Women and Witchcraft
The witch is history’s most recurrent scapegoat. Whenever there is unexplained misfortune, it is commonly followed by accusations of witchcraft. In the West, we tend to dismiss this as a superstition of the past. But belief in witches — which occurs ‘in every inhabited continent of the world’ and in ‘the majority of recorded human societies’ — persists in many places today. It has even been suggested, by the historian Robin Briggs, ‘that a fear of witchcraft might be inherent in humanity’. The Western rejection of this belief is thus an interesting, atypical case. As Ronald Hutton writes in The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present, an ‘extraordinary feature of Europe was that it became the only area in the world to contain societies which had traditionally believed firmly in the reality of witchcraft and yet which came spontaneously to reject that belief, at least in official ideology’. This rejection, he argues, ‘had profound effects on the remainder of the globe’, to whom this disbelief ‘came as a shocking, unwelcome and alien concept’. It was believed that, with the importation of Western medicine and science, such beliefs would eventually taper out. Clearly, this has not been the case.
Why then, is the belief in witches so persistent? The rational explanation is that it is a superstition used to reduce chance and contingency — to turn unknown anxiety into known fear. Think of the dark nights of the pre-modern world; humans are not very well equipped to see in the dark, and so the night brings with it an indefinite state of anticipated danger. In a memorable passage by Carl Jung, he perfectly describes this primordial anxiety:
When the great night comes, everything takes on a note of deep dejection, and every soul is seized by an inexpressible longing for light. That is the pent-up feeling that can be detected in the eye of primitives, and also in the eyes of animals. There is a sadness in animals’ eyes, and we never know whether that sadness is bound up with the soul of the animal or is a poignant message which speaks to us out of that still unconscious existence. […] It is the psychic primal night which is the same to-day as it has been for countless millions of years. The longing for light is the longing for consciousness
One of the best ways humans deal with this ‘primal night’ — which is a representation of the great unknown — is to create characters and tell stories that ‘name the unnameable’. As Hans Blumenberg says of myth, ‘what has become identifiable by means of a name is raised out of its unfamiliarity by means of metaphor and is made accessible, in terms of its significance by telling stories’. The unknown is thus ‘made approachable’, and even a set of countermeasures can be conceived.
Thus, in the popular imagination of medieval Europe, the nights ‘abounded with spectral armies and processions’, which eventually developed into the ‘mental construct that became the early modern witches’ sabbath’ (Hutton). The imagery of the sabbath varies from place to place, but the basic features are the same. In his book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Carlo Ginzburg provides the following description:
Male and female witches met at night, generally in solitary places, in fields or on mountains. Sometimes, having anointed their bodies, they flew arriving astride poles of broom sticks’ sometimes they arrived on the backs of animals, or transformed into animals themselves. Those who came for the first time had to renounce the Christian faith, desecrate the sacrament and offer home to the devil, who was present in human or (most often) animal or semi-animal form. There would follow banquets, dancing, sexual orgies. Before returning home the female and male witches received evil ointments made from children’s fat and other ingredients
There is an interesting theory that what was considered a satanic witch cult was actually the ‘vestiges of an old religion, displaced and driven underground by Christianity’ — one that worshiped the ‘horned god of European paganism’ (Jenkins). In any case, the association between the witch and the terrors of the night is inextricable. One particular strand of folklore depicts the witch as a ‘night-roaming, flesh-eating’ and ‘highly sexed’ woman with wings, or the ability to transform into a winged animal — such as an owl. (‘In the Native American languages of the Cherokee and the Menominee the word for the owl and the witch is the same, and the belief that witches could take the form of owls was found from Peru to Alaska’). This version of the witch is thought to have derived from either the she-demon ‘Lilith’ from Judaic mythology, or the Roman deity Diana who is ‘associated with the night, wild nature (and above all wild animals), women and witchcraft’.
This night-riding, superhuman witch was thought to prey on men — sometimes appearing in erotic dreams — and endangering women associated with that man. This was because she ‘regarded herself as the true paramour of the man on whom she preyed sexually, and so treated his human wife and their children with murderous jealousy’. This figure was usually depicted as a ‘young naked woman with long dishevelled hair and prominent breasts and genitals’.
A ‘succession of such figures’ appear in records from Ancient times to the present. Although they differ depending on local tradition, they are all consistently considered to be the embodiment of ‘pure evil’. Those who were accused of participating in such evil were either ostracised or executed in a series of sporadic witch hunts:
In communities that greatly feared witchcraft, the body counts achieved could be considerable. It was said that in pre-colonial days every village of the Bakweri of Cameroon had its witch-hanging tree. Among the Pondo of South Africa, the rate of execution ran at one per day on the eve of the British conquest and this number did not include those who fled when accused, or were fined. A British official serving in India during the early nineteenth century estimated that about a thousand women had been put to death for alleged witchcraft on the northern plains during the previous thirty years: a rate of mortality far more serious than that caused by the more notorious local practice of sati, or widow-burning
In the infamous European witch hunts, which lasted from 1424 to 1782, ‘forty and sixty thousand people were legally put to death for the alleged crime of witchcraft’, with some historians estimating numbers as large as ‘one hundred thousand’ — three-quarters of which were women.
