The phenomenon and concept of the witch transcends any one cultural context and has primarily been a feature of Abrahamic folk-mythology since at least 931 B.C. Today the term is used quite loosely especially in the political arena as hyperbolic self-defense against accusations of wrongdoing the accused aims to dismiss as groundless. When prejudices are systemic against one demographic and have become institutionalized, for another demographic to claim the same prejudice without living the experience of the victimized demographic is inherently wrong (examples include white people accusing non-white people of being racist against them and men accusing women of being sexist against men).
The sensation of “the witch” is quite interesting in the fact that not only did it transcend global cultures, but time as well. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all condemn certain witches and witchcraft in their texts and mainly that of a feminine nature. A very early verse written between 931 B.C. and 721 B.C. in the Book of 1 Samuel, King Saul asked the Witch of Endor to resurrect the prophet Samuel to help him defeat the Philistine army, with the end result being the King committing suicide. Additionally, there is the oft-quoted verse from the Bible, Exodus 22:18, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” This passage is translated in some places as strictly in the feminine form of “sorceress.” The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text, tells the story of fallen angels who took mortal women as their wives and taught them what some describe as “forbidden knowledge” and others describe as “sorcery and spells.” The Talmud in the Jewish tradition has several passages regarding women and witchcraft, one being Avot 2:7, “He used to say: The more flesh, the more worms; The more property, the more anxiety; The more wives, the more witchcraft; The more female slaves, the more lewdness…” In Islam, Sihr translates from Arabic to English as “black magic.” There is a prayer in the Qur’an called surah al-Falaq which asks god to ward off black magic, “I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn; From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practice secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practices envy. (Qur’an 113:1–5)”
Two historical witch trials most people are familiar with are the European witch trials of the mid 1400s through around 1750 which included the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials in the state of Massachusetts in America in 1692. The book, Malleus Maleficarum (e.g. The Hammer of Witches), written by Heinrich Kramer and published in 1487 was really the spark that ignited the witch hunt hysteria across Europe. Shortly after its publication and up to around 1660, an estimated 80,000 suspected witches were put to death in Europe with around 80% of them being women. Many scholars consider these trials as gendercide. While witch folklore and accusations of witchcraft were widespread for years, according to the in-depth article, “On the Trail of the ‘Witches:’ Wise Women, Midwives and the European Witch Hunts” by Ritta Jo Horsley and Richard A. Horsley, it was the introduction of church law and their belief that any “supernatural cures not sanctioned by the Church were viewed as resulting from the Devil’s help, but in part also because of the competition the cunning folk meant to the established religion.” Popular opinion has long been that it was predominately “wise women,” healers, and midwives who were the prime targets during the trials. Recently these theories have come under scrutiny as “feminist scholars romanticizing the roles of women.” The Horsley & Horsley article uses actual trial depositions and records, as well as many other sources, to illustrate why certain demographics were targeted. They concluded that in fact these women were the ones predominantly accused for several reasons–mainly that they were elderly or otherwise marginalized. Older women living on their own was a curiosity. Documentation shows most were accused of witchcraft for years but didn’t dispute the charges because the fear the label induced was a way for them to defend themselves in their already vulnerable status. Unfortunately, this defense worked against them in the end. The article also points out that there were both “wise women” and “wise men” who were thought to use their knowledge for benevolent purposes, but it was the wise women who were eventually persecuted and usually the accusations came from the wise men. This indicates the general bias against female knowledge and power and how these traits were viewed as dangerous. The article illustrates how the patriarchal systems in place played a major role in these horrors. One example refers to several wise women who were among the accused because they “engaged in beneficent practices such as healing by folk remedies, protective magic, and teaching other women charms to make their husbands stop beating them and care for them instead.”
