A history of witchcraft : A feminist Perspective

A history of witchcraft : A feminist Perspective

October 5, 2018 0 By Shan Ellis Williams

What do you think of when you hear the term witch used? An elderly green lady with warts and black hair flying about on a broom? If she practices witchcraft, does she fly around with her familiar, evoking the devil? Does she eat children and try and cook them in furnaces like a Grimm fairy tale? The pop culture typical witch is a fictional character, imagined and built from ancient Christian patriarchs, who were frightened that women were empowering themselves and worshipping a female deity (gaia, or the earth).

Witchcraft in modern days is about empowering women to help themselves and become more in tune with their lives and nature. I am openly a pagan. Using the term Wicca, was referring to someone as being wise. Even in olden days the matriarchs of society, elderly women, learned in healing and herb use were called Wicca. Druidism, another umbrella term under the Pagan belief system was mostly annihilated by Roman Christian soldiers. Druids were predominantly male. The Wiccans (namely elderly ladies who had knowledge of healing) came under attack by Christians. There is some evidence to support that the fear of intelligent women threatened priests who wholly worshipped a male diety.

For many years, Wiccans or witches were feared by good Christians, and then manipulated into the cartoon-esque character you see every Halloween.

witchcraft history

The beginning

Evidence for the practice of witchcraft is in evidence throughout Europe from around 25,000 BC.  Known as the Cult of the Great Mother (Earth). The belief system evolved as it continues to do, but it was a peaceful belief system. The changes of the season and fertility of the earth was revered. The earth was thought to be female due to the bountiful harvests of food, and abundance of animals she gave birth to. There was a balance of equal an opposite, dark to light, masculine to feminine and birth and death.

I despise that modern day television programs depict celtic pagans as blood-thirsty baby sacrificing heathens. Human sacrifice to the earth was abundant in every single belief systems from the Mayans to the ancient Egyptians to Christianity, blood and sacrifice is mentioned in every single book of the Bible.

In 1022 AD Pope Innocent the VIII bought holy war onto pagan lands. The practice of any religion under this post, apart from the worshipping of God in his glory, was branded heretical. In his treateses Mallevs Malefecerivm, also known as the hammer of witches, he started a puritanical mass euphoria that lasted well into the beginning of the twentieth Century. So far reaching is the effect on religion on humanity.

He executed the first heretic in 1022. Thus, the burning times had begun, and would continue for over 753 years in Europe. People of all races, creeds, and religions…including children, were killed in mass throughout this time.

The Witch Trial Frenzy

Gender played a huge role during the witch trials of the 1600’s in the UK (overseen by Matthew Hopkins), and Salem. Women were persecuted, and most of these women were from the lower classes of society. Most of whom were elderly. Predominantly they were women, a few men were also hung. But definitely the minority.

Women were the underdogs in a male dominated society. Mothers, daughters and sisters. Their souls were to remain spotless, and puritan. It was far easier for a woman to sin than a man; which led to higher confessions amongst women. It was not until women and men began to view sin similarly that witch hunts ended. Many of the impacts that occurred during this time frame.

Women and girls were also prominent among the supposed victims of witches, and among those who made accusations. Women and girls often appeared as prosecution witnesses at witch trials. It could be said that the courts were taking the concerns of these females seriously and trying to protect them from the witches that they blamed for misfortunes within their communities. Sometimes women were yet more actively involved in witch hunting. For example they carried out searches of suspects’ bodies for the devil’s mark (patches of skin insensitive to pain) or for the features from which they were supposed to suckle their familiar spirits or imps.

Women V’s Women

“For the targets of attack in the witchcraze were not women defined by assimilation into the patriarchal family. Rather, the witchcraze focused predominantly upon women who had rejected marriage (Spinsters) and women who had survived it (widows). The witch-hunters sought to purify their society (The Mystical Body) of these “indigestible” elements – women whose physical, intellectual, economic, moral, and spiritual independence and activity profoundly threatened the male monopoly in every sphere.”
– Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology (1987)


“Many witch suspects were very poor, unlovely, unloved and marginalised. It is common to hear that a witch cursed the supposed victim after appearing on a doorstep as a beggar and being turned away. Perhaps society dealt with its own guilty feelings by demonising the needy, in some cases. People found witchcraft accusations expedient to get rid of those who were becoming a burden and a nuisance. (The discrepancy of crediting such wretched people with supernatural powers was not lost on contemporary critics of witch hunting, some of whom also wondered why the devil would associate with beggars rather than with the rich and powerful).”

Gordon Napier 

Satan and Sex

Women were also targeted because Puritans believed that Satan assaulted the body through sexual transgressions. The fact that Satan and his imps were viewed as male influenced the idea that witches were usually women. The witch was often viewed as having had sex with the devil’s imp, and giving her body to Satan. Also, witches’ familiars were believed to have had “sucked at the breasts, [as well as]… latch onto any unusual markings or witch’s teat.” Suckling provided nourishment to their familiars and imps.

Because women provided the nourishment for infants, this idea of suckling only reinforced the idea that witches were women. Suckling was believed to be used for sexual pleasure as well. Reis pointed out that men were not completely immune to these ideas of suckling and carnal pleasure, because “their bodies were searched during the trials, and the investigations occasionally found evidence of such activity,” although such findings were rare. As a result it was believed that men’s “bodies were more difficult and less tempting objects of the devil’s attacks.”

Over 1200 women were hung, burnt and accused during the trials in the UK. The largest Christian show of female oppression the world has ever seen.

Feminism and Wicca

I think I’ll just leave this in the words of Kris Nelson. I am an embracer of all religions, I believe and respect that other people’s opinions may not be my own. Also very happy to listen to these opinions as long as you also are open to mine. Closed minds and hearts belong no where in my life. To be a witch means to respect all things. It also means not to be a fool, and call some things out.

Kris writes, much wiser than I could ever:

As a pagan from a family of Catholic pagans, as a femme raised in a matriarchal household, and as a holistic practitioner raised by another, I identify with “witch” religiously and politically.

I identify with “witch” as a feminist who strives to support those who have been and continue to be persecuted by a rigid and oppressive political culture, and I identify with “witch” as a person who lives their life outside of the confines of what is expected of me from society at large.

In all of these ways, my religious practice, my methods of self-healing, and my self-defined identity are both witch and feminist, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Blessed be <3


My BlogTober offerings:

On Being A Witch

Momento Mori : The Book Of The Dead

My five fave horror films

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