In honour of heading into Samhain season, here’s an interesting Ancient Mysteries episode on the origin of ‘the Witch’, narrated by Leonard Nimoy. It brought up a lot of stuff for me about the witch as archetype.
The film tells us, in the ancient world, Mother/Earth goddesses were worshiped. Women were considered reflections of the Goddess because of their connection to the creation and nurturing of life. ‘Wise Women’ often performed the most sacred of ceremonies. They also healed the sick, removed curses and negative energies, in some cases spoke with spirits and acted as counsellors. They were the ancient priestesses as well, intermediaries between the people and their gods. They were herbalists, midwives, ceremonialists. They performed magic and used spells and ritual, they lived close to the land and were its interpreters. Loved and often feared, they were nonetheless some of the most dedicated and revered servants of the people.
The Indo Europeans came in successive waves and conquered, with their Sky Gods supplanting the Earth Goddesses. Later in the Hebrew creation story Eve bears responsibility for the downfall of all humanity. Some believe Eve represented an early goddess and the tree of knowledge (the Norse World Tree/Celtic Tree of Life), the apple and the snake were all symbols of these earlier religions.
Later the Black Plague happened and freaked everyone out. It was an unstoppable wave of death that smothered the countryside, wiping out whole communities. People began to think it was some kind of curse – the Devil on earth. This is why the Inquisition was initially set up, to root out heretics and thereby cleanse the earth. By the 14th century witchcraft became the most evil form of heresy.
Modern day mythology of ‘the Witch’ began here, by what seems to be a fantastic propaganda endeavour, used to crush any remaining vestiges of the pre-Christian religions in the countryside, perpetrated by the Church, the Pope, the local magistrates and fuelled by the Christian common folk’s frenzy and fear of their own demons.
Let’s make a distinction here, there are two issues: one is that there were in fact Wise Women yes, practitioners of a world-wide older religion - or older way of life, is more appropriate - that used magics and venerated nature and women. Witchcraft was a real thing. It’s presence is noted in scholarship and history in every single culture on the planet. It is still practiced today and people are still killed for doing it. The point is, it wasn’t evil. (Aaand this is a longer discussion for another post).
Second point is that well, then there weren’t witches either – in other words, mostly all of the women destroyed by the Inquisition were in fact Christian women – not Wise at all, just your every-day daughter, mother, aunt, church-goer.
The Christian resolve to find the world evil and ugly, has made the world evil and ugly.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Watching this film made me angry. I felt so much contempt for these early, simple people, who were so terror-stricken and hysterical that they condemned these thousands and thousands of women and their families, to death and unspeakable horrors.
But mostly I can’t stand the men in this story, the sick and corrupted misogynists who were in charge of the whole thing. Pope Gregory IX. The Pope Innocent IV. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch-hunting bible, being some of the worst examples of human beings I have ever come across. These men, pent-up, sexually frustrated and twisted around their own lust and fear of women, allowed it to take them to the utter depths of their humanity and then accused their victims, the women of the same!
All (Witchcraft) comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.
Some things that stood out:
Did you know that many of the worst forms of torture, like the really bad stuff that we may think of when someone says the words ‘torture chamber’, the Iron Maiden for example – that was the chair sitting in a coffin with spikes all over it – thumb screws, the rack, the wheel, water torture, hanging a person from their arms, drawn and quartering – these were all invented during the Inquisition, to get confessions out of innocent people. Innocent, terrified, hunted people (men made up around 20% of those killed in the Inquisition, children were also routinely tortured and killed, and pets). See more example with pictures here. But beware, if you have not heard these stories before it is disturbing, beyond any sadistic modern horror film.
Compared with the persecution of heresy in Europe from 1227 to 1492, the persecution of Christians by Romans in the first 3 centuries after Christ was a mild and humane procedure. Making every allowance required by an historian and permitted to a Christian, we must rank the Inquisition, along with the wars and persecutions of our time, as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind, revealing a ferocity unknown in any beast. ~ Will Durant, Historian
Did you know that the Inquisition lasted for 100s of years?
hundreds. of. years.
That means that there were people who were born, lived their whole lives and died at a relatively ripe old age, inside this culture that routinely killed women. Whole lifetimes and multiple generations lived inside a culture where is was normal to have women’s bodies rotting in nooses up on gallows hill, or burning in the town square.
There were some towns in Germany where the inquisition was at its worst, where half the town was incarcerated. There were villages where there was not a single woman left. They killed every single one.
Worse still though, is the story of the children – hundreds of them tortured and murdered. It makes me wonder if there actually was a Devil on earth at this time.
…in the name of the truth it (the Church) has denied, the temple it has defiled, the God it has blasphemed, the souls it has destroyed; in the name of the millions it has deluded, the millions it has slaughtered, the millions it has damned; with holy confessors, with noble reformers, with innumerable martyrs, with the saints of ages, I denounce it as the masterpiece of Satan, as the body and soul and essence of antichrist. ~ Dr. H. Grattan Guinness 1880s
Seriously – there was pure evil in the Inquisition. Pure, sadistic, unadulterated, un-policed, Evil. It boggles the modern mind.
