Women and Power: The Journey from Healer to Witch

To re-write the historical discourse, we must shed the layers of suppressions and stories which have shrouded them in flames, and see them for the wise women they truly were.

In 1486, two Dominican monks — Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Springier — published a book called Malleus Maleficarum, more commonly known as “The Hammer of Witches”, or Hexenhammer. This was the official handbook amongst the Catholic church for the hunting of witches. Within this book, the word Femina is dervied from the Latin fe minus, meaning “lacking in faith”. Women who strayed too far from the faith, were considered to be followers of the Devil and called Witches. Upon reflection, it was women who showed resistance, wisdom, and unique gifts that were labelled and condemned as witches.

Although it is unclear where the origins of the word “witch” comes from, the term dates as far back as the Old Testament, as seen in Exodus 22:18, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” On 5th December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull which denounced the actions of those who “gave themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings” commit heresy. This gave inquisitors the ability to persecute witches “freely and fully”.

However, the term “witchcraft” also means “Craft of the Wise”, and denoted women who were connected to, and possessed a knowledge of the natural world. This persecution of witches was a persecution of woman’s knowledge, whether that be medicine, herbology, midwifery, agriculture or healing. Although it was both men and women who were prosecuted, it was predominantly women who were condemned. Approximately seventy-five percent of those prosectured were women, and namely the poor and elderly. Theologian William Perkins in his 1618 book ‘Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft’ stated, “the woman being the weaker sex, is sooner entangled by the devil’s illusions with the damnable art than the man.” As women were de-facto the weaker sex according to wide swathes of the population and the Church, to have powers and abilities (such as herbal or agricultural knowledge) could only have been through the intervention of sorcery, or in this case, the Devil.

In the Malleus Maleficarum, Part 1, Question 2, we see that to have an understanding of the natural world — especially women — was a sign of witchcraft: “and thus in the second age of the world there began Idolatry, which is the first of all superstitions, as Divination is the second, and the Observing of Times and Seasons the third”, “The practices of witches are included in the second kind of superstition, which is to say Divination, since the expressly invoke the devil. And there are three kinds of this superstition: – Necromancy, Astrology, or rather Astromancy, the superstitious observation of stars, and Oneiromancy.”

We can see here, that the knowledge of women or witches goes hand-in-hand with agricultural knowledge and herbalism. Having knowledge of the stars and the seasons is clearly reflected in what we call permaculture - the use of the moon, stars and seasons to determine the planting of crops. Also known as Lunar Phase Gardening, this way of working with the land adheres to the four phases of the lunar cycle. The moon has a cycles of 29.5 days, with the basic lunar phase gardening corresponding with the four phases of this cycle: the new moon, first quarter moon, full moon and last quarter moon. When the moon is waxing, this is the time to plant seeds that yields fruit above ground, whereas when the moon is waning, this is the time to plant root crops, with yields that happen below the soil.

These “powers” of weilding the natural world is an ancient tradition, passed down from woman to woman, family to family. Yet it was this very knowledge which was seen as a threat amongst Christian faith. Where once women’s knowledge was worshipped and honoured, we now experience a sharp turn towards a suppression of women’s traditions and ancestral wisdom. What becomes clear is a woman’s understanding of the natural world, and means of living in reciprocity with it, was a way of weilding of power that was deemed too dangerous.

With the rise of witches and witch-hunting being circulated amongst academic discourse, by 1597, King Jame VI of Scotland published a philosophical dissertation on necromancy and black magic. This was known as ‘Daemonologie’, which emphasised the practise of witch-hunting in Christian society. In his preface he states*: “*The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine […]to resolve the doubting […] both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.” The persecution of witch, and woman, is now firmly embedded into society, turning communities and families against one another.

Before the plague, the word ‘Hag’ was a term denoting wisdom. A woman who was able to reach old age were seen as wise medicine women and were essential to the well-being of their community. After the plague, this term took on a new meaning. These women who knew medicine and herbal lore, were now being prosecuted for causing sickness and ill-health. The word ‘witch’ was then passed onto women who dealt with healing, as a way to make sense of what at the time would have felt like the work of evil sorcery. Where once healing from the matriach was valued, it was now turned against them as a sign of molevolent intervention.

The plight of the witch is an example of women’s traditions of healing being co-opted into something not to be trusted, a power which should be suppressed. Their ability to work with nature, rather than against it, was a weilding of power that was once revered then used against them. What could not be understood, was manipulated and moulded into something not to be trusted, but feared. These women were simply healers — wise women who learnt from their surroundings, to learn from the cycles of life happening around them.

When we look back in history, what becomes apparent is women have always grappled with power. But not power as we may know it. Rather a thread that is woven throughout discourse is the notion of alternative power. Women who have gained ‘power’, yet have not conformed to societal expectations, have been known as ‘radical women’, and resisted suppression by those in percieved positions of power. Our understanding of these radical women needs to be understood separately from the light they have been painted in. In this case, the understanding and portrayal of witches, who were simply women with knowledge of the natural world. To re-write the historical discourse, we must shed the layers of suppressions and stories which have shrouded them in flames, and see them for the wise women they truly were.


Hannah Hooper

Hannah Hooper is a writer, activist, and creative based in the UK.

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