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the witch

by Elizabeth Dobson | January 9, 2003

History shows that women who were thought to have supernatural powers once held places of honour in their societies. As healers, diviners, soothsayers and shamans, they (like their male counterparts) used what was believed to be magical powers to protect their communities and attack their enemies. Their magic could cause both good and bad fortune.

Going further back in time, archaeological evidence suggests that Paleolithic peoples may have believed women had powers that were divine. This evidence is in the form of female stone figures unearthed in graves and ritual sites. Many feminists believe that these figures represent the Great Goddess in her various guises – a ruling deity in Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe who controlled the great mysteries of life, death and regeneration.

Inevitably, new peoples invaded and brought with them new religions. The old goddesses lost ground. Some appear to have been vilified as dangerous witches.

To see a classic illustration of a witch, a 15th century engraving by Albrecht Durer, click on Witch Riding [in “external links” below].

The story of the goddess’s descent from sacred deity to bad witch is a long and sorry tale. It relates, in part, to how women have been maltreated over time. The story starts here, not at the beginning, but at the witch trials in the late-sixteenth and -seventeenth centuries, a period of particularly virulent religious infighting and witch hunting.

Geillis Duncane was a middle-aged Scottish healer and midwife living in the late 16th century.1 During the day she worked as a maid. But almost every other night she would sneak out of her employer’s house to minister to the sick and needy. Because she was so very successful people came to celebrate her as a great healer with special powers. Her employer, the local deputy bailiff, whether vexed by her absences or offended by her successes in “matters of so great importance,” demanded that she reveal her methods. She defiantly refused. He then applied the “grievous torture of the pilliwinkes [thumbscrews]” and the “cruel binding or wrenching her head with a cord or rope.” He also claimed to have found proof that she was a witch in a mark on her body that was surely a sign of the devil. Under these pressures, Geillis Duncane confessed. In 1591 she was thrown into prison as a condemned witch.

Suzanne Gaudry, a simple-minded, aging, unmarried woman living in the Spanish Netherlands (now part of northern France), was tried and found guilty of being a witch in 1652. According to the trial records, she admitted that she had given herself over to the devil, and had slept with him. Under his influence, she said she had renounced God, Lent and baptism. In addition, her devil-lover had taken her to a number of Sabbats (witches’ revels) where “a king with a long black beard dressed in black, with a red hat” offered her some evil powder to do with what she wanted. Mlle Gaudry said she had not wanted to take the powder, but the devil persuaded her to do so. At first she said she had thrown it into her garden, not knowing what else to do. Later, under repeated questioning, she admitted to strewing some of the powder in the path of a neighbour’s horse, causing a horse to die. On the last day of her interrogation she was strapped down and stretched on a torture-rack. The court record is chilling. At first she adamantly denied being a witch, that her earlier confessions had been forced out of her. Later on, “being more tightly stretched upon the torture-rack” she gave in to the pain and began to confess all that her interrogators asked of her. But something happened:

Not another word could be drawn from her. As soon as she began to confess, she asked who was alongside of her, touching her, yet none of those present could see [or admit to] anyone there. And it was noticed that as soon as that was said, she no longer wanted to confess anything.

Five days later the court found her guilty of witchcraft and ordered that she be tied to a gallows and strangled to death. Her body was then burned and buried in the woods nearby.

Both of these women were condemned as witches. One appears to have been a strong woman (Geillis), the other a rather weak and pathetic victim of circumstance (Suzanne).

In Europe, at least from the Late Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment, people generally believed that witches received their power directly from the Devil. Both men and women were accused – but the great majority (possibly 80%) were women.2 One important reason for this disparity is that women were labeled in this male-dominated society as having a more “defective” or “carnal nature” than men – they were “weaker” and “more capable of vice.” As such they were more susceptible to the Devil’s powers – especially his sexual advances. “Witch!” was an effective weapon used by authority to keep women (especially strong and troublesome ones) in their place, or use them as scapegoats.

