Persecution into Empowerment

"Like the word wild, the word witch has come to be understood as a pejorative, but long ago it was an appellation given to both old and young women healers, the word witch deriving from the word wit, meaning wise.  This was before cultures carrying the one-God-only religious image began to overwhelm the older pantheistic cultures which understood the Deity through multiple religious images of the universe and all its phenomena."
-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D, Women Who Run with the Wolves, Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, 1992

The witch is both an archetype with ancient roots and an identity with modern origins.  Forged in a syncretic cauldron of Christianity and paganism, fact and fiction, myth and history, witches defy simple definitions.  They appear in disparate cultures and costumes.  They run the gamut from good to evil to the liminal in between.  Beyond their mercurial allure, witches have arguably ensured as cultural icons because of their persecution.  "The witch hunts of history have have the most drastic social consequences of all kinds of witch beliefs," Johannes Dillinger explains in The Routledge History of Witchcraft, published in 2020.  The witch hunts and their legacy of brutality dictate how we understand the witch today.  

Witches first emerge in ancient Greek, Hebrew and Roman texts.  These predominantly female figures used their magick to commune with the dead, poison their enemies with herbal remedies, and divine the future.  They inspired fear and awe and were often outliers within their commuhnities -- but not quite the targeted outcasts they would kater become.  As Ronald Hutton clarifies in his 2017 book, The Witch:  A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present, "ancient traditions played an important role in the formation of European witfchcraft beliefs in more complicated and subtle ways, and over a long persiod of time."  But it wasn't until Christianity took root in Europe during the first millennium that the wicked witch of the Western world begin to materialize.  

Kiki Smith, Pyre Woman Kneeling, United States, 2002
A bronze female figure tops a pyre.  In Smith's narrative style, the statue commemorates women who were burned for witchcraft.

Amid plague, famine, war, and the religious conflict of the Middle Ages, Christian theologians began to explore the nature of evil.  Drawing on Church doctrine and popular folk beliefs alike, scholars from Saint Augustine to Thomas Aquinas proposed various theories about harmful magic, maleficium, and the servants of Satan who practiced it.  As the Church set its sights on differentiating Christian from pagan and the holy from the heretic, those demonological writings became indispensable to fleshing out the diabolical witch.  Though there were no large-scale witch hunts during the medieval period, it was during that time when "concerns about 7harmful magic coalesced with those about demonic presence and power in the world," the historian Michael D. Bailey avers in his essay, "Witchcraft and Demonology in the Middle Ages," in The Routledge History of Witchcraft.  This culminated, he continues "in the ready acceptance, at least by many authorities, of an automatic and inevitable relationship between the practitioner of maleficium -- the witch -- and the devil."

Tompkins Harrison Matteson, The Trial of George Jacobs, 1692, United States, 1855
Jacobs was accused of witchcraft by his family, he was convicted and hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.

By the 15th century, the satanic witch had crystallized into an agent of disaster and disorder.  The invention of the printing press allowed witch hunting tracts to be disseminated far and wide, and publications like Heinrich Kramer's Alleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), first published in 1487, set an early standard for witch persecution and prosecution.  Building on centuries of Christian sexism that trace back to Eve harkening the downfall of mankind, Kramer asserted that "all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable."  Although this passage has at times been employed to oversimplify the complex motivating factors behind the witch hunts, gender undoubtedly played a pivotal role.  

Edmond Van Hove, Scientists look for a mole on a Woman's Body, Belgium, 1888
Believed to be a branding by the Devil, a witch's mark was used as evidence in convicting witches.

According to contemporary estimates, 70 to 80 percent of those tried for witchcraft between 15th and 17th centuries were women.  In some regions, men were predominantly accused, but older, poor women made up the overwhelming majority.  "The themes of the witch trials recur with monotonous regularity across Western Europe," Lundal Roper emphasizes in his 2014 tome, Witch Craze:  Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, "featuring sex with the Devil, harm to women in childbed, and threats to fertility, all issues which touch centrally on women's experience."

Domonologies published after the Malleus Maleficarum would continue to shape and refine beliefs about witches and witch hunting.  However, it was Kramer's book that served as a prime source for the witch imagery that still captivates us today.  Spurred in part by that work, Ulrich Molitor's witchcraft treatise, On Female Witches and Seers, published in 1489, finally put a face to the sorceress with accompanying woodcut prints of witches kissing demons, casting spells to change the weather, and flying on pitchforks disguised as animals.  These images were far more accessible to the general populace than demonological texts in Latin, allowing early modern people to get a glimpse of the witch.  Molitor and the Malleus Maleficarum also embodened artists like Albrecht Durer, Hans Balduing Grien, and countless others to engage with witches, transforming them into wildly popular subjects of fine art.  

