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Witch Hunts: Fear of Women's Uncanny Power

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Do you know what that pointy hat really means?

girl dressed as witch

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Probably the best known ghoul used for female costumes at Halloween is the classic "witch." But when we dress up and have fun as witches, we may forget that these costumes commemorate a historic tragedy for women -- notorious witch hunts that caused the brutal murders of nearly 100,000 women in Europe and America.

Witch trials in Europe began in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Then they declined -- and the witch "scare" became less threatening, until finally turning into an even bigger issue in the 17th century. Some history buffs argue that a fear of witchcraft started among people who believed in magic -- that is, harm committed by magic. Before this, supernatural abilities were believed to have been used to protect people -- but somehow morphed into a pact between the women with supernatural abilities and the devil.

In America, the famous Salem witch hunts had both religious and political roots. Puritans believed that women should be totally subservient to men. By nature, a woman was more likely to make a deal with the devil than was a man because women were considered lustful by nature.

And there was a political/economical reason to torch women back then too. The majority of accused "witches" were unmarried or recently widowed land-owning women. According to the law, if no legal heir existed upon the owner's death, the title to the land would revert to the previous owner, or to the colony. This made witch-hunting a great way to acquire a profitable piece of property.

Now, let's think about how these motivations to arrest and murder women were based on a fear of woman's power. Remember, before European "witches" were thought to cause harm, they were respected protectors. I'm imagining a mother's uncanny instinct and her own home remedies to nurture and save lives. That might have made a few men nervous.

Then the fact that women were thought to be too lustful -- and therefore must be communing with Lucifer. Ah ha! Back to that original sin thingy. Historically, a woman's beauty seems to be "responsible" for a lot of bad behavior by men.

Finally, there's the money issue. This seems to motivate men more than anything. Unmarried women were a threat. Widows were a threat. And if her husband had owned property and she had no heirs, then all the more reason to extinguish her light. It is a shameful history that shows that entire communities colluded to murder single women and widows, just to steal their homes and land.

So this year, when you or your daughter dons a bewitching Halloween costume, remember the women who once were wrongly accused of being witches. Our costumes today can be an honor to those women.

next: Halloween Safety for Kids and Grown-Ups
1 comments so far | Post a comment now
HMM October 30, 2009, 8:33 AM

Ummm, what DOES the pointy hat mean?

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