The first time a name is given to a woman who practices magic: Hexe; which in German means witch or sorceress. Hexe is not the start, but rather the nexus of everything, from writings about Lilith right up to the present day. It is the finger which has been pointed at us along with a variety of names down the centuries, which has pursued, blamed, and condemned us women out of ignorance, envy, or both. Knowledge about sexuality, reproduction, and various natural elements such as minerals and plants, the exercising of one’s freedom beyond the norm, or a simple denouncement were enough to get yourself arrested. The interrogation was cruel. The proof, evidently inexistent. The confessions, false. The sentence, burning at the stake or, in an act of piety, decapitation.
Through the ages
Let’s go back to the 14th century. The word witch (hexe) appears for the first time in the criminal records, Frevelbüchern, in the Swiss town of Schaffhausen in 1368. Until then no words had so fiercely singled out women as practitioners of magic. And, despite the fact that in the Bible, in particular in the Old Testament, magic was explicitly forbidden, it establishes the punishment for sorcerers and states “You will not let the wizards live!” The word witch does not feature in any of the Bible stories.
It was not until the 15th century that witch hunt was coined as a term. The belief that witchcraft was the new enemy of Christendom spread throughout Central Europe. The difference between magic and the sorcery named in the Bible was its diabolical character. The devil wanted to put an end to Christianity, and he did it, above all, through women seduced by evil. Non-pious women who would stop at nothing to end the prosperity of Christianity with their supernatural powers and spells.
History repeats itself
Woman as evil incarnate is nothing new. Figures such as Lilith and Medusa, and also the real women accused of witchcraft between the 14th and 17th centuries, stand as testimony to this. Any sign of insurgence, rebellion, joy, or even simple knowledge beyond the assumed functions that women were meant to fulfil over the different historical periods, was enough to consider them as conspiring with the opposite of “good”.
“Lilith did not obey man, despite being his equal, and was punished.”
Lilith, according to Hebrew religion, was created by God (Yahweh) in the same way Adam was created. “Yahweh created Lilith, the first woman, as he had created Adam, from earth and dust”. The figure of Lilith, who was already a feature of Mesopotamian mythology, was adopted by the Jews and converted into the first wife of Adam. Adam and Lilith were equals, created from earth and dust, in the image of their creator. However, Adam wanted to lie on top of Lilith, and she refused to submit. Adam tried to force her and Lilith, after refusing once more, fled paradise.
A story which many of us would classify as empowering, but which ends terribly for Lilith and paints a dismal picture of the background context. Lilith, who abandons paradise so as not to submit to the orders and desires of Adam, stops on the shores of the Red Sea, a place infected with demons and she gives herself over to them lustfully proceeding to give birth to numerous Lilims, female demons borne of Lilith. Three angels are sent by God to seek her, but she refuses to return. As punishment, God vows to kill one hundred of her children a day.
Lilith didn’t obey man, despite being his equal, and was punished. Lilith didn’t even break the rules, she simply questioned the decisions of her partner and preferred to look elsewhere for her pleasure. Coincidentally, that pleasure was also found on the other side of “good”.
Medusa had the same fate. Daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, Medusa was the most beautiful of the Gorgons and the only mortal. Such was her beauty that Poseidon became enchanted by her, tried to seduce her and finally raped her in the temple of Athena. Following this disgrace, the goddess of war decided to punish Medusa – not Poseidon – turning her into a snake-haired monster with a petrifying gaze. No longer could she look at a man without killing him. But from that fateful encounter between Medusa and Poseidon, a pregnancy began, something that Athena could not allow. Perseus was called upon to kill the monster that Athena had created and, therefore, the baby she was carrying. With the help of the gods, Perseus decapitated Medusa and Athena used her head on her battle shield.
