The Elusive Early Modern Witch:
Misappropriation and Distortion in the 20th Century
Dana Wessell, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto
In a 1992 fundraising letter written to oppose a proposed equal rights amendment to the constitution of the state of Iowa , Christian televangelist and founder of a right-wing fundamentalist lobby group, Pat Robertson decried "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". While Robertson's statement is problematic in a number of different ways, for historians of witchcraft it does raise some interesting and timeless issues. Here Robertson is equating the evils of feminism with the evils of witchcraft and all of the crimes that witches have historically been associated with; child murder, economic destruction and deviant sexuality. Robertson's fear that feminist-witches will destroy the very fabric of late 20th century American society sounds much like the concerns of early modern demonologists such as Jean Bodin who maintained in his 1580 work, On the Demon-Mania of Witches that failure to prosecute witches would lead to "the inevitable ruin of the state" as the country who tolerates them would be "struck by plagues, famines and wars…". While Robertson and Bodin are products of very different time periods, and therefore very different cultures, they both maintain a deep-seated fear of witches as motivated to disrupt society as they know it for their own evil purposes.
The witch as a malevolent figure bent on bringing about the downfall of humankind is a stereotype that has been present in Western society since the Middle Ages. More recently, the witch has been appropriated by groups who have used this figure in more positive ways. This has lead to a refashioning of the evil witch, most notably by second-wave feminists and modern pagans, to reflect concepts central to the ideologies of these two groups. Robertson's association of witchcraft with feminism was not far from the truth as radical feminists of the 1970s often worked alongside the growing female pagan spirituality movement. This lead to a cross-influence of many ideas, one of which was the development of a new way of thinking about the early modern witch and consequently, the dark history of the European witch trials. Feminists and pagans alike appropriated this history for their own and in doing so, effectively distorted the way in which the public would view it forever. On the one hand, second-wave American feminists and modern pagans appropriated the figure of the witch and the concept of witchcraft to fulfill their own agendas, creating aspects of these that were not present in the historical evidence. This appropriation created a distortion in the history of the early modern witchcraft trials and those that were accused of this crime. At the same time, however, these groups preserved the central figure of the early modern witch; that this figure was disruptive to traditional society and aimed to bring about its downfall. The difference lay in the fact that second-wave feminists and modern pagans often celebrated those qualities which had condemned the witch to execution in the early modern period.
Before we begin our examination of the ways in which the early modern witch hunts have been appropriated by modern feminists and pagans, we need first to take a look at the work of an anthropologist who was to have a huge influence on the way in which this history was viewed. This is Margaret Murray, a British Egyptologist whose book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, first published in 1921 was to set off a debate about the history of the witch trials which has only recently been settled by historians. Using some archival records, printed trial records, early modern pamphlets and demonological treatises, Murray argued that a uniform pagan network had survived the arrival of Christianity in Europe and claimed that the victims of the early modern witch hunts were in fact practioners of a surviving pagan religion. In the historical documents she consulted, Murray saw evidence of a fertility cult focused on a Horned God, organized into covens of 13 witches that held four yearly meetings in which they feasted, sacrificed animals and children, performed acts of magic, had ritualized sex and paid homage to a representation of the Horned God. In her analysis of the historical evidence, Murray simply believed everything that the documents told her and, in doing so, had a profound impact on the way in which this history would be viewed until the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1933, she wrote a follow-up book, The God of the Witches, which looked at the beliefs of the "Old Believers" in greater detail. By the 1940s, Murray 's books were bestsellers and her ideas had been accepted by established historians who incorporated them into their own work, including textbooks. (Hutton, 200) Not until the 1970s did historians begin to call what became known as "The Murray Thesis" into question.