The extraordinarily influential Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches] (1487) expresses the commonly held prejudices against women during this period. Two Dominican priests whose job was to conduct trials against witches wrote it. For three hundred years it was used it as a handbook for investigating witches and heretics in Europe. Here is an excerpt:

Women ... are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them ... women are naturally more impressionable and more ready to receive the influence of a disembodied spirit ... and they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things which by evil arts they know, and since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft ... Women are intellectually like children ... they are more carnal than man, as is clear from their many carnal abominations [menstrual periods, no doubt]. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives ...3

From today’s perspective, the book reads like ignorant talk of a couple of chauvinist males over a few tankards of beer. However, their views cannot be easily trivialized, for they quote extensively from authoritative sources of the day to bolster their prejudice. But what did the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum mean by witchcraft? It is a question that is almost impossible to answer, as the subject is extremely ancient and diverse. Here are a few principal beliefs from the European Christian tradition:

Witches practiced evil magic in order to do harm. In early times, many believed their magic was the potent remains of pagan religions. Some witches were thought to have a frightening inborn ability to cast spells – just one look from her “evil eye” and your fate would be sealed. Most however needed to go through an apprenticeship – learn spells, recipes and rituals from other more experienced witches. The ingredients for their magic potions varied: predictable poisonous herbs like nightshade, hemlock and poppy; but also medicinal plants like sage, rosemary and thyme; ground up bones of toads; snakes and lizards; the blood of animals; human body parts. Witches were able to affect the weather to destroy crops and cause havoc. They particularly liked to eat babies.

Witches had the supernatural ability to fly – usually on a broomstick, or a goat or some other animal. Sometimes they flew in spirit (i.e. their bodies remained at home while their spirits traveled). At other times they physically traveled through the air – an awesome sight for anyone who might happen to see them. They smeared “flying ointments” on their bodies to help them fly. In many artists’ renditions of the witch in flight, her broomstick clearly suggests a phallus – a sign of male power and the “unnatural” ability of the witch-as-powerful-woman who usurps male authority.

Increasingly the witches came to be defined as old ugly women, crones with big noses and warts. This association with old age is relatively modern – from ancient times they were both young and old – sometimes dangerously and “bewitchingly” attractive young women.

Witches regularly attended Assemblies or Sabbats (referred to in Renaissance Italy as “the Games of the Lady”). These Assemblies varied a great deal. A noted early modern student of witchcraft describes them this way: “On certain ancient anniversaries the meeting was always particularly solemn, with as large an attendance as possible, when all who belonged to the infernal cult would be required to present themselves and punishment was meted out to those who proved slack and slow; at other times these gatherings would be occasional ... There does not clearly appear to be any formal and fair order in the ceremonies throughout, nor should we look for this ...”4

This negative stereotype of the witch did not always exist. Women with supernatural powers in many cultures have been honoured as shamans and priestesses – gifted individuals who were believed to be able to communicate with the sacred spirit. They used their supernatural gifts (“magic,” “mana,” “mojo”) to help their communities and fight their enemies. Some of their most important duties were to draw on the divine to heal the sick (as intercessors using herbs or ritual), predict the future (as clairvoyants, soothsayers), protect and aid warriors (as sorcerers to provide protective amulets, cast spells, cause storms, etc.), communicate with the dead (as mediums), guide the souls of the dead at the time of burial to the next world (as priestesses).

Historical records relating to the Ojibwa aboriginals in Canada, for example, describe the lives of powerful women shamans.

Two Skies, born in the mid- to late 1800s in the Thunder Bay region (died in Whitefish Bay) was an Ojibwa shaman. She apparently learned magic craft from her two husbands who both were shamans. She was primarily a ritual healer, using nananda wiat and manito kazo (cure-by-sucking and invoking the supernatural) as well as tcisaki (divining). For a time after her second marriage, she was accused of practising black magic because so many of her former husband’s relatives became ill or died. In her later life she acted as an intermediary between the spirits of life and death, presiding over great feasts in which food “filled with Life” was purportedly sent back from the dead for the living to eat.

In Ojibwa society women shamans were exceptions to the rule, as shamanism was preeminently a masculine vocation. However, many women, like Two Skies, “crossed the line” when circumstances or personal inclination led the way.

