Witch Burning = Misogyny

witchesLast October, my neighbor stretched synthetic cobwebs among the branches of her tree. Against this creepy backdrop, she hung a broomstick and a badly made female figure, clearly a witch. The sight made me wince.

How did we evolve to find this display lightly amusing? Our forbearers did hang women from trees.

Erika Mailman takes it personally, she told the Chicago Tribune.

After all, one of her ancestors had been accused of witchcraft three decades before the Salem trials. Luckily, she was freed — twice — after two different accusations, years apart. But how would the townsfolk treat someone accused of convorting with the devil, Erika wonders.

No one knows how many “witches” were killed. Estimates range from the tens of thousands to the millions. 75-80% were female. In two German villages only one woman per town were spared.

The witch hunts constituted a holocaust of women.

Cornell history professor, Steven Katz, says,

The overall evidence makes plain that the growth — the panic — in the witch craze was inseparable from the stigmatization of women.

And in fact, the Inquisition’s Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) reads,

All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman… What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours…

The earliest accusations of witchcraft were aimed at women who were simply practicing the old pre-Christain religions of Europe.

And those religions had nothing to do with devils — that was a Christian concept.

Those peoples were trying to turn the wheel of the year, ensuring fertility and a good harvest.

Glinda, the good witch

Glinda, the good witch

At Winter Solstice they filled their homes with holly and evergreen trees (whose ability to survive the winter seemed magical) and burned yule logs to help the sun return. In spring, they ensured fertility via eggs and bunnies. And in early May they decorated a phallic pole to aid fertility and welcome summer. In late October they remembered their dead.

As Christianity converted the northern peoples to their new religion, the old practices were first absorbed, translated into Christmas, Easter, May Day, Halloween… but the Church later demonized the old practitioners (along with freethinkers, generally) hoping to eradicate religious competition.

But why weren’t men who worshipped the old gods killed as often as women?

Perhaps because Christianity had become patriarchal by then (though Jesus was egalitarian).

And those old religions were the last remnant of women’s power.

In them, both priests and priestesses officiated the worship of gods and goddesses, and women also held power as diviners and healers.

Were these more gender-equal religions, and women, demonized because women and their power felt so threatening?

I’ve often wondered.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 30, 2015, in feminism, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. Yeah the social structure and belief systems of much of northern Europe before the spread of Christianity were more egalitarian and gender equal, with women often playing major roles in society and often fighting along with the men in battles, like the Picts, Celts and Germanic tribes. Abrahamic religion, as well as the Greco-Roman influence tied up into it, seemed to create or add fuel to the ‘Madonna/Whore’ complex or dichotomy that even persists today in more subtle ways.

    • Yeah, there is an interesting history which shows that in more fertile regions, prehistorically, there was great gender equality. And diety was seen as both male and female: the Goddess and the God — usually plural. And the creation of life was celebrated.

      But in more arid regions, where hunting game was more common early on, and later gain was made through looting and war, The ability to kill becomes greatly valued. Death is celebrated. And since men were the hunters and warriors, men were more greatly valued. God came to be seen as male. And men became more greatly valued.

      I will be writing more on all of this later.

  2. No question that pagan superstitions persist even to today and were used as evidence of witchcraft, but it’s worth remembering that the Inquisition was born out of the Catholic Church’s crusade against the Cathars, who were generally more gender-equal in terms of property ownership.

    Of course, the Catholic Church’s war on women goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. Women originally had a much stronger role, but as the Church became a political organisation the patriarchy wrested control away. How tragic that one born-again misogynist should have a greater influence over Christianity than Christ himself.

  3. Hi Georgia…Great post! ‘Gendercide’ is still being utilized to control population…And! Christianity’s male-dominated society (is still an atrocity—and a disgrace to all that is ‘reasonable’ or civilized) in these days we articulate— ‘to be’— ‘modern-modernity’…Life is precious—regardless of what form—life happens to animate…Your post—perfect timing—too…Thanks for sharing with us! Phil

    • Yeah, you are right. You certainly see it today and China and India, for instance. And in parts of the middle east women are much more likely to be killed for things like leaving her spouse because he is abusive, or for doing other things that men aren’t punished for, like walking around in the world unchaperoned.

      You tend to see this sort of thing in cultures that are strongly patriarchal. Patriarchy is a dangerous thing for women. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. Don’t forget that there was a financial incentive to finding a woman to be a witch–particularly for widows. The property of a witch was confiscated by the Church. With no man to protect her, a widow (holding the property that they’d built together) was an easy and valuable target. Of course, any woman engaged in the healing arts, or who collected culinary herbs, was also easy pickings. And if a man was tired of a wife, all he need do was to raise suspicion with his priest. So long as he was not complicit in her evil ways, he could keep their/his property. One wonders if men turned in perfectly good wives to trade up, or worse, women they loved–but feared that their quirks would make them targets potentially leaving the husband landless and penniless.