Margaret Murray was a key reason why both second-wave feminists and modern pagans viewed the history of the witch hunts in the ways that they did. Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca used Murray as academic proof that his religion was a direct descendent of medieval witchcraft. In seeking to legitimize his newly formed group, Gardner found the perfect evidence in Murray 's work. She even wrote the foreword to his foundational book, Witchcraft Today published in 1951. Second-wave feminists also used the Murray thesis as proof that the witch trials were aimed at persecuting those practicing an old pagan religion but they added their own twist by emphasizing the gender of those accused and then placing full blame for the persecution on the male patriarchal authorities. Single-handedly, Margaret Murray created a distortion of the early modern witch trials that still has an effect on thought regarding this history up to today.
Although the concept of the witch trials as a concerted effort by male authorities to persecute powerful women reached its full expression in the early 1970s, it had actually been developed much earlier. In 1893, American suffragist Matilda Jocelyn Gage published a scathing critique of the treatment of women at the hands of church and state institutions. Titling her book, Woman, Church and the State: The Original Exposé of Male Collaboration Against the Female Sex, Gage made her viewpoint crystal clear to her readers. She included a chapter on the European and American witchcraft trials as just one of many examples of the "male collaboration against the female sex" throughout history. Gage claimed that the word "witch" had formerly been defined as a "woman of superior knowledge" (102) and argued that the church had persecuted witches because it feared the use of knowledge in women's hands. It therefore "leveled its deadliest blows at [them]". (105) Gage's greatest contribution to the feminist version of the early modern witch was to claim that 9 million women were burned for the crime of witchcraft, grossly exaggerating the actual number to prove her point. In the early 20th century, Gage's concept of the early modern witch as a women persecuted by the male authorities because of the challenge she presented was to be forgotten, much as Gage was herself. This changed with the advent of second-wave feminism in the 1960s when once again, the early modern witch figure was appropriated and redefined to fulfill a new feminist agenda.
"Double, bubble, war and rubble/ When you mess with women, you'll be in trouble/ We're convicted of murder if abortion is planned/ Convicted of conspiracy if we fight for our rights/ And burned at the stake when we stand up to fight." (www.jofreeman.com/photos/witch.html) So chanted the members of W.I.T.C.H (Women's International Conspiracy from Hell), placing a hex on the American government in Washington for its planned increase in taxation in 1968. WITCH was a loose organization of feminist activists, based out of New York that created covens across the United States aimed at hexing various groups and individuals whom they felt were targeting women because of their gender.
Formed in 1968, and disbanded within two years of its inception, WITCH played with the early modern witch stereotype, dressing up in black, painting their faces white and chanting "beware of the curse, the witch's curse". To these women, the witch was a powerful image, one that could be used to frighten the male establishment. They emphasized the threatening, malevolent nature of the witch, her ability to curse her enemies and wreak havoc upon a society where women had no voice. All of the aspects that early modern society had feared about witches, particularly the fear of women not under the authority of a man and therefore let loose upon the world, the members of W.I.T.C.H appropriated. They turned the formerly negative figure of the witch into the ultimate feminist; men cowered before her power frightened by her aggression, independence, courage and sexual liberation.
W.I.T.C.H saw a similarity between early modern European society, where, they claimed, men occupied all of the positions of power and 1960s America. Early Modern witches, all female in the eyes of these women, had waged a similar war to the one that feminists were now fighting against the American establishment. The witches had lost, burned for their audacity but they provided an example of unprecedented female power and were therefore celebrated for their courage. They urged women everywhere to reassume their natural witchlike tendencies in order to be truly free. (Hutton 341) The members of W.I.T.C.H. were not alone in their view of the early modern witch as a proto-feminist who challenged the authority of men. Other radical feminists were taking up this idea and shaping it to fit their own agendas to throw off the shackles of patriarchy. In particular, Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly popularized the idea of the proto-feminist witch, emphasizing both her challenge to patriarchal authorities and her representation as a practioner of an old pagan religion based on matriarchal principles.
