(because I’ve been thinking a lot about all this “witch” shit today and a topic I have yet to ventilate about, lemme continue on by quoting some of Lucy Pearce’s book ‘Burning Woman’ cuz it is potent) — from Chapter 2: A History of Burning Women — for my sisters.
her fire burns hot.
flames lick through me.
but, there’s no stake holding me here.
no, here she burns for me,
the goddess of fire,
to remind me that
deep in my belly a fire should be raging,
the women of my line,
did they fear this fire?
was fire too close to the history of this line of women immemorial?
I see them, their faces dark,
no firelight in their souls,
no burning in their core,
no fuel to fire longing and desire, to give volume to voice.
this fear of fire,
how deep does it run?
I see them,
a line bleeding back into the dark bowels of centuries past where
no flame burns.
dark faces, tightly drawn skin reminding me of my own jawbone.
how powerful was this message?
put out your light, woman.
by fearing our own fire,
we douse our own flame.
we cannot live what we are here to do without fire.
In order to fully understand our own limitations, hesitations, blocks and anxieties, we have to delve into our his-story. Both the official his-story that we have learned, as well as her-story that has been suppressed. We need to become conscious of the culture that we have numbed to in order to survive. We have to bring into conscious awareness that which goes sensed but unspoken: the threat of being a woman who lives to her own tune in this world.
‘W’ IS FOR WITCH
Whenever I hear a guy say, “She’s too wild, too much, too hard to figure out, too complicated, too intense, too hard to handle, too emotional, too opinionated, or crazy.” I hear, “I’d have burned her ass at the stake back in Salem. She’s too connected … I won’t be able to tame her.” ~ Jenny G. Perry
We are the granddaughters of the witches they were never able to burn. If history teaches us that a “witch” is nothing more than a woman who doesn’t know her place, then damn straight, I consider myself a witch. ~ Ruby Hamad
When I learned my alphabet, W was for witch. The archetypal Burned Woman, there in front of my pre-school eyes. R wasn’t for rapist or P for pedophile or psychopath. But there it was: W for witch.
We are taught about the dark feminine early, we imbibe the warning of the witch with our nursery stories. Beware the solitary woman who lives in the forest, casts spells ad will eat human children for breakfast. And as a perceived pretender to patriarchal power, of course she was depicted in a silly black hat with a phallic broomstick poking out from between her legs.
Want to discredit a woman in the real world? All you need is one word.
Still. In the 21st century. Just this week an Australian Federal Minister called a respected political journalist who wrote about a sexism scandal that a senior colleague had just resigned over, “a mad fucking witch”.
The W word has been a one-word death sentence to women for centuries. The fire starter. It has been used to condemn women who inhabit the outlying edges of our patriarchal culture and flatly refuse to have their lives decided for them. It has been used to shame and silence those who speak up. As well as those who chose not to marry or have children, who healed using unknown means, who cursed the wielders of power for their inhumanity, who attended deaths and births, or have followed their own spiritual and sexual impulses.
The witch represents the patriarchal fear of women’s power, embodied in an individual. She who must be destroyed so that society can prosper. But look a little closer and her spells, her abilities to do the supernatural, to enchant, to shapeshift are, I would argue, paranoid reversals of the Bible. Her powers are spookily analogous to those assigned to the great heroes of the Bible. But if patriarchs’ were done through men, via the power of the male God, then hers, done not in the name of God, must be done in the name of his shadowy counterpart — the Devil.
The witch (AKA a powerful woman) has been pitched as a direct threat to the carefully constructed male dominated system of “divine right”. And so the System has done everything within its power to erase, discredit and disconnect women who exhibit any form of power, and label them witches. With society’s blessing. Because, throughout history, where women have never been considered as human as men, witches were not human at all. They do not deserve our pity or defense, we are told, we are well rid of them. They would destroy everything we hold dear. And so we must destroy them first.
We have been told enough fairy stories in our girlhood to know to beware of the witch. We have read enough his-story to know that as women we don’t want to be mistaken for her. The desire to live, to be accepted and to belong, keeps most of us in our places. And so we spend out lives running from the darkness, trying out hardest to be good and work hard and keep others happy.
