Images of witches have appeared in various forms throughout history—from evil, wart-nosed women huddling over a cauldron of boiling liquid to hag-faced, cackling beings riding through the sky on brooms wearing pointy hats.
But when men cry witch they do not refer to those green-faces. So here’s a question: how many people know the real story behind witches?
A fearsome being of fairytale and myth, the witch has carved out a home in nearly every culture across world and time.
According to the beliefs spread in various cultures, witches have been devoted to the practice of magic and endowed with occult powers that would have derived them from being in contact with the devil and with supernatural entities.
And when we say witch, we almost exclusively mean woman. Sure, men have also been accused of witchcraft, but they are by far the minority. Furthermore, this doesn’t even carry the same stigma.
These women have used these powers almost exclusively to harm people and to oppose the entire human society. Indeed, the witch represents the dark side of the female presence: she has power that cannot be controlled.
Therefore, the raised need to killed them.
The witch hunt, contrary to what is often claimed, was a phenomenon that developed especially during Humanism and the Renaissance. It first began at the end of the Middle Ages, when the idea that the devil was behind the witches spread, but it had its peak in the sequent era.
This phenomenon lasted about three centuries and has spread throughout Europe, and when it ended, at approximately the beginning of the 18th century, an estimated 60,000 women were killed because they were thought to be witches.
But why were these women really persecuted and labelled as witches?
All those who were accused of being witches, were women who were mostly lonely, single or widowed, poor, old, foreign, prostitutes, rebels, melancholy and healers. Many witches were simply women who had or showed independence, courage or character. Women who were able to replicate and defend themselves. In England, for example, some women were accused of witchcraft simply because they knew how to swim.
When women stepped outside their prescribed roles, they became targets. Too much wealth might reflect sinful gains. Too little money demonstrated bad character. Too many children could indicate a deal with the devil. Having too few children was suspicious, too.
Quite soon, witch hunt became the most practical way to eliminate uncomfortable women from society. Very often the accusations started from their own families or communities.
What most terrified the society was the true gender alliance women established with each other.. And perhaps this, more than any other reason, brought dismay to society, so much as to have triggered a paranoia that has then degenerated into real persecution. This union between women threatened the control of a purely male society.
But now, after several centuries, can we say that ignorance and misogyny have been contained?
Despite the various advances and small achievements, in my opinion, the answer is no.
Truth is that women have made powerful strides towards equality, and we are seeing an unprecedented awareness of sexual harassment, assault and the silencing of women. However, the stereotype that sees witches personifying fear of assertive women still exists.
Think about all the women mistreated and abused – not only physically – by our male society. Think about all the women killed by jealous ex-boyfriends.
Isn’t this the same thing?