Spooky Halloween season is past us – leaving behind its nip in the air, legions of carved Jack O lanterns and handfuls of chocolates for bizarre costumes. The rich historiography associated with the pointed witch’s hat and the broom is a prop for many a favorite costume – but how much do we know of the popular emblematic Halloween favorite?
Witchcraft can be roughly defined as the practice of supernatural skills and activities often involving a wide array of potions and spells cast in a ritualistic way. Almost all major societies in the world inexplicably linked to some magical worldview in its cultural framework house some form of witchcraft and the most commonly cited practitioners are women, or as popularly known as witches. Witchcraft is more often than not associated with dark magic and harming innocents as part of devious plots to seize power for themselves or to further the cause of demonic sects or the devil itself. Some common practices associated with witchcraft are casting spells or incantations to bewitch or hoodwink commoners to do their bidding, concocting potions and use of puppets or immolation or other objects to mirror the desired effect on real life victims. Another commonly associated norm is necromancy, or conjuring dead spirits for prophesying or to make the former do the bidding.
The established Christian norms of the day even marked heresy and apostasy as resolute signs of being a witch and countless women were prosecuted on the false assumptions of witchcraft. Religious scriptures were manipulated and interpreted in ways befitting the Christian order of the day and the Exodus was also often frequently quoted “thou shalt not let a witch live” Social ambience plays very heavily into the myth of witch making : in the Western gambit, the pre-Enlightenment period was particularly notorious for witch hunting and one of the best known literary productions of the period , Hammer of Witches or Malleus Maleficarum by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer prescribed strong sanctions against women even suspected of witchcraft and allied practises. Being a heretic was enough proof to implicate someone in charges of practising evil sorcery. The argument furthering “proofs” of women inclined to become witches was that women were the ‘weaker sex’ with insatibale lust and whimsical temperament- easier prey for the Devil to corrupt and admit to his legion. The book in fact went into detailed procedures for initiating and concluding a witch trail and included methods of torture to be employed to gather confessions and use deception to falsely elicit confirmation of confessions from the victims. The victims, deluded into the belief they will not be executed if they confess , often complied with authorities and ultimately were to be executed. Witch hunting and witch burning in fact, emerged as a popular notion in the social setup in Medieval Europe to dissuade and threaten political dissidents. Another aspect of the emergence of the “murdering mother” or evil feminine figure at that point in history was that illegitimate children were not given any share in the family wealth, deprived of any genealogy or sometimes infants were left to fend for themselves or exposed to the elements to bid their time and perish. Several mothers took to extreme measures of executing the infants themselves to save them from harm and slander. This culminated in the myth of witches sacrificing children to the devil’s cause. In wake of the rise of machines and the dawn of the Industrial Age in Europe, there was the exodus from the villages to cities and urban centres in search for vocational opportunities. The ones deemed unfit for the movement or the ones completely reliant on the social structure of the villages and on community support are the frail old women who are unable to support themselves financially or add to the financial growth of the rest of the family. It would hardly be any trouble to implicate such women, weakened and confused by age and their general declining constitution, into false claims of witchcraft and fabricated attempts at sabotaging the communion welfare.
An often overlooked case of witch hunting and persecution is the case of Joan of Arc, the legendary French revolutionary who was later declared a saint. One of the many charges she faced was that of being a witch- she was burned publicly out of the common belief that a burnt body could not be reconjured magically and will not resuscitate itself on Judgement Day. This belief is the reason witch hunting was very often succeeded by the burning of the body. The Discoverie of the Witch, a skeptical literary enterprise by Englishman Reginald Scott (1854) provided great impetus to the burgeoning concerns about the validity of witchcraft and the wave of witch hunting gradually subsided, aided by the advent of rationalisation.
In fact, the Salem witch hunt is the most widely renowned and well documented account of an organised series of witch burnings from Massachusetts, USA in history that throws up several political conundrums on racism and white superiority that the country is still inflicted with. The Salem Witch Trials have later been, after delving and exploiting the historical placement minutely, proven to be the outcomes of a bitter family feud between two families in Salem that polarised the entire community of recently settled Europeans into American soil. The first victim was Tatia, an African American slave woman and later this incident catapulted several others in motion to form the deadliest recounting of mass hysteria, paranoia and extremism amounting to the killing and burning of innocent women who dared to have defiant streaks society saw fit to curb and curtail. A total of 20 human individuals were burned in the trials of Salem but it is not the figures that should warn us against extremism but the way the propagation resulted in a furor of violation of human life and dignity.
Witchcraft and subversion seems to be more than a trope pertaining to the gamut of popular media and not without cause. Those who did not submit to the status quo would be demonised as witches- this was the perfect social control to disenfranchise a person equating to their religious standing and effectively demonising them to subjugate. It is no coincidence that the women during the pre-Enlightenment period were often quarrelsome women or those who did not conform to what was expected out of womanly duties. Another interesting representation of witches in literature is the Three Weird Sisters conceptualised in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The witches play into all the common tropes of the day- from the evil companions to the truly vile ingredients of potion making and prophesying implausible conditions. However it is the actions taken by all the characters and especially titular protagonist Macbeth that makes us wonder if it truly is the power of prophecies or that of self fulfilling prophecies, it is the human that strives to ruin in ambition or truly the supernatural- Shakespeare leaves us with enough ambiguities convincing the modern audience of its psychological implications rather than its supernatural ones.
One of the common forms of pagan worship emulating some tenets of witchcraft but essentially representing a whole different worldview from witchcraft. Witchcraft these days would refer to the woman capable of surpassing known knowledge and dabbling into the esoteric makeup of the world. Popular culture with its legions of Buffies (protagonist of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Hermione Grangers (of the Harry Potter series fame) , the lore of the good witch and the strong female character of agency seems to be reclaiming lost spaces that witchcraft unfailingly denoted. So the next time you don on the pointy hat, do take time to look into the vast myth of subversive women trampled and marginalised by patriarchy.
– Bipasha Bhowmick
Picture Credits: mustangnews.net