What is a witch? Most people imagine witches as evil, ugly, old and dangerous women; others associate the word “witch” with magic and depictions of witches as shown in the popular media, e.g. Bewitched, Harry Potter, etc. Regardless of whether the word “witch” has a positive or negative connotation in today’s language, culture and understanding, when one examines witches and their persecution in historical perspective it becomes evident that these stereotypes are misconceptions. In reality, the witch-hunts were a very sad story of injustice and cruelty, involving the vilification and torment of countless innocent women.
The witch hunts took place over many centuries and over both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, the witch hunts were not uniform; they happened for different reasons and in different societies. Furthermore, the true nature of the witch hunts has been masked by the misinformation, biased superstition and propaganda that has been fed to the public by those groups who were in power and responsible for these massacres. In my view, this is why the word “witch” has a negative connotation in the modern English language. Calling someone a witch is rarely meant as a compliment. Consequently, I hope to demonstrate that it is not analytically sound to generalize about witches and witch hunts for that is what has led to the majority’s confusion about what these women actually were and about what really happened to them.
So were witches real? Yes, that is to say witch beliefs and practices indeed existed. However, not all the people who were killed during the witch hunts were witches. As mentioned above, most of them were innocent of the crimes they were accused of. This brings us to the meaning of witchcraft.
Witchcraft is a kind of explanatory system –not based on science- used by society to explain natural misfortunes. In other words, witches were the scapegoats , i.e. they were blamed for undermining the world and their sacrifice was not only considered just, but also beneficial for the rest of society.
“Witch hunting involved the identification of individuals who were widely believed to be engaged in a secret or occult activity.” (Levack 2006, 2)
Thus, the charges against all these women were the result of society’s fears and inability to explain certain adversities. Historically, scapegoats are usually from the lower and more oppressed strata of society because these groups tend to be marginalized and less able to defend themselves, which makes them easy targets. Furthermore, the ruling elite has throughout history been afraid of a shift in the balance of power and has therefore tended to keep oppressed people down by any means. In 17th century Europe, women were already treated as inferior to men but any change in this hierarchy was viewed as a threat to society as a whole. As a result, the ruling elite, meaning the male clergy, politicians and academics, had a real interest in maintaining the status quo and any woman who didn’t adhere to their ideologies or who for some reason stood out in society was more likely to be labeled as a diabolical pagan witch who makes deals with the Devil.
In his book, “The Witch-Hunt in early Modern Europe”, Brian P. Levack adopts a multi-causal approach and argues that there were many driving forces behind the European witch hunts. Of these the most notable ones were the emergence of modern European bureaucratic states and judicial systems around 1450 and the conviction introduced and embraced by the intellectual male elite in the church, government and universities that witches were heretics who make pacts with the Devil in order to cause harm or misfortune. The fact that women were viewed as society’s weak link made them even easier targets.
The witch hunts in Europe and New England had a political and religious context. In both societies, politics and Christianity justified something as inhumane as the witch hunts mainly because of the materialistic concerns and fears of those who stood at the top of the hierarchic pyramid. This is made abundantly clear by Levack.
Similarly, in colonial Peru the witch hunts happened because the Spanish hoped to establish gender hierarchies in order to impose their own political and religious dogmas. This is known as the conquest hierarchy, which “formed the cornerstone of a gender ideology that held women to be inferior“. (Silverblatt 1987, 67)
In Peru, the Spanish rulers were determined to maintain their imposed status quo. The Andeans were the conquered so they had to live according to the social norms and gender hierarchies brought over from Europe by the Iberian conquerors. Some political disruptive women however did not accept this new oppressive order and fought back. The Spanish dealt with this disobedience and resistance by charging them with witchcraft.
Therefore, we see that the Peruvian witch hunts were not that much different from the European or New England ones, since in this case too women were demonized and persecuted as a part of the rulers’ political agenda to maintain the unequal and unfair status quo.
“The European experience profoundly influenced its Andean counterpart: the ideology of the demon hunters in Europe shaped the ideology of the extirpators in the New World; and, as in Europe, the trials to eliminate idol worshippers had deep effects on the social and religious life of those groups caught in the witchhunt net.” (Silverblatt 1987, 159)
The single distinction is that in Peru the hunts happened as a reaction to the resistance of the Andean women to the Spanish Empire’s expansion and conquest, whereas in Europe and North America they happened because of the insecure hatred and fear of society’s own trusted establishments, namely the Church and the State.
In conclusion, a historical analysis of the witch hunts in Europe, North and Central America reveals that the witch hunts were mainly driven by obsession for power. The Spanish wanted an empire in the Andes and the witch hunts in colonial Peru secured that for them. Analogously, Church and State leaders in Europe supported hunting witches in order to ensure that society would remain dominated by men. In New England, the Church misguided the people and any woman who was a recluse or marginalized would be blamed for society’s misfortunes. The key tools used for targeting women were misinformation and propaganda, which is why it is so dangerous to generalize about these matters. Needless to say, we must remember witches for the senseless and violent harassment they fell victims to and not confuse the historical truths with fictional representations and popular delusions. In this light, after having studied the history of the witch hunts, envisioning witches as old, evil women with magical powers is, in my opinion, childish and offensive to the victims’ memory.
Finally, we must remind ourselves that the Church and State still have overwhelming power over the people in today’s societies. Using bureaucracy and propaganda they managed to justify and get away with killing incalculable numbers of women. These fear tactics can be observed even today when one looks a bit closer into the present war on terrorism, where innocent people are once again being targeted and even tortured due to the USA’s and Western Europe’s excessive and paranoid security measures. Generally, it seems that to this day people follow the State blindly out of fear. People who dare speak out and bring attention to the government’s and church’s crimes against humanity are still persecuted, while the less privileged and more marginalized groups in society (immigrants, poor people, minorities, RasTafari etc.) become scapegoats because of the apparent need to blame someone for humanity’s problems. (war, recession, drugs, crime, terrorism, etc.)
- The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Brian P. Levack. Pearson Education Limited, 2006
- Moon, Sun, And Witches. Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru. Irene Silverblatt. Princeton University Press, 1987