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"If we inquire, we find that all the kingdoms
 of the world have been overthrown by women."
 from Malleus Malificarum,
 a witch hunter's guide, 1486

  1. Introduction
  2. Events Leading up to the Persecutions
  3. The Religious Causes
  4. The Medical Community and Witchcraft
  5. The Economic Roots of Witchcraft
  6. The Sexual Causes
  7. Conclusion
  8. Works Cited
  9. Home


It has been three hundred years since the infamous Witch Trials took place in Salem, Massachusetts, where fourteen women and five men were led to their deaths at Gallows Hill. Of that amount, the women outnumbered the men three to one, a substantial majority. For three centuries in Europe, where the witch persecutions began, vast numbers of women were destroyed by the ruthless campaigns of the witch hunters; of the few hundred thousand people executed for witchcraft, 85% were women. Women were accused of practicing witchcraft due primarily to religious, medical, economic, and sexual reasons. Examined closely, the witch persecutions of both Europe and New England show a hidden agenda dedicated to the total suppression of female power, revealed by the overwhelming percentages of women who became the victims of a phenomenon that could only be called a holocaust.

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In the earliest European societies, dating back prior to four thousand B.C.E., people were grouped into tribes. Life was organized around survival. A male's ability to hunt was integral to the societal system, but far more important was the power of women to give birth, thereby sustaining the continuity of the tribe. Women were also the healers of these early European societies. It was primarily the women who tended to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of their people. Often, women were the religious leaders of their tribes, guiding people through the different stages of their lives. The diverse abilities of women were thought to be sacred. These sacred female powers became personified into the figure of a goddess, a deity thought to be the mother of all life. It has been established by scholars that a goddess was probably Europe's primary deity until as recently as three thousand B.C.E. (Eisler 1-7).

With the beginnings of the warrior classes that arose circa four thousand B.C.E. in Europe and the Middle East, a new ethic regarding women began to take shape. The diverse roles of women became limited to a few. The family line was converted, region by region, from a matrilineal to a patrilineal one. This was done because it made sense to the establishment of the time that the wealth amassed by male warriors should be passed on to future warriors: their sons. To keep pure a patriarchal blood line, women had to be controlled by their husbands in order to prevent extramarital sex, thereby inventing the concept of sexual monogamy. A wife's infidelity would threaten the legitimacy of a son's paternity, now so important to a society increasingly focused on war, wealth, and inheritance (Stone 161).

Myths were written and rewritten to explain women's basic nature as inherently evil. In the Western civilization this is most explicit in the story of Adam and Eve. Layered over far older Middle Eastern legends, in which Eve appears before Adam, the newer myth portrays Eve as born from Adam's rib; consequently, she is subject to him. Even more sexist is the idea that because of Eve's surrender to the temptation of the serpent, she is somehow responsible for all evil in the world; that "The pangs of childbirth and the subjection of women to man are among the penalties for. . .[her] crime" (Cavendish 3057). According to one witch hunter's guidebook, ". . . the [biblical] scriptures have much that is evil to say about women, and this is because of the first temptress; Eve, and her imitators" (qtd. In Williams 41). The serpent was certainly a powerful symbol in stories about the fall, and in some of the paintings of this event, including Michelangelo's within the Sistine Chapel, the face of the serpent is female (Cavendish 3057).

Similarly, in Greek mythology, the blame was placed on Pandora, the beautiful woman who released all evil into the world from a jar. According to scholar Richard Cavendish, Pandora's name "may mean 'all-giving' and was perhaps originally a title of the Earth Goddess" (3056). Newer myths may often have been layered over those in which women were exalted. These later versions supported the emerging theory of women as inferior, and as a foul being.

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Female leaders in religion became increasingly rare in the centuries leading up to the witch persecutions. They were labeled various terms ranging from "poisoner" and "hag" to "sorceress" and "witch." These women continued to represent feminine authority. They were the sibyls of Greece, the Witches and Druidesses of Celtic Ireland and Britain, women who were now separated from society, but still sought out as well as feared. To the male dominated establishment, these women were now a threat. In a society where God is male, women become devalued.

