Meryl Streep famously spoke out against Hollywood typecasting of women over 40 as witches: “I was not offered any female adventurers, or love interests, or heroes or demons. I was offered witches because I was ‘old’ at 40.” The image Hollywood conjures of a witch is a wisened, often ugly, old woman, with crazy hair and a high-pitched cackle, who is more often than not seeking some magic that will make them look youthful again. Of course, we are offered alternatives in the form of Hermione Granger or Wanda Maximoff, but the dominant image of witches is one of an old woman desperate to be young.
The history of witchcraft is just as misogynistic as the present. In England, an innumerable number of people were tried and killed as witches between 1450 and 1750, almost all of which were women. In the Holy Roman Empire, 76% of accused witches were women; in Hungary, 90%; in Switzerland, over 95%; and in France, 76%. In America, the story is the same, with 14 of the 19 Salem witches, and 78% of the witches in New England, being women. In Puritan America, women had to do very little to be accused of witchcraft. If women had too much or too little money, if they had too many or too few children, if they were seen as impolite, or too polite, all of these and more could lead to an allegation. Effectively, if a woman was found guilty of falling outside her prescribed role in some way, she would be burnt at the stake. Women also accused other women of witchcraft famously highlighted in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.
Despite the last witch trial in the US taking place over 100 years ago (witch trials are still taking place in other countries, something that we will return to shortly), the term witch is still used today. Madeleine Miller, author of Circe a book about a powerful woman witch, says: “A better parallel to ‘witch’ is the word ‘whore.’ A whore transgresses norms of feminine sexuality; a witch transgresses norms of woman power.” She argues that these terms are used to ‘police’ women into behaving in a way less threatening to men, as the ‘unnaturalness’ of witches is found in their ability to curse, injure, or otherwise harm men.
Racism also plays a role in witchcraft today, for example, the Roma are often accused of evil magic, and African-inspired voodoo magic is still a major plot point in Hollywood today. Tituba, the slave woman who was accused of leading the girls in Salem astray, is also remembered as black, or South American. Witchcraft is therefore not only used to demonise women, but especially women of colour, who are epitomised as the opposite, and enemy, of white men witch hunters. The white man is therefore on a noble crusade to rid the world of ‘spiritual aberrations,’ which conveniently follows patriarchal lines of femicide and eugenics.
There are still plenty of people who believe in witchcraft today, and even people who are still killed for being witches. In places such as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea where there are poor medical and educational facilities, witchcraft is still blamed for illness, and there are numerous stories of witch hunters killing people with HIV/AIDS. In India, women landowners are targeted as scapegoats or as a pretext for seizing their lands and goods. In Saudi Arabia, women are still convicted of witchcraft in the courts, and in Ghana, there exist ‘witch camps’ where women are exiled to.
These horrendous events are happening in tandem with a rise of ‘reclaiming’ witchcraft in the West. More and more women are identifying as ‘Wicca,’ a modern pagan religion with a woman deity.
“To reclaim the word witch is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful,” wrote Starhawk, in her seminal 1979 book, The Spiral Dance, which is most people’s introduction to Wicca. “To be a witch is to identify with 9 million victims of bigotry and hatred and to take responsibility for shaping a world in which prejudice claims no more victims.”
Although this is an admirable aspiration, how far can Western women reclaim a word that is still used to violate, and even kill, women in the vast majority of the world?