In the lost mists of time, long before the advent of monotheist religions, man worshiped Mother Nature. Time passed, civilisations developed, and somewhere 4 000 years ago, the old veneration for Mother Nature – a most female deity – was replaced by the decidedly male God of the Hebrews, soon to become the equally male God of Christians and Muslims.
A Patriarch God preferred male servants – or so the male servants said. Scripture abounds with examples putting women in their place – below men. St Paul states that “woman was created for the sake of man” and men like Thomas of Aquino did women a disservice when he described us as being intellectually inferior to men, weak vessels that did best in acknowledging man’s supremacy. (Huh: consider the notion of men going through childbirth – repeatedly – and then let’s talk about who’s weak and who isn’t…)
Further to this, woman was much more susceptible to sin than men – after all, it was Eve, not Adam, who ate that famous apple. And let us not get into the myth of Lilith, that ultimate apocryphal seductress, proving once and for all that woman was susceptible to lust, a creature ruled by her carnal desires and adept at entrapping men in her web of sensual pleasures. Ugh, said Thomas of Aquino, wrinkling his nose. Seriously, he added, sex for pleasure is a sin, and women are most sinful of all.
It suited the powerful Church to relegate women to the fringes of things. By combining a subtle defamation campaign along the lines described above with the often repeated “truth” that women are weak and need male protectors, women were eased out of almost all positions of power – at least officially.
Women who chose not to listen, or who continued to draw on ancient knowledge to heal and help others were viewed with distrust. Witches, their uneducated neighbours would whisper – but more in awe than in fear. Initially, however, the Church scoffed at the concept of magic and witches, stating that such things did not exist, and it was very rare for anyone to be accused of witchcraft. But in the 15th century, things began to change.
For one thing, the Church was battling an increased number of heretics, and secondly, popular belief began to equate witches with heretics – in the sense that a witch, per definition, worshiped Satan. A papal bull late in the century and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer) in 1487 effectively created an open season on witches – most of whom were female (of course, what with us being weak and sinful to begin with…)
Things didn’t explode until late in the 16th century. The tensions of the Reformation coupled with the general instability of the times created fertile ground for witch hunters, and suddenly there were witches crawling out of every fissure in the ground, both on the Continent and in Britain. No matter how many voices were raised protesting the barbaric practices of torturing a woman to extract her confession of being a witch, they didn’t help – especially not when such prominent figures as James VI of Scotland loudly argued that witches did exist and had to be fought with whatever means possible. (He wasn’t alone: his royal Danish brother-in-law, Christian IV, expressed exactly the same views)
Enter the Witch-finder, usually a man, who claimed to have the ability of identifying all potential witches. One such man was Matthew Hopkins, and what childish dreams he may have had regarding what he wanted to be when he grew up we will never know, as essentially nothing is known of Matthew Hopkins until that day in 1645 when out he pops of the woodwork, a self-proclaimed Witch-finder General.
At the time, Hopkins was a young man, some years and twenty, and over the coming years he was to more or less single-handedly cause the death by hanging of 300 witches (mostly women) Given that it is estimated the total number of people executed for witchery in England is around 500, one can but assume that Hopkins took to being a Witch-finder as fish take to water.
He extracted confessions through various creative procedures, such as sleep deprivation and “pricking”, whereby the accused was shaved of all body hair and submitted to being pricked with a long, sharp needle. Should the needle hit upon a point that didn’t bleed – well, obviously the naked terrified woman being inspected was a witch.
Fortunately for the women of England, Hopkins died in 1647 – still a number of years shy of his thirtieth birthday. At the time, his methods were already being questioned, and a number of people were speaking out against him, accusing him of being a cheat (duh), more motivated by the money involved than by any genuine desire to cleanse the world of real evil.
Unfortunately for several women in the New World, Hopkins was very proud of his methods – so proud he wrote a handbook, called The Discovery of Witches, published the same year he so opportunely died. This book was taken as the ultimate guide in how to find witches – at least in the Colonies – and indirectly Hopkins would thereby cause a number of further deaths in America – long after he was dead.
This little handbook offered a number of alternatives as to how to reveal a witch. Sleep deprivation and pricking have already been mentioned, but Hopkins was also a warm advocate of the swimming test, whereby the unfortunate woman was tied up and thrown into the water. If she floated, she was a witch, if she sank she was innocent. Most people float – at least initially – when thrown in water. And once they start sinking, chances are they’re already more dead than alive… (Incidentally, if you want to read an excellent fictionalised depiction of a woman being subjected to all this, I warmly recommend Ann Swinfen’s Flood)
Over the coming years, Hopkins’ methods would be applied to a number of unfortunates, starting with poor Margaret Jones, a Boston midwife who was hanged as a witch in 1648. His suggested approach to witch discovery was also used at the notorious Salem Trials of the 1690’s, and the swimming test would continued in use for a number of decades after that, as testified by the sad case of Grace Sherwood, who was ducked in 1706, had the misfortune (or not) to float, and accordingly spent the following eight years in prison for witchcraft. (Grace’s story I’ve covered in a previous post)
Over time, the voice of reason prevailed. Over time, men would yet again scoff at the ridiculous notion of witches. Sadly, that reaction came too late to save the estimated 50 000 people, 75% of which were women, who were executed during those centuries when it sufficed to point finger and yell “witch” to bring that person’s life tumbling down.
21 thoughts on “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”
Excellent post. Makes me squirm to read it though. I must have been accused of being a witch in a past life, because of how even the word affects me.
I wonder how often the accusers knew they were levying unsubstantiated accusations against an innocent woman…Easy way to rid yourself of undesirable people, right?