Witchcraft was (and is) the survival of fragmented pagan belief systems mainly collected from the folklore of Celtic Britain and Ireland. Among the groups labeled witches, most practitioners were women, and women were the primary leaders. European Archeologist Marija Gimbutas notes that the women called witches "were greatly feared since they continued to represent the power of a formidable Goddess on Earth" (20). When the Catholic hierarchy absorbed Britain and Ireland, it encountered the Celtic people, whose religion and way of life was still contrary to the ideal that women should be obedient to men. The church henceforth set out to eliminate these belief systems, as they had tried to do to the continental pagan religions who were also matrifocal in origin, and they accused these other religious groups of devil worship. Carol Christ, theologian and professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School, states that "after the forced closing of their temples and the suppression of their priesthoods and priestesshoods, European pagan traditions survived only in folk customs and in secret societies and were communicated orally"(43). Not only did these remnants of goddess worship create, for the Church, the threat of rival religions, but also the threat to their ideal that men should conquer and dominate women. Christ notes that "it is not difficult to see why she [the suspected witch] was persecuted by an insecure and misogynist church that could not tolerate rival power, especially the power of women"(46).

The word pagan comes from the Latin 'paganus,' meaning 'country dweller.' In the rural areas of Europe, folk religion survived, and women were still the primary vessels for this folk knowledge. It was in these rural areas that the strength of the Church had to be concentrated. The inquisition, a Catholic group that was set up to enforce the laws of the church, realized that the witch persecutions would provide an effective mechanism for ridding Europe of rival religious powers, as well as force women into total submission to the male establishment. Christ notes that: "often portrayed as resulting from peasant hysteria, the witch persecutions were in fact instigated by an educated elite who saw themselves as defenders of canonical tradition" (44).

The most harmful work of propaganda ever directed at women was the Malleus Malificarum, or Witches' Hammer. This book set a standard of misogyny so great that Western civilization is still influenced by its hateful ideas. Written by Dominicans Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer and released in 1486 (with an official endorsement from Pope Innocent VIII), The 'Malleus' organized the many techniques used by the witch hunters into handbook form. The handbook was then widely distributed and relied upon by a great majority of the witch hunters. Historian Selma Williams examined the "Malleus" for its sexist content and found statements such as: "A greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men" (qtd. in Williams 38); "There are more women than men found infected with the heresy of witchcraft . . . blessed be the highest who has preserved the male sex from so great a crime" (qtd. in Williams 38); "A woman is by her nature more quicker to waver in her faith and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft" (qtd. in Williams 39).

As time progressed, any women who held leadership roles in religion were persecuted, and the settlers of early New England continued this process. These colonial settlers carried over much of Europe's witch lore, instilling it into the emerging Puritan culture. Though certainly horrible, the Puritan witch persecutions were less brutal than those of Europe. However, it is apparent that the persecution of female religious leaders was high on the witch hunters' agendas (Karlson 160).

One such religious figure, Anne Hutchinson, though not accused of being a witch, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. Her crime was that she preached a Christianity free from much of "the moral law of the Old Testament" (Karlson 15) She was excommunicated and considered a heretic. Though not officially condemned as a witch, in the court of public opinion Anne Hutchinson was one of the "instruments of Satan" (Karlson 17). This view of Hutchinson was promulgated by the leading politicians and clergy of the Bay Colony.

Like Hutchinson, other women who were prominent in religious groups were persecuted. On June I, 1660, Mary Dyer, who had previously been a religious collaborator of Anne Hutchinson, was hanged as a Quaker. Quakerism is a religious denomination that preaches equality of the sexes. For this reason, Quakerism has attracted more women than men into their flock. Dyer returned to Massachusetts from Rhode Island in the late 1650's, hoping to reestablish herself as a religious leader among the Quakers of the Bay Colony (Dyer had formerly practiced the same alternative form of Puritanism that Hutchinson had). This was at the same time that new laws were being enacted against the Quakers. One Englishman said that there were "bottle bellied witches amongst the quakers" (qtd. in Williams 140). Again, though Dyer was not accused of Witchcraft, the examples of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer show that it was the female sex, far more than the fear of Witchcraft itself, that led the intellectual elite to campaign for the destruction of witches.

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Throughout the witch persecutions, the use of healing techniques was a major issue in the charging and convicting of a suspected witch. As stated Earlier, women were the majority of the healers in early Europe, well into the Middle Ages. They gathered herbs, tended the sick, practiced midwifery, performed abortions, and eased the pain of the dying. They held the power of life and death for their people (Ehrenreich and English 4). The female healers of Europe represented a threat to the church hierarchy, which supported the rising male medical profession. These male doctors catered to the upper class who could afford them. Controversial historians Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English surmise that:
When faced with the misery of the poor, the Church turned to the dogma that experience in this world is fleeting and unimportant. But there was a double standard at work, for the Church was not against medical care for the upper class. Kings and nobles had their court physicians who were men, sometimes even priests. The real issue was control: Male upper class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as part of a peasant underclass was not.(13)
If women were the peasant healers and their rebellion against the Church represented a "peasant rebellion," then this must also have been a rebellion of women against the established norms of patriarchal society (Ehrenreich and English 15). The practice of medicine by women was a threat to the Church because medicine contained the power over life and death, a power belonging to God alone, and delegated to his male representatives on earth. The clergy saw the faith that the peasants placed in these female healers and recognized the need to denigrate their practices (Ehrenreich and English 11-12).