These two aspects of the witch figure were used for three different purposes. Firstly, like the members of the W.I.T.C.H. covens, Dworkin and Daly saw early modern witches as examples of powerful women in the past. They stressed that witches could provide inspiration to feminists fighting for rights in 20th century America . Secondly, fueled by an outright acceptance of the " Murray thesis", the two authors argued that the history of the witch trials demonstrated that a matriarchy had existed which had then been overthrown by fearful patriarchal authorities. This provided them with the hope that this kind of society could then be re-established. Most of all, however, the execution of women for the crime of witchcraft in the early modern period was used by Dworkin and Daly as evidence of the extent to which men had persecuted women to maintain their control of political, economic, religious and social authority. In Dworkin's Woman-Hating and Daly's Gyn/Ecology , they set the history of the witchcraft trials alongside other atrocities committed against women such as Chinese Foot binding, Indian bride-burning, Arabic genital mutilation, American gynecology and Nazi medical experiments on Jewish women to show that patriarchy meant the relentless persecution of women by physical torture.
Both Dworkin and Daly described the witch hunts as "gynocide", the organized killing of a group simply because of their gynecology. Their aim was to portray the witch hunts as a female Holocaust in which, as Dworkin states, " the most responsible estimate" of victims claimed is nine million. (130) Here Matilda Jocelyn Gage's number is picked up again, this time with the suggestion that perhaps it is, in fact, too low of an estimate. By citing the 9 million figure, Dworkin and Daly attempted to make Americans see that the atrocities committed by the Nazis against Europe 's Jewish population were preceded by a gender war in which women were equal, if not greater, victims.
Although these two authors centered their discussion of the witch hunts around male anxiety over female power, Dworkin and Daly developed their arguments in different ways. In Woman-Hating, published in 1974, Andrea Dworkin argued that the witch hunts were a result of "an existential terror of women" based on "men's primal anxiety about male potency". Using the Malleus Maleficarum, a witch hunting manual published in 1487 by two Dominican priests, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dworkin focused her analysis of the witch hunts on male fears about rampant and uncontrolled female sexuality. She stated "The literal text of the Malleus Maleficarum , with its frenzied and psychotic woman-hating and the fact of the 9 million deaths, demonstrates the power of the myth of feminine evil, reveals how it dominated the dynamics of a culture, shows the absolute primal terror that women, as carnal beings, hold for men." (136) To Dworkin, the witch hunts were all about male fears of castration by witches who, according Kramer and Sprenger, could make a man's genitalia completely disappear.
In 1978's Gyn/Ecology, Mary Daly argued that the witch craze was perpetrated by men who "sought to purify their society, of… women whose physical, intellectual, economic, moral and spiritual independence and activity profoundly threatened the male monopoly in every sphere." (184) With Daly we see the strongest articulation of the witch as a proto-feminist locked in a battle with the male patriarchal world as represented by legal and religious institutions. She blames Kramer and Sprenger along with the Inquisition, the ruthless Catholic court they worked for, for legitimizing and then perpetrating the gynocidal attack of women. This attack, according to Daly, is based on the desire of men to purify humankind, i.e. the male body of Christ, from the deviant female. Women apparently did not fit into the concept of Christ as representative of the Male Mystical Self. In fact, as witches practicing a religion based on matriarchal principles, they challenged this representation. For man, i.e. Christ, to triumph, all challenges to his authority must be purged.
Dworkin and Daly's analyses of the witch hunts clearly reflect the forces that they felt were at work in 20th century America ; a society dominated and controlled by patriarchal institutions that aimed to control women and keep them in their place. As Daly describes it "we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic "civilization" in which men collectively victimize women, attacking us as personifications of their own paranoid fears, as The Enemy". (29) To Dworkin and Daly, their own 20th century society appeared remarkably similar to that of 15th to 18th century Europe , where women were executed for presenting a challenge to patriarchy.
