Appropriation of the Witch

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

The dictionary defines a witch as a woman believed to have magic powers, especially evil ones.  She is generally portrayed as a hag with a crooked nose, a pointy black hat, and a broomstick.  “It is not unusual,” declared one cleric of the 16th Century, “that the scum of humanity should be drawn chiefly from the feminine sex.”  Indeed, suspicion has surrounded the female of the species ever since Eve got Adam in trouble over the apple.  There’s just something innately witchy that lurks in the feminine temperament, something that keeps men on the qui vive.

The Good Book makes no bones about it.  “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18).  Given that exhortation, it’s not surprising that during the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries, Christians regarded witchcraft as a crime punishable by death – primarily by burning or hanging.  The populace stayed on high alert and between 1450 and 1750 in Europe, an estimated 90,000 witches were detected and executed, eighty percent of them women.

In addition to being female, there were other telltale signs of witchery.  Moles, warts, birthmarks, and extra nipples provided clear visual evidence.  Alternatively, you could weigh her against a stack of Bibles.  If she was lighter, guilty – likewise if she was heavier.  Once the judges decided to plop her on the scale, she didn’t stand much of a chance.  One town in the Netherlands sold vouchers to women certifying they were heavier than air and unable to fly. Those who couldn’t fly were less likely to be offered a seat on the ducking stool.  Owning a cat was an incriminating sign, as was left-handedness.  And anyone overheard talking to herself was presumed to be conversing with the Devil.  Matthew Hopkins, the most successful witch finder of the 17th Century, tested suspects by throwing them in the river.  If they floated, he had his proof and hanged them on the spot.

Astonishingly, laws against witchcraft remained on the books until the mid-20th Century.  One of the last women to be tried for the crime of witchcraft was Helen Duncan, a Scottish medium who did tricks with cheesecloth and palmed it off as an ectoplasmic emanation. During a séance in 1944, she blurted out a wartime state secret she couldn’t reasonably have known and the British government charged her under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.  After hearing the testimony of numerous witnesses, the jury returned a guilty verdict in just twenty-five minutes and the bailiff led Helen away moaning and crying.  She served nine months in Holloway Prison.  Upon her release, she promised she’d have nothing more to do with the spirit world, but you can’t expect a witch to tell the truth.  The police raided a séance in 1956 and arrested her again.  She died a few weeks later, whether because of police brutality or the consequences of an interrupted trance.

As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  In parts of India and Africa, witch-hunts still go on with thousands of accused witches brutalized and murdered every year.  A poll taken in 2005 found that more than twenty percent of Americans believe in witches, although here, the term “witch-hunt” no longer means the pursuit of someone believed to be in cahoots with the Devil.  It now refers to a campaign of harassment directed against an individual or group because of their politics or unorthodox opinions.  In 2018, more men claimed to be victims of witch-hunts than women. Are men trying to appropriate the role of the witch?

Male practitioners of the dark arts aren’t called witches.  They are wizards or warlocks.  Derived from the word “wise,” wizard carries more positive connotations than “witch”.  A wizard is a sort of genius, marvelous and exceptionally skilled.  Everyone loves wizards – Merlin, Gandalf, Harry Potter.  I don’t think the American public would put up with a “wizard-hunt.”

It’s all about the brand, as the marketing experts say.  President Trump might enhance his brand by dropping a term that harks back to an era when powerful men tortured and murdered powerless women because of a crazy superstition.  Conversely, the more macho sounding “wizard-hunt” might appeal to his tough-guy base.  And men who worry the #MeToo Movement has opened a Pandora’s box of persecution against the male sex might improve their image by avoiding the word “witch.”  They probably shouldn’t mention Pandora, either.  She was the femme fatale the Greeks blamed for loosing a swarm of miseries on mankind.

Cherchez la femme.  For centuries women have been the convenient cause of whatever trouble men have gotten themselves into.  While it’s wicked cool to be a Wiccan or a witch these days, it behooves the modern witch to remember who’s likeliest to feel the heat when things go wrong.

Frontispiece, The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins



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