witch riding a broom silouette in front of full moon
Beyond Halloween – why are women still being burned as witches?

Beyond Halloween – why are women still being burned as witches?

I love Halloween. I love the costumes, the haunted houses, the heart-pounding scares, the mystery. I love the little kids coming to the house for candy and the weekend parties that are the best of the year.

Everyone loves Halloween. More money is spent on Halloween than any other holiday except Christmas. Costumes, candy, huge displays of cobwebs and fake tombstones and the ubiquitous pumpkins total hundreds of millions in revenue.

Halloween feels like a holiday we all share, but it has been called the national gay holiday for as long as I can remember. It’s easy to understand why.

On Halloween, we can dress as we like and take on the persona we choose and no one can argue that it’s inappropriate or wrong. Halloween has always allowed women and girls to embrace their Otherness in all its many facets.

Halloween is gender non-conforming but it is also a door that opens for women to be themselves more than any other day of the year.

I also love the Day of the Dead, November 2, another day for costuming and treats and revelry with an eye to the supernatural.

Yet like anything that allows women freedom from the restrictions of our patriarchal culture, be it Halloween or the Day of the Dead, these holidays are fraught with complications for women. Halloween, witches, witchcraft, lesbian—it’s all inextricably linked.

Look beyond Halloween and you find the demonizing, torture and killing of women—particularly lesbians or women thought to be lesbians. Witchcraft and lesbianism are often linked and have been since the days of burning witches at the stake.

Both accusations harken back to centuries of women being accused of “unnatural” behaviour and act, which sometimes was (and is) as simple as not being married to a man or having too many cats.

In a 1992 fundraising letter written to oppose a proposed equal rights amendment to the Iowa state constitution, Rev. Pat Robertson put it succinctly. The evangelist, former presidential candidate and spiritual advisor to President Trump wrote, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women.

It is about a socialist and anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

It would have been amusing if women hadn’t been being killed for witchcraft for centuries and lesbians hadn’t been a focal point for male violence for just as long.

The history of Halloween–All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints Day, when the souls are said to freely walk the earth–is also a history of entrapment for women. The most iconic of costumes, the witch, is symbolic of our past–particularly our lesbian past.

Women were the ones associated with witchcraft, which was deemed heretical in the 15th century. Over several hundreds of years, women were burned at the stake, pressed to death, drowned, hanged.

The test for being a witch during the European witch craze was to force an accused witch underwater. If she floated to the surface, she was a witch, if she didn’t, she wasn’t. Yet either way, the woman died.

This demonizing of women–particularly single women who stand outside social norms or mores–is as ancient as witchcraft itself. In 1486 Heinrich Kramer, a German priest who tested women for witchcraft, wrote the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches. Two years earlier Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull citing witches and witchcraft as a sin against God and the Church.

The Malleus Maleficarum would be used as the primer to torture and kill tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of women throughout Europe during the height of the witch craze between the 16th and 17th centuries.

Feminist theorist Andrea Dworkin wrote about “Gynocide: The Witches” in her groundbreaking book Woman Hating in 1974. I discovered Dworkin’s book when I was in college after I heard her speak at a feminist conference.

The images haunted me. I wanted to share the story of the witches—the women, the lesbians—who had been murdered solely for who they were with as many people as possible.

While in college I hosted the nation’s first lesbian radio program, Amazon Country on WXPN-FM in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. Each year I was host, I would memorialize the witches on the Halloween show, reading from Dworkin’s documenting of how women’s—and especially lesbians’—lives were snuffed out in a holocaust of witch-burning.

Dworkin estimated the number of witches killed during what is referred to as “the burning times” at nine million over 300 years. That number has been scaled down in the 40 years since she wrote that treatise to at most, several hundred thousand.

But regardless of the sheer volume of killings of women for witchcraft, the reality that women were the targets of annihilation for their difference—or for their lesbianism—was a historical fact.

Dworkin and other feminist theorists and historians have always maintained that woman-hating/misogyny was at the core of branding women as witches. Being labelled a witch meant a woman could be tortured and killed, usually because she didn’t ascribe to her mandated role or because she disobeyed the patriarchal systems of the time, notably the Church and the Crown.

While some men were also tortured and killed, male and female historians agree that women outnumbered the victims of the European witch craze 100 to 1. Men were killed predominantly for consorting with witches rather than for being witches themselves.

The killing of witches was not, regrettably, relegated solely to the Dark Ages or even the centuries where it reached its apex from the 15th through the 18th centuries.

Witch hunts and killings continued well into the more enlightened eras, making their way to the American colonies. Witch hunts and killings are still being perpetrated today in Africa, Asia and South America.