  5. Talking about misogyny. Rihanna in her new music video is a gangster, she kidnaps a woman and she tortures her.

  6. What a timely discussion. It’s good to question why we seem to “honor” those practices. Of course, it reminds me that there are women around the world who are still being killed just for their gender. We shake our heads in retrospect but it’s still being allowed to occur, and that’s the worst part.

  7. The witch hunts constituted a holocaust on women…yes, very true. It was totally about the patriarchy’s fear of women, as well as the puritanical Christian man’s fear and loathing of all things feminine. It is a very shameful part of our history. Wow, and how’s that passage that you quoted about women?

  8. Thanks for shedding light here for your readers on the backstory. Growing up, I always wanted to be a gypsy on Halloween and in my twenties, I went for the witch costume- I thought they were more glamorous than the more gruesome creatures… I find it so interesting that people dress up in costume and troll for candy – an enjoyable tradition for sure- when there is so much else more potent to do when the energies of Hallows are there, open and available for all.

    • That’s funny, I was almost always a Gypsy, too. And these days I have both a gypsy and a witch costume. Think I might be a witch this year. I think the candy companies have a huge hand in the trolling for candy part. (Big surprise, right?)

  9. Talking about misogyny, it’s not only patriarchy but also women who do that. Have you seen Rihanna’s new music video?
    She suppossedly kidnaps another woman and she tortures her.

    • I’m not sure if you understand that “patriarchy” does not mean “men.” (A lot of people get confused, But it would be boring if I made the distinction every time I wrote about it) I couldn’t tell by your comment, what you were trying to say. But patriarchy and men are two different things. Just like “whites” and “white supremacy” are two different things. I’m against white supremacy, but I’m white, myself, and I think that white people are just fine. Whites are some of my best friends, as they say. And while I’m against patriarchy, I think that men are just fine — even married one. And in fact, research shows that feminist people (male and female) like men more than non-feminists do. https://broadblogs.com/2015/05/22/feminists-like-men-more-than-non-feminists-do/

      Women and men both internalize patriarchy. Internalization is the process by which society gets in your head. And our patriarchal society has gotten in pretty much all of our heads, mine included. I wrote a bit about the process here if you want to check it out:

      Why Do Women Fight Against Their Own Interests?
      https://broadblogs.com/2011/10/21/why-do-women-fight-against-their-own-interests/

  10. An excellent post… I once had a curse in the University which was optional… Its name was legitimating discourses of the punitive power… We studied the case of the Witch hunting…
    Punished for being different … or better said for having a pagan approach with regrd to certain topics, I truly seee those women as scapegoats of a dark and corrupt regime…
    I believe that Foucault also considers the issue in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison… Either way, it is interesting to see how esotericism was fought with the same weapons… The paradigmatic book in this sense is the Malleus Maleficarum (commonly rendered into English as “Hammer of [the] Witches”) which was a treatise on the prosecution of witches, written by a German Catholic clergyman. This is link to the complete book http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/mm/
    Thanks so much for sharing, dear Georgia… Sending best wishes. Aquileana ☀️

  11. I hate saying this as man, but this stuff obviously is nothing new for the crimes and things that have happened and happening now. It makes me sad and upset and while I know there are plenty of good men and I am one, and probably,a good number of men that are good, but unfortunatley bad one’s around. Though there are less men, it;s still bothering because it’s a big enough population of men and numbers to have caused so many women killed during that period. And even today, how many prisons in america and the world over filled, not simply because of drugs, but murder and rapes and molestations, etc. So it just bothers me and makes me feel ashamed as a man, the fuck ups and bad things other men are doing and have done regardless of it being “some men”, though it’s still a good size population. It sure is more than a bigger percentage than say the white people, white supremacists analogy you gave. It’s like have an ancestor that was say a white supremacists or a 2nd cousins or family who did bad things and hurt a lot of people.

    And while you shouldn’t be blamed for it, because you don;t have control over them and it;s not you, they are still related to you or your ancestors. It feels like that sometimes when thinking, and hating to admit it, the flaws of my sex and how fucked up the world is and how it would be great one day for it to be equal and peaceful, but a lot of it is to do with the powers to be, terrorists, politicians, culture, etc and that is from bad MEN. Yeah plenty of good men, but still most of the bad is from men whether it be to women, children, and while there are many men killed everday too, it;s from other men, not women more often.

