Ah, Halloween; the time of year when we send modern, 21st century girls out into the community dressed as persecuted figures!
The iconic ‘witch’ Halloween figure is well known in folklore and historical tale-telling as something negative; a sorceress, a harridan, an occultist.
One of the earliest records of the word ‘witch’ is in the Bible, in the book of 1 Samuel. It tells the story of King Saul asking the ‘Witch of Endor’ to summon a spirit. Generally, religious texts continued to caution against any divination, chanting or witch-like summoning of spirits.
Executions of witches
Fifteenth century Europe did not find pious caution a sufficient deterrent, and instead, embraced the concept of good old execution. Witch hunts were common, and the unfortunate women who were sought out, presumably those on the margins of society, were commonly burned, hung or drowned (witches were presumed to float, while innocents sank). The women were often accused, as earlier religious texts had insinuated, of devilish connotations and sorcery.
In 1563, the year the English Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, Agnes Waterhouse, a 64-year-old woman, became the first English woman hanged for witchcraft, a ‘crime’ she confessed to. She had reportedly been accused of killing livestock. (Given that average life expectancy was 35 in Tudor England, it is fair to assume that Agnes may have been experiencing symptoms of old age, such as cognitive decline.)
Over the pond in America, history’s best-known witch trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts a century later, when two children of a wealthy family apparently suffered from some kind of neurological seizures. An enslaved woman, Tituba Indian (who was in enforced slavery for the household of the family of one of the sick children, and was accused by the girls of witchcraft) confessed, no doubt under duress, to being a witch. (Although imprisoned, she was not brought to trial.)
Over the years and across territories, women were accused of witchcraft when they had ‘seduced’ men, sold herbal remedies, or ‘bewitched’ vessels, crops or people. Modern ‘witches’ practicing the harmless religion Wicca, and using the skills they’ve learned for healing, are not now persecuted for execution; but the ‘witch hunt’ is still a familiar term, and applies every day across social media, often against marginalised women, and those exhibiting behaviours associated with trauma. Today, enslaved woman are still trafficked, misogyny prevails in many institutions, and older women’s viewpoints are often ridiculed or dismissed.
Perhaps as we attend family Halloween parties and dress our children up as ghouls and spirits this October, we should spare a thought for the many persecuted women throughout history whose sad demises are remembered with today’s cheap candy and flammable masks.