.

I guess that would require a degree of soul searching still not commonly known from our establishment – including an admission of guilt from a church already embattled by the ongoing paedophilia scandal… Perhaps that is, unsurprisingly, (another) step too many for them, seeing that they can’t bring themselves even to admit their guilt in the ongoing and well documented, issue of child abuse.

Having been attached to the Feminist Library for a few years now, I have been lucky to discover some very interesting books on the topics. I think that, as much as the connection between wise women/healers and witchy history is probably obvious to most feminists, what many might not know is the active role of the medical establishment in the persecutions of witches. This little book, Witches, Midwives & Nursesis an excellent outline on the topic.

witches midwives and nurses

Cover of Witches, Midwives & Nurses 

Here’s a list of some other interesting reads on the topic of witches.

During last weekend’s celebrations, I was lucky to be able to go to see a talk by Naomi Klein, and I was very pleased that she mentioned witches too. In the context of Naomi’s talk, witches were the holders of ancient knowledge, our connection to the natural world. Through the persecution of witches, we have lost at least some of that connection. One could say that the current state of climate emergency is linked to witch burnings…

This last one is a stark realisation – have we lost this knowledge for good and is it too late or can we reclaim it? Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in Women Who Run with Wolves, convinces me that we can. I surely hope that she’s right – both for us as women and the earth.

Inspired by this work, Lucy North of Lateral Haze, leads her version of Women’s Circles, with the aim of spreading this ancient knowledge back among the women of the world. She uses Pinkola Estes’ writing as the basis of bringing women onto a journey re-discovery of our witchy and goddess-y roots.

Women’s Circles seem to be a popular phenomenon again these days, which is heartening. And at the same time, there appears to be a thin line between those who debunk stereotypes and those who use this as a forum for reinforcing some of the harmful stereotypes of femininity behind the cover of female ’empowerment’.

I believe we need to restore the good memory of witches – they are part of women’s herstory after all, and we cannot really know ourselves without knowing where we come from. But it would mean leaving the associated magical mythology behind us – or at last separating it from the reality, which still seems to be too convoluted in our culture for us to be able to do that…

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