Unknown, Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, England, 1647
The frontispiece of the book The Discovery of Witches portrays the infamous man responsible for hundreds of witch executions.

Witch hysteria continued to spread across Western Europe and, eventually, North America, serving as a catchall supermnatural explanation for illness, infertility, blights, pestilence, death, and intercommunity conflict.  At times, some of the accused did engage in folk magic or practices that were contrary to dominant Christian traditions, but most witchcraft accusations were pure fabrications.  Laws and lore varied from religion to religion, but cruelty and corruption were endemic to most witch trials and  the confessions of the accused were often elicited through horrific methods of torture.  Throughout the early modern era, at least 50,000 people were executed for the crime of witchcraft.

Albert von Keller, Witches' Sleep, Germany, 1900
Keller was known for his occult art and as a practitioner of mysticism.  The calm demeanor of the victim alludes to her ability to use magick -- leaving behind her body and the suffering as other women agonize over her departure.

By the early 18th century, however witch hunts began to wane as religious and secular authorities questioned the efficacy and ethics of witch persecution.  But witches didn't fade into the background;  they merely grew in popularity as fantastical subjects to be mined by creative minds.  

A new fate awaited the witch in the 19th century, when writers began to look at witches and witch hunts with a sympathetic eye.  Inspired by ancient mythology, Roman occultists, and freethinkers of his time, French historian Jules Michelet penned La Sorciere in 1862, a vivid account of the witch hunts with a protofeminist twist.  According to Marion Gibson in her 2018 book, Witchcraft:  The Basics, Michelet "saw witchcraft as prosecution as a general means of oppression, especially of women."  His explicit prose, captured the attention (and ire) of many, but also took significant liberties with historical fact by incorrectly suggersting accused witches were all "skilled herbalists and psychics, valued by the poor and anti-feudal activists." 

A few decades after La Sorciere made waves, American suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage published her 1893 manuscript, Woman, Church and State.  Moved by Michelet, Gage took similar liberties with history, positioning the formerly persecuted witch as "a woman of superior knowledge" to galvanize readers in the fight against the patriarchy and misogyny of her time.  Gage's work resonated with other fin de siecle suffragists and sparked her son-in-law L. Frank Raum to include a good witch character in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900.  No longer just an evil, child-murdering hag or a devilish seductress, the witch began to shape-shift in the decades that followed.  Drawing from a heady brew of fact and fiction, the witch eventually blossomed into a martyr mascot for feminist activist in the 1960s and '70s as well as a figurehead for Wiccan and other neo-pagan groups looking to reclaim the divine feminine in their religious and spiritual practices.  

Jorg Merckel, The Derenburg Witch Trial, Germany, 1555
Claiming partnership with Satan, a woman named Grobischen was burned with another condemned witch during the five-year-long Derenburg tirals.  The popular print reads that she was saved from the flames by the Devil himself.  Her husband also depicted, was burned for fornicating with her sister, thereby bedeviled by association.

This lightning-fast trip through the annuals of witchtory leads us back to the 21st century, where witches are indeed everywhere:  in art,  fashion, literature, film, and television.  The witch is now a spiritual identity, a political identity, and an evergreen archetype of female power and persecution.  You'll find the witch on protest signs at rallies in support of gender justice and in millions of Instagram posts tagged #WitchesofInstagram.  Witches make the news everytime a politician cries witch hunt or a group of witchcraft practitioners leads a public hex against oppression or inequity. 

Make no mistake, however, real witch hunts still rage in certain parts of the world, and there are few countries today where women aren't scapegoated in some way for society's ills.  But though witch hunts won't likely ever go away, neither will the witch.  For when the witch appears -- regardless of culture or costume or gender -- it is usually a beacon or bellwether.  Reviled or revered, witches always echo our deepest, darkest desires and fears.  

Lee Balterman, Yippie Protestors Dressed like Witches, United States, 1969
Women don classic witch costumes to object the infamous Chicago Eight trial of anti-Vietnam War protesters, which they deemed a witch hunt.  The accused were convicted of conspiracy to riot, but the ruling was overturned.