Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
2018 could be called the year of the witch. From the proliferation of magic crystal shops in Brooklyn and Los Angeles to witchy fashions on the spring 2019 runways, coven contingents at antifascist protests to the Netflix reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, there has been a resurgence of witch imagery, vocabulary, and even practice. In October, a Brooklyn witch shop garnered national headlines for hosting a public hexing of Brett Kavanaugh. Before an altar of red candles and poppets of Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell, hexers were asked to write their curses on scraps of paper and put them in a jar, which would then be finished off with graveyard dirt, coffin nails, cactus thorns, broken glass, pins and needles, sulfur, water from a storm, and urine, and would have black candles burned over it once a month during the dark moon “until these motherfuckers pay for what they’ve done.”
Hexing Kavanaugh makes perfect historical and political sense.
This is more political theater than actual witchcraft, of course. (Though it is real enough for the resident exorcist of the Catholic Diocese in San Jose, California, to perform a special mass to protect Kavanaugh from the hex.) But the focus on witches—in both image and practice—highlights how women’s bodies have been at the center of struggles for power, politics, and profit throughout history. That is to say, for nearly six centuries if not longer, women’s bodies have not been our own. This makes a woman’s body both a prison and a battleground, a site of exploitation and a site of resistance, a powerful identity to claim and an always vexed place whose definitions none of us can fully control. It is out of this space that the witch is conjured.
The Malleus Malleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”), a best-selling 1486 witch hunting manual, argued that “When a woman thinks alone she thinks evil.” If to think alone, to act in the world, to claim your body as your own is evil, it is no surprise that the witch is a politicized figure, a feminist and queer heroine. In their 1968 manifesto, the women’s liberation activists from W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) proposed that “A witch lives and laughs in every woman. She is the free part of each of us.” It is this history—from 1486 on—that explains today’s global feminist protest chant, “We are the granddaughters of all the witches you could not burn!”
Witch hunting “was, and is,” in the words of historian John Demos, “a cross-cultural transhistorical phenomenon—an attacker, a killer, of women almost everywhere.” From early modern Europe, the site of the most intense and violent years of witch hunting, to today’s witch hunts in Kenya, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and India, the witch is a malleable figure that lumps together feminists, folk magicians, pagans and non-Christians, difficult women, and dark magicians thought to be in alliance with evil. The witch is most legible within the fearful frames of Christian dogma, with its strict binaries between good and evil, God and the Devil. And though many men and boys were executed and accused of being witches, the witch’s most marked characteristic, as any five-year-old can tell you, is that the witch is female. As historian Carol Karlsen puts it, “the story of witchcraft is primarily the story of women.”
The obsession with witches has always revolved around women’s sexuality, male impotence, and infanticide.
Between the mid-1400s and the late 1600s, much of Europe was convulsed by a witch hunting craze that claimed between 50,000 and 100,000 victims, with about twice that many accused. Where magic had previously been understood as folk knowledge or as an intellectual field of study, it transitioned in this tumultuous period—which saw the end of the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic counter-reformation, the rise of new nation-states, and the transition to capitalism—into a primarily Satanic force.
Witch persecution usually started out of interpersonal quarrels and sometimes spiraled into full-blown panics and mass accusations. During the exceptionally vicious Würzburg trials in Germany in 1626–1631, an estimated 160 people were killed in the city of Würzburg alone. Eighty percent of those accused in Europe and colonial America were women, and usually women who were in some way atypical: they lived alone; they were healers or midwives; they were widowed and controlled property or they were poor and indigent; they practiced religion differently or not at all; they were overly prideful or vain; or they grumbled in public. A witch, in fact, could be any woman. And that was the point.
An accused witch would be imprisoned, stripped naked, shaved of all body hair, and searched by a group of delegated inquisitors, with either fingers or needles, for bodily marks of witchcraft, most notably a third nipple or a vaginal teat where she was thought to suckle her animal familiar. Torture was regularly used to gain a confession, including stretching on a rack, being hung by the arms, or attaching clamps or screws to the head or “other sensitive body parts.” Sometimes her daughters would be imprisoned as well, as witchcraft was thought to run in families: this was the case with four-year-old Dorcas Good, accused along with her mother Sarah, in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. If convicted, the accused would be burned at the stake, beheaded, or, in the case of colonial America, hung.
