Witches, Women, and Witchcraft

History and Background

GIF041 Witch Museum, Salem, MA
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Witches have long been feared and hated in Christian circles. Even today, pagans and Wiccans remain a target of Christian persecution, especially in America. It seems that they long ago took on an identity which reached far beyond their own existence and became a symbol for Christians but a symbol of what? Maybe an examination of the events will give us some clues.

From Jews and Heretics to Witches

As the Inquisition proceeded merrily along through the 1400s, its focus shifted from Jews and heretics and moved towards so-called witches. Although Pope Gregory IX had authorized the killing of witches back in the 1200s, the fad just didn't catch on for awhile. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull declaring that witches did indeed exist, and thus it became a heresy to believe otherwise. This was quite a reversal, because in 906 the Canon Episocopi, a church law, declared that belief in the existence and operation of witchcraft was heresy.

As a result of this, church authorities tortured and killed thousands of women, and not a few men, in an effort to get them to confess that they flew through the sky, had sexual relations with demons, turned into animals, and engaged in various sorts of black magic.

Subordinate People to Authoritarian Control

The creation of the concept of devil-worship, followed by its persecution, allowed the church to more easily subordinate people to authoritarian control and openly denigrate women. Most of what was passed off as witchcraft were simply fictional creations of the church, but some of it was genuine or almost-genuine practices of pagans and Wiccans.

In fact, the word witch from the Old English word Wicca, which was applied to male and female members of an ancient pagan tradition which reveres masculine, feminine and earthly aspects of God. Wiccan tradition involved both heaven and earth, both the next world and this world. It also involved a tradition which was not quite as hierarchical and authoritarian, and this represented a direct challenge to the Christian church.

Even the Devotion to Mary Became Suspect

The additional persecution of anything which resembled feminine religiosity went to interesting lengths in that devotion to Mary became suspect. Today the figure of Mary is both popular and important in the Catholic church, but to the Inquisition, it was a possible sign of overemphasizing the feminine aspect of Christianity. In the Canary Islands, Aldonca de Vargas was reported to the Inquisition for nothing more than smiling at hearing mention of Mary.

The subservience of women to men was a common theme in early Christian writings an outgrowth of both traditional patriarchal attitudes and the extremely hierarchical nature of the church itself. Groups which did not hold to the hierarchy in any form were attacked immediately. There is no shared authority between the genders in traditional Christianity, either in the church or in the home. Homosexuality would be particularly threatening to this ideology, as it raises the potential of redefining gender roles, especially in the home.

Witness how the recent attacks upon homosexuality in society has progressed hand-in-hand with the mindless promotion of vague traditional family values, particularly those which put women in their place and reinforce male dominance in the home. With a married couple of two women or two men, who exactly is supposed to be in charge and who meekly obedient? Never mind that the Christians who fear such relationships will never be asked to make those decisions themselves the mere fact that people are making such decisions on their own rather than obeying someone else's religious proclamations is quite enough to give them fits of apoplexy.

Portrayals of Witchcraft

Basic portrayals of witchcraft and satanism in church records are actually quite amusing. Most clerics seem to have been rather limited in creativity, so witches were shown as behaving a simplistically opposite fashion from Christians. Since Christians kneeled, then witches stood on their heads when paying homage to their masters. Communion was parodied by a Black Mass. Catholic sacraments became excrement.

One of the most famous symbols of the Inquisitions witch-craze was the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (Witches Hammer) by Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. These two Dominican monks wrote a lurid account of what witches were really like and what they really did an account which would rival modern science fiction in its creativity, not to mention its fictitiousness. Women as a group bear the brunt of the monk's condemnation, being described as treacherous and contemptible.

This was at a time when Christianity attitudes against sex had long since turned into full-blown misogyny. It is amazing how celibate men became obsessed with the sexuality of women. As it is stated in Malleus Maleficarum: All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable. Another section describes how witches were known to ...collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a birds nest. Evidently, they were not entirely stingy with their collections there is the story of a man who went to a witch to have his lost penis restored:

  • She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he like out of a nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belonged to a parish priest.

These sentiments were nothing unique or unusual indeed, they are a result of centuries of mean-spirited sexual pathology on the part of church theologians. The philosopher Boethius wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy that Woman is a temple built upon a sewer.

Why Women? 

Later, in the tenth century, Odo of Cluny stated: "To embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure." Women were regarded as impediments to true spirituality and union with God, which helps explain why investigators focused on women and ignored men. The church had a long-standing prejudice against women, and this was given vent when the doctrine of devil worship was revealed.

Of course interrogations of witches followed the standard Inquisition procedures, but with some added bonuses. Accused witches were all stripped naked, had all of their body hair shaved off, and then pricked. The sexually neurotic Malleus Maleficarum had become the standard text on how to deal with witches, and this book stated authoritatively that all witches bore a numb devils mark which could be detected by sharp prodding.

Inquisitors were also quick to search for the purported witches tits, blemishes which were supposed to be extra nipples used by witches to suckle demons. If the men interrogating the witches were to become aroused, it was assumed that the desire originated not in them, but instead was a projection from the women. Women were supposed to be highly sexually-charged beings, while the celibate Inquisitors were supposed to be beyond such things.