Just as in mythology and folklore, we women are still persecuted, singled out and condemned when we live freely and enjoy our freedom, because this freedom doesn’t always feed the system. In 1973, Barbara Ehrenreich, essayist and activist, and the author of Deidre English, published a hefty pamphlet putting forward the idea that the women prosecuted through witch hunts were actually traditional healers, midwives, and matrons, who were being deliberately exterminated by the patriarchal healthcare system of the modern world. Another of the theories expounded in The return of the witches. The incorporation, contributions and criticisms of women in science, by Norma Blazquez of the University of Mexico, is that “witches had the knowledge to control reproduction and knew how to practise abortions. This knowledge implied an ability to enjoy a freer sexuality, thereby putting the male hegemony at risk, and so the men seized their knowledge and annihilated them on bonfires.”
The sexual woman, the true danger
If there was one text which sped up the witch hunts and pinpointed women as the main cause of all the misery of the 16th century, it was Malleus maleficarum, a treatise written by German Dominican monks on the persecution of witchcraft.
“Witchcraft comes from female carnal appetite”
Various scholars confirm the misogyny of the book, nothing remarkable given the context in which the treatise was written. According to the authors of Malleus maleficarum, women as beings were more innocent and emotional, so they were more likely to fall into the temptation of evil. A simple target in comparison to the strength of men. They added that, given her characteristics, a virtuous woman was more so than any man, but that a wicked woman was worse than a wicked man. And, of course, the authors allude to virginity as an ideal for a woman, since “her sexuality is dangerous, despite being necessary for production.”
According to the document, witchcraft stems from the carnal appetite of women which, it attests, is insatiable. Previously, covens (meetings of witches) were associated with sexual acts between participants and the Devil, sometimes incarnated as a male goat. The Malleus Maleficarum insists that female sexuality is dangerous; so much so that sin committed by woman “strips her soul of grace” and it asserts that “all the world’s kingdoms have been brought down by women.” The fault is always ours. Of course, also according to the treatise, as evil women there are three main vices which define us: infidelity, ambition, and lust. Not forgetting the fact that witches caused sexual impotence in men. We don’t give ourselves enough credit.
No cauldrons or broomsticks
In spite of all the decades of persecution of women (more than 70% of those executed) accused of witchcraft by the Church and civil justice, none of these women was arrested during a coven, nor was any cauldron or broomstick ever used as evidence. Moreover, the only proof was confessions gained through torture or tests that left no room for life. If they died, they were not witches. Obviously, they died. Witchcraft was nothing more than wisdom and progress in the hands of women.
The image of a witch, stereotyped and corrupted, is very present today. Who has not grown up fearing the wicked witch, dressing up as one so as to strike fear into people at parties, antagonising the pure, obedient, devoted, and weak princess, raised to care, love, and obey? They, the wicked witches and heretical sorceresses, capable of poisoning with an apple because of envy, silencing to gain power, and imposing an eternal coma out of revenge.
But six centuries have passed since the real events and, after all this time and all the demonisation of this character which is so present in popular culture, women are still the subject of doubt. They are singled out, excluded, or condemned for not complying with what is expected of them. We continue, of course, to drag with us the imposed legacy of submission. From the most absurd – which is not innocuous – like the decision to have children, to laws in force today which violate human rights, passing along the way through sexual freedom and everything that it entails.
Today abortion is completely illegal more than 24 countries, and a further 42 countries deem its use only acceptable as the last resort in order to save the life of the mother. However, in 15 states a man can avoid conviction for rape if he marries his victim. Countries where child marriage is permitted number more than 11. Of today’s married women, 250 million girls were married before the age of 15. Female promiscuity is punishable by stoning in 20 countries, homosexuality prohibited in 72. In the world, women earn an average of 24% less and represent 70% of the planet’s poverty. We are only 22% of political representatives and feature in 1 out of 4 news stories. Of the 195 countries in the world, 140 countries guarantee gender equality in their constitutions; the remaining 55, of course, still have witches in their ranks.
To be blunt, it seems that women who educate themselves, study and know; those that fuck freely and take ownership of their sexuality and pleasure; those that prosper, take care of themselves, reinvent themselves, bounce back and, above all, defend themselves, represent a problem
Witches never existed, but now more than ever we wish that they had done.