To me, a witch is a woman that is capable of letting her intuition take hold of her actions, that communes with her environment, that isn’t afraid of facing challenges. ~ Paulo Coelho
So when we feel the fire rising in our bellies, we also smell smoke in our nostrils. We feel passion and sense danger. And so we step back, pipe down, play it safe. For fear of what if. Because his-story has taught us clearly: “bad” girls are branded as witches. “Bad” girls get burned.
When we feel the upwelling of power within us, our bodies respond with deep fear. Far deeper than just a worry about losing face or looking silly. But rather the threat of losing our lives or those we love. The fear is real. Our bodies know it.
Whether you believe in past lives, in the collective unconscious, the recent scientific discoveries of the cellular transmission of trauma down the generations, or simply in historical awareness, we remember the Burning Times. We remember the high price that was paid for living according to your own inner voice, following your heart, questioning societal norms and being different to your tribe. ….
Times are changing.
And yet still we are haunted by the Burning Times of old. They are still alive in us. We must dig deeper.
The Burning Times
There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. ~ The Bible, Deuteronomy 18:10
For centuries around the world, the ultimate punishment for women was public death by fire. Perhaps the most well-known Burned Woman was Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake for her actions and beliefs.
She was not alone. In Europe between 1470-1750 figures ranging from a conservative 35,000 to a truly terrifying (though discredited by mainstream his-storians) 9 million women were burned as witches. But as Brian A. Pavlac, PhD, Professor of History at Kings College, London, who specializes in the history of the witch hunts reflects, “even the lower figure of under 50,000 dead would have meant over a hundred thousand put on trial. Then, considering all the personnel involved in the justice system as court officials and witnesses, friends and family members, and those who even felt the ‘fear’ caused by the hunts, millions of people’s lives changed, usually for the worse, because of the witch hunts.”
Whilst the Catholic church started the craze, with the publication of The Hammer of the Witches, from 1542 and 1735 a series of Witchcraft Acts were enshrined into law by parliaments around Europe. The punishments — imprisonment, torture and death — were focused on individuals who were deemed to practice witchcraft and magic. Common accusations of witchcraft included: raising storms, giving the evil eye, killing people or livestock or causing bad luck.
To justify the killings, both Christianity and secular institutions created ever broader definitions of witchcraft including being “associated with wild Satanic ritual parties in which there were much naked dancing.” Ah, yes, naked dancing. Dangerous stuff that!
And whilst the victims of witch burnings included men and children, Brian A. Pavlac notes that “some witch hunts did almost exclusively target women, in percentages as high as 95% of the victims.” Whilst Anne Barstow, author of Witchcraze reminds us that the members of the legal system, its “judges, ministers, priests, constables, jailers, doctors, prickers, torturers, jurors, executioners” were nearly 100% male.
Radical feminist, Marxists scholar, Silvia Federici, points out in her acclaimed book, Caliban and the Witch, that the witch burnings were systematic, happening at the same time as bloody land grabs in Europe and the New World, concurrent with massive increases in the Catholic church and nation states’ power and wealth. This domination and brutalization of nature, native peoples and women was one and the same. It has been argued that witches were burned to coerce women into accepting “a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.”
Notes Alex Knight in his essay, “Who Were the Witches? — Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism”: “The witches were those women who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust social order — the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The witches represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities, a world in revolt.”
But it wasn’t just witches who were burned. In England burning was the most common punishment for women for many other crimes against the patriarchy: plotting to kill the king or any other superior (i.e. male) including her husband. Or for coining (counterfeiting money) which, when you are kept out of the economic system by dint of your gender, would be a reasonably common way to try to gain currency for yourself.
It matters. It does. Because those flames the burned our foremothers in their hundreds of thousands, burn us still today, albeit metaphorically, for exactly the same reason.
They were burned simply for speaking their own truth. Otherwise known as heresy, “any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs.” To be heretical was to be dead.