The Myth of the Witch
Let’s dissect a few key symbols in the modern-day mish-mash of the Witch archetype, in the light of the above setting:
The Sabbath: Wise Women still gathered in groups to practice their religion, which was probably a mixture of Christianity and the earlier earth and nature-centered faith, with shamanic practices and magical ceremonies. However, they were forced to do it in secret for fear of their lives, hence the ‘Witch’s Sabbath’. You know, that spooky group of witches who meet at night? Well, being persecuted and all, when else were they supposed to meet? Duh.
The flying witch: Supposedly they flew to the Sabbath on broomsticks. Actually there are quite a few existing really old recipes for ‘flying ointments’ and smoke brews. I myself smoke mugwort from time to time when doing ceremony. But in the film it mentions women used Datura, which was an hallucinogenic. Enthogens can be found in many shamanic cultures world-wide. Peyote in North America, Siberian shaman used Amanita muscaria, a ‘magic mushroom’ to fly to the other worlds, Iboga in Africa, Ayahuasca in South America, even tobacco in places was used, heck cannabis as well was originally used for spiritual purposes – Rasta anyone?
The broom: was a common tool of women back then. As were many things around the hearth, the house and the garden – the sickle, the cauldron, the apple. However the broom is also used in magical work, for clearing space, just as you would do with incense or sage smoke. The staff used by the ‘Volva’ witches in Viking culture, is used for traversing the other realms in ceremony. Hence, ‘flying’ on the broom most likely refers to taking hallucinogens and taking part in ‘hedge crossing’ or travelling to the unseen worlds – trance work. I’ve also read recently that the broom was probably used (interestingly) as an, uuuum… applicator for said entheogens. I’ll let you figure that one out.
The typical image of the ugly witch: Come on people! A large portion of the women who were accused of witchcraft during the inquisition were elderly. A lot of little old ladies who had no children and couldn’t stand up for themselves. And considering they probably didn’t have health or dental care back then, nor was bathing regularly common, nor did they live in a cult of beauty like we do now, just about any old toothless, long-nosed woman may look ‘ugly’ to some. These were not witches, they were crones.
Familiar spirits: Can you say spirit guide? Arch angel? Totem animal?
Eating babies: I’ve come across many an old myth or folk tale about supernatural beings who eat children. The ‘boogeyman’ is a common theme worldwide, a myth that was utilized to keep kids close to us and scare them away from places where they would not be safe, like the water, or the desert, or the deep dark woods. There’s Black Annis baby eater, from England, the Slavic Baba Yaga, old lady in the wood with her broom, her mortar and pestle and her ‘repulsive’ nose, Germany’s Krampas, the evil counterpart of Santa who tortures bad children. One dear to my heart is The cannibal Dzunukwa, of the Namgis First Nation here on the west coast of Canada. She steals errant children and carts them away to the woods in a huge basket on her back.
Devil worship: The Devil, who is the fallen angel Lucifer, is a part of Christian mythology. That’s it. It’s Christians who worship him as the root of all evil. No one else. Though there may be a few devils, there is no evil Devil in earth-based religions, any more than there is evil in the wilder untamable forces of nature.
So what you have in the pointy hatted, back catted, broom flying, ugly old Witch is a mish-mash of myth, fear, politics and popular culture – can you say Hansel and Gretel much? Thank you Grimm Brothers. But, at the root of this, is the attempted eradication of one religion by another - one culture dominating another and the sacrifice of tens of thousands of people to that end. Some pretty strong black magic if you ask me.
So I ask you, what parallels do you see between the Inquisition times and today? We’ve come a long way together baby – but it’s not over is it? Not being able to commit complete extermination of the female, instead most of our planet still treats women at least as second class citizens, in some cases more like property. Women cover their hair, their faces, their bodies in order to make men feel more comfortable. Women don’t make as much as men do in any profession. You don’t find the faces of famous and esteemed women on bank notes and in fact, you don’t hear about them in history books. Not really. The prevailing attitude is that women are not as smart as men nor as capable. Women are routinely beaten, raped and killed, even in the Western world, worse in some countries where female circumcision (mutilation) is common. It is still legal to kill your wife in some parts of the world. Young girls are given away or sold into marriage, or kidnapped and sold in the sex slave trade. Men order mail-order brides. The porn industry displays horrific and false ideas about what making love and lust between consenting adults actually looks like, mostly all about debasing the woman.
I put it to you: t’s still the same old story. It’s all about the Sky Gods wanting to get rid of those damned Goddesses – and the balance of power being shifted to those who conquered the sovereignty of the Land, who was the Great Goddess, and all those who worshipped Her.
Well look now where thousands of years of domination by the conquerors has gotten us! Environmentally exhausted, verging on collapse, spinning a thousand miles per hour towards the end of civilization.
I don’t believe ever before have I felt such kinship with the poor women who were tortured, drowned, hung and/or burned to death during this horrific part of our history. Mary Easty, the last ‘witch’ hanged in Salem Massachusetts, is my own ancestor. She was no witch. She was not even a Wise Woman. She was a simple pious woman; mother, sister, grandmother, wife.
Brave soul – you were brave Grandmother.
Let us all be witches this Halloween. Let us all revel in what it means to be women, to be innately connected to the Land that nurtures us and to each other, to be keepers of wisdom and the communities we serve. In the spirit of the Inquisition we women are all witches. Let us witches take our true and rightful place in history, stare it right in the face so that it may be healed. Then, let’s take the power back.