This may sound very sexist, but there are men out there who are intimidated by smart women, and as a result, some prefer to belittle them, or in the case of the witch hunter, murder them. With God on their side, there is no accountability for their actions. I’m sure the witch hunter went to his death proud of what he had done.
I could never understand the logic behind the swim test. Of course, drowning would be the inevitable outcome no matter what.
I’m glad that eventually smarter minds prevailed and it’s amazing they belonged to men.
Ultimately, logic did win out – but I agree, how could anyone think the swim test was any sort of indication?
After studying Hopkins for over a year, I have an interesting theory when it comes to whether or not his victims were all witches given the environment at that time in England. Something I continue to explore and try and prove. But it’s great to see a well researched post. Thank you
No matter the political context, Hopkins made a killing out of accusing innocent women of being witches. In my book, there are no witches, there are no women who fly with Satan, who poison the milk of their neighbour’s cow. Hopkins’ “success” was probably to a large extent due to the general instability of the times – people were frightened, life was fragile, and scapegoats were eagerly looked for. Thank you for stopping by – and for your kind words 🙂
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch (sorceress) to live” (Exodus 22:18) has been misinterpreted for centuries. How the sages explain it is that by “not suffering them to live” means you should not provide them with a LIVELIHOOD from their sorcery, whether tarot card reading, tea leaf reading, or crystal ball reading. It means one should not patronize a fortune teller and PAY HER for a reading, because then she is making a livelihood from her “sorcery.” The verse is telling us not to be a customer of the sorceress so she will have to find other ways of making a livelihood.
As you said, it’s been misinterpreted for centuries…
Anna, not that it in the slightest affects your argument, or diminishes the horror of what was done to women, but you could move the dates a little later “somewhere 4 000 years ago, the old veneration for Mother Nature – a most female deity – was replaced by the decidedly male God of the Hebrews”
Within the Canaanite world at large, female deities (and presumably women) had a good place alongside male ones through until the end of the Bronze Age, as witnessed by things like pictorial and artefactual data. So more like 3000 years ago than 4000. Even within the Hebrew tradition the textual evidence suggests a later date for when male dominance of attributes of deity settled – the Exodus account is full of female qualities attributed to deity, such as pregnancy, birth, suckling, weaning and infant nurture. Again, male suppression of these qualities is essentially an Iron Age phenomenon rather than Bronze Age.
However, post about 1000BC your analysis holds water in the western world across to Mesopotamia.
As a Brit it is a relief (and something of a surprise) that we “only” executed around 500 women under this pretext, according to your FaceBook comments.
Yes, the female deities co-existed with male gods for quite some time. My point was rather that where once it was a given that life came from the Mother, suddenly the Father was there, claiming it was just as much his doing 😉
And yes, in England (not Britain) “only” about 500 women were executed as witches, this reflecting a legal system that required proof of some sort prior to condemning someone to die.
I agree with Richard. I’ve done some research for a book (temporarily on the back burner) set around 800 BC. I discovered that the Jews were not consistently monotheistic until after the Babylonian captivity. At the earlier period Yaweh had a female counterpart. On the activities of Matthew Hopkins, we should remember that this was in the middle of the English Civil War, when society was in a state of chaos. People were frightened and there were also several years of terrible weather and famines. Ripe soil for the planting of suspicions of witchcraft. And yes, Hopkins was paid for every witch executed. There used to be a story that he was executed as a witch himself – wishful thinking! It was TB that got him in the end. Thank you for mentioning FLOOD. I’ve just published the sequel!
I wrote a substantially longer post on Matthew Hopkins for English Historical Fiction Authors. Yes, I agree he died of TB, yes he made a mint. No, I don’t think the English Civil War exonerates him. Anyway, the post in question can be found here:
Oh, no, the Civil War certainly doesn’t exonerate him! He exploited it.
Hi Ann, it is a hotly debated question in early Israelite studies whether Asherah (the potential female companion you mention) should be read as a name, a divine title, or some item linked to worship. An inscription refers to “Yahweh and his Asherah” which as you can guess has attracted a lot of interest!
But more than that, even within the biblical text (where the editorial hand of later and stricter scribes has been at work) there are traces of female titles and qualities ascribed to Yahweh, and potentially female companions. The title Shadday, for example, arguably traces back to a 2nd millennium goddess, who over time was (as it were) absorbed into Yahweh with something of a gender swap.
Your point about inconsistent monotheism is absolutely right, I think – popular as opposed to official religion was very diverse, seen as much in the lens of official condemnation as through remaining artefacts.
Hi, Richard. Yes, I know about all of this. Just didn’t feel there was room to go into it here!
It’s a theme very close to my heart. I wonder have you read ‘The Alphabet and the Goddess” by Leonard Shlain? Incidentally, I suspect the number of so-called witches killed may have been rather more than 50,000. It’s still going on today, just that they’re not called ‘witches’ any longer.
You’re right: the 50 000 refer to the unfortunates that fell victim to the witch-craze in the 16th and 17th century. And as to the book, I recall it making assumptions re literacy and the demise of feminine deities – but as I’ve only read snippets I am not in a position to express an opinion.
Outside of Europe there are still dreadful things done under the pretext of dealing with witches (but often in fact driven by greed or jealousy) – just today on the BBC News there was another report of such an event in rural India.
Professor Shlain’s theory was indeed that the growth of patriarchy (or rather, persecution of the female) accompanied the spread of linear writing. If one combines that with the spread of monotheism, it’s very persuasive.
Pingback: Of Easter witches and dire death | ANNA BELFRAGE