It’s the last week of spooky season, so in preparation for Halloween, let’s talk about the role religion and misogyny play in today’s perception of witches. In movies like “Hocus Pocus” and “Twitches,” witches are always women with pointy hats, brooms and a black cat sidekick. But where did society get this idea?
In Early Modern Europe and Colonial America while religious beliefs spread so did the epidemic of witch hunts and trials. Historically, women were 80% of those convicted of being witches. In fact, for 200 years the bestselling book after the Bible was “Malleus Maleficarum,” a catalyst for the persecution of women. Written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger and published in 1487, the book pushed misogynistic propaganda and drove the European witch craze. The book described women as an ‘unfinished animal’ in reference to the story of Adam and Eve.
In this, Eve succumbs to the devil’s temptations, thus pushing the idea that women had an ‘inherent evil nature.’ In a patriarchal society, women were believed to be inferior. Women were to be married and unemployed.
It is not surprising that patriarchy reigned in the 14th century. However, if women were to gather, it was considered dangerous. It was thought to be a coven, a group of witches. Women hanging out to talk and exchange herbs, at the time was easily assumed as a witch gathering.
This often occurred in small rural communities where everyone knew everyone. Any eccentric or new member would often be the town’s scapegoat for any suspicious activity.
It was even believed that women sold their souls and bodies to Satan for the ability to have magic. It was also assumed that witches would sleep with the devil, so, women were more often suspected.
Trial records showed that convicted witches were often widows, healers, or midwives. These women were likely seen to be outsiders in their communities–easy targets when it came to the witch trials.
Although many healers and midwives had gained their knowledge from past generations. If a woman were to help cure illness, especially after a male doctor had failed, she would be accused of unnatural powers.
Women weren’t allowed to get an education. So, if any women were to practice healing it was considered unnatural. It may have been “men’s medicine” but for women, it was automatically the “devil’s magic.”
Even the theory that witches ate children, came from women performing obstetric practices such as abortions.
Just any old woman with a cat would have been suspected to be a witch. For her affection for both nature and animals was ‘diabolical.’ Somehow black cats became associated with witches, and then black cats gained the superstition of being bad luck. Although they are a symbolic example of Halloween today, originally cats were domesticated for keeping rodent populations down.
Today, you can wonder if witches became better at hiding their powers or if traces of misogyny and religious beliefs convicted innocent women.
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