Let’s delve into the history of witch hunting, and learn the stories of women who were persecuted after being accused of being witches.
My first introduction to witches was the book of the same name by Roald Dahl. In it, a witch hunter and her grandson work to take down an international network of societies, made up of women who hate children.
As a child, it was one of the scariest stories I had ever read. As an adult, I find myself responding to it with almost meme-like faces.
A society of women who don’t want children, and are plotting to kill children by turning them into mice using laced sweets?! Sounds like an anti-feminist conspiracy theory if I’ve ever seen one!
Obviously, the book ends triumphantly for the witch hunting duo, but in 2020 I sit thinking… Did Roald Dahl do women a disfavour in caricaturing both, the historical persona of a witch and that of a second-wave feminist?
A Brief History Of Witch Hunting
A long-standing tradition of the patriarchal set-up is to actively seek ways to disempower women. Although both men and women were hunted for religious reasons under suspicion of being witches, to accuse a woman of witchcraft remains one of the most common ways to denounce her.
From Europe of the 1600s to Puritan settlers in the Americas to Orissa in 2019; women have been branded witches, and thereafter lynched.
Why is the popular image of a witch so synonymous with women (looking at you Roald Dahl)? I could go on and on about this, but let’s keep it brief.
A patriarchal society creates gender roles which suppress women. When they break out of these roles, they are punished in judicial and non-judicial ways.
Non-judicial reprimands means that women who behave in ways that are different from what society expects of them are prime candidates for demonising. Judicial reprimands means that they are then cornered and persecuted, because the only possible reason people can conceive for their rebellion is that they are witches.
Women can be accused of being witches because it is a simple enough explanation for anything that goes wrong, whether it is ‘…[t]he death of a child, a disease outbreak, lousy weather, … [or] a meager harvest…’. They may also be suspected because of appearance-based concerns, such as hunchbacks or white hair at a young age.
Reasons also include, but are not limited to punishing women for expressing their sexualities, avoiding expectations of marriage and child-bearing, or even challenging the ‘masculine’ profession of medicine with their knowledge of midwifery and healing.
With the modern-day urban witch hunt of Rhea Chakraborty playing out live on our TV and phone screens, it is clear that the practice never actually came to an end. But her case is not singular. In India particularly, caste plays a huge role in the witch hunting tradition, and women have been murdered as recently as 2019.
Keeping all this in mind, I want to introduce you to the histories of five such women who were victims of public persecution, and were ostracised, attacked or killed.
Bridget Bishop (1692)
Bridget was the first person to be executed during the infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. She was well-known in the area for her ‘…un-Puritan like behavior of flamboyant dress, tavern frequenting, and multiple marriages’.
She was accused of ‘bewitching’ five children, and several people testified that the ‘shape of Bridget’ would ‘pinch, choke or bite them’. The ‘shape’ also allegedly threatened to drown one individual.
Local men testified to finding poppets – dolls used to bind spells – in her house, and that cat appeared bewitched after they had a dispute with Bridget.
During the trial, it was said that if Bridget looked upon any of the witnesses who claimed she tortured them, they would be struck down. Only her touch would apparently revive them.
What sealed her fate though, ultimately, was the alleged presence of a third nipple. Third nipples were considered to be unnatural, and a sure sign of someone being a witch. In reality, an examination confirmed no such nipple.
Bridget was nonetheless sentenced to death for witchcraft and hanged.
Anna Göldi (1782)
Considered the ‘last witch’ of Switzerland, Anna was the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Europe. She is described as ‘…proud, attractive and … “pretty educated”’.
Her story is such: she was impregnated by a mercenary, but the child she gave birth to did not survive its first night. For this she was publicly humiliated, despite infant mortality being high at the time.
After, she worked for a family, and had a child out of wedlock with a man from the family. Thereafter, she found employment with another family, whose patriarch accused her of tampering with his children’s food by putting needles in it.
She was fired, but two weeks later, one of the children vomited needles, and despite no longer being a member of the household, Anna was accused of corrupting (read: cursing) the child.