Witch hunting built legal and state systems to regulate women’s sexuality because it was also about economics and about power.
Reading the Malleus Malleficarum today makes clear how much of these witch hunts revolved around women’s sexuality, male impotence, and infanticide. Published in Speyer in 1486 and written by theology professors and Catholic inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, it was the most notorious and popular of the European witch hunting manuals—nearly as common to find in print as the Bible and appearing ultimately in twenty-nine separate editions over a century. It describes how young girls are gang-raped and then forced into witchcraft, how witches boil infants in soup pots, and how witches engage in nighttime orgies with the Devil. The obsession with witches’ sexual relations with the Devil are of particular salacious interest. The Malleus Maleficarum sought to describe in detail “How in Modern Times Witches perform the Carnal Act with Incubus Devils” and determine “Whether the Relations of an Incubus Devil with a Witch are always accompanied by the Injection of Semen.”
For when the Devil was not around, witches were thought to turn to the broomstick, which was seen as a metaphorical or actual dildo. When Lady Alice Kyteler was accused of witchcraft in Ireland in 1324, she was convicted after inquisitors found a “a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin.” A witches’ flying ointment, with which she supposedly greased her broomstick before taking flight, was possibly a hallucinogenic lubricant made from psychoactive plants (today you can buy some on Etsy), or at least, a highly suggestive metaphor.
What matters, though, is that if a woman had a broomstick or if she was sleeping with the Devil, she would have no need for an actual man. The Malleus Maleficarum describes “How, as it were, [Witches] Deprive Man of his Virile Member.” Witches were thought to have no scruples about keeping disembodied penises as sad, limp pets, a possibility that caused quite a bit of consternation:
And what then is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as 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?
Most striking in the Malleus Maleficarum, Demos notes, is “the flat-out, unblinking misogyny in which the entire work is drenched.” Women are described as feebler in mind, more prone to deceit and vanity, and with a well-known “carnal lust” that “is insatiable.” She is, according to Christianity, defective from the beginning, and the Malleus invoked authorities like Ecclesiastes, Cicero, and Seneca to synthesize misogyny from across the European intellectual tradition and crystallize that fear into the figure of the witch.
The obsession with women’s sexuality, male impotence, and infanticide is not just about prurient interest and Christian repression (though it was likely that too). Witch hunting built legal and state systems to regulate women’s sexuality because it was also about economics and about power.
The haggard witch and the sexy witch are the same threat: women not reproducing within the sanctioned family structure, or not reproducing at all.
In her vital and evocative history Caliban and the Witch (2004), Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici argues that the wave of misogynist violence and witch hunting panic that gripped early modern Europe from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries was driven by the need to claim women’s reproductive capacity and sexuality for the state and for capital. In very basic terms, women needed to produce new workers, new slaves. This was a deliberately literal policy in early English America: enslaved women of childbearing age were referred to as “increase” by slave owners because of their potential to increase their owner’s wealth.
According to Federici, the regulation of women’s bodies was part of the process Marx described as “primitive accumulation”: gathering the raw material of labor, natural resources, and land on which modern industry and nation-states could be formed. The excavation and control of women’s reproduction was of a piece, then, with the enclosure of European common lands into private property, the enslavement of people in Africa and the Americas, the disciplining of the rebellious peasantry into industrial workers, and the expropriation of natural resources from the colonies.
Lest this seem too abstract, notice the particular attention witch hunters paid to witches’ interference with heterosexual sexuality, birth, and motherhood. The Malleus Malleficarum focused its definition of witches on reproduction as much as sex, discussing “How Witches Impede and Prevent the Power of Procreation” and how “Witches who are Midwives in Various Ways Kill the Child Conceived in the Womb, and Procure an Abortion; or if they do not this, Offer New-born Children to the Devil.” Abortion, which may have been part of the practice of midwifery, now became criminally suspect. Even the everyday crimes of witches were based around fertility—a ruined crop, a poor harvest, a baby that wouldn’t suckle, or a cow that wouldn’t milk. Misogyny made the crisis of subsistence and the need for labor power in the early modern era legible.
