Women and Witchcraft

This post was written for Flashlight Commentary, and originally published there on August 23, 2014.

In the lost mists of time, long before the advent of monotheist religions, man worshiped Mother Nature. Time passed, civilisations developed, and somewhere 3 000 years ago, the old veneration for Mother Nature – a most female deity – was replaced by the decidedly male God of the Hebrews, soon to become the equally male God of Christians and Muslims.

A Patriarch God preferred male servants – or so the male servants said. Scripture abounds with examples putting women in their place – below men. St Paul states that “woman was created for the sake of man” and men like Thomas of Aquino did all women a disservice when he described us as being intellectually inferior to men, weak vessels that did best in acknowledging man’s supremacy. Further to this, woman was much more susceptible to sin than men – after all, it was Eve, not Adam, who ate that famous apple. 

It suited the powerful Church to relegate women to the fringes of things. Women who chose not to listen, or who continued to draw on ancient knowledge to heal and help others were viewed with distrust. Initially, the Church scoffed at the concept of magic and witches, stating that such things did not exist, and it was very rare for anyone to be accused of witchcraft. But in the 15th century, things began to change. For one thing, the Church was battling an increased number of heretics, and secondly, popular belief began to equate witches with heretics – in the sense that a witch worshiped Satan. A papal bull late in the century and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer) in 1487 effectively created an open season on witches – most of whom were female (of course…) 

Things didn’t explode until late in the 16th century. The tensions of the Reformation coupled with the general instability of the times was fertile ground indeed for witch hunters, and suddenly there were witches crawling out of every fissure in the ground, both on the Continent and in Britain. No matter how many voices were raised protesting the barbaric practises of torturing a woman to extract her confession of being a witch, they didn’t help – especially not when such prominent figures as James VI of Scotland loudly argued that witches did exist and had to be fought with whatever means possible. 

Enter the Witchfinder, usually a man, who claimed to have the ability of identifying all potential witches. One such man was Matthew Hopkins, who more or less singlehandedly caused the death by hanging of 300 women between 1644 and 1647 (In 1645, he had 18 people hanged in one day for witchery). He extracted confessions through various creative procedures, such as sleep deprivation and “pricking”, whereby the accused was shaved of all body hair and submitted to being pricked with a long, sharp needle. Should Matthew hit upon a point that didn’t bleed – well, obviously the naked terrified woman being inspected was a witch. 

Fortunately for the women of England, Hopkins died in 1647 – still a number of years shy of his thirtieth birthday. At the time, his methods were already being questioned, and a number of people were speaking out against him, accusing him of being a cheat (duh), more motivated by the money involved than by any genuine desire to cleanse the world of real evil.  

Unfortunately for several women in the New World, Hopkins was very proud of his methods – so proud he wrote a handbook, called The Discovery of Witches in 1647. This book was taken as the ultimate guide in how to find witches – at least in the Colonies – and indirectly Hopkins would thereby cause a number of further deaths in America – long after he was dead.