Witch Hunts

"Where we burn one man, we burn maybe ten women."
--Keiserbach, Die Emeis, 1516

"I cure and treat all evils, all diseases...I am not a sorceress and I treat everything
and do everything with a flower oil of mine."
-- herbalist Bellezza Orsini to inquisitors, 1540

"Mais quoi, they say that all women are witches."
--Aldegonde de Rue, France, 1601

1447 witch burning

The early modern witch-hunt Terror was the crucible of modern "Western Civilization." It had a profound impact on women's status--and bodies, speech, mobility, sexuality. The witch craze was escalated through torture trials based on pornographic (and racist) diabolist ideology. Females, the old, disabled, queer, poor, and minorities were targeted as "devil-worshippers." Churchmen, doctors and professors propagated diabolist mythology, and the state enforced it through sexualized torture which became a model for modern pornography. This presentation examines the reign of the demonologists, witches' chairs, scolds' bridles,"devil's marks" and witch-prickers; of lynchings and exorcisms of "women possessed" -- and the legacies of this repression in present-day culture.

Witch hunts have become a metaphor (McCarthyism, Stalinist purges, military persecution of lesbians and gays) without their own significance ever having been culturally digested. Women were the primary targets of the witch persecutions. The hunts profoundly impacted their status, stigmatizing old women, outspoken and non-conformist women, and inculcating fear and repression of female bodies, speech, movement, and sexual power. (A British proverb ran, "A hairy man's a geary man, but a hairy wife's a witch.") And some victims were indeed folk healers, diviners, midwives, and sexual politicians.

Not only did torture-trials inculcate negative stereotypes of female power, they seared racist diabolism into European consciousness, defining people of color and non-Christians as "devil-worshippers." These ideologies became potent tools of empire, as colonialists exported witch hunts and religious persecution to South America, Mexico and New England, as well as Africa and the Islands. You could call the witch craze the crucible of modern Western Civilization --or the prehistory of the Christian Right. These cultural poisons that continue to sow violence and destruction: it's time we understand where they came from.

This live visual presentation by Max Dashu draws on her forty years of research on witchcraft and the witch hunts and an extensive collection of rare images. 90 minutes, with extra time for discussion.

See these articles by Max Dashu for more on the witch hunting Terror:
Early Modern Witch Hunts | Xorguiñas y Celestinas | Colonial Hunts: South America

Why study witch hunts? “That was so long ago...”

The last official executions of witches took place in the 1700s, but lynchings of accused witches continued through the 1800s and, sporadically, into the 1900s. As recently as 1981, a mob stoned a Mexican woman to death after her husband accused her of bewitching pope John Paul II. Cases of torture and murder of wives or children suspected of being possessed by devils still turn up in news reports, and witch persecution especially targeting old women is going on in parts of Africa and India.

In the United States, the witchcraft accusation is still a potent weapon for bringing women into line. During the Clinton administration, editorial cartoons pictured Hillary Clinton as a witch, while columnists compared the right's demonization of her to burning at the stake. The media blasted Clinton for participating in a "guided visualization" with the psychologist Jean Houston. When the press pounced on Houston, her defenders protested that she was not like "witches, wackos and psychos." During Clinton's run for the presidency, she was again called a "witch" and pictured as one by cartoonists like Pat Oliphant.

American lawsuits continue to be filed against school districts to prevent Halloween art projects and to purge libraries of books with feminist, gay, or pagan content or references. In 1994 a Montana librarian was fired for helping two seventh-grade girls with their report on witchcraft in the middle ages. In his 1992 attack on an Equal Rights Amendment bill in Iowa, Pat Robertson covered all the bases: "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

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