Last week I saw Wicked and I must admit: it was, well, wicked. Anyway, it got me thinking about witches and the performative and often punitive role they’ve played, and continue to play, in European culture. So, today I am continuing with my odd intersection of weird, feminist folklore to convince you all on why you should join a coven. Okay, maybe not that, but still. (Also, International Women’s Day is coming up AND it’s been 100 years since white women over the age of 30 were given the vote, so you can’t tell me to be quiet unless you want Emmeline Pankhurst’s ghost all up in your business).
For as long as I can remember I’ve been afraid of witches. As a child I slept in a ball with knees pressed tightly into my chest, because I thought that pins and needles were their long fingernails prickling my feet. I saw them in dreams: drenched in darkness and huddled around cauldrons. My brother made a career out of capitalising on it; printing out pictures of the witch in Snow White and hiding them in various spots, like the fridge or behind doors (although, unbeknownst to him, all this achieved was desensitisation).
Something shifted in me recently. As I’ve grown older (and the nuances of power dynamics have become more blindingly obvious), I’ve realised they kinda got an unfair deal. When I watched the Witch a couple years ago, I left the cinema not repulsed by their devilry, but in awe of their flagrant disregard for the rigidity of a patriarchal and puritanical society. I mean, if I had to choose between being a silent and submissive housewife bound by ‘duty’ to obey, or becoming a radical, magical being, full of agency and amorality, I know exactly what I would choose.
The Malleus Maleficarum – a catholic church approved witch-hunting book – argued that: “when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” The Middle Ages’ so-called ‘witch panic’ was really a means of suppressing women. Misogyny became not just an ideology, but a moral principle that was excused and expected, and even legitimised through church-led legislation. ‘Witchcraft’ became a blanket-term for any woman who committed one of the trifecta of terrible sins: being educated, organised or for displaying (and triggering) any semblance of sexuality. ‘Organised witches’ were particularly dangerous, not just due to their love of the Sabbaths, sacrifices and naked dancing with the devil, but because the only thing worse than a woman with ideas is a group of them.
Throughout time men have been afraid of powerful women, and while many still are, they can no longer burn us at the stake for it. I posit that these witchy women were just misunderstood and maligned: first attacked for their individuality and were then marred by the telling of time. The world we live in is an androcentric one; I want to reimagine and re-envision these women. Wipe the dust off their altars and reassess them in a new light.
I am far from the first to set out on such a task. Like most ideas in the world, Woolf has already been there (and said it better): “When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, […] then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.”
What follows is a list of renegade women that were persecuted and punished, revered and feared, all for wanting a life more fulfilling than their communities would allow.
Hypatia (351 to 370 – 415 C.E)
I studied philosophy in university and it breaks my heart a little every time I think about Hypatia’s absolute absence from my course. I’m going to go ahead and give Bath Spa the benefit of doubt – there is, after all, a very good chance I slept through it – but overall, in course content and as an institution, philosophy is seriously lacking in ladyfolk. So, take note: here’s why Hypatia is so important.
Philosophy lecturer and leader of the Neoplatonic School in Alexandra, Hypatia was one of Greece’s greatest thinkers and innovators. She was born circa-400BC, studied Plato, built astrolabes, taught philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, and drew listeners from across the continent and beyond.
Hypatia is often presented as a virgin martyr, and while the latter she certainly is, a virgin she was most likely not. Prior to the popularisation of Christianity, ‘virgin’ simply meant that a woman wasn’t tied to any man (similarly: ‘hymen’ comes from the Greek god of marriage by the same name, the hymen itself has no relation to virginity and does not ‘break’ – the idea sex physically changes a woman’s body is male entitlement if I ever saw it). Plus, given her penchant for warding off male suitors by waving her menstrual rags at them, I’d hypothesise she was never really into men to begin with *wink wink*
Anyway, back to her story. As is often the way of the world, women must work twice as hard for half the recognition. But recognition she did gain: in spite of her lady parts, she was respected and heralded in her home city. That is until the religious masses arrived and she got murdered by a mob of Christian monks.
One thing you will soon notice about this list is that wherever there is a strong-willed, educated woman, there is a mob of fragile men armed with pitchforks screeching “witchcraft!” appearing soon after. For Hyaptia, this call came from the Christians who insisted that any lady with that much knowledge must have hung out with the Devil because, uh duh lady brains. She was murdered for daring to get involved with politics, but given that that excuse didn’t fly even then, they added in some witchy-ways to discredit her. Jokes on them though; she earnt the proud title of being the first witch killed by Christian authority, and has an asteroid belt AND lunar crater named after her.
Walpurga Hausmännin (died 2nd September 1587)
Walpurga Hausmännin was a little old lady, living and working as a licenced midwife in Bavaria, Germany in the 1500s (if you thought the Salem trials were bad, they had nothing on Germany). She was quietly enjoying her twilight years when she was accused of, and sentenced to death for, witchcraft, vampirism and the murder of over forty babies. She confessed to all of this after being tortured for weeks, but as anyone who is aware of U.S foreign policy can attest: confessions gained through torture are useless.