Midwifery, in particular, saw the oppressive rage of the Church. The Malleus Malificarum states that "No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives" (qtd. in Ehrenreich and English 13). The ability of the midwife to deliver children, as well as perform abortions, gave her a power that, in the Church's eyes, was a threat to the authority of their God. As midwifery and other forms of peasant healing were seen as menacing, the male medical authorities restricted the learning of healing skills to prestigious houses of knowledge. Thus, the university became the fundamental device used to suppress medical practice among women. Women (even of the upper classes) were barred from these institutes of learning. During the Middle Ages, these universities were made the official training ground for doctors. Therefore, it was impossible for women to practice medicine. The "Malleus" states that: "If a woman dare to cure without having studied than she is a witch and must die"(qtd. in Ehrenreich and English 19). This is partly why women were predominantly practitioners only of peasant healing and were shunned by the upper classes.

In colonial New England, as in Europe, physicians were also always male. However, women were permitted to practice midwifery. The colonists often treated midwives with great respect; midwives helped to birth children, an extremely important function to this fragile new society. Midwifery became a communal experience for women, much associated with other supposedly female traits, such as gossip (Ulrich 46,374). Often it was the midwives who were called to examine the accused "witches" for what were believed to be "devil's marks;" however, this was at the insistence of male doctors who controlled and manipulated the practice of midwifery. Karlson notes that "The frequency with which doctors were involved in witchcraft cases suggests that one of the unspoken (and probably unacknowledged) functions of New England Witchcraft was to discredit women's medical knowledge in favor of their male competitors" (143).

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It was not the economic class of women that mattered to the witch hunters; it was their economic independence. Contrary to popular belief, it was not always women in poverty who were accused of witchcraft; many wealthy women were also accused, but they usually had some measure of independence. Women in medieval Europe were not thought to be able to handle their own affairs. The Malleus Malificarum states that "Women are intellectually like children" (qtd. in Williams 39). Karlson surmises that "Like midwives, healers, and female religious leaders, women who turned their traditional skills to profit placed themselves in competition with men - and in positions of vulnerability to witchcraft accusations" (Williams 146).

Dame Alice Kyteler was put on trial in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1324, accused of witchcraft. She was the wealthiest woman in her town, had inherited substantial wealth from her four deceased husbands, and enjoyed the wealth of her current husband. The trial of Alice Kyteler was initiated by the stepsons she had from her former marriages, who believed that they, not a woman, should receive all of their father's inheritance. There were political interests also; Ireland's Celtic population had strong matrifocal origins, and this was a threat to Catholic authorities, who believed that "Property is power that belongs in male hands only"(Williams 28).

In a patriarchal culture, it is societal order that inheritance passes through males. According to Carol Karlson, many of New England's female "witches" were women who "stood to benefit" from inheritance: either from their fathers, husbands, or other male relatives, because there were no male heirs. Women were only guaranteed one third the estate of their husband. Women without brothers or sons to share the inheritance were 89% of the women executed for witchcraft in New England between 1620 and 1725(Karlson 102). It was threatening to the colonists that women could become economically self sufficient, and therefore gain greater control over their own lives. Karlson notes that "However varied their backgrounds and economic positions, as women without brothers or women without sons, they stood in the way of orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another"(116).

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The sexuality of women was probably the most significant issue involved during the witch persecutions. During those times, in an era when sex was viewed as sinful, women could not hide their obviously sexual natures: they became pregnant; they gave birth; they menstruated. Negative attitudes about sex were translated into negative attitudes about women, and reflected themselves strongly in witch trial procedures. The idea of female temptresses has been found in many of the world's myths, especially those within Judeo-Christian beliefs. In Hebrew mythology, there is Eve, whose sexuality, some scholars argue, was the actual "forbidden fruit" offered to Adam. In the Christian religion, we are often reminded of the temptation of sex; however, in the times of the Witch Persecutions, the church often mentioned sexual temptation as being inherent in women, therefore making her an obstacle on the path from man to God (Cavendish 3057).

