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Dr. Michele Lise Presents Witchcraze: Exploring Violent Responses to Wise Women through the Ages

Photo Courtesy of Roanoke College
Photo Courtesy of Roanoke College

By Julie Stout


On Wednesday November 12, 2014, Dr. Michele Lise Tarter gave a lecture on the RC campus about the “wichcraze”. After a warning that some material may be hard to swallow, she began her presentation. Despite some of the unpleasant aspects involved in the history of witch hunts, Dr. Tarter said “once I learned it, I couldn’t turn back”.

Her lecture began with the story of Anna Pappenhimer. Records are hard to come by; however, Anna’s has survived. While living in Bavaria under Catholic rule, there was political unrest and as a way to explain the hardships being experienced, a witch hunt took off in full form. Anna was accused of being a witch from a convict whom she did not know. After days of torture she finally confessed, despite her innocence. She was burned during a public spectacle, prior to which she was stripped and her breasts were cut off, as Dr. Tarter explained was somewhat typical for guilty witches. Her two oldest sons and husband were also killed because of their association during the same spectacle; her youngest and only other son was forced to watch.

Stories that are left behind, like Anna’s, “raises questions” said Dr. Tarter. These questions ask  who witches actually were and how the society became so violent towards them. Witches were actually known as “wise women” and were honored before the takeover of Christianity. They served as the medical professionals; they were herbalists, apothecaries, midwives, and healers. The people of the community turned to these when they needed assistance, and they were cherished. Today, when we hear about witches, we are conditioned to have a negative reaction. As Dr. Tarter pointed out, in reality the names associated with the witch stereotype are not derogatory in their base. The word “wicce”, which became the word we use “witch”, actually means to shape, and the word “hag” translates to “a woman with sacred knowledge”.

The negativity associated with witches is correlated with the rise of Christianity. As Christians wanted to gain power, priests sought out the members of the community who were of high esteem and knowledge: the witches. They gave the witches church authority and promised to help the witches heal by saying they could teach them messages that would heal their patients. As soon as the church grew strong, they turned the tables. In 1486 The Malleus Maleficarum was written by two priests and was given the seal of the Vatican. This title translates to “The Witches Hammer” and served as a how-to guide for persecuting and spelling out the dangers of witches. It discusses matters such as how to determine who is a witch, how to test and torture them, and how to kill them. This book also contained many “true” accounts of witches to serve as evidence.

Gender roles played a huge part in the description of witches. Within the Malleus Maleficarum are many examples that support the belief of the time; women were servants and nothing more than an aid to their husbands. St. Augustine wrote “a woman has no more soul than a goose” which Dr. Tarter then used to draw correlations to many examples of how women were seen as animals. Another quote presented from Within the Malleus Maleficarum was, “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil”. Witchcraft was defined as female rebellion, it was used as a means to maintain dominance. There were many depictions of women sneaking out at night, physically emasculating men, and serving the devil. This construction of a witches’ evil nature was used to strike fear into society.  It appears that gender was the central focus around the witch hunt. Dr. Tarter showed brief pictures of numerous torture methods to grasp a confession, most of them revolved around womanhood. There were multiple devises used to cut off witches’ breasts and to mutilate the witches’ genitals.

After hearing the outlandish accusations and punishment methods, Dr. Tarter pointed out that these witch hunts are still going on. There has been a rise in witch hunts as well as refugee camps for witches in numerous countries in Africa. India has also been growing in terms of witch hunts. Even the US has had cases, specifically the case of high school student Brandi Blackbear who was accused of witchcraft after a teacher fell ill. She was suspended from school and had to relocate with her family to escape the negative label of “witch”. As an ending point, Dr. Tarter said we need to “reclaim wise women”, bring back the positive associations and undo the damage. She was also pleased to report the Pope John Paul II had issued a very heartwarming and public apologies, the first in the Catholic Church, for the witch burning and the damage that had been done as a result of this dark history.