There is evidence going further back in time to suggest that supernatural powers were once strongly, and perhaps predominantly, associated with the female. This evidence is in the form of female statues found by archaeologists in graves, ritual settings, storage pits and refuse heaps all across Europe. They date from a time before the Indo-European invasions (roughly before the middle of the fifth millennium B.C.). Intriguingly, archaeologists have found very few male figures for this period. Much debate surrounds the interpretation of these female figures. Many feminist and other scholars5 have said that they are:

  • goddess-images, signs that goddesses (and not male gods) were worshiped;
  • signs of a religion that focused on the Sacred Earth where the mysterious cycle of birth, death and regeneration was experienced;
  • signs that women ruled these societies, with the likelihood that women, and not men, were the priestesses, healers and shamans (a claim receiving less support now than in the past.

Less controversial is the evidence that the Indo-European peoples worshiped gods and goddesses – and that their male gods were dominant. For them, deities had their own sphere of influence. In ancient Greece, for example, Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods and mortals, ruled from the sky. Hera, his sister and wife, sat beside him and presided over marriage and childbirth. Hades, a lesser god, ruled the Underworld where dwelt with him the souls of the dead. No longer was Earth the central sacred place. According to Marija Gimbutas, a prominent feminist archaeologist, this major cosmological shift resulted not only in the degradation of the Goddess, but also her eventual demonization as a witch:

Although death and birth are seen as polar opposites in our linear, dualistic culture, the Great Goddess of the Stone Age embodies both simultaneously, representing the unbroken continuity of the one ever-repeating cycle that underlies all ... The degradation of the Goddess in all of her forms ... began during the period of Indo-Europeanization of Old Europe in the fourth and third millennia B.C. ... The Goddess of Death and Regeneration was demonized and degraded into the familiar and highly publicized image of the witch. She came to represent all that was denied and considered evil within this relatively recent mythology of dualism. This was a complete reversal of the religion of Old Europe which conceived of life and death and all cyclic polarities as sacred and inseparable. No longer was the earth considered our Divine Mother, from whom we are born and to whom we return in death. Deity was removed into the heavens and earth became a place of exile.6

Archaeological finds combined with historical and literary records present tantalizing evidence that some sort of transformation from Goddess to Witch may have taken place. For example, the Bird Goddess, a prominent deity in pre-Indo-European Greece, shares many traits with the witch: she is strongly associated with death, and particularly the death of infants, she flies (possibly in her traveling role as intercessor), she has within herself powers both to nurture and destroy (especially at childbirth). She even has a big, beaky nose.

Another more recent example is the Anatolian fertility goddess, Hekate, dating from at least the Dark Ages (c1100 B.C.). It has been argued that she was originally a powerful Great Mother goddess in Asia Minor.7 The Greeks later incorporated her into their pantheon (in Athens first) as a minor goddess who nursed the young and interceded between mortals and gods. Her importance and goodness began to slide around the fifth-century B.C. In Hellenistic times under the Roman rule she had become a lowly gate guardian and custodian of unclean earthly matter. She came to be associated primarily with death.8 From there it was a short step to becoming the goddess of sorcery and witchcraft. Her witch-image has been memorialized often in literature. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a late example.

But thankfully this is not the end. Participants in the modern Goddess Movement, sometimes known as Wicca, challenge this dark image of the witch. They say the witch is a label that reflects men’s fears and antipathy to women. Wicca is international in scope, now comprising more than 210,000 adherents in the United States and Canada alone, “the fastest-growing religion in America.”9 Wiccans draw on neo-paganism, feminism and post-modern ideologies. Their goal is to reclaim the sacred Goddess in every woman. But this is another story.

more to consider

There is the stereotype of the witch, and the there is the stereotype of women, certainly in Western societies. Guess what – the stereotypes have a lot in common when you think about it. “Putting women in their place” is so deep-seated, so long-lasting. Women who push back – are often reviled, ostracized, by men and by women. Why by women?

