Nine witches from an indeterminate time in history. Image via
Tonight, cities across the country will be teaming with throngs of sexy witches, stinking out the back seats of the bus with the heady combination of cheap facepaint, perfume, and cider. Plastic noses will be snapped on, broomsticks will be dry humped, and cheeks slicked in various shades of algae—only to be streaked later with sweat and pre-vomit drool. But while you're shuffling to the bus stop cackling, beer in hand, it's worth paying some mind to the truly shitty time witches have had throughout history.
Earlier this week, the supposed actual grave of a witch, Lillias Adie, was found in Torryburn, Scotland. Because at one time, if the church saw you as a threat, or a 16-year-old little shit decided to spread a rumor, you would be publicly executed. That was the reality.
The contemporary witch mythos, see, is a palimpsest; a new story written over the top of an old one and only linked to the original by the fact it literally supersedes it. Underneath we have Aide, who admitted to fucking the devil after bouts of torture and was either murdered or driven to suicide. On top we have Sabrina, a girl who goes to a small liberal arts college in Boston and has a talking cat. This is fine. History becomes woven into modernity in lots of silly ways. But we don't really have particularly adequate language to talk about witches and maybe we should.
Historical Western witches, modern tribal witches, green witches, and the sexy contemporary ones all get lumped together into some curious mismatched sports team. You can spend days wondering which witch is which. But here's the thing: you don’t want to be a fucking witch. Not then, not today.
A West African vodun. Image via
In the past few years alone, hundreds of women have been killed for being a witch. Most have been beaten, raped, burned, stoned, flogged, or hacked to bits with a machete before being killed. But because this is happening outside the Western world—in places like Tanzania, India, and Saudi Arabia—there is a tendency to suggest that this is an example of tribal barbarism, the sort of hideous stuff we would never do.
This isn’t really true.
Take, for example, Pittenweem, a small coastal village in the East Neuk, Fife, Scotland, known for its Arts Festival and proximity to Britain’s finest fish and chip shop. A little bit down the coast rests an old church whose graveyard juts into the North Sea like a severed finger. It is, by all accounts, a damn fine example of Scottish romanticism: remote, eerie, and with a violent history that is retold as a sort of mental masturbation, a way of saying, "look at how civilized we are now."
The story goes that in 1705 a young buck named Patrick Morton—inspired by stories of the Pittenweem Witch Trials of 1645 where four women were put to death—decided to claim that Beatrice Laing, the former town treasurer, was a witch, along with her husband, Thomas Brown, and friend, Janet Cornfoot.
All three died. Cornfoot, however, escaped from incarceration, was recaptured by an angry mob, flogged, stoned, and then tied between a ship and the shore. Eventually, she was crushed to death by a door piled high with rocks. Apparently a man then drove his horse and carriage over her, just to make sure. Her body was then left to decompose somewhere along the Western braes, denied a burial.
From our remove, it’s quite easy to read what happened but not really understand it. Politically, socially, and economically, Britain at the time resembled somewhere like Gambia in 2009. Rising independence for women, coupled with greater devotion to capitalism, meant that those in power feared their control would be reduced—especially by those with dark magick in their hearts.
Historically, the word "witch" was conceived to mean someone who practices in petty theft, sheep stealing, and the like, but by the 16th century it came to represent women who went to bed with Satan and were hellbent on bringing down the church. Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486, said: "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable." God damn those women and their insatiable desires. Why couldn't they just keep it under their cloaks, eh?
There is a common belief, too, that witches were the original terrorists. Time Magazine argued as much this week, saying that their re-emergence in popular thinking (American Horror Story, etc) bodes badly for society. Maybe. But it's also a show that systematically explores how misogynistic history is. And Christ knows we need more powerful women on television, in whatever form they take. If it's Lange, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, and Angela Bassett basically reclaiming the idea of a witch as a superhero, that's pretty powerful.
Salem Witch Trials. Image via
But the idea of aligning witches with terrorists is problematic. Sure, in purely propaganda terms, the Salem Witch Trials is comparable to the war on terror because witches were believed to be widespread and hidden. Anyone could be one. Doubt thy neighbor and all that. But there is a tendency to over-intellectualize the witch mythos, removing it from the realm of blatant misogyny toward a safer, more palatable idea of the masses rising up against an insurgent force.
So if you're dressing up as a witch tonight, remember the 20 executed on Gallows Hill while you stick fake warts on your face. Benjamin Franklin might have swept in to make a mockery out of the Salem slaughters with a satire involving sheep and hangings, but behind our modern, cartoonish interpretations are centuries of savage means to keep women from getting too big for their pointy boots.
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