Look again at the word: Heresy… Her say…
A woman lived under threat of being burned alive for living, speaking or acting in any way which contradicted or questioned the cultural norms which surrounded her: medical, spiritual or hierarchial. She was burned for earning a living on her own terms. The very systems which told her at every turn that she was a sinner, was less than a man, limited her power, authority, sexuality and economic survival.
Men were burned at the stake it’s true, but with far less frequency. The official reason given for the dominance of burning women is that they did not want to expose a woman’s body — heaven forbid, we must ensure her modesty even in death — as happened when a person was hung, drawn and quartered. But even the (male) commentators of the time, could see the contradictions: “There is something so inhuman in burning a woman, for what only subjects a man to hanging” (The Times, 1788).
The woman on fire was not a private act. She was burned in public, as a warning to all women: disobey and this will be you.
Women have not been burned at the stake in England since 1790 and the last trial for witchcraft in the US was as recent as 1833. But sadly, it is not ancient history.
Witch hunts still occur today in societies where belief in magic is prevalent, including sub-Saharan Africa, rural north India and Papua New Guinea. According to the World Health Organization, around 500 women a year are killed as witches in Tanzania, and between 2010 and 2012 over 2,100 reported (in 2012) on six witch camps where women who have been accused of witchcraft can flee to safety. And in Saudi Arabia (a country with a 57% male population) witchcraft is still legally punished by death. In 2015, ISIS was reported as having burned two women as witches, and their husbands too, on accusations of “sorcery” and using “magic for medicine”.
In India the practice of “widow burning” or sutee was officially outlawed in 1829, but continued well into the twentieth century. Women who had been widowed would “voluntarily” be burned alive beside their husbands. Though many were bound and forced in order to “show their devotion”. This is even more hideous when it is understood that young girls would be married off to much older men. So a girl may be widowed at eleven, having been married for two years, and would then either face a life of shunning and starvation as a “widow” whose sins — in this life, or karma from a previous incarnation — were believed to have brought about the death of her husband. A man’s death was always considered the “fault” of his wife.
I want to stop. I want to stop these words and stories, but still they keep tumbling out. I want that writing it will stop this happening. I want to never read or write another list of facts like that again.
But we must learn to see and feel. To feel it fully in our bodies allows us access to the Feminine. We cannot flinch from this reality, from the fear and control and domination of the Feminine by the masculine as it is played out by fathers and husbands and priests and judges in village squares and kitchens and mosques and churches and courts of law around the world.
We must learn to dig down for the very real roots of our fears as they are played out in the world.
We are not crazy.
We are not paranoid.
We are not imagining things.
This is what we fear when we feel our power rising.
This is what we know.
This is real.
[I was gonna stop here… but you know what? Lemme keep going…hope ya don’t mind, Lucy]
The purpose of honor killings is to maintain men’s power by denying women basic rights to make autonomous decisions about marriage, divorce and sexuality. ~ Madre
The right to life for women is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions. ~ Hina Jilani
Hear me when I say, this is not just dry history. It is still happening. Women around the world are being burned, simply because they are women.
Acid throwing, breast ironing, bride burning, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, dowry death, female infanticide, genocidal rape, honor killing, sexual slavery… the list of abuses on Wikipedia is there for all to see. Crimes perpetrated on women’s bodies. Crimes which have no masculine equivalent.
I feel the bile rising, the acid in my throat.
The rise of acid attacks around the world is a newer form of burning. This is a relatively new way of destroying a woman’s highest currency within patriarchy: her beauty and sexual desirability, as revenge for perceived disloyalty. The belief being, if that man can’t have her, then no one will. He will brand her for her wrongdoing and mark her for life in the eyes of the world, melting her identity and female self, imposing his passion and rights on her body.
As Rebecca Solnit notes, “Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist.”
Especially when those people are physically smaller, economically and socially “weaker” than you… and you have the law on your side.
In India, Pakistan and the Middle East — home to over two billion people — women suspected of adultery, who seek divorce, are raped, or refuse to marry the partner chosen for them by their families can be burned alive by their families in “honor” killings. According to the UN over 5,000 women a year die this way. At the hands of their family members. In the name of honor.