  1. Prosecution of Geillis Duncane: Newes from Scotland (1591), In Burr. The Witch Persecutions, pgs. 19–23;Trial of Suzanne Gaudry (1652): J. Francais. L’Eglise et la corcellerie (Paris, 1910), pgs. 236–51. Transl. A.C. Kors. Both accounts found in A.C. Kors and E. Peters. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-700: A Documentary History, second ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pgs. 318–22; pgs. 359–67 respectively.
  2. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700 by A.C. KORS and E. PETERS, p. 17 | 2001
  3. From Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches]. Trans. Montague Summers (London: 1928). In A.C. Kors and E. Peters. Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700, pgs. 181–4 | 2001
  4. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, by MONTAGUE SUMMERS, University Books, New York, second edition, p. 110 | 1956
    The ancient anniversaries appear to correspond to pagan solar calendars: the solstices and equinoxes, and the times halfway between them (the cross quarters of the year). Of special significance was the autumnal cross quarter, Samhain, or what is popularly known as Hallowe’en (October 31). This was a time in pagan calendars when the dead were honoured. (It is also the vigil night in the Roman Catholic calendar for All Saints Day (November 1) when the dead saints are honoured.) One gets the impression that from ancient times witches assembled very often throughout the year, using the cycles of both sun and moon, and events of their own choosing to meet. Gradually, however, the Christian church imposed restrictions on their activities and their very being. By the 1950s the witch managed to get out only at Halloween as a creature of childish fun with no creditable magic powers at all.
  5. See for example:
    “Goddess”, Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, by SERINITY YOUNG, ed., Macmillan, New York, volume 1 | 1999
    The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 B.C.: Myths and Cult Images, by MARIJA GIBUTAS NEW, ed., University of California Press, Berkeley | 1982
    An analysis of many of the figures shows that although the figures represent women (“iconic” sign for the female), their overall shape is phallic (“indexical sign” for the male). So both female and male principles can be said to co-exist, but each using a different type of sign (semiotic sign). Was one sign system dominant? Indexical signs for women also appear, however (the uterus, for example). Debate continues.
  6. The Civilization of the Goddess, by M GIMBUTAS, Joan Marler, ed., pgs. 243–4, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco | 1991
  7. See The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity’s Demonization of Fertility Religion, by JACOB RABINOWITZ, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, N.Y. | 1998
  8. Come, Hekate, goddess
    Of three ways, who with your fire-breathing phantoms
    Have been allotted dread roads and harsh
    Enchantments. Hekate I call you with
    Those untimely passed away and with
    Those heroes who have died without a wife
    And children, hissing wildly, yearning in Their hearts.
    Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die Griechischen Zauberpapyri, by K. PREISENDANZ, ed., 2 volumes, p. 31, Leipzig, Teubner | 1928,
    (English) The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, by Hans Dieter Betz, ed., pgs. 2727–34 [Hellenistic period], University of Chicago Press | 1986
    The Rotting Goddess, by J. RABINOWITZ, p.105 | 1998
  9. The Scholars and the Goddess, by CHARLOTTE ALLEN, p. 18+, The Atlantic Monthly, volume 287, number 1 | Jan 2001
    Allen states that over 200,000 adherents are estimated to be living in the United States alone. The number here has conservatively been extended to 210,000 to include Canada (based on the size of Canada’s population in relation to the United States – approximately one-to-ten).
  10. resources for this story
    • For a Canadian book on witches, see Witch: The Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca, by CANDACE SAVAGE, Greystone | 2000
    • The Scholars and the Goddess, by CHARLOTTE ALLEN, p. 18+, The Atlantic Monthly, volume 287, number 1 | Jan 2001
    • Wild Women Witches of Greater Vancouver: Gyn/Ecology? by JANET E. DAHR, M.A. Thesis, Simon Fraser University | March 1995
    • “Goddess”, Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, by SERINITY YOUNG, ed., Macmillan, New York, volume 1 | 1999
    • The Civilization of the Goddess, by M GIMBUTAS, Joan Marler, ed., p. 243–4, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco | 1991
    • Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, by ALAN CHARLES KORS and EDWARD PETERS, eds., second edition, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia | 2001
    • The Ojibwa Woman, by RUTH LANDES, University of Nebraska Press | 1938 | reprinted 1997
    • The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity’s Demonization of Fertility Religion, by JACOB RABINOWITZ, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, N.Y. | 1998
    • The Geography of Witchcraft, by MONTAGUE SUMMERS, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London | 1927 | reprinted 1978
    • Many have heard references to the story of witches in Salem, Massachusetts, USA. For more information, see (recommended for younger readers) Salem Village and the Witch Hysteriaz, by REBECCA S. SCHWARTZ, Jackdaw A16, Amawalk, N.Y.: Golden Owl Publishing Company | 1993
      Also see Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, by BERNARD ROSENTHAL, Cambridge (England ): Cambridge University Press, New York |1993

    This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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