These two authors subjective treatment generated a dramatic distortion of the history of the witch trials and the figure of the early modern witch. Greatly influenced by their radical feminist viewpoints, Dworkin and Daly made two serious mistakes in researching their subject. Firstly, they accepted unquestioned the Murray thesis, using it as hard evidence of an existing Old Religion based on matriarchal principles. This is somewhat understandable, however, as Murray 's work was only just starting to come under serious fire from historians in the early 1970s. Secondly, as archival research on the trials was only just beginning in this period, Dworkin and Daly relied solely on the Malleus Maleficarum for actual historical evidence of witchcraft beliefs and prosecutions. They used Kramer and Sprenger's arguments on why most witches were female, because they were naturally weaker and were therefore more prone to the temptations of the Devil, as real evidence of the witch hunts as a targeted attack on women by male authorities. In the celibate Dominicans' anxieties about female sexuality, so clearly illustrated in their treatment of a witch's ability to remove male genitalia, Dworkin and Daly saw proof of patriarchal fears of women's power. To them, the Malleus Maleficarum was concrete evidence that the witch hunts were "gynocide" yet they did not consider the fact that this document was in fact a treatise; that it conveyed elite views of witchcraft that were theoretical and not necessarily represented more widely in society.
Second-wave feminists, while greatly distorting the history of the witch trials, and the figure of the early modern witch, did contribute one extremely important aspect to this developing historical field. They recognized the fact that, in Western Europe at least, approximately 80% of those accused of the crime of witchcraft were female and they questioned why women were so much more likely to be accused of this crime than men. This is an issue that had been completely ignored by historians of witchcraft. The answers they came up with were more reflective of their own concerns in the fight for gender equality in American society, however, Dworkin and Daly forced historians who studied the history of the witch trials to consider this issue for the first time.
The proto-feminist early modern witch, as created in 1960s and 1970s American feminist thought went on to be both criticized and praised by various groups. On the one hand, Christian fundamentalists emphasized the destructive forces of both witchcraft and feminism that were tearing the moral fabric of American society apart. Another newly developing religious group, however, was to appropriate the emancipated, independent, powerful feminist witch in a much more positive manner. To them, the witch was a sister from the past who not only had the commonality of feminist beliefs but who also practiced the same matrifocal religion. This was the pagan women's spirituality movement, centered in California . Today I am going to look more closely at only one aspect of women's pagan spirituality, feminist Wicca, which I have chosen because they are the largest and the fastest growing group in paganism today.
"And the pope declared an inquisition/ It was war against the Women whose power they feared/ In this holocaust against the Nature people/ 9 million European Women died…/ While chanting the praises of the Mother Goddess…". This excerpt is from a song called "The Burning Times" written in the early 1980s by Charlie Murphy and Deena Metzger, two followers of feminist Wicca. It clearly illustrates two of the central Wiccan beliefs about the history of the witch trials; beliefs that were not all that different from those of second-wave feminists but that had a somewhat different focus to them. This first is that witchcraft as a religion, centered around the worship of the Goddess had existed previous to Christianity and that this religious tradition had continued unbroken up into the 20th century. Secondly, in terms of the history of the witch trials, Wiccans argued that these were the result of the Church's desire to purge this ancient religion, the "Old Religion" as they termed it, from early modern society in order to firmly establish their authority. To many Wiccans, the witch hunts were a clear example of Christian intolerance for other religions, especially one that was centered on female spirituality. They saw the witch as a doubly oppressed figure; not only for her gender, as second-wave feminists had stressed, but also because of her belief system.
Wicca, as a set of religious beliefs and practices, is incredibly diverse although all witches do have some important beliefs in common. They all worship a Mother Goddess, and some include her male consort, they all see the Earth itself as invested with spiritual significance, they all follow a ritual calendar that is based upon ancient pagan festivals and they all emphasize ritual as a form of worship. (Purkiss, 32) Beyond these beliefs, Wicca has a multitude of diverse traditions that are particularly divergent in the ways that they practice their religion, that is in their worship of the Goddess and the God. My concern today is with feminist Wicca that emphasizes the female divine, while downplaying or completely ignoring the male. But as it was first developed in Britain in the mid-20th century, Wicca stressed a balance between the Goddess and the God.