In Pope Innocent VIII’s papal bull of 1484, which emphasized inquisitors' authority to prosecute witchcraft in Germany’s Rhine River Valley, witchcraft was specifically linked with abortion and contraception. Pope Innocent charged of witches that:
by their incantations, spells, conjurations and other accursed superstitions and horrid charms, enormities and offenses, destroy the offspring of women. . . . They hinder men from generating and women from conceiving.
During the height of the European witch hunting craze, witches were accused of making men impotent, procuring abortions, devoting themselves to infanticide, or feeding upon children’s flesh. Think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel baking children in the oven; think of our own popular image of the witch as an old crone unable to bear children; or as an overly sexual, strangely childless, threat to men. The haggard witch and the sexy witch are the same threat: women not reproducing within the sanctioned family structure, or not reproducing at all.
Alongside controlling women’s reproduction, Federici argues that the European witch hunts were not spontaneous examples of vigilante or mob violence, but rather involved state and legal bureaucracy at all levels. In fact, “it is no exaggeration to claim,” Federici writes, “that the witch-hunt was the first unifying terrain in the politics of the new European nation-states.” With the witch hunts tying the church and its authority to the secular state, they served a state-building utility as the new and shifting nation-states of Europe devised numerous official investigators, special courts, and new laws to legislate and execute witches.
Misogyny, with witch hunting as its signature, Federici concludes, was an essential ingredient for the rise of capitalism and the modern state. Women’s bodies, enslaved bodies, the industrial work-force, land and its resources—all these became, in Federici’s words, the sites of exploitation on which our world is built. But they were also sites of resistance. It is no wonder, then, that the witch appeared again when American misogyny was confronted head on by the modern women’s liberation movement.
On Halloween in 1968, the thoroughly politicized understanding of the witch was born. W.I.T.C.H. activists marched down Wall Street in New York City, dressed in black rags and “scary” makeup, to protest a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank and put a hex on Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average fell the next day, and “covens” were soon founded in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco—all devoted to feminist public guerrilla performances called “zaps.” W.I.T.C.H. covens protested at bridal fairs, disrupted Senate hearings on population control by throwing birth control pills at the speakers, hexed the President, cursed the Chicago Transit Authority for raising fares, and hexed Chicago’s Federal Building during the trials for the New Left activists arrested after the protests of the Chicago Democratic Convention.
Though W.I.T.C.H. was shortlived—and perhaps a little naïve—they were brilliant at political theater, seizing the many historical strands that melded misogynist fear, capitalism, and women’s bodies. Here is their “Conspiracy Against Women” chant:
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 shame if we don’t have a man,
Convicted of conspiracy if we fight for our rights.
And burned at the stake when we stand up to fight.
In 1973 Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English published Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women’s Health. Written in “a blaze of anger and indignation,” Ehrenreich and English argued that it was midwives and healers who were most accused of witchcraft, and that witch hunts were part of dismissing and criminalizing women’s knowledge in order to allow state-approved male doctors to take over medical care. “Our ignorance” of our own bodies, they argued, “is enforced.”
Part of the purpose of the witch hunt and its attendant wave of state-sponsored misogyny was to make women’s bodies a site of unknown and unknowable terror in need of regulation and control—and to make those controlling the bodies wealthy. Despite the gains of the women’s liberation movement, we live with that legacy today: think about the money Harvey Weinstein amassed from the work of actors he assaulted, or think about the restriction of abortion rights and simultaneous lack of affordable childcare. Hexing Kavanaugh—a man who threw a tantrum when accused of unwanted and even violent sexual advances, a man who may help overturn Roe v. Wade—makes perfect historical and political sense.
