How Witches Transformed From Healers To Villains

The witch, a formidable figure in fairytales and mythology, has established a presence in almost every culture worldwide throughout history. She epitomizes the darker aspects of femininity: possessing uncontrollable power.

Although commonly portrayed as old, ugly women with hooked noses, stirring their cauldrons and casting spells to create chaos, the historical roots of witches are not as malevolent. Originally, those considered witches were revered healers and respected members of their communities.

The History Of Witches Dates Back To Biblical Times

Carole Fontaine, a renowned American biblical scholar, notes that the concept of the witch has existed as long as humans have sought to combat disease and prevent disasters.

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In the Middle East, ancient societies not only revered powerful female gods but often assigned women the roles of conducting the most sacred rituals. These women, skilled in holy rites, were regarded as wise women and could be seen as early versions of what we now think of as witches.

These wise women provided home healthcare, assisted in childbirth, treated infertility, and addressed issues of impotence. "What's interesting about them is that they are so clearly understood to be positive figures in their society. No king could be without their counsel, no army could recover from a defeat without their ritual activity, no baby could be born without their presence."

How did the perception of a wise woman evolve into the sinister figure of a witch as we understand it today?

Some historians suggest that this shift may be traced back to before the time of Christ, when Indo-Europeans spread westward. They introduced a warrior culture that prized aggression and revered male Gods of War, overshadowing the previously exalted female deities.

Others argue that the transformation occurred when the Hebrews settled in Canaan around 1300 years BCE. Their patriarchal and monotheistic beliefs portrayed creation differently. Following Biblical law, the Hebrews viewed witchcraft as a dangerous, pagan practice and strictly forbade it.

Christianity Transforms The Witch Into A Figure Of Evil

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Centuries later, this dread of witches took hold in Europe. In the 1300s, the Black Plague ravaged Europe, wiping out a third of the population and instilling immense fear.

In the midst of this terror, many blamed their plight on the Devil and those believed to serve him. The Catholic Church's Inquisition, already established, intensified its campaign to root out and punish those they blamed for the widespread devastation, including those accused of allegiance to the Devil, namely witches.

It was believed that these women engaged in large, secret gatherings at night where they committed various societal taboos like engaging in promiscuous sex, dancing naked, and even consuming the flesh of human infants. Many at the time thought that these gatherings culminated with the appearance of the Devil, who would join in an unrestrained orgy with the participants.

To protect the Church and its believers from such diabolical influences, it was deemed necessary to control these women. With this goal in mind, Catholic Church inquisitors Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer authored the Malleus Maleficarum, a guide that aided witch hunters in the grim tasks of identifying and punishing the so-called witches, who were viewed as sexually susceptible and thus easy targets for the Devil.

"What else is a woman but a foe to friendship?" wrote the monks. "They are evil, lecherous, vein, and lustful. All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is, in women, insatiable"

The vivid and detailed descriptions in the manual provided a foundation for over 200 years of fervent witch hunting based on prevalent biases. At its height, the Malleus Maleficarum was only second in popularity to the Bible.

Fontaine points out that although there were other witch hunting guides before the Malleus Maleficarum, this was the first book to explicitly link witchcraft to a specific gender.

Witch Hunts Become An Instrument Of Misogyny

How Witches Transformed From Healers To VillainsHow Witches Transformed From Healers To Villains

By the late 1600s, the frenzy of witch hunting in Europe had reached its zenith. Witch hunts rapidly proliferated throughout the continent, particularly devastating in places like France and Germany. In Würzburg, Germany, one of the most severe episodes unfolded as local magistrates believed the majority of the town was under demonic possession, leading to the execution of hundreds of innocent women.

In a 1996 interview, religion professor Barbara McGraw remarked that there were towns in Germany so heavily impacted by these hunts that no women remained.

Thousands were detained and presented to inquisitors for interrogation. During these harsh examinations, the accused were stripped and scrutinized for any mark or anomaly like a wart, mole, or birthmark, which could condemn them to death.

However, to carry out the death sentence, the accused women had to confess. Torture was commonly employed to coerce confessions, with the Church utilizing painful devices such as thumb screws, leg screws, head clamps, and the iron maiden to extract the "truth" needed for execution.

How Witches Transformed From Healers To VillainsHow Witches Transformed From Healers To Villains

While conducting torture, the Malleus Maleficarum advised torturers to avoid eye contact with the accused woman to prevent her "evil powers" from invoking a sense of compassion in them.

By the early 18th century, when this dark period concluded, it is estimated that around 60,000 people had been executed as witches across Europe.

Witch Hunts Sweep America

How Witches Transformed From Healers To VillainsHow Witches Transformed From Healers To Villains

Abroad, the most infamous witch hunt occurred in Salem, Massachusetts. The 17th-century community faced numerous challenges, including ongoing wars with Native Americans, land disputes, sharp religious divides, and a propensity to attribute unexplained phenomena to supernatural causes. These factors collectively fueled a unique form of hysteria specific to the New World.

The Salem witch trials commenced in 1692 in the household of a Puritan minister named Samuel Parris. Parris became alarmed after discovering that his daughter Elizabeth and niece Abigail had engaged in fortune-telling using a primitive crystal ball, during which they purportedly saw a coffin. This vision triggered convulsive fits in the two girls, and soon after, nine other girls in the community exhibited similar symptoms.

Compelled by Parris, the afflicted girls accused three women of witchcraft: Tituba, the family's slave; Sarah Good, a destitute beggar; and Sarah Osborne, a widow rumored to have engaged in an illicit relationship with a servant. As social outcasts, these women were particularly vulnerable to such accusations.

How Witches Transformed From Healers To VillainsHow Witches Transformed From Healers To Villains

The frenzy of the 1692 Salem witch trials spread to 24 surrounding villages. Throughout that year, the jails were filled with over 200 individuals accused of witchcraft, 27 of whom were convicted. Nineteen of these were executed.

However, the trials abruptly concluded, largely because the accusations began to target prominent community members. When the governor of Massachusetts' wife was accused of witchcraft, community leaders quickly moved to halt the proceedings.

Fontaine suggests that the girls' accusations served as a form of social outlet. In the strict and oppressive environment of Salem, their confessions brought them a degree of attention and release.

Witchery Is Revived By Wicca

How Witches Transformed From Healers To VillainsHow Witches Transformed From Healers To Villains

Centuries later, the terrifying image of the witch has diminished and been embraced by popular culture, often serving as inspiration for costumes. Meanwhile, some have drawn on the historical narrative of witches to establish a new spiritual movement.

In 1921, British archaeologist Margaret Murray published a book titled The Witch Cult in Western Europe, where she proposed that witchcraft was not merely a marginal practice, but a predominant religious tradition.

Despite the fact that Murray's theories have largely been debunked since the publication of her book, her work rekindled an interest in witchcraft that had lain dormant for 300 years, eventually leading to the creation of the Wicca religion.

Wicca, derived from an Old English word meaning "craft of the wise," revives ancient practices involving the use of herbs and natural elements aimed at fostering healing, harmony, love, and wisdom, all guided by the principle of "harm none."It's uncertain who will be the next target of the world's powerful, but history suggests that those feared are often women.