Throughout the 1980s numerous women in the U.S., some of them lesbians, were accused of satanic ritual child abuse at daycare centres. One of the most notorious of these cases was that of Kelly Michaels, who was indicted on 299 counts related to witchcraft in 1988 in quiet Maplewood, NJ.

Michaels was sentenced to 47 years in prison and served five of those years before a successful appeal in 1993 freed her.

The case of the San Antonio Four is similar. Four Latina lesbians—Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez—were accused in 1994 of sexually assaulting Ramirez’s young nieces in a Satanic witchcraft ritual.

All four were convicted in 1998. They spent 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit before finally being released in 2013 and exonerated in December 2016.

San Antonio Four

A documentary film about the women’s ordeal premiered in April 2016. The connection to witchcraft is in the very title: Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.

In England in 2015, a Catholic monk, Fr. Damon Kelly, was charged with harassment for stalking a lesbian couple and accusing them of witchcraft. “You know we used to burn people like you,” he had told the women.

These assertions that women–especially lesbians–are witches and are still engaging in the rituals claimed by the Malleus Maleficarum as fact has never ceased, despite centuries of enlightenment between the advent of the Malleus and now.

Dworkin wrote, “Witchcraft was a woman’s crime.”
Apparently, it still is.

Two weeks before Halloween 2014, Debjani Bora, a national gold medalist in the javelin and an Olympic athlete was accused of witchcraft in India.

According to police reports, Bora was attacked by a mob that dragged her forcibly to a community prayer hall where a “public trial on charges of being a witch” ensued. Bora was accused of being responsible for the deaths of four people in her village, including that of a man who committed suicide.

Bora’s account of her ordeal is harrowing. She was lucky to escape with her life. At a press conference, Bora told reporters, “Instead of finding out why all the deaths occurred, some village elders suspected a witch was driving the people to death and organized a prayer.

As the villagers were chanting hymns, one elderly woman identified me as the witch and shouted that I should be punished,” she said.

“I was blamed for all these deaths in the village, wrapped up in fishing nets and beaten up severely.”

Bora was beaten unconscious and had to be hospitalized.

According to BBC, Bora is far from alone in being accused of witchcraft. Witch hunts targeting women are common in parts of India and a number of those accused are killed every year.

Indian police report that in the last five years nearly 100 women have been beheaded, burned alive or stabbed to death after being accused of witchcraft.

But the Washington Post reported far different numbers. As the numbers of the original witch craze, these numbers are vastly different and depict an even more disturbing story of large numbers of women being accused as witches, tortured and killed in the world’s most populous democracy.

According to the investigation the Washington Post reported on in 2014, nearly 2,500 women have been accused of witchcraft and killed in India between 2000 and 2014. “It is only the most gruesome cases that are reported—most cases of witch-hunting go unreported and unrecorded,” the New Delhi Partners for Law told Washington Post.

The newspaper is succinct: “While the easiest explanation is that angered mobs confuse a sudden illness or crop failure with witchcraft and exact their revenge, it’s rarely that simple. Much more often, it isn’t superstition but gender and class discrimination.

Those accused of sorcery often come from similar backgrounds: female, poor and of a low caste.” They are also, inevitably, women who have no man to protect them from mob violence: they are single women or lesbians.

Such violence does not occur in the U.S., but America was the site of its own little-noted witch craze for 20 years in New Haven, Connecticut where 20 women and two men were executed for witchcraft. The infamous witch craze in Salem, Massachusetts is better known. In 1692, more than 200 people, nearly all women, were accused of witchcraft.

Bridget Bishop was the first of 19 witches hanged on Gallows’ Hill. Her former husband declared Bridget Bishop “was a bad wife. . . the devil had come bodily to her . . . and she sat up all night with the devil.”

Another 22 women died in prison after having been convicted of witchcraft, and two infants born to the “witches” in prison also died. More than a dozen other women were tried but not convicted and several were named but not arrested while still others were named but not indicted.

One woman was released from prison after the witch trials ended.

The death warrant for those convicted witches read “for the horrible crime of witchcraft perpetrated upon several persons.” The women pleaded “not guilty,” but that did not save them.

The dead “witches” are memorialized in Salem with both the Salem Witch Museum and a memorial called “The Stones,” which is quite moving. The Memorial consists of 20 rough-hewn granite benches cantilevered from a low stone wall surrounding an area adjoining the Old Burying Point.

The benches are inscribed with the names of the accused and the means and date of their execution.

The Witch Trials Memorial was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in August 1992, as part of the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary. Quotes from the accused include Sarah Good, who said simply, “I have no hand in witchcraft,” and Bridget Bishop, who said,

“I am no witch. I am innocent. I know nothing of it.”

(Good gave birth to an infant daughter in prison, who died sometime prior to Good’s execution.)