In her book Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Silvia Federici wonders ‘why were the witch hunts primarily directed against women?’:
How does one explain that for three centuries thousands of women in Europe became the personification of ‘the enemy within’ and absolute evil? And how to reconcile the all-powerful, almost mythical portrait that inquisitors and demonologists painted of their victims — as creatures of hell, terrorists, man-eaters, servants of the Devil wildly riding the skies on their broomsticks — with the defenseless figures of the actual women who were charged with these crimes and then horribly tortured and burned at the stake?
In response, she presents two possible explanations; first, due to their ‘their unique relation to the process of reproduction’ — and (I will add) their primal role as plant gatherers — women have been ‘credited with a special understanding of the secrets of nature’. In the pre-modern world, women found steady employment practicing ‘magic’; that is, ‘as healers, folk doctors, herbalists, midwives, [and] makers of love-philters’. When their remedies were a success, these women were popular in the community, but it was precisely this popularity that signalled them ‘as a danger to the local and national power structure in its warfare against every form of popular [and independent] power’. Moreover, when their remedies were unsuccessful, or when economic or social tensions grew, they were often scapegoated and ‘exposed to revenge’.
Federici’s second explanation concerns ‘the portrayal of women’s sexuality as something diabolical’. As we’ve already observed, the sexuality of the witch is central to its mythology. According to Federici, women’s sexual autonomy is a threat to both marriage and procreation, and thus social morality and political stability:
beneath the fantastic charge of copulation with the Devil, we find the fear that women could bewitch men with their ‘glamour,’ bring them under their power, and inspire in them such desire as to cause them to forget all social distances and obligations. […] The fear of women’s uncontrolled sexuality explains the popularity in the demonologies of the myth of Circe, the legendary enchantress who by her magical arts transformed the men lusting after her into animals. It also accounts for the many speculations by the same demonologies concerning the power of women’s eyes to move men without a touch, simply by the force of their ‘glamour’ and ‘fascination.’ Also, the ‘pact’ that the witches were accused of making with the Devil, which generally involved a monetary exchange, manifests the concern for women’s ability to gain money from men that underlies the condemnation of prostitution
In regard to my mother-country Morocco — where the belief in witches has persisted quite strongly — there is a globally-recognised stereotype associating Moroccan women with both prostitution and witchcraft. According to one article on the topic:
Back in 2010 it was reported that a Kuwaiti TV channel had to apologise to Moroccans after it aired an animated comedy series depicting Moroccan women as witches trying to ensnare rich Kuwaiti husbands by using spells, while Saudi Arabia banned Moroccan women “of a certain age” from performing umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) over fears their visas could be used for other purposes […] A year later, Saudi’s quasi-legislative body, the Shura Council granted permission for Moroccan women to work as maids in Saudi households, although this caused a backlash as hundreds of Saudi women complained that the move was tantamount to allowing black magic in their homes with their husbands at risk of being seduced and unable to ward off spells. Witchcraft and sorcery are crimes punishable by death in Saudi Arabia
In Morocco, witchcraft is taken very seriously. Dr. Mustapha Akhmisse, author of Magic, Witchcraft and Sorcery in Morocco, writes that ‘magic remains permanent in Moroccan life. The most solemn moments (birth, death), the most painful hours (illness, agony), are often the occasion of rites which call for the extraordinary; dances, costumes animating the movements’. Despite the introduction of Western medicine, and severe legal ramifications, Moroccans continue to turn to the witch, or shawafa, for traditional remedies — a trend found across the post-colonial world. There is also an entire tradition of counter-magic — particularly in defence against the universally recognised ‘evil eye’. This counter-magic usually includes ‘the wearing of amulets, charms and talismans, the reciting of prayers and incantations, the making of sacrifices and pilgrimages and carrying out of exorcisms, and the avoidance or placation of the person who is locally presumed to possess [the evil eye]’.
Rationalists are likely to see this trend as a dangerous regression, but the efficacy of traditional medicine — particularly as it pertains to under-researched regional plants — is not as black and white as it might seem. Even in terms of the supernatural aspects of witchcraft, there is mounting evidence that the placebic power of belief — what Freud called the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’ — may actually be capable of shaping reality:
In 1942 an American medical doctor called Walter Cannon took an interest in reports, drawn from South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia and the Caribbean, of tribal people falling sick, and often dying, simply because they thought themselves bewitched. He suggested that the individuals concerned responded to the belief with a sustained terror that made eating and sleeping difficult, weakening the body even while it was flooded constantly with adrenalin. This forced down blood pressure and put stress on all organs, damaging the heart in particular and making any normally sustainable weakness dangerous. Subsequent medical studies served to confirm the reality of the phenomenon of ‘death from suggestion’, broadening it out to a realization that it can result from excessive stimulation of any system of the human body, and that a loss of hope can seriously reduce the capacity of that body to deal with any potentially pathogenic processes