The family she worked for was influential, and despite a lack of evidence she was arrested and tortured. It is said that her wealthy employer pushed for the arrest, for he had an affair with her that he wished to hide, believing it would ruin his standing in his community.
During the torture, she confessed to making a deal with the Devil, who she said came to her as a black dog. Although she recanted once the torture ended, she was still sentenced to death by decapitation.
Even at that time, historian August Ludwig von Schlözer labelled it ‘the murder of an innocent, deliberately, and with all the pomp of holy Justice’. In 2007, the Swiss parliament exonerated Anna 226 years after her death; saying that her death was a miscarriage of justice.
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Bollywood actress Rekha, known for her roles in the films Umrao Jaan and Khoon Bhari Maang, was once branded a witch as well.
Her controversial relationship with Amitabh Bachchan had already seen her being seen as a family-breaker and a ‘bad’ woman. (No consideration was given to the fact that if there was indeed an affair, Bachchan was the breaker of his own family.)
A whirlwind romance and a brief under-the-wraps marriage with industiralist Mukesh Agarwal ended in tragedy when he died by suicide while she was out of the country. According to her biographers, Agarwal had suffered from depression for a long time, and Rekha was unaware of his mental health prior to their marriage.
Although she had nothing to do with his death – he left a note specifically stating that no one was to blame – Rekha was pilloried by the press. Her mother-in-law publicly demonised her, wailing, “Woh daayan mere bete ko kha gayi!” (That witch devoured my son).
Headlines read: ‘The Black Widow’, ‘The Macabre Truth behind Mukesh’s Suicide’. Rekha was seen as a vamp who destroyed her marriage. The elite society that once embraced her damned her for ‘murdering’ her husband.
For many years, her reputation suffered despite their being no evidence for the libelous accusations levelled against her. Only a decade or so after being the victim of a press-lead witch hunt (see the similarities with the Rhea Chakraborty case?) did Rekha find her feet and respect.
Ama Hemmah (2010)
Ama was a 72-year-old grandmother who was lynched by evangelicals in Ghana as recently as a decade ago. Not much is known about Ama, whose son said at the time that she was neither a witch, nor did she suffer from any mental conditions.
One of the suspects claimed to have ‘found’ Ama in the room of his sister. Considered her to be a known witch, he and others tortured her until she confessed, and then burnt her alive.
Five perpetrators were arrested, and they claimed to be trying to ‘… exorcise an evil spirit … rubbing anointing oil on her but it accidentally caught fire’. However, reports state that Ama was doused in kerosene before being set alight.
A student nurse attempted to rescue her, but Ama succumbed to her injuries the following day.
Although belief in witchcraft is common in the country, the incident saw uproar. In addition, the fact that newspapers carried images of the women’s burnt body, caused significant uproar.
The lynching was condemned by the Ghanian Commission of Human Rights.
Mangri Munda And Her Four Children (2019)
In January of last year, Mangri and her four children (ages one, four, seven and twelve) were accused of being witches, and murdered in Orissa.
According to the police, who arrested six people in connection with the murders, the main perpetrator had alleged that Mangri dabbled in ‘black magic’ and was casting spells on another family in their village.
The man, who claimed to be a ‘witch doctor’ himself, believed Mangri was responsible for the deaths of the other family’s daughters.
The accused broke into Mangri’s house at night while she was asleep, and proceeded to attack her and her children with sticks and an axe before dumping their bodies in a well.
All arrested have confessed to the crime, but no further information has been reported with regard to legal proceedings.
Ninety-nine cases of witch hunting were reported in Orissa in 2017. And the practice remains common in states such as Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
These stories are just a few of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases of witch hunting.
Over the last century or so, there has been some change in the perception of women who do not fit into the conventional mould. But not enough that traditions that punish women – dowry, sati, witch hunting, honour killing – have come to the end that they should.
Major social and political changes need to be made and solidified in order to combat these so-called social evils. It must be done to make them anti-social and to lift the shadow they cast on the lives of women across the world.
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