Honor killings use violence and fear as tools of control. In many cultures where honor is a person’s greatest social asset, men are seen as great sources or agents of that honor, whereas the only effect that women can have on honor is to destroy it. Once the honor is destroyed by the woman, there is a need for immediate revenge to restore it, in order for the family to avoid losing face in the community. The murders are often performed in public to warn the other women within the community of possible consequences of engaging in “illicit behavior”.
The human rights body, Amnesty International, notes:
The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking the woman.
In India and Pakistan, there is also the culture of bride-burning, when a young woman is murdered by her husband or his family for her family’s refusal to pay an additional dowry. The woman is typically doused with kerosene and set alight. This practice is relatively recent and has been particularly virulent since the 1980s. Over 2500 women a year die this way.
Whilst the Western world no longer burns women physically, we still have a culture viciously intent on shaming and destroying the livelihoods, reputations, bodies and mental health of women who challenge the status quo. And we still use the term “witch hunt” to describe this act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence. Still we “burn” those who step too far out of line: see the shocking treatment of home birth midwives, feminists and female activists who are treated disproportionately in comparison to male counterparts.
And women still die violently today — three women daily in the US — at the hands of partners, or ex-partners. Three. A day.
In all these cases, honor is defined by the patriarchy. And judged by the patriarchy. And women pay the ultimate price.
Why? I’ll tell you why.
Woman As Sinner
The word “sin” is derived from the Indo-European root “es” meaning “to be”. When I discovered this etymology, I intuitively understood that for a [person] trapped in patriarchy, which is the religion of the entire planet, “to be” in the fullest sense is “to sin”. ~ Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology
They said I destroyed the world with my sin — it was my fault. My wickedness was to blame — and Jesus, a man, had to suffer a terrible death to make it right. I, a woman, and all the other women like me, carried the burden for everything that was not right with the world. And I believed them. I did not disagree. At the trials, when they accused me, said what I did was evil — I could not remember, was I? I became confused. They said I was unclean, that their god regarded us as filth, that our kind had brought pain to the world. I was guilty. After awhile, I couldn’t remember — perhaps I was. I now remember, my confusion clears, the veils are lifting. I remember my innocence. I lift the burden from my shoulders, and from other women’s shoulders. I again walk proud and free. ~ Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology
Because we’re women. And women are bad. That’s what most major cultures and religions have taught.
Women as harlots and sinners, as temptresses and wicked mothers litter the pages of the sacred texts and children’s fairy tales alike. Women deserve to suffer and die.
As we have seen in this chapter, to be a woman is to be a constant actor in a moral universe created and judged by men. Your best way of surviving is to be good.
To be a Good Woman is to constantly work to atone for your inherent unworthiness. To sacrifice yourself, your time, your vision, your dreams in the service of others. To be a Good Woman is to uncomplainingly do the work of others and never say “no”. To be a Good Woman is to tame yourself, to shave your body hair, curl your eyelashes, paint your face and hide your soul in a quiet corner. The Good Woman, the ideal woman is domesticated, beautiful to look at, doesn’t take up too much space, is quiet, obedient, hard-working, God-fearing and dispensable. A Good Woman is submissive and compliant — always sexually available, but only to her assigned partner.
In a universe where the rules are always set externally and can change at a whim, a woman must always be on her guard. She is expendable, so she has to work extra hard to keep favor. A woman is never enough as she is. She has no intrinsic value but exists only in relationship to her usefulness to others, mainly to create and sustain life.
The best sort of woman, patriarchy tells us, is the silent, invisible woman. The woman shrouded in a veil, the woman hidden away at home, the uncomplaining mother pulling the double shift, the smiling assistant. Society has been intent on erasing women from the arts and sciences, from healing and spiritual practice, from positions of public power, political influence or independent wealth. Her entire identity was, over the course of several hundred years [thousands actually], legally erased until she became merely her father’s chattel to be handed on to her husband. A married woman at the turn of the twentieth century had no identity in law: her possessions, her children, her name were her husband’s. She was not a being in her own right. This is what our grandmothers experienced. This is what we are recovering from: a total annihilation of being.