According to historical texts, midwives were an obsession of the church. They were recurring targets of the witch hunts with clear documentation of their deranged superstition. They were often referred to as “Satan’s whores,” and thought to eat babies or offer newborns up to devils. The church also claimed that midwives used baby parts or byproducts of birth as ingredients in their potions. They then began to require midwives undergo examinations by the church and receive licenses to be able to practice. It went so far that during the 1600s in Germany midwives “were required to report abortions, infanticide and childbirth outside of marriage to the authorities, and to submit themselves to the supervision and authority of doctors,” among other regulations. Much of this is evocative of the church and government’s ongoing persecution of Planned Parenthood in the United States.
The Salem witch trials, though on a much smaller scale, had the same level of paranoia as in Europe. Most of the accused and killed were women, but there are many theories as to what exactly started the wave of allegations. Some say people were infected by moldy bread, others say it began by the wild stories of bored girls, while others claim it had to do with ownership of land. Whatever the reason, the fact that religious authority played a major role is one constant. The strict Puritanical faith of the citizens forbade witchcraft and believed that evil spirits could possess humans. As stated in the book Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England by Elizabeth Reis, “Overall, the Puritan belief and prevailing New England culture was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were.”
Witch superstition has no borders when it comes to geography. Many countries in Africa still accuse and convict mostly women and children of witchcraft. A 2006 article in the Guardian explains that as of that year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 25,000 and 50,000 children had been accused of witchcraft and expelled from their homes. These children are often subjected to violent exorcisms supervised by self-proclaimed religious pastors. There are six “witch camps” that were established around 100 years ago in Ghana to house women who must flee for their safety after being accused of witchcraft and they are still in use. In 2008 in Kenya, 11 people were burned to death accused of witchcraft. In Nigeria, some pastors have mixed their Christian beliefs with African traditions to create a business out of witch-finding and exorcism. According to a 2009 article in the Associated Press, around 15,000 children in Nigeria have been accused of witchcraft over the past ten years and around 1000 have been killed for it. Some of these pastors perform exorcisms on the accused children that involve such atrocities as starvation, beatings, mutilation, being set on fire, being forced to consume acid or cement, or being buried alive. In 2015 Reuters reported on Christian militias in the Central African Republic that kidnap, burn, and bury women alive who have been accused of witchcraft every year in public ceremonies.
Different areas throughout Asia also continually condemn people, mostly women, of witchcraft within different cultures and religions. A 2008 report specifies that at least 100 women are abused annually as suspected witches in the state of Chhattisgarh, India with activists stating that only a fraction of the abuse is reported. Saudi Arabia still practices the death penalty for those convicted of sorcery and witchcraft. The country even has a specific division called the Anti-Witchcraft Unit of their Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice police. A paper published in a 2008 issue of Nature Human Behavior stated that 13.7 percent of one rural community in Southwestern China were labeled as “zhu,” or “witch.” The study concluded that some themes were common in the designation of witches in China which were being middle-aged women who are the head of their household. Once a woman is accused of being a zhu, they are ostracized from their community.
There is a preponderance of evidence that demonstrates how the patriarchal systems in place from the past to the present have been and continue to be primarily stacked against women. These have just been a few examples from around the world and from certain historical periods, but they all showcase the abhorrent effects religious superstition and control have on society. These atrocities also demonstrate how religious domination solidifies oppression of certain groups and most often teaches and practices misogyny. Regarding the aforementioned use of the term “witch hunt” by men for political purposes, it is not OK, and the final paragraph of the Horsely & Horsley article lucidly explains why:
…we see in the interaction of ideology, legal machinery and social and economic forces, how people’s beliefs can be manipulated by the authorities, especially in times of crisis and anxiety…We do see that many of the accused women were very likely signaled out for being different, independent or endowed with special knowledge or powers. Moreover, by suggesting how deeply and on how many levels (psychological, social, economic, ideological) patriarchal attitudes and structures were implicated in the witch persecutions, our investigation underscores the necessity of setting the trials into the broader context of women’s history and feminist analysis, both in order to understand the witch hunt itself and in order to understand our herstory. The torture and killing of the thousands of “witches” is an integral part of women’s history, a particular and extreme manifestation of oppression which has a much longer history and continues into the present. It is a sobering phenomenon which cannot be dismissed as a craze.