Editor’s Note: Breena Kerr is a freelance journalist who writes about science, culture, sex, travel and current affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Rolling Stone and many others. She is currently based in Hawaii. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s Halloween again, and that means one thing for sure: Millions of Americans will see – or be – a witch Wednesday night.
As a mainstay of the season, witches come along with all the other familiar characters: skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, spiders and ghouls. But in 2018, more than a year after the #MeToo movement took off in earnest, witches have renewed significance. The rebels of their day, witches are an enduring symbol of resistance in the face of oppression.
Witches have been getting trendy for years, but this year, it’s clear they have more significance than ever. “Circe,” a retelling of the story of the world’s “first” divine witch, became one of Amazon’s top-rated books of the year. This month, Netflix released a brilliantly fun “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” remake. Sephora was going to start selling “Starter Witch Kit” but called it off after a social media backlash. Starbucks has a Witch’s Brew Frappuccino. Pinterest says searches of the “Witch Aesthetic” are up 281% among Generation Z users, along with magic-related themes across the board. And on multiple occasions, witches from around the United States promised they would be gathering to “hex Trump,” and other officials, like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
It’s clear this cultural obsession with witches goes far beyond just Halloween — it’s deeply related to themes of feminism and women’s power. “The stereotype of the witch is deeply connected with women’s power and our fear of it,” Starhawk, a California-based author, teacher, and self-proclaimed witch, told me.
The witch we’re all most familiar with is old, haggard and warty, with tattered clothes and scraggly hair. Judging by the eye of newt she’s tossing into the cauldron, and the wide smile on her face, she’s also definitely up to something.
This witch is a mashup of the images that emerged in full force during the Middle Ages. At first regarded as just a phantom of superstition, the concept of a witch evolved into someone who should be feared and reviled. It was a time of intense social and political upheaval that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation and the Inquisition. Misunderstood tragedies – like famine, plague and infant mortality – made people even more afraid of the unknown.
In hopes of uniting people against a common enemy, religious leaders began to emphasize that Satan was at work in the world, and witches were his servants on Earth, according to history books like “The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe.”
They encouraged people to report anyone who might be a witch, be it their neighbor, their midwife, their friend or even their mother. Between the mid-1400s and the mid-1700s, conservative estimates are that 110,000 to 200,000 people were jailed, about 80% of them women. About half of them eventually were put to death, says Anne Llewellyn Barstow, a retired history professor and author of the book “Witchcraze.”
It was a time when, as Barstow says, “any woman might have felt like a hunted animal.”
Flying on a broomstick may sound pretty fun today, but authorities at the time were practiced at making women and witches sound as threatening, dangerous and worthy of burning as possible.
“When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil … she is an imperfect animal and she will always deceive,” wrote Heinrich Kramer, a German inquisitor and Catholic monk who wrote the handbook on hunting witches,”The Malleus Maleficarum” (in English, “The Witch Hammer”).
The 1487 tome was a veritable bestseller of its day, printed nearly as much as the Bible. “What else is a woman … (but) an an evil of nature, painted with fair color … (who is) more carnal than a man,” Kramer wrote in the chapter titled “Question VI.” “Women are intellectually like children. … And since they are feebler in both mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come under the spell of witchcraft.”
In recently published books like “Witch: Unleashed. Untamed. Unapologetic.” and “Burning Woman,” the authors argue that the effects of the witch hunts are still being felt today. Men still occupy most positions of power. Women are still called names for expressing their sexuality and “crazy” when they get emotional or practice magic. But this gaslighting, the authors argue, has to stop. In “Burning Woman,” author Lucy H. Pearce opens by extolling the virtues of dancing naked around a bonfire.
The very things women were persecuted for during the witch burning times are the things that make them strong today, the authors argue: from the way they bring together sexuality and creativity to their natural fluctuations (emotional and physical) with the cycles of the moon and the seasons.
“They needed to steal and repress our spiritual beliefs, take away any sacred practices of initiation into adulthood, and disconnect us from any ‘magical’ concept that meant we had agency and power,” Lisa Lister writes in “Witch.”
It isn’t clear how many of the people accused of witchcraft during the witch hunts were actually practicing dark magic. Many were likely just practicing the folk magic, earth-based spirituality, and herbalism that their ancestors had passed down for centuries.
And most were likely just normal women (and men and nonbinary people), swept up in the madness and paranoia of the time. Women who were elderly, outspoken, poor, foreign, or who worked as midwives and healers ran an especially high risk of being accused, arrested, sexually assaulted, starved, tortured and then killed in public as a warning to others who might challenge the status quo.
Today, it’s clear from movements like #MeToo and #BelieveWomen that the status quo still isn’t working for a great number of women. And that’s where witches come in.
In Episode two of Netflix’s “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” the main character struggles with the anticipation of her 16th birthday, when she’ll be expected to sign her name into the devil’s book. Sabrina has already been struggling with the proverbial patriarchy in her daily life, including sexist football players at school and a misogynist principal who won’t do anything to rein them in. She knows that she could gain immense powers (and put the footballers and principal in their place) by serving the devil, but something about it feels wrong to her. “I want both. I want freedom and power,” she says to a group of young teenage witches, as it dawns on her that the devil is just another patriarch looking to boss her around.
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I think that’s why witches are so important right now, especially to women. We want what women have always wanted: the freedom to express ourselves and live free from harm, the power to defend ourselves and change the world.