While many Wiccans argue that their religion has been around for a long long time, scholars of modern paganism had firmly refuted this argument. They state that while many of the ideas expressed in Wicca were developed in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, they did not really coalesce as a system of belief until the 1940s under the guidance of Gerald Gardner. In 1951, Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today, now considered the first book on Wicca as a religion. It was he who first expressed that witchcraft was indeed an unbroken religious tradition that had existed and flourished before the advent of Christianity. He stated "Witchcraft was, and on a very small scale still is, the remnant of the Old Pagan religion which survived the coming of Christianity…". Gardner held himself up as an example of that continuous tradition and claimed to have been initiated into it by a woman named "Old Dorothy" in 1939. Recent historical work on the development of Wicca, most notably The Triumph of the Moon, by Ronald Hutton, has refuted the existence of Old Dorothy and argues instead that Gardner adopted his religious beliefs from a number of different sources.
Gardner was also influential in developing the second of the Wiccan myths, as he stated "The Church found [the witches'] influence a dangerous rival to their own, and commenced a campaign of extermination against them". He expressed the period of the witch trials as "The Burning Times" and used Holocaust imagery to describe it; imagery that was readily available in post-World War II Europe. Given the environment in which Wicca was developing, its association with persecution and religious targeting was not surprising. Not only had the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis recently been exposed but also, until 1951, the practice of witchcraft was still considered a crime under English law. It was only with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in that year that Gardner was able to publicly discuss witchcraft as a system of beliefs and practices.
Although Wicca grew slowly in Britain over the next twenty years, it was really with its arrival in the United States , and its assimilation into the growing women's spirituality movement, that it really began to take off. The relationship between feminism and Wicca was to be a mutually beneficial one; in Wicca, feminists found a religion that was distinctly opposite to the patriarchal Judeo-Christian one they rejected. Wicca celebrated the female divine and placed it above or exclusive to, the male. For many Wiccans, feminism provided a political framework in which to set their belief systems. The modern feminist witch was powerful, independent and could tap into the power of the Mother Goddess to effect social change.
Founded in the early 1970s in California by Zsuzanna Budapest, with the creation of the Susan B. Anthony Coven No. 1, it was another woman, Starhawk, that was to fully develop the ideas of feminist Wicca. On Halloween 1979, Starhawk published The Spiral Dance which was to become the most well-known and widely read book on Wicca in the world. In the first chapter of this book. Starhawk was to cement the ideas first expressed by Gardner about Wicca's continuous heritage and Wiccans' intimate relationship with those that had been the victims of the early modern witch trials. As she describes "according to our legends, witchcraft began more than 35 000 years ago, when the temperature of Europe began to drop and the great sheets of ice crept slowly in their last advance". (17) Starhawk then eloquently takes her readers through the story of the development of Wicca from its inception 35000 years ago to its practice in the present day. She traces a total story, passing through the pages of history and describing to her readers how witches, and witchcraft, have always been present.
As described by Ronald Hutton, Starhawk has two qualities that were to ensure the popularity of her book, and the beliefs expressed therein. Firstly, Starhawk is an extremely talented writer whose "clear and melodious prose is enhanced by an underlying passion of feeling so that her sentences seem to heave with emotion". Secondly, Starhawk, strongly influenced by her own feminist beliefs, reworked Wicca to stress its ability to "liberate women, re-educate men and create new forms of human relationships free from the old gender stereotypes and power structures". (346) Under Starhawk's vision, the modern witch became fully empowered and able to realize her true individual human potential. She argued that all women were Goddesses, because they contained the Goddess within them. The key was learning how to awaken and release her. Wicca became a way to effect change in the world, to act politically within a religious, magical and female sphere.
Essential to this viewpoint, therefore, was the belief in the existence of the Old Religion, of the connection between the 20th century witch and her ancient sister; a sister who was a powerful example of the authority women wielded in a pre-Christian, and pre-patriarchal age. In Starhawk's history, witchcraft existed across Europe , in many different forms but with the arrival of Christianity "Persecution began…" and in 1484, the power of the Inquisition was unleashed against the Old Religion. (19) What followed was "an indescribable terror where, once denounced, the witch had no chance to defend herself and was tortured until she named her full coven of 13". (20) In The Spiral Dance and its author, Wiccans found an authority who, to them, conclusively proved their two central myths. Wicca was indeed an Old Religion and witches executed in the European witch trials had been persecuted because they presented a clear threat to the Christian authorities. To many Wiccans, these myths were truths and "The Burning Times" became an essential part of their identity.
