(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.