For more than 40 years Salem had its own “official witch of Salem,” Laurie Cabot, a strong friend to the LGBT community there. Cabot, who practised the Craft and raised her daughters as witches, even served as a consultant on the iconic TV show Bewitched.

In 2012, at the age of 80, Cabot closed up her witch shop and retired. Her memory and followers live on and witchcraft remains a thread that runs through Salem, past and present.

The Salem Witch trials are often cited as an example of religious hysteria in the colonies. Yet more than 300 years later, women—often lesbians—are still being sentenced to death for witchcraft and sorcery, some being burned at the stake, others being hanged, some beheaded.

In August 2013 The Atlantic published an in-depth piece on Saudi Arabia, in which it revealed that women were being targeted by the country’s religious police force, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV).

Ryan Jacobs’ shocking report begins provocatively, with a naked “sorceress” attempting to escape through a window. She was reported to have flown like a bird and Islamic clerics who tried and sentenced her said this was a known trait of witches, Al Aribya reported.

The Atlantic detailed how in 2009 Saudi Arabia established a special Anti-Witchcraft Unit. It’s no surprise that the majority of victims of this new unit are women, many of them domestic workers from other countries who are not Muslim.

Saudi Arabia is a theocracy and only Islam is allowed. Women bringing their own religious beliefs with them from other countries are often viewed as witches. In May 2013, two maids were accused of casting spells on their employer and were sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison.

Their crime: witchcraft.

They were far from alone. According to Arab News, “at least 586 cases of magical crime, the majority of which were foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia” were prosecuted in Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2011.

The London newspaper The Telegraph reported on Oct. 10, that seven women, mostly elderly, had been burned at the stake for witchcraft in Tanzania. A local healer was among 23 people arrested for the killings. Relatives of the victims said they had been hacked at with machetes prior to be burned alive.

Witchcraft is also a crime in Gambia, Cameroon, Congo, Papua New Guinea, and Iran. In Dworkin’s “Gynocide: The Witches,” she writes about witches being accused of making men’s penises disappear. In 2008 in Congo, police arrested 13 women as sorcerers, accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men’s penises in the capital city of Kinshasa.

Other surprises exist. Canada’s criminal code—section 365—makes witchcraft and sorcery a crime. As recently as 2010, two women were charged and sentenced for practising witchcraft in Canada.

Witchcraft is also a crime in some states in Australia. Witchcraft and the practice of Wicca have only been legal in the U.S. since 1985 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dettmer v. Landon. Fear of women who practice witchcraft or worship the Wiccan religion may persist, but in the U.S. at least, women reclaiming their witchy roots is a growing trend among female witches.

Lesbian witches have even returned to popular culture, recently on TV series like Once Upon a Time, Lost Girl, Sense 8, Witches of East End, American Horror Story: Coven and in the classic Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Still from American Horror Story: Coven
Still from American Horror Story: Coven

American Horror Story: Coven

Rev. Selena Fox, a practising witch in Wisconsin, was quoted in the Huffington Post saying Halloween is a time to spread the word about who witches really are and to dispel the stereotypes that surround witches, witchcraft, and Wicca.

Fox told HuffPo, “although costumes can perpetuate stereotypes about witches, they might also offer an opportunity for discussion. Stereotyping can be hurtful to people who are involved in pagan religion.” She added,

“Some of the stereotyping in the past was used to torture and execute people. It was horrific propaganda.” But Fox also said, “Depictions of the ‘evil witch,’ with her hat and broom, can offer an opportunity to talk about the true nature of Wiccan spirituality,” noting “It can be a teaching moment.”

Lesbian witch Starhawk, who won a Lambda Literary Award for one of her many books on spirituality and Wicca, writes in Spiral Dance, “The word ‘Witch’ carries so many negative connotations that many people wonder why we use the word at all.

Yet to reclaim the word ‘Witch’ is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful, to know the feminine within as divine….In the Craft, the cosmos is no longer modelled on external male control.”

The very things that make Halloween so attractive to women and LGBTQ people–stepping outside restrictive heteronormative society for a day are the same things that maintain men’s fear of women’s autonomy worldwide. While women aren’t being targeted as witches in America as they are in India, Saudi Arabia and other counties, women—especially lesbians—are being targeted.

Pat Robertson declared feminists and lesbians anathema in 1992 with his now-iconic letter but he’s maintained his stance that women are second-class and lesbians are evil throughout the ensuing 25 years.

As recently as Oct. 30, 2017, Robertson was directing President Trump to fire Robert Mueller and end the Russia investigation into how the election was stolen from…a woman.

Halloween is symbolic in so many ways for women. It is also a time to remember that women are still targeted as witches. Dworkin was right–gynocide is real. This Halloween takes time to light a candle for all the women who have died as witches.

Memorialize all the women put to death as witches because they stepped outside the lines, whether they were witches or not, our lesbian sisters among them.