Once upon a time, nature, science, and religion were not seen as dueling belief systems, but complementary aspects of a whole. Priests were more like shamans, sought not just for their Godly guidance, but healing abilities. Women were not relegated to domestic duties, but worked alongside priests as healers, midwives, and herbalists. Pagan and Catholic beliefs often intersected, as the seasons, stars, and planets guided much of their lives.
But as the Catholic Church grew in prominence, this harmony posed a threat. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory IX launched his famous Inquisition, which at first targeted Jews, Moors, and Protestants, but was later directed with passion at witches. Those who did the Papal’s bidding were called Inquisitors, an ironic title as they never sought truth or asked questions to help them better understand who they were persecuting. History books claim that the Inquisition ended in the 1800s with the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment, but modern spellbinders know that witch-hunts persist in different, more pervasive forms. We see it in America, with leaders who are obsessed with legislating our wombs and who think their power allows them to violate and dismiss us.
Witches targeted by the Catholic church — and later the Protestant church — were most often women, as they were seen as more susceptible to the devil’s luring. Pope Gregory IX rallied his cause by warning that just as Eve had caused the fall of the Garden of Eden with her sinful curiosity, so too could witches be the impetus for the fall of Rome.
This idea was perpetuated by the now infamous text Malleus Maleficarum, an historic witch hunter’s handbook published in 1486 by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. The Latin genitive Maleficarum literally translates to ‘of female evil-doers.’ The book had a profound impact on witch trials in Europe for about 200 years and was second only to the Bible in sales until 1678. Now, it is considered the most important treatise on persecuting witches during that time. One of the most famous passages reads:
“As for the first question, why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men… the first reason is, that they are more credulous, and since the chief aim of the devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them.. the second reason is, that women are naturally more impressionable… But the natural reason is that is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations… All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”
It didn’t take much for a woman to be accused of witchcraft. Even having sex with your husband for purposes outside of procreation could be viewed as suspicious. If you were a woman of a certain age, you could be tried for using devilish tricks to stay alive. At one point, the witch hunt gained so much fervor that even worship of the Virgin Mary could be misconstrued as over-identification with the feminine principle. In the Canary Islands, Aldonca de Vargas was reported to the Inquisition for smiling at the mention of Mary.
Although many of the charges brought during the Inquisition had no merit and only sought to strip women of their power, certain magic workers were outed and their practices revealed. It’s difficult to tell fiction from fact, as those who recorded such incidents were often aligned with the Inquisition and had every reason to fabricate lies. According to “demonologist” Johann Weyer in his 1563 Praestigiis Daemonum, hallucinogenic plants such as henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake were often used in witches’ potions. Drinking from such plants could prove deadly, so they had to find other ways to ingest their magic. These witches’ brews were best consumed through the mucous membranes of the armpit, anus, or vagina.
In 1324, Ireland’s earliest known accused witch, Alice Kyteler, was condemned to death for using sorcery to kill her husband. English historian Raphael Holinshed later recounted the case, reporting that, “In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.”
It was during the inquisition that the myth of witches riding on broomsticks took root. The broom was a symbol of domesticity, therefore riding upon one became a symbol of protesting patriarchal norms. There was also a common pagan fertility ritual where witches would dance through fields waving phallic objects such as brooms and pitchforks to encourage plants to grow to that height.
Our ceremonies today aren’t so different. We still gather with goddess sisters underneath the full moon’s rays and whisper intentions into the night. We collect gems and flowers not just for their beauty, but because we know they hold healing beyond their surface. We know, just like our ancestors did, that there is a potency to our pleasure and that we can summon strength by learning our body’s language, the contours of its desires and needs.
It was fear that led to the massacre of witches during the Inquisition. Fear of women who could not be controlled, and who did not rely on men for protection, basic needs, or sexual fulfillment. It’s a fear that persists today, although modern witch hunts look more like poor health care, lower wages, and for women of color, police brutality.
Our oppressors will not succeed though. Even during the height of hysteria, when women faced all-male juries who rarely swayed in their favor, they spoke their truths eloquently and unwavering. Though many of them didn’t survive, they were able to pass down a blueprint, spells for us to refine and perfect. Perhaps that is how we too will rise: by standing proudly, demanding accountability, and ferociously supporting one another.