In Medieval Europe, the Church of Rome tried incessantly to suppress sexual desire among the people; they even instituted a celibate male priesthood. During these times, Mary Condren tells us, "Women, who formerly had been revered, now became sources of temptation"(153). Also, while the emerging male priesthood continued to aspire to the high heaven of their male god, "Women became signs of the depths to which holy men could fall" (153). The Malleus Malificarum was very specific in its references to women's sexuality as an evil force. A woman was said to be impure "during her monthly periods"(qtd. in Williams 39). Kraemer and Sprenger believed that "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable"(qtd. in Williams 39). Perhaps the worst fear associated with female witches was that, according to the Malleus Malificarum, "[some] men are made impotent by Witchcraft" (qtd. in Williams 43).

The obsession with the male sexual organ frequently shows up in witch trial documents. The fear of men that witches would somehow damage their reproductive faculties was deeply rooted in both the desire to be close to God and their obsession with the sexuality of females (Condren 168). This fear also relates to the authority of the male establishment; Mary Condren, professor of Women in Religion at Harvard, makes this connection:
Not surprisingly, the Devil and his agents could be expected to attack the very organs upon which men's superiority supposedly rested. The disappearance of the male members, the inability to perform sexually, or even concern for the size of the parish priest's members testify to the significance of the phallus in establishing the rule of God the Father.(168).
A major sexual function of women that made them a target was menstruation. In tribal societies menstruation played a key role in the religious initiation rituals of women. Menstruation was a sign of a woman's maturity, just as menopause was an indication of the wisdom associated with old age. In patriarchal Europe, women's rituals in general were suppressed, but rituals that helped women to understand their monthly cycles were intimidating to this culture, which advocated the repression of sexual ideas (Redgrove, and Shuttle 228-233).

In Puritan New England, sexuality was a significant factor in the trial of a suspected witch. According to Dr. Paul Marsella, a history professor at Salem State College, "the records indicate that the man accused in court of fathering a bastard was more than six times as likely to go free as the woman charged with fornication" (qtd in LeGendre 8). In seventeenth century New England, women were expected to be chaste and obedient; for women to engage in sex by their own free will was dangerous to the moral fabric of the community. In colonial New England, witch trial proceedings often included testimony regarding a women's fidelity to her husband, her ability to cause impotence, or her power to seduce men (and sometimes women) through the form of an apparition. Many women accused of witchcraft during the Salem outbreak of 1692 were also accused of adultery, fornication, and other sexually related crimes (Karlson 138-140).

... Ultimately, the issue of female sexuality was one of control. Women could have sex but only if it was according to the strict rules of both her husband and the male establishment in general. Women could give birth, but only to establish the continuity of a husband's name (female children were often unwanted). Women could menstruate, but only in secret, where no one could witness the supposedly abominable act.

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Three hundred years and many struggles later, women continue to strive for their equal rights. They hold positions of power throughout the United States and the world. However, female equality is still not secure. Women are often accused by extreme right wing groups of seeking to destroy the American family and derided by those who wish to preserve "traditional values." Still, women are reclaiming their own power through self determination rather than domination. Feminist movements have secured many rights for women over the last century, but these rights are in constant danger of being taken away by an establishment still controlled by men. Just how far would the establishment go to force women back into submission? In Salem of 1692, and in Europe for three centuries prior, the world was shown, with graphic brutality, just how far.

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Cavendish, Richard. "Woman." Man Myth & Magic: An
......IllustratedEncyclopedia of the Supernatural. Italy: BPC
......Publishing Ltd., 1970.

Christ, Carol. The Laughter of Aphrodite. San
. . . Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Condren, Mary. The Serpent and the Goddess: Women
. . . Religion. and Power in Celtic Ireland. San
. . . Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1989.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and English, Deirdre.
. . . Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of
. . . Women Healers. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973.

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice & the Blade: Our
. . . History Our Future. San Francisco: Harper &
. . . Row, 1988.

Gimbutas, Marija. Language of the Goddess. San
. . . Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.

Karlson, Carol. The Devil in the Shape of a
. . . Woman. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

LeGendre, Lyn. "The Witch Hunt: Another form of
. . . female persecution?" North Shore Magazine 26
. . . Dec. 1991: 8,15.

Redgrove, Peter, and Shuttle, Penelope. The Wise
. . . Wound: Myths Realities and Meanings of
. . . Menstruation. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. New York:
. . . HarcourtBrace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1976.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale. New
. . . York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Williams, Selma. Riding the Nightmare: Women &
. . . Witchcraft from the Old World to Colonial
. . . Salem. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.

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