As a woman and witch, I guess it just makes sense for me to begin this month of blogging with the witch burnings. Yes, exhaustive research has been conducted to prove that women were not the only victims during the burning times – men and children were tried and convicted, as well. But, let’s face facts – the majority of those put to death for witchcraft in the entire course of history have been female.
Witchcraft in and of itself was considered a purely feminine affliction by the Catholic church. To have a breast and vagina was to be a slathering, lust-filled partner to the devil. Gods forbid you were a widow with a pet or a single woman of middle age; all signs point to you cackling before a fire while you poison your neighbor’s goats.
A while back I read Witchcraze by Anne Llewellyn Barstow. It is a comprehensive account of the witch burnings in Europe, compiled from ancient manuscripts documenting trials and executions. Not only the facts, but her own conclusions on the subject – almost all with which I fully agree.
Everyone knows Catholicism is a patriarchal religion. Starhawk in “The Spiral Dance” says “The asceticism of early Christianity, which turned its back on the world of the flesh, had degenerated, in some quarters of the church, into hatred of those who brought that flesh into being. Misogyny, the hatred of women, had become a strong element in medieval Christianity. Women, who menstruate and give birth, were identified with sexuality and therefore with evil.” What most people tend to ignore is the fact that throughout history, that patriarchal thinking led to issues of woman-hating. Eve destroyed humanity’s chances of immortality – really? Why would any woman want to believe in something like that? Woman was made from a piece of Adam, while Adam was formed in the image of the Christian god…is it not obvious that the female form is stunted from the very beginning?
Women bleed every month and do not die. They form and shelter infants inside their bodies and singularly feed them upon birth. This mystery of womanhood has been revered throughout time by early Pagans, before the debilitating effect of Christian influence, and today by nouveau Pagans. The mystery has been immortalized in images like the Venus of Willendorf or the Sheela-na-gig of the Celts, whose most intimate parts have been engorged to draw attention and respect.
On the other hand, we have the Christian saint Agatha, whose breasts were supposedly chopped off by pagan worshippers of Greek gods because she refused to abandon Christianity. This message to me does not say “Pagans are evil and will hurt you” it says “Obey resolutely Christianity and lose your femininity.”
Those accused of witchcraft were treated abominably. Women’s bodies were searched intimately for “the Devil’s mark” and instances of rape were surely rampant. The very lustful and sexual nature of these so-called witches being fought against by upstanding church men only echoed the men’s own desires and sexual natures. The accused were often jailed for months at a time, awaiting trial or being subjected to hideous tortures meant to force them into confession. The high rate of confessions to liaisons with the devil is explained quite simply – at the mercy of thumbscrews, the rack, or an Iron Maiden, could you continue to endure excruciating pain to the point of death? Or would you tell your accusers what they wanted to hear to ease your suffering?
Because, confession did not bring release. The torture would stop, but death came swiftly. Those who did not confess to witchcraft would be tortured until dead, or jailed until death by starvation or poor conditions. Those who did confess would have a speedy sentencing and find themselves in a swift drop before being lashed – dead – to a pole and burned. Confession brought the quick death of strangulation, while the unrepentant were burned alive, crowds gathering to have picnics while the “witch” screamed her last.
Families were not free from the trials of their loved ones. A mother’s children often followed her, gaining the same accusations by the same accusers. Any family that did escape the same fate found themselves losing their home and belongings to pay for the jailing of their loved one – every accused witch had to pay their own jail time, whether they had the money or not.
This is only a dip into the water that is the Burning Times. Christianity has conveniently forgotten the approximated 60,000 people put to death for witchcraft, though some right-wing groups still chant “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” (FYI, the actual Hebrew translation is “thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live.)
Today, witches are thriving. We are all over the world, practicing solo, or in groups, and even incorporating churches and schools. The Pagan path is recognized in America, though I have a feeling it is still a long, hard road until the stigma Hollywood and Christianity has put on us will be lifted.
Of course, opinions are just opinions. No, I could never be a Christian because it goes against everything I believe in; but I’m sure many say the same thing about goddess worship. As for me, I will live my life in honor of the Great goddess. I will always remember and honor the women who came before me – Christians, Pagans, or otherwise – who were tried and found wanting by men; tortured and executed. No matter their beliefs, I feel their pain. They are my ancients, my sisters (and brothers!)