On this day in 1985, the American House and Senate dropped the “Helms amendment,” which would have specifically barred the IRS from granting tax-exempt status to groups that promote Witchcraft.
And on this day in 1998, only fourteen years ago, the Vatican finally took responsibility for the Inquisition, called The Burning Times by many of today’s Witches and Pagans. It was one of the darkest eras in human history. By the way, the Vatican has finally apologized to the Jews, but not to us.
Witch-hunting was not primarily a medieval phenomenon. It peaked in the 17th century, during the Age of Reason, right alongside Descartes, Newton, and Spinoza. An article by Professor Mary Suydam at Kenyon College notes that it was not until the very end of the medieval period (ca. 1500) that a definition emerged of the Witch as someone in league with the devil, and with that, full-scale persecution began.
In the earlier period from 1000-1500 C.E., concepts of Witches ranged from those of a benevolent healer to the feared sorcerer or sorceress. The transition from these early vague ideas of Witchcraft to a fully-formed image of the diabolical Witch is a classic case of the perils that befall society’s marginalized populations. In fact, the languages of exclusion aimed at nonconforming sexuality, heretics, Jews, and lepers, were all utilized in the definition of the Witch.
Both men and women were accused of Witchcraft. Even the horrific Witch-hunting manual, the Malleus Malleficarum, used pronouns of both genders to discuss and to identify Witches.
On the other hand, the Malleus also contained statements like “No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives” and other sentiments, like, “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted in fair colors…Women are intellectually like children…She is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations…Therefore a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft…”
So it is not surprising that estimates indicate that, in the period of greatest persecution (1500-1700) probably 82% or more of the executed victims were female.
Samhain especially is the time to pause and remember all the many thousands, perhaps millions, of men, women and children who were robbed, tortured, and murdered in the name of Jesus Christ.
Most were not practicing anything resembling Witchcraft, but simply owned property that others wished to acquire, or else were midwives, teachers, or healers. Or they were guilty of most grievous crime of all – being old, alone, and female in uncertain times.
Today, we can call ourselves Witches without fear of being tortured or executed by the state. But there are cold and foul winds of change blowing. The brazen hatred and disrespect towards women that is now passing as normal among many candidates now running for national office in the United States comes to mind.
In a climate of confusion and scarcity, history shows over and over that the mobs will always want someone to blame. And to consolidate their power, there are always those who are more than happy to provide a scapegoat.
As the Tea Party and extreme fundamentalist Christians continue to expand their power base, it is very important that we remain vigilant, my dear Witches and Pagans. The rights we so casually enjoy are very, very new, in the bigger picture. They could be whisked away from us in today’s political climate in the blink of a Witch’s eye.