What’s most pertinent about Walpurga’s story is the gendered nature of it; from the reasons she was accused to her punishments – namely being stripped, symbolically mutilated and paraded through the streets – her crimes were wholly rooted in her womanhood. Essentially, she was targeted because she was an educated, widowed midwife who had sex outside of marriage, 31 years before her trial.
Her experience was a common one. In Witches, Midwives and Nurses, a paper by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English, the pair discuss how women had always been healers, but were usually unlicensed, barred from formal education and prone to both ridicule and accusation. Midwifery was doubly susceptible to suspicion because of its association with magic. Religious dogma, coupled with limited medical knowledge and misogyny, conveniently criminalised women’s bodies and minds. Meanwhile, women that provided contraception or abortions were also chastised. Like Walpurga, most ‘witches’ were really just old lady healers whose knowledge scared and offended men.
A caveat: using (or often, withholding) healthcare as a means of oppression is nothing new, nor has it disappeared: studies have shown that women are under-represented in clinical trials, their symptoms and pain are more likely to be dismissed by doctors (a recent study found that women are more likely to die from a heart attack because doctors assume it’s a men’s disease), while in times of war – or in tyrannical regimes – it is our bodies that are underfunded, neglected and policed. This extends much further than just debates surrounding reproductive rights; in Afghanistan in the 90s for instance, the Taliban banned women from accessing healthcare administered by men, while also forbidding women from working.
Walpurga was accused and sentenced for the murder of 41 babies and two women during childbirth. She was also supposedly responsible for killing cows and causing hailstorms. For her crimes, she was stripped and dragged through the streets, had her hands and breasts cut off, was flayed and then burnt on a pyre. Her ashes were discarded in a river so that she would never know peace – all for being a lady with a brain.
Merga Bien (late 1560s – 1603)
Merga Bien was born in the German town of Fulda in the late 1560s. She was unlucky in love but fortunate when it came to their inheritances, and so by her third marriage she had successfully aroused the suspicion and jealously of her fellow townsfolk. So far, all she had done was have the audacity to remarry twice (completely legal) and was bequeathed her husbands’ estates when she was widowed (also legal). However, this is the 1500s we’re talking about – her good times weren’t going to last long.
By the start of 1602, she was happily married and pregnant with her first child. Meanwhile, Prince-abbot Balthasar von Dernbach was having a bit of a moment. And when I say ‘moment’ I mean he became hellbent on smoking out the country’s witches and burning them at the stake. Over 200 people were killed from 1602 until his death in 1605, and unfortunately, Merga was one them.
She was accused of witchcraft in June 1603. Merga’s crime? Her money and her ex-husband’s impotence. The defence ran that basically because she hadn’t been able to conceive with her second husband, she must have a) killed him, her children and someone her second husband worked with and b) slept with the devil to get preggaz. I know, it’s a bit of a leap but in medieval Europe everything was always the lady’s fault. She was ‘questioned’ AKA tortured while pregnant and confessed to everything they accused her of. She and the baby in her belly were burnt at the stake by the autumn of 1603, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out where her money went (spoiler: to her accusers).
Catherine La Voisin (1640 – 1680)
Now, I know not all witches can be heralded as misunderstood heroes, I mean, just take Catherine La Voisin. I’ve written about her before and have definitely drunkenly ranted about her at length to anyone who would listen (don’t judge me), but she was one hell of a horrible woman. The feminist in me wants to say that she was just trying to survive in a world that wanted to dominate her, but I think she just really enjoyed fucking things up. Plus, this is a blog about witches – I needed to include at least one scary story.
She began as a fortune teller and healer, but after the death of her bankrupt, good-for-nothing husband she needed some dollar, and fast. She soon realised that all of her clients either wanted someone to love them or to die, so after a quick career change, her business became a one-stop-shop for murder and scandal. At one point, she even had one of the King of France’s mistresses stopping by for Sabbaths and potions.
It’s estimated that she killed thousands of people in Paris throughout her life. However, it was her Satanical leanings that really caught history’s attention. She often hosted Black Sabbaths, performed sacrifices and was eventually caught when she and the aforementioned mistress tried to kill the king. While awaiting her execution she frightened guards by recounting her tale. In 1680, she was burnt at the stake, laughing, cursing and spitting at the crowd until her bitter, burnt end.
Conversely, La Voisin was progressive in other ways; she was also a midwife and more importantly, provided abortions centuries before it was vaguely permissible (we can just gloss over the part where she supposedly used the babies as sacrifices, right? Right?) It’s likely that in the same way other ladies on this list were demonised in death, La Voisin’s crimes were also exaggerated. But hey, why let a little truth get in the way of a good story?