On this day in 1985, the American House and Senate dropped the “Helms amendment,” which would have barred the IRS from granting tax-exempt status to groups that promote Witchcraft. And on this day in 1998, less than ten years ago, the Vatican finally took responsibility for the Inquisition, one of the darkest eras in history.
Witch-hunting was not primarily a medieval phenomenon. It peaked in the 17th century, during the Age of Reason, 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 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 notorious 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.” Furthermore, 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 owned property that others wished to acquire, or else were midwives, healers, and the most grievous crime of all – old, alone, and female.
Today, we can call ourselves Witches without fear of being tortured or executed by the state. But look around you, my dears, and tell me honestly that there are no elements in our own government this day who would dearly wish it otherwise.
Be ever vigilant, for the rights we so casually enjoy are very, very new, in the bigger picture. They can be whisked away from us in today’s political climate in the blink of a Witch’s eye.