    You say it’s patriarcy, and give an example of tribal indians, but that was such a small population. It seems as civilization grows, the governing ways have to change or do change, which could be patriarchal. All the one’s that were egalatarian were smaller populations. When things grew and became cities and civilizations, they become more male governed. Even ancient egypt that had a few women as leaders, they still had sexist views of women and such. I was watching, about something about sexuality of ancient egypt and how a forbidden art work or wall drawing that you see. It was a sex depiction of the queen and her male servant, and this was not somethign to draw of a queen, but the man who drew it did so, because he did not feel women should be leaders and wanted to draw something, basically degrading her and I feel his views were probably popular too.

    • Yeah, there’s a big difference between 1) men 2) patriarchy and 3) men who are jerks
      As there is a big difference between 1) whites 2) white supremacy and 3) whites who are jerks.

      I’ll be writing more about how civilization moved from great equality to patriarchy. Some people have looked to agriculture, which may have some interesting effects — but which didn’t necessarily need to. Crête, for example, was highly evolved agriculturally yet maintained a more partnership culture between the sexes until they were overtaken by a more patriarchal culture.

      I’ll be doing a series on possible causes of patriarchy, exploring different theories.

      • But that’s the problem and depressing is that patriarchy can be blamed and what brought on perhaps institutional misogyny. Unfortunately I think there is a biological flaw that can exist in or male esteem. Obviously more from corrupt men, just like greed and selfishness exists in humans, but its the bad humans who really use it to hurt and to such extent to hurt many people. Part of me wonders if it’s a human flaw, like the 7 deadly sins, but something more often derives from men and male ego than women. This need to control and be better or power over, which in return causes one to oppress the other. The root probably is insecurity like bullies who feel their power comes from oppressing and picking on smaller people.

        But sure Crete was equal and probably more peaceful. But I can’t help being philosophical, but does this mean that there is equality without culture or turn it the other way and aren’t culture and biology interelated and if anything, culture is a symbol of biology just more upon what side of biology (the good) or the (bad) that is being taught and conditioned to people? For example, CRete existed and tribal cultures that were peaceful and seems to show that men can be peaceful or equal, but do those culture just symbolize the good side of “men and humanity” and it’s not culture causing it but the good humanity pushing this and which conditions the people living there for doing good? And the same token the “controlling , bad aggressive cultures’ maybe affecting others to be bad too, but it existed because of insecure bad aggressive controlling men whose personalkites a male flaw maybe? To want to control and overcome and thus a culture that goes that way. So crete and egaliatarian cultures and patriarchal cultures, simply symbolizing the good and bad, yin and yang of “human behavior” and more so maybe male behavior? The reason I say that is because, as a professor, I’m sure you have read and appreciate classic pieces of literature, regardless of women’s rights or not.

        Remember the novel.. Lord of the Flies? Some say it’s about anarchy and what not. But I found it intersting that as the book went on, the boys ended up splitting in factions or what could be “cultures”. There were the more peaceful boys and one who I think represented jesus who ended up getting killed. And then there were the war mongering, conquering blood thirsty clique “culture”. They becane to create from innate personalities and then the socialization within and getting others to go there way. But that doesn’t start without one or two of the boys innately being more peaceful and the other controlling and it going from there. Do these cultures symbolize the good and bad of male behavior? Which is depressing, cause that means there is that flaw, that might not be conditioned but in some or many men which they take leadership like lord of the flies and the “patriarchal” cultures exist and thus over takr the also natural male peaceful behaviour. I don’t know if you know of superheros or not, but Batman there was a villain called “two face”. He was a decent man that turned jaded, and his half monterous face and half human face represented that and maybe human nature. Also Dr Jeky, Mr Hyde.

      • Patriarchy means “a society in which men hold more power + men and masculinity are more valued.” Patriarchy does not equal “men.”

        And men like Daniel Craig (see a recent post) are fighting the patriarchy.

        Some cultures have had equality and I will be writing more about them in the coming months. And I will be writing about why some cultures became patriarchal and others didn’t. And why patriarchy is most common these days.

        A book like Lord of the flies comes out of a dominator culture (Which has taken the form of patriarchy) which has a hard time imagining partnership and people getting along.

  12. A book like Lord of the flies comes out of a dominator culture (Which has taken the form of patriarchy) which has a hard time imagining partnership and people getting along.”

    I have a hard time imagining partnership and people getting long on a huge scale to self govern community based. That’s why most cultures and countries have some type of leadership power set up, because everyone doing what they want is what creates anarchy. People are probably less likely to hold accountability if they can’t be punished for it and do anything they want. And don’t forget the bossy people, power hungry people, bullying others and this is innate stuff that can exist in human behavior. That’s why I brought this up. The equal cultures and patriarchy, could be a reflection of human nature. The equal, showing the diplomatic side of human nature from men and patriarchy reflecting the ego, power, control, domination aspect of human nature from men.

