The Witching Cycles
Once upon a time the word witch was not a negative title. Although the etymology is somewhat unclear, it most likely came from the verb wit “know” (as in wit and witty). And this makes sense, because we know that witches were our wise women. They were our healers, our carers, and the custodians of knowledge.
Halloween, otherwise known as Samhain, marking the decent into winter, is the first of eight Sabbats in the witches’ calendar; the ancient Celtic Wheel of the Year.
Like Mexico’s day of the dead, Samhain is about introspection and remembrance — paying respect to those that have passed. This year, when we have not just a full moon, but a blue moon, and that moon gleaming over us as we face a global pandemic, it seems like a good time to reflect on how our ancient healers were slandered and devalued.
As we pay tribute to our health workers today, let’s take a moment to remember those health workers who have gone before.
It began in the 14th century. Wealthy men in Europe called it a period of ‘Enlightenment’ (to cover up their exploits with femicide and slavery). There was an active takeover of the practice of medicine by men. University trained male physicians had emerged the century prior, yet they were not a patch on the traditional women healer, and so they needed to play dirty to vanquish the competition.
The establishment of medicine as a profession requiring university training made it easy to exclude women from practice, as women were conveniently already barred from universities. Better-off, literate women who practiced medicine anyway were hit by licensing laws that prohibited them from doing so. In Paris, in 1322, Jacoba Felicie was brought to trial by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Paris, on criminal charges. The primary accusations against her were that, “she would cure her patient of internal illness and wounds or of external abscesses. She would visit the sick assiduously and continue to examine the urine in the manner of physicians, feel the pulse, and touch the body and limbs.” Six witnesses affirmed that she had cured them, one stating that Jacoba was wiser in the art of medicine than any master physician in Paris. Clearly, she was pretty good at her job, yet patriarchy didn’t like it, so the evidence was used against her to stop her practicing. By the end of 14th century, male physicians monopolised all aspects of medicine except obstetrics and midwifery.
Wise women continued to practice local medicine, they had been community doctors for centuries, and weren’t going to be displaced that easily. So, harsher measures had to be taken. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII gave authority to the Church to find witches and kill them. Witchcraft was branded ‘crimen exceptum’ — an exceptional crime — and two years later, in Germany, Kramer and Sprenger wrote ‘the Hammer of the witches’. One of the most misogynistic books ever created.
In 1542 the British Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act which defined witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. Then, James 1st, obsessed with witchcraft and the only monarch to author his very own witch hunting manual; ‘Demonology’, got heavily involved, and a further law in 1604 transferred the trial of witches from the Church to the ordinary courts.
The witch hunt was on.
From 14th to 17th century, well-organised campaigns against women healers, initiated, financed, and executed by the Church and State, were run across Europe. Women were accused of simply being sexual, or more specifically to their healing tradition, having magical powers affecting health: both harming and healing. Some had specific criminal charges against their possessing medical or obstetrical skills. “No one does more harm to the Catholic church than midwives,” Kramer and Sprenger had blustered in their Hammer.
The witch craze spread across Europe like a misogynist plague. Executions were often live burnings at the stake, beheadings, or drowning. Peasant women were executed in Italy and Germany, then in the mid 16th century the terror spread to France and reached a frenzy in England, seeing the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland in 1590. The 17th century opened with the Fulda witch trials in Germany between 1603–1606 which resulted in the deaths of 250 people, continued with the 1609 Basque witch trials in Spain at the hands of the Inquisition, and the Torsåker witch trials in Sweden which saw 71 people (65 women and 6 men) beheaded and burned. The end of the century saw the craze spread to America, and the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692–93, where more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft.
Some scholars have estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were executed for witchcraft across Europe and America, others say it was far larger. Of those tried, around 85% were women, and mostly poor women over the age of 40. In truth, we will never truly know how many of our ancestresses perished under these barbaric circumstances.
The witch hunts did not manage to completely eliminate woman healer, but they branded her as malevolent and discredited her, associating her with devil worship and all that is bad. Whilst many of the herbal remedies developed by wise women found their way into modern pharmacology, such as using ergot for the pain of labour, much of the other wisdom went underground.
All that witches represented, practiced and were killed for: wisdom, sexuality, power, and freedom, all so despised by the patriarchy, had to be veiled behind more acceptable forms of femininity.
The laws against witchcraft were repelled in England in 1736, but were replaced with fines against people practicing witchcraft. After over 200 years, and the tireless campaigning of the mother of modern witchcraft Doreen Valiente this act was repelled in 1951. But again, it was replaced with another law, the Fraudulent Mediums Act, repelled only in 2008.
Today, witchcraft is emerging from the shadows as women recognise and revel in their ancient birth right to a liberated spirituality and wisdom. Modern witches such as Lisa Lister and Juliet Diaz are sharing their truth with a new generation.
Samhain marks our remembrance, but let’s not forget that it is part of a cycle. As we pass into what it likely to be a difficult winter period, it serves us to embrace every part of the coming yule at the winter solstice and what it has to bring us. Then, as the wheel cycles us into the new year, we can look forward to Imbolic in February, Ostara at the spring equinox, and Beltane on May 1st. We shall hopefully be seeing the last vestiges of the pandemic as we roll on to Litha at the summer solstice, or Lammas on July 31st/August 1st. Maybe by Mabon, the autumnal equinox, we will be able to look back on everything we have gone through, wiser, and in a better place to begin again.
Whatever may happen as we ride out the cycles of the year, let’s make sure that we live in a way that makes our ancestress witches proud.
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Marianne is a historian fascinated by history and pre-history. Using history and strategy, Marianne writes on justice, liberty, and power. Using the lessons of the past, she provides ideas and mechanisms to build new structures and values in our world.