For months now, the President has referred to allegations against him as a witch hunt. As with many things that he has done and tweeted over the last six excruciating months, this comparison has left an acrid taste in my mouth. Far from being a victim, he is actually much more similar to the perpetrators of witch hunts which have led to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of deaths and have caused irreparable harm to healing traditions, ancient customs, and women’s place in the world.
In the May 13, 2017 episode of the For the Wild Podcast, Starhawk, briefly delves into the history of witch hunts and their current relevance. She explains:
“In the 16th and 17th centuries, the church was under tremendous pressure because of the economic changes going on in Europe, and shifts in power balances. What happened was similar to today’s war on terrorism which is used as excuse for implementing all kinds of law restrictions, and keeping people from confronting real dangers because they are fixated on the potential dangers of terrorism.
The church used witches in the same way. If peasants were afraid of witches, they would be suspecting and attacking neighbors, rather than uniting and rebelling against the overlords and against some of the oppressive practices of the churches at the time. They unleased the persecution against witches, and created a whole ideology for it, the idea that these ancient customs and traditions were the worship of the devil and that women got together secretly…and did all of kinds of evil things. They unleased a horrible wave of persecution in Europe that took the lives of tens of thousands of women and men over a period of several hundred years.
It made the old healing traditions and herbalism and the women who practiced it seem suspect. Forms of knowledge that didn’t come from male authority and approved authorities were seen as suspect and dangerous. It made anything that had to do with intuition, with a view of the world that saw life infusing matter and the natural world, suspect and dangerous. It made women who held property, or who had power or who stood up and had independent thoughts, it made those women targets. Fear in the psyche of women – of being visible, of being seen, is old archetypal, collective unconscious fear that comes from those times.”
Real witch hunts are still continuing to this day. In 2014, the Washington Post published a deeply disturbing article about thousands of women who were accused of sorcery, tortured and executed in Indian witch hunts as recently as 2000-2013. They concluded that, “Much more often, it isn’t superstition but gender and class discrimination. Those accused of sorcery often come from similar backgrounds: female, poor and of a low caste.”
“Witch-hunting is essentially a legacy of violence against women in our society,” wrote Rakesh Singh of the Indian Social Institute. “For almost invariably, it is [low caste] women, who are branded as witches. By punishing those who are seen as vile and wild, oppressors perhaps want to send a not-so-subtle message to women: docility and domesticity get rewarded; anything else gets punished.” It goes on to say, “Often a woman is branded a witch so that you can throw her out of the village and grab her land, or to settle scores, family rivalry, or because powerful men want to punish her for spurning their sexual advances. Sometimes, it is used to punish women who question social norms.”
While witch hunts may not be occurring in the US, it feels like the mindset that allowed it to happen a few hundred years ago has resurfaced, as women Senators are called “hysterical” for questioning men and after only 100 days in office, there was already a list of 100 Ways the Trump Administration Is Harming Women and Families.
The New Yorker recently shed some light on the actual “single greatest witch hunt in American history.” Interestingly, during the Salem witch trials, the governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, was a, “barely literate man, rude and reckless, a rascally treasure hunter installed by a beleaguered group of purists eager to safeguard their privileges and padlock their ranks. A weak, absent administrator, he had little interest in governing. He far preferred glorious deeds involving sunken treasures and Indian scalps. He was without political experience; he threw tantrums; he bullied and insulted elected officials. His supporters worried about legitimacy and strained to broadcast proficiency.”
Phips placed William Stoughton in charge of the court. He was “an unrelenting zealot, who looked to find guilt by means of spectral evidence, in nearly every one accused of witchcraft…Phips failed to recognize from the beginning the problems associated with the trials, most notably that innocent people were being convicted and executed on the basis of spectral evidence.”
If you are noticing any similarities, and are feeling like history repeats itself, you may find this encouraging. The New Yorker article continues, “Only after eight frenzied months did sane men finally speak up. Establishment figures, they broke ranks with reluctance. Thomas Brattle…among the wealthiest men in the colony…could no longer bear the government’s “ignorance and folly”; he balked at the proceedings, remarkable for irregularities of all kinds. Were they to continue, he warned, they would spell the colony’s ruin. In one of the most eloquent have-you-no-decency documents in history, Brattle asked how anyone involved in the trials would be able to “look back upon these things without the greatest of sorrow and grief imaginable.” He anticipated a stain on New England, one that ages would not remove.”
Two more months to go….