Gender and the Witch Hunts

Gender and the Witch Hunts

By Stephanie Lee

We all know what a witch looks like. Hat, cat, broom, maybe a few warts, a predilection for black clothes and a habit of cackling: the witch is iconic and instantly recognisable. The most recognisable thing, however, is something so deeply ingrained in our pop culture imagery that most of us never give it a second thought. The witch you’re picturing in the above sentence is almost certainly a woman.

As Annie Theriault wrote last year for The Establishment, ‘witch is a highly gendered term, and like most such terms, its masculine counterparts — terms like wizard, warlock, sorcerer, or mage — do not quite mean exactly the same thing.’1 Witches have a whiff of brimstone about them, whether they’re wrinkled and hunched, or young and beautiful, but still somehow off-putting: perhaps lascivious, fuelled by sexual appetite and jealousy of other women. The witch is both sides of the coin represented by the evil queen in Snow White; she is both Dahl’s Grand High Witch and Miller’s Abigail Williams. At best, witches are batty spinsters who tend herbs and don’t mean any harm, and at worst they’re literally green thanks to MGM Studios.

Wizards, however, seem to have come out of the past few centuries relatively unscathed: they are old, certainly, but that’s only because they are wise and learned; they read ancient and interesting books full of knowledge; they have long beards and impressive robes; they are perhaps mercurial at times, but their authority is never in question. They’re Gandalf the Grey, Professor Dumbledore, or Merlin. To call someone a wizard is not particularly insulting – quite the opposite,
unlike calling a woman ‘witch,’ which still holds some venom even now the accusation carries no threat of execution in most parts of the world. As Anita Anand recently pointed out at a British Library lecture on witch hunting, opinionated and ‘uppity’ 2 women in politics are still called witches today, even in print newspapers.

Of course, for all the benign and stereotypical images of the witch that surface every October and appear in children’s fairy tales, the other thing everyone knows about witches is that we in Western Europe and North America used to hunt them down and kill them (we are less aware in the western world that witch hunting is still alive and well across other parts of the globe)3 . There may be a difference between male and female magicians in our cultural stereotypes, but wizards have got a better deal in the stakes of life and death, too. For women, historically, using magic has been a very risky business. Witches are not only old, ugly, and isolated, but in danger of being examined, dunked underwater, hanged, or even burned as a part of what we now call ‘the witch hunts.’ Modern culture frames the ‘burning times’ as an attack against women who dared to be different, carried out by a maliciously misogynistic authority such as the church or Inquisition.

But our image of the wizard must have come from somewhere, and if wizards were around at the same time as witches were being hunted, why weren’t they persecuted, too? Here’s the thing: they were. In fact, in Scandinavia more men were killed as part of the witch trials, and historically, many men have been persecuted, arrested, and executed for owning magical manuscripts. Owen Davies’ book Grimoires contains scores of men from antiquity to the turn of the nineteenth century who were condemned, even killed, for using magical texts. 4 Although countries that executed more men than women were anomalies, the hunting was never exclusively reserved for women: as the historian Malcolm Gaskill says, the male witch was both thinkable and prosecutable.5 Despite this, women were still the majority of the victims, and form the dominant image of witches we have today.

The witch trials came after a crucial shift in the theology of magic. From ancient times to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, magic was something you learned from a book, so using magic depended on a very important thing: literacy rates. Only people who could read were able to learn and share the secret words, spells, and symbols which made up magical rituals. Since men in medieval Europe had higher literacy rates than women, they were actually the more likely culprits for using magic – in fact, monks and other men of the church were the most likely to have spell books, since they were also the mostly likely to read and write! The church banned certain texts, but a lot of people (including clergy members) saw the study of magic as a science, or even something that could be used to summon angels, making it an expression of their piety and devotion.

However, Owen Davies points out that ‘while for some the attraction of magic held out the possibility of such lofty aims as learning languages and the secrets of nature, many owners of grimoires…had much baser motives on their minds, mostly concerning money and sex.’6 Even monks were not above having a go at love magic, with one imprisoned for trying to control women ‘by offering to the Devil wax puppets containing his saliva and the blood of toads.’ 7 This was obviously frowned upon, and yet lecherous monks have not made their way into the mainstream image of the persecuted witch. Generally, they got away with it.

During the Reformation, however, things changed. Protestantism became focused on the inherent evil in all humanity, and how the Devil could take advantage of it. The idea of the ‘Satanic Pact’ then came about – this was when a person made a promise to the Devil in order to gain demonic power. Whilst the most famous depiction of such a pact might be Marlowe’s Faustus, in actual fact, the figure most associated with the satanic pact was the woman we have come to know as a witch. Whereas before using magic involved learning elaborate rituals from manuscripts, now one could wield the power of the devil just by shaking his hand (or entering into rather more lewd behaviours with him). This meant that despite their lower literacy rates, women were now under just as much suspicion as men – in fact, even more. The same perceived weakness which meant women were thought unable to read or conjure demons in writing now worked to a new disadvantage: if women were so weak, surely they were more easily tricked, manipulated, and seduced by demons into making satanic pacts. Magic no longer required books, literacy, concentration, or study, but simply a weak will - and a pinch of lust. Women – particularly those who showed signs of independent thought or sexual agency – were public enemy number one, and so we arrive at the root of our modern witch.

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. As mentioned above, in parts of Scandinavia men made up a huge majority of tried and executed witches. Owen Davies writes that ‘the distinctive aspect of the Icelandic experience is that only ten of the people known to have been tried by the island’s highest court were women. This is extraordinary considering that in Denmark and Norway, and in Iceland’s southern neighbour, Scotland, the vast majority were female.’8 Davies’ theory is that with an impressive literacy rate and a small population educated by the Lutheran church, books were a greater part of ordinary life for Icelandic people than for many of their contemporaries in other countries. ‘Iceland’s magic was based much more on literary magic’ 9 than other cultures, sometimes taking inspiration from the indigenous sagas and runