by Eve Fisher
There's something about great change that brings out the dark side in people. The worst time to be a witch wasn't in the so-called Dark Ages, or even the Middle Ages. The worst time to be a witch was from 1400-1700, i.e., during the Renaissance, Reformation, and the first Scientific Revolution. It was as if all that new knowledge, new ideas, new applications, new procedures, new stuff, scared everyone so much that they had to run out and kill some people just to prove that everything was the way it always had been, world without end, Amen.
Anyway, during that time over 100,000 people were prosecuted all over Europe and colonial America, and 60,000 were executed, most of them women. (The exception was Iceland where, for some reason, the majority were men.) Why women?
(1) Misogyny. Women were looked down on, especially by the authors of the 1486 "Malleus Maleficarum" ("The Hammer of the Witches), who were two Dominican monks who were obviously scared to death of women, but had never met any (some of the physical details are anatomically impossible). Anyway, they accused witches of infanticide, cannibalism, evil spells, sexual misconduct of every kind imaginable, as well as having the power to steal penises. (I can't help but think of Pat Robertson on feminism: "a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Maybe reincarnation is real.)
(2) Fear. Women were the midwives and the healers. Male doctors could only be found where the money was, in royal courts, big cities, noble palaces. Everywhere else, women did the job. So, if anything went wrong, you could blame it on witchcraft: I mean, these women could heal you with their weird potions and incantations, so obviously they could also harm you with their weird potions and incantations. It had to be witchcraft, right?
(3) Ageism. Many of the supposed witches were old women. Old women have always gotten terrible press, and still do. Women are supposed to stay young and beautiful and sexy, and when they don't, and get wrinkled and bent and gray and toothless, no one wants them around. Especially if they get crabby with it. (And no wonder they get crabby...) Today they're told it's their own damn fault they're so unsightly. In the 17th century, they could get burned.
(4) Greed. In Salem Village, in colonial Massachusetts, while the very first accused witches were old and poor women, most of the rest of them were women of property. And by being convicted and executed for witchcraft, all their goods were forfeit - to the village, to the church, to the minister, who all gained a great deal of money and land. This was why Giles Corey, for example, refused to plead guilty or innocent and submitted to being pressed to death: that way, he had not been tried, and his property could not (and was not) confiscated.
But what I find most interesting about the whole literature of witchcraft is this: the reports of the witches' sabbaths and the behavior of the devil are all strikingly similar to the reports of current-day alien abductions. The narrative is largely the same: Abduction/seduction (which usually takes place at night, in a remote area, away from other people), levitation/flight, strange but humanoid figures, a place (witches' circle or spaceship) and a ceremony, probing with cold instruments (please use multiple definitions of this word) here, there, and everywhere (there is a real obsession with genitalia), inexplicable paralysis, inexplicable time lapses, the bewildered return, the strange places on the body that either experience a chronic ache or no feeling whatsoever, the post-event depression and/or confusion - it's all the same. True, the devils of that time looked completely different from the aliens of modern times, but people in the 1400-1700's in widely disparate countries described the devils and demons pretty much exactly the same, just as people in modern times in disparate countries describe aliens pretty much exactly the same. (In neither group is anyone seeing, say, a pink rhinoceros with tentacles.) I repeat: The narrative is the same, in character and plot. Only the costuming changes.
So, what's going on? Is this an interesting reaction to times of great scientific and social change in people who are (more or less) fragile and disturbed to begin with? Is this Carl Jung's collective unconscious? Is this what happens when forbidden desires, despair, frustration, alcohol and/or drugs, hormones, and/or sleep paralysis, combine? Or is this really happening, and all that's happened is that the devil had changed his look? Or have the aliens changed theirs?
Just something to mull over in those late night hours. Pleasant dreams.