Starhawk was not the only author using these myths to validate Wicca as a religion during this period. In The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries, published in 1982, Zsuzanna Budapest ardently proclaimed "This shows what Judeo-Christianity had done to my religion. It indicates the tremendous suffering and pain that is the heritage of women's religion. Every Woman who embarks on the Path must allow herself to feel the rage of the Millions of Women executed. This atrocity must not be allowed to occur again". "Never Again the Burning Times" became the mantra of many Wiccan groups who were determined to ensure that "our ancestors did not die in vain". Lists of those killed as witches throughout history were drawn up, and with the advent of the Internet, placed on websites where they could be added to by others. Now those executed for the crime of witchcraft in the early modern period became martyrs; the early modern witch one to be revered for her ultimate sacrifice.
As historians began to publish more widely on the history of the early modern witch trials in the 1980s, and to base their work in archival examinations of actual witchcraft trials, questions began to arise about the validity of these myths that had become so central to the Wiccan belief system. Historical evidence was clearly demonstrating that in fact those persecuted for the crime of witchcraft were not practioners of an ancient pagan religion. Rather, They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, exhibiting the wrong kind of personality traits. Some Wiccan authors, such as Margot Adler, whose anthropological analysis of paganism in 20th century America , Drawing Down the Moon , had been published on the same day as Starhawk's The Spiral Dance , had questioned the Wiccan myth of tradition from the very beginning. An extremely scholarly work, Adler examined the development of the Wiccan myths, looking in particular at the work of Murray and the critique of her thesis by historians such as Norman Cohn and Hugh Trevor-Roper. While she dismissed the validity of these ideas as historical truths, she recognized their importance as myth within Wiccan beliefs. Interviewing hundreds of Wiccans from a huge variety of traditions, Adler demonstrated that the historical validity of these ideas was actually completely unimportant; instead their association as a metaphor, as a spiritual truth was far more central.
More recently a division has developed within Wicca between those who accept "The Burning Times" as truth and those who recognize its role as myth. Based on my research I would say that the large majority of Wiccans now acknowledge that those burned for the crime of witchcraft in the early modern period were in fact not practicing an ancient pagan religion from which Wicca is developed and that the trials were not a result of the Church's desire to rid European society of this religion. In her 10 th anniversary edition of The Spiral Dance , Starhawk, while not denying entirely that early modern witches were practioners of a pagan religion, did call into question some of the facts surrounding the history of the trials, particularly the popular number of 9 million burned. More recent work by Starhawk has presented this history as more mythical than factual but some Wiccans still cling to "The Burning Times" as historical truth. In a Amazon.com review of Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon , which conclusively shatters the myth of "The Burning Times", one person completely dismissed Hutton's work stating that, as an academic and non-Wiccan Hutton was "not privy to the inner mysteries" and therefore did not know that whole truth. One website, created just last fall, called "Shades of Witches" described "the true history of the witches as a gruesome and bloody one" where "before the worship of male dominated religions and monotheistic religions, there was one called the ‘Old Religion' ". While most Wiccans accept this history as myth, some still steadfastly cling to it, spreading their distorted view of the early modern witch across the internet.