No longer merely adherents to a more ancient religious tradition, witches had been made into slaves of Satan. Instead of a healer or a teacher, the witch was made into an instrument of evil. The witch was portrayed and treated as a heretic.

Torture for Confessions

Inquisitors often resorted to torture in order to extract information or confessions from accused witches. Red-hot tongs were applied to women's breasts and genitalia. Researcher Nancy van Vuuren has written that The women's sex organs provided a special attraction for the male torturer. It should not be surprising that just about every torture victim eventually confessed.

Confessions commonly came attached to denouncements of other possible witches, keeping the Inquisitors in business. In Spain, church records tell the story of Maria of Ituren admitting under torture that she and sister witches turned themselves into horses and galloped through the sky. In a district of France, 600 women admitted to copulating with demons. Some entire villages in Europe were exterminated.

Although the children of heretics and Jews had never known much in the way of compassion from Inquisitors, the children of convicted witches suffered even more horribly. These kids were themselves prosecuted for witchcraft girls after the age of nine and a half, boys after the age of ten and a half. Even younger children could be tortured to elicit testimony against parents.

Voluntary testimony from someone as young as two could be admitted even though it was never regarded as valid in other cases. A French judge is reported to have regretted leniency when he sentenced young kids flogged while they watched their parents burn instead of sentencing them to burn as well.

It seems to me that witches served a symbolic role for the male, celibate religious authorities in Europe. Witches were not simply adherents to an alternative religiosity, and they certainly weren't turning whole towns into toads. Instead, their treatment at the hands of men, and the rationales used by those men indicate that the oppression of witches was somehow symbolic of the oppression of women in general, of women's sexuality, and of sexuality in general.

We hate to sound Freudian, but we really do think that in this case, the assertions by celibate men about the alleged sexual obsessions of witches are really a clear case of projection. We think that it was the religious authorities who were obsessed and insatiable with their sexuality, but since their repressive ideology couldn't allow that, they had to project their desires onto others. If women, sexually evil beasts, were actually responsible for the priest's sexual desires, then the priests could in turn still feel holy and better yet, holier than thou, more righteous and holy than the hated women around them.

Witch Hunts in America

Witch hunts also touched the shores of America, as many Americans know. The Salem witch trials among the Massachusetts Puritans have entered American consciousness as being quite a bit more than just the killing of witches. They, like the trials of Europe, have become a symbol. In our case, the witch trials have become a symbol of what can go wrong when mobs of ignorant people go crazy, especially when egged on by just as ignorant and/or power hungry leaders.

The Salem story began in 1692 when a few girls who had become friendly with a slave woman named Tituba began acting very strangely hysterical screaming, falling into convulsions, barking like dogs, etc. Soon other girls began acting in a similar manner and of course, they all must have been possessed by demons. Three women, including the slave, were promptly accused of witchcraft. The result was much like the European experience, with a chain-reaction of confessions, denouncements, and more arrests.

In an effort to help combat the witch menace, courts relaxed traditional rules of evidence and procedure, after all, witches are a terrible menace and must be stopped. In place of the normal rules and methods, the courts used what was common among Inquisitors in Europe scouring the women's bodies for marks, numb spots, etc. Also accepted were spectral sources of evidence if someone had a vision of a woman being a witch, that was good enough for the judges.

Unsurprisingly, the people who were mostly killed were not those who submitted quickly and obediently to authorities. Only those who were defiant or hostile were put to death. If you admitted being a witch and repented, you had a very good chance of living. If you denied being a witch and insisted that you had rights which must be acknowledged, you were on a quick path to execution. Your chances were also bad if you were a woman especially if you were an older, deviant, troublesome or somehow disorderly woman.

In the end, nineteen people were executed, two died in prison and one man was pressed to death under rocks. This is a better record than what we see in Europe, but that isn't saying very much. The religious and political authorities, clearly, used the witch trials to impose their own ideas of order and righteousness upon the local populace. As in Europe, violence was a tool used by religion and religious people to enforce uniformity and conformity in the face of dissent and social disorder.

Lest anyone imagine that such events have been relegated to the distant past, it must be noted that witch hunts and killings continue well into our own enlightened century. In 1928, a Hungarian family was acquitted of killing an old woman they thought was a witch. In 1976, a poor German woman was suspected of being a witch and keeping familiars, so people in the small town ostracized her, pelted her with stones, and killed her animals.

In 1977 in France, a man was killed for suspected sorcery. In 1981, a mob stoned a woman to death in Mexico because they believed that her witchcraft incited an attack on the Pope. The church's creation of witchcraft and devil worship has exacted a heavy and bloody toll on humanity which still has not yet been fully paid.


  • Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History.
  • James A. Haught, Holy Horrors.
  • J.N. Hillgarth, Christianity, and Paganism, 350-750.
  • Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy.
  • Edward Peters, Heresy, and Authority in Medieval Europe.
  • R. Dean Peterson, A Concise History of Christianity.
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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Witches, Women, and Witchcraft." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/witches-women-and-witchcraft-249552. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). Witches, Women, and Witchcraft. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/witches-women-and-witchcraft-249552 Cline, Austin. "Witches, Women, and Witchcraft." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/witches-women-and-witchcraft-249552 (accessed June 7, 2023).