Many conservative patriarchal traditions from Christian to Muslim in the twenty-first century still worship at the altar of the invisible woman. And those of us that are not controlled by such strictures have still learned to erase ourselves through dieting, and not speaking up for ourselves, using quiet voices, and apologizing for ourselves. In this wise words of Rebecca Solnit:
Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who reappears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story […] The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.
But it is not just our bodies we are taught to hide, we are also warned of the darkness inside, which, we are told, women have more of: moodiness, anger, depression, resentment, lust, jealousy. Deny them, we are taught early on, resist them, leave them in the dark, inside of you. These are sins, the devil’s work, signs of mental illness. Never let them see the light of day, we are warned — do not speak of them and certainly don’t express them. Lock them up in your own personal Pandora’s box within, throw away the key. Never even admit to its existence. Death to the Dark Feminine. Erase your basic instincts.
The rules are clear: if you will not be a Good Woman, if you will not be silent or sacrifice yourself, quietly happy, if you will not domesticate yourself fully, comply unquestioningly, or work double time, you will be sacrificed on the altar of patriarchy. You will be burned.
And you will deserve it.
Women On Their Backs
Passionate, free-thinking women have never been appreciated by the religions of the world. Because passionate free-thinking women raise passionate, free-thinking children who grow up to be passionate, free-thinking adults, who are very difficult to manipulate, and almost impossible to control. ~ Marianne Williamson, address to the 2015 World Parliament of Religions
Almost every major culture in the past 2,000 years or more has sought to control women’s power, by controlling their bodies and energy — sexual, creative and spiritual. They have limited and controlled women’s sexual expression, where and how they give birth, how they display their bodies in public and private. Women have become a finely choreographed performance, directed by male stage directions, for the purpose of the male gaze.
For centuries women have been kept on their backs by the System: the most vulnerable, least empowering place to be. We have been forced into birthing on our backs in hospital beds and making love in the missionary position. One in five will be raped or sexually abused in our lifetimes.
The result of this? The World Health Organization is clear:
Depression, anxiety, psychological distress, sexual violence, domestic violence and escalating rates of substance use affect women to a greater extent than men across different countries and different settings. Pressures created by their multiple roles, gender discrimination, and associated factors of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, overwork, domestic violence and sexual abuse, combine to account for women’s poor mental health. There is a positive relationship between the frequency and severity of such social factors and the frequency and severity of mental health problems in women. Severe life events that cause a sense of loss, inferiority, humiliation or entrapment.
In healthcare, love making and childbirth — three of the most potentially transformative and empowering processes of a woman’s life, the “woman on her back” model has brought pain, trauma, fear and systematically removed a woman’s sense of control over her own body. It has actively blocked or removed pleasurable hormonal feedback loops, which are her biological markers for optimal health and power. Pain overtook pleasure as a woman’s default body state. Trauma has become standard.
None of these “woman on her back”practices are natural to us: they are literally man-made. The missionary position was introduced as a “more civilized” and “godly” form of procreation to tribal peoples around the globe as part of Christian missionaries’ duty to rid “baser” peoples of their more “animalistic” practices. Missionary position sex was advocated by Victorian mothers to their daughters with the recommendation that they lie back and think of England.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of pleasure or passion. Sexual numbing had begun, one of which was continued through the practice of mainstream pornography, as women learned to perform sex in the male gaze, rather than to feel it.
The lithotomy position or birthing on the back is not practiced by indigenous peoples who prefer upright birthing positions on all fours or squatting, which engage the mother’s muscles and use gravity to aid delivery. Nor is it recommended today by the World Health Organization, who note that it only improves working practice for physician, rather than the birthing experience of the mother. Or the birth outcome. The position was introduced by Louis XIV so that he could observe his mistress in labor as an erotic thing (note, the male gaze), and caught on as a fashionable way to give birth. As male doctors (who did not know what labor felt or looked like — and more male gaze) took over from female midwives, they increased their involvement in the birthing process. Birthing women moved from actively birthing their babies, to being patients. This became the norm, under the guise of progress, spurred on by shaming and scare-mongering those who would not comply. There became a growing focus on numbing the woman through anesthesia. Greater interventions were carried out — or required — which left the women further traumatized — physically and emotionally — and further disempowered.