We have now come to the point in my paper at which I would like to examine the beliefs expressed by second-wave feminists and Wiccans in light of the historical evidence. While many historians, and one very disturbing website www.patriarchy.com, have gleefully taken apart the feminist and Wiccan ideas about the early modern witch in "debunking" exercise, I would like to avoid this negative method of critique. Yes, these myths have definitely contributed to a very distorted picture of the early modern witch and the history of the witch trials which has greatly impacted how mainstream society has viewed them. Historical investigation has demonstrated that those accused of the crime of witchcraft in the early modern period were definitely not practicing a pre-Christian pagan religion. It has also conclusively proven that the witch hunts were not a concerted attack by patriarchal institutions determined to rid early modern society of any women that could be a challenge to their authority. Evidence has indicated that in fact, most accusations of witchcraft were made by neighbours of the accused, and that at least fifty percent of the accusers were female. As well, the majority of those accused and executed for the crime of witchcraft were actually quite powerless and were economically, politically and socially marginalized in their communities. In light of these historical facts, the feminist and Wiccan myths break down quite easily but the erosion and refutation of these ideas is not the object of my paper.
What interests me about the initial strong articulation of these myths as historical truths by second-wave feminists and Wiccans is the sense of self-identity and empowerment that they took from them. The early modern witch figure provided feminists and Wiccans with validation of their own beliefs, regardless of historical realities. For feminists, the witch as an icon represented women's inherent power; a power that was threatening to men. Let me take an example from the Malleus Maleficarum to illustrate the clear examples of male anxiety around women's sexuality that feminists could draw from. In a long and increasingly panicked discussion of the magical powers of female witches, Kramer and Sprenger ask "And what then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many of twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird's nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?"(203) Clearly the fact that witches could steal a man's virility and lock it up, leaving it in a vulnerable state, caused a great deal of anxiety in the minds of these two fifteenth-century Dominican priests. To feminists, this panicked fear was an example of the control that women could wield. A positive control rather than the negative one so clearly illustrated by Kramer and Sprenger. While on the one hand, American feminists decried the witch hunts as a misogynistic attack on women's sexuality, and equated them with the misogynism present in 20th century American society, at the same time they saw power in the female victims of these hunts. For if they were persecuted so viciously by the male authorities, they must have presented a serious threat.
The power that the early modern witch as modern icon could have is clearly demonstrated by the actions of the members of W.I.T.C.H. The radical feminist women in this group used the imagery of the evil witch as defined in early modern witchcraft trials to evoke the power of women to effect change within their own society. While their dramatic costumes, placing of hexes and manic dancing around their victims may appear somewhat silly and ridiculous to us, they were drawing upon an image that they themselves strongly associated with female power and the ability to frighten men. They then exploited this image and used it to promote their radical feminist agenda.
For Wiccans, the appropriation of the early modern witch figure has been used to similar effect. As most of them now acknowledge that the witch of the past did not follow the same set of beliefs that they do in the 20th century, this image has come to be used somewhat differently. Like feminists, who use the witch as a symbol of female power, Wiccans also turn to her for inspiration. Not in the war for gender equality but instead as an example of resistance to the established order in society. As Glenn Stuck discusses in "The Myth of the Burning Times and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary American Wicca", the historical witch figure, for Wiccans, now represents resistance to assimilation of the individual whether to patriarchy, bureaucracy or capitalism. Through Starhawk's guidance, Wicca has become an activist religion with thousands of Wiccans involved in anti-war, anti-globalization and environmental movements, to name just a few. Starhawk herself tours the world, bringing and teaching her message of spirituality and ritual as methods for enacting change. Although the early modern witch figure, as a fellow pagan resisting the established hierarchy that is persecuting her because of her religion, is no longer historically valid, nevertheless, she has become a powerful icon for those politically active Wiccans trying to effect change today in the 21 st century.
As I started this paper with a quote from Pat Robertson, so will I end it with one. For despite the use of the early modern witch as a positive mythical figure by feminists and Wiccans, some groups continue to emphasize the witch as evil; an evil that is timeless and that is still, 222 years after the last person was burnt for the crime of witchcraft in Europe , present in society today. "I think we ought to close down Hallowe'en. Do you want your children to dress up as witches? The Druids used to dress up like this when they were doing human sacrifice… [Your children] are acting out Satanic rituals and participating in it and don't even realize it". (10/29/82 — The 700 Club)