    • All societies have leadership. But there’s a difference between leadership and a general prism of domination, like men over women, white over Color, rich over poor. In those societies I just mentioned, that value domination, leadership is going to be by white, rich, men.

      The closest we have come to a partnership society today are the Scandinavian countries. And here’s a post I wrote on a smaller society in the Americas that the Europeans encountered when they first came here: https://broadblogs.com/2015/04/17/a-world-before-male-dominance/

      Leadership is different from domination. Leaders will come and go and be of different ethnicities and genders and classes — or you will tend not to have a big difference between rich and poor, As with the Scandinavian countries.

  13. It sucks that a religion that was practiced by many people was turned into something so horrible and made to believe that is was made from evil. I read part of an ethnography by T.M. Luhrmann which discusses her involvement and study of witches’ covens and the meaning behind what it actually stands for. Like you stated this religion was for the worshiping of nature, but the personification of making nature a women and the how she takes many faces and names to represent the seasons. This is something good and lively that was turned to shame women and lead to many deaths. Most of the time women that were accused of being witches were innocent and were outed because of jealous or hatred from men (and women) that wanted them to pay. This literally took power from women and put fear in anything they did because one wrong move would be the end of their lives. What did make the belief of a woman being the giver of life so evil that it made murdering innocent women okay? It is something I will always wonder as well.

    • The answer to your last question seems to have to do with dominator cultures — specifically patriarchy — taking over equality cultures that are more about partnership. And I will be writing on this in the future. But quickly, it seems that it’s harder to dominate someone if you like them. Demonize them, And it’s easier to dominate. So demonize women, And it is easier to dominate them.

  14. Victoria Butterfield

    I think that it is easier to demonize women because it is easier to sexualize them. A religious man can claim a woman is doing witchcraft when he burns with lust for her, because it’s easier to blame her than his own arousal. When women are oppressed by one person it spreads and more men think they can oppress women and blaming them becomes an easy second nature. Whether or not the women killed were witches it was for sure that they were being demonized and oppressed. Even in the Arthur Miller play “the crucible” the woman on trial was having an affair with a married man, it’s easier to demonize a woman who is sexualized and it becomes even easier to oppress them.

    • And interestingly, when patriarchy arose both women and sexuality were demonized. I’m trying to remember the theory behind why. The gender-equal partnership cultures celebrated Life and the women who created life, breast patriarchal dominator cultures tended to celebrate death — that’s how you got your power: By killing others and taking their stuff, Or their position. So when the death oriented cultures overtook the Life oriented cultures, things surrounding the creation of life — and a celebration of women that surrounded the creation of life) we’re both demonized.

      I have to write about this sometime.

  15. The witch hunts definitely were used to eradicate any threats to Christianity’s development and control over the populations it tried to control and used witchcraft as a means of gendercide. Paganism, Celtic Wicca, and Druidism are all intended to be egalitarian and peaceful with means of embracing the magic of life in the world and use rituals for positivity. I’ve purchased and read quite a few books on these topics and one called “Moon Magick” describes some more historical witch recipes and rituals, while explaining the past cultural significance. All of these are quite peaceful and gender positive. I used to be far more insecure about being female but this book in a way helped me see positivity in my gender through how it’s reflected in the goddess worship of the moon and matriarchal past significance.
    Understanding how female positive these spiritual beliefs were and connecting it to my knowledge on Christianity’s take over in my past humanities class helps explain concepts on how this threatened the patriarchal take over of Christianity. It sought to control the population, largely used methods of limiting or controlling women, and instituting social class with practically only male religious figures that were higher than the kings and lords of lands. If you want to have a patriarchy, you can’t have a matriarchy at the same time. Though the original egalitarian intent of Jesus was not patriarchal, Christian figures and the Christian Bible implemented ideas of androcentrism that took away ideas on embracing life or gender equal positivity.
    If people believe in celebrating current life, why would they follow the Christian morals for supposedly guaranteed perfect after life? In Ancient Greek mythology, Gaia (the earth) first existed with Chaos and Eros (sexual love) and then Gaia gave birth to what became the rest of the universe, which is an example of one of the first recorded matriarchal life giving figures. Witches embraced the life giving roles of women like in Ancient Greek religion and patriarchal Christianity changed this idea to Eve coming from Adam’s rib.
    Perhaps a “witch” was the coined term for a feminist in the time period since they challenged institutionalized patriarchy and Christian ideals, which figures supporting the switch to androcentrism demonized and feared the same way some fight against feminists, with less dramatic actions taken and more institutional sexism.

    If so, I’d rather be a witch.

  1. Pingback: On Witches and Superheroes | Stories From the Belly

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