Today you can buy the English edition of the Malleus Maleficarum at gift shops in Salem, Massachusetts. But that isn’t all you can buy. The many tourist shops along Essex Street offer knockoff magic crystals alongside t-shirts that read, “Get a Taste of Religion—Lick a Witch,” and shot glasses adorned with breasts encased in a Satanic bikini. It is not hard to see how the older fears and obsessions over women’s bodies and women’s sexuality have continued in ways both insidious and banal.
Stripping history of its violence and making it into a curiosity is one innocuous way misogyny persists into our present.
Indeed, the shops and “museum” experiences in Salem today help illustrate just how little has changed. Between 1692 and 1693, around 150 people were accused of witchcraft in Salem, leading to twenty executions—the largest such panic in colonial America and a continual hold on our national imagination. Now, just off the town commons, is the Salem Witch Museum, where caravans of tour buses stop; in October (high tourist season in Salem) you have to line up for hours to purchase tickets. Excited tourists wear plastic devil horns and witch hats as they are ushered into a dark theater and asked to sit around a lit red circle with a pentagram design. The show begins with the Devil himself who explains that, yes, men and women did in fact meet in the forest to plot evil works. He introduces the circle of “possessed” young girls who launched the witch accusations—goaded on by the “evil genius” of their mother—before moving on to the rational heroes, such as Puritan John Proctor who stood against the panic. When his servant girl was possessed by witches, Proctor spanked the witch out of her.
The history you learn at this museum—again, the most popular in Salem—is that the Devil is real; women are mostly evil, or at least spiteful; teenage girls are susceptible to hysteria; and spanking your servant girls is a good idea. Though a second exhibit—“Who are Witches?”—seeks to soften this history somewhat (there are wax figurines of kindly nature-worshipping Wiccans), it is not hard to see the continuation of the same ideological threads from the 1400s to the present. From the museum to the shops on Essex Street, the history of the trials is a titillation, and the lesson for the visitor is that the witch exists to be used by men and by tourists for their amusement and consumption. When we think of the twenty people executed in Salem and the tens of thousands killed in Europe—or even if we think of young Dorcas Good of Salem, so traumatized by her nine-month imprisonment and her mother’s murder that she was reportedly “very chargeable” with “no reason to govern herself” as she grew older—this is more than stupid kitsch: it is sickening. Stripping history of its violence and making it into a curiosity is one innocuous way misogyny persists into our present.
There is another side to Salem. The bright and airy boutique HausWitch, which is owned and operated by witches, sells feminist witch zines, candles, spell kits, and tickets for a two-hour walking tour “from the point of view of the oppressed.” The most poignant stop on the tour is at the Bell Telephone Company building, which was built on the site of the town dungeon where the accused witches were held, though there is no plaque or marker to that effect. The poorest among them, the enslaved woman Tituba from the plantations in Barbados, was confined here in a small cell, apart from her husband and very young daughter. People wanted to forget, my tour guide—a practicing witch herself—told us, but you can feel that the building is full of trapped traumatic energy. No business that opens here stays open for long, she says.
From a book called Magic for the Resistance (2018), I learn that in order to protect abortion rights, one must invoke Hekate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, magic, and ghosts. To do so, you will need a red candle, your menstrual blood, bay leaves and myrrh, incense charcoal, red cloth, and an image or logo of the politician or organization you wish to hex. (Know that, according to the rule of three, you will reap three times what you cast into the world.) You must say the incantation with passion, intention, and ferocity. It is best if done during a full moon or during your menstrual cycle, and you must only do it after the sun has gone down.
I don’t believe a hex will suffice where a mass social movement needs to be built. But I do know that the desire to believe in magic is to want to slip the skin of the world, to bend your intention toward its transformation. In this sense, witchcraft as it lives today is about practicing a kind of faith in your body and its abilities, a determination to be an agent in the world rather than a passive subject. It is, as Alex Mar recounts in her memoir of five years training in the American occult underground, Witches of America (2015), to practice sovereignty over your life and to learn to trust yourself. All things that, historically, witch hunting took away from women: their bodies, their power, their lives. If this is what today’s misogynists fear, then let us be everything they are afraid of. Let us all be witches.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.