By Europe & Me‘s MythBuster
Did you ever read Roald Dahl’s The Witches? I did, and it traumatised me for a few years. I remember being on holiday with my family, staying at a hotel and peaking into one of these huge conference rooms some hotels have: I was persuaded this was a perfect gathering spot for a society of witches like in the book. And it scared the hell out of me.
For those who never read the book, the storyline focuses on a young boy who realises that real witches live among us, hiding their true nature, and plotting to kill human children. But his grandmother, who used to be a witch hunter reveals ways to recognise them: witches wear gloves to hide the claws they have instead of fingernails, uncomfortable pointy shoes to hide their absent toes, and wigs giving them rashes to hide their hairless head. And that’s mostly what I remember from the book.
I kept this image of witches for a while as the real representation of a witch – those who live secretly among us and who we should fear. Other title holders for the best scary witch from popular culture, in my humble opinion, are the old, deceitful, scary witch in Snow White and the maniac yet even scarier Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter.
Why am I going on some childhood wicked memories, you ask? Well, inspired by Mona Chollet’s Witches – the unvanquished power of women,* E&M‘s Myth Buster and yours truly has decided to tackle the topic of witches. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t pretend to debunk myths of popular culture to give you a virtual portrait of the real witches. No no, this article aims to tackle some of the typical attributes of witches — those who were hunted down for quite a while, not those plotting to kill children in Dahl’s book, although we all know myths die hard. Take it as an invitation to read (for the French speakers at least) Chollet’s fascinating reflection on the types of women that witch hunts across Europe repressed and eventually removed from the popular ideal of what it means to be a woman.
To quote Chollet, “the witch is both the ultimate victim, the one we demand justice for, and the persistent, elusive rebel.” She is therefore, and has been for quite some time, an ideal figurehead for many feminists. While feminists around the world are re-appropriating and popularising spell books, potions and stones, let’s delve into some of the basic mythical attributes of witches and try to debunk them to understand what actually lies behind the prejudices sustained by popular culture.
Myth #1: Witches go after children
Don’t they? At least that’s what they do in Dahl’s traumatising story.
It is also what many witches were accused of and executed for. Rumours of dark masses with sacrifices of newborn babies and other morbid stories involving children’s blood were often the background of witch trials. Some of this may be linked to the fact that certain so-called witches practiced abortion at a time when it was one of the worst possible crimes. But it is also key to understand them against the background of a society that accepted women as child bearers only.
The idea that an independent woman would have a craft, an income, a home, a fulfilling life — all outside the frame of motherhood, was impossible to accept (and still is for some). Witch hunts actually went after independent women because they threatened the role of the woman as mother and mother only.
Myth #2: Witches are old
The scary witch from Snow White: case in point. The typical witch is old with grey or white hair and a hooked nose.
And so were many of the women condemned for witchcraft (minus the hooked nose I suppose). Indeed, witch hunts across Europe and the United States predominantly targeted older women. In her book, Cholet quotes Starhawk and explains that the word Hexe (witch in German) has a common root with the English words hag, which did not have a negative connotation in the past. On the contrary, it was used to refer to the village’s wise woman and her sacred knowledge. And as knowledge and experience started to threaten male authority, so did the figure of the old woman turn into a threatening or crazy witch. Following the same logic as the threat posed by an independent woman without children, think of the danger an older woman under no authority from a father or a husband and her insatiable sexual desire would represent. No wonder they turned to the devil…
Myth #3: Witches gather in tribes
Much like the societies of witches in Dahl’s book, or the collective sacrifices supposedly carried out across Europe, it is a well known fact (*hum*) that a witch belongs to a wider community.
What’s worse than an old independent woman? A group of old independent women bonding together. Ok, that’s putting things very simply, but yes societies of women as those which existed in multiple places — such as béguinages in Belgium, Germany, and France for instance — and did not fit with a society where women had no right to independence. Béguinages can still be visited nowadays, they are often wrongly associated with convents. In fact, they consisted of small communities of women, often widows, living in neighbouring houses sharing plant gardens and existing away from any male authority. These communities were actually ripped of their special status in the 15th century — in Cholet’s words, as a bad omen ahead of the witch hunts.
Myth #4: Witches were eradicated in the Middle Ages
Alright, that is not an attribute. But this last one is crucial if we want to approach witch hunts from an honest perspective.
Contrary to popular belief (mine included until recently), witch hunts did not happen only in the dark Middle Ages commanded by some religious zealots and followed blindly by uneducated masses. Big witch hunts actually started around 1400 in Europe and became really prominent in the middle of the 16th century, the time of the Renaissance. A time where the basis of our societies was laid, with dependent women fulfilling their mission of giving birth and maintaining the household. In fact, in the Middle Ages and earlier, women also had craft, and were part of guilds and could become apprentices, earning a livelihood and working outside the household. When this was no longer permitted, women whose voices and independence were too loud became targets of witch hunts. This also happened as plant-based remedies and other crafts practiced by healers became rejected by established (male) doctors. Women lost their status of healers and anyone seen to practice a different sort of medicine became hailed as servitor of the devil.
This is only a sneak peek into the treasure and horror mines that are studies and reflections on witches, be they real or not. And how they make us face the realities of our society.
These few myths debunked are an encouragement, a plea, for feminists to keep unearthing, demystifying and putting the spotlight on stories of witches, the persecution of women across the ages, and the stereotypes and prejudices we still carry with us.
*Mona Chollet, Sorcières – la puissance invaincue des femmes
This article was originally published in Europe & Me (E&M), with which A Tribe Of Women (ATOW) collaborates.