And so, whether in sex or birth or medicine, the numb, patient, supine woman with her legs splayed under masculine gaze became the norm. She was not the active subject of her own life but a (traumatized, dominated) object acted upon by the masculine.
Think for a moment of a beetle — turn it over onto its back and it is helpless. The same goes for most animals — chickens, pigeons, guinea pigs — turn them onto their backs and they are defenseless, their soft bellies and vital organs exposed.
Peter Levine writes compellingly in his ground-breaking book on healing trauma, In An Unspoken Voice, about experiments where animals were turned onto their backs, and not held down. If they were caught calmly and were not fearful, they would pause for a second or two and then flip themselves back over and run off. If they were stressed or fearful when they were caught, they would either attack, or would remain prostrated on their backs for several minutes, or even a couple of hours, despite not being restrained in any way, before getting back up. This is known as tonic immobility. It is a natural instinctive behavior, which kicks in in some positive circumstances — such as a kitten being carried by the scruff of its neck by its mother, or in humans after orgasm. But it is also activated in times of trauma, a sort of systemic playing dead, which we see in rape victims or prey being caught by a predator.
This pattern of putting women on their backs, the embodied trauma which we now know is passed on — both genetically and through upbringing — all have compounded the submission and systemic disempowerment of women. Women have been turned into living dolls: submissive, infantilized, hard-working, uncomplaining, baby-making and minding playthings for men.
If you scare a woman about some of the peak power experiences of her life, the places where she touches her power — menstruation, sex and birth, healing from illness — and if you do this consistently, before, during and after, you can bypass her innate power. Add in the dynamic of practitioners — doctors or husbands — who are in a higher social position, possessed of greater physical strength, and holders of unimpeachable cultural power. For good measure, teach a woman to be ashamed of the powerful parts of her body — her vulva, vagina, womb, breasts and brain — to the extent that she cognitively disengages from them and cannot speak about them, then you hold her power. She will not, cannot, oppose you. She is energetically castrated. She will not burn you down.
This is how trauma has been used as an act of war against the Feminine through the bodies of women.
And it works.
In her constant numbing and shutting down to her body, a woman has to experience greater levels of pain before she will respond. So, for example, during birth, if you also remove from her the coping mechanisms of pain — movement and sound, safety and a known, trusted attendant — then her senses are wide open and her neural pathways are burned with powerful memories. Her body stores the trauma in her cells and activates genes responsible for anxiety in her baby, as has been shown by recent studies in epigenetics. Furthermore, trauma in birth commonly triggers attachment issues between mother and baby, and post-natal anxiety and depression in the mother. Trauma upon trauma, generation upon generation all the way down the Motherline.
But then, when the ordeal is over, you force more cognitive dissonance by insisting that her experience is of no importance, everything is okay. Her feelings and experience are both negated and denied, and her physical pain dismissed. She is encouraged to be strong and hold her counsel by all the fellow traumatized women who have been through the process before her — her membership of the sisterhood requires her silence. Her initiation is complete.
This is the submission of women. This is its complexity. The many-edged sword of tribal shaming, biological trauma and systemic disempowerment, reinforced by morals, a hierarchial system and cognitive dissonance, inherited genetically and through upbringing for multiple generations, with plenty of systemic abuse and supernatural threats thrown in for good measure, plus economic and social sanctions and the ever-present threat of death or incarceration for those who do not comply.
No wonder women are scared. No wonder women’s empowerment is such a big deal. No wonder it is so complex.
But we have not finished. It goes deeper still.
I suppose I will end here for now… ‘Burning Woman’ by Lucy Pearce, I HIGHLY recommend for all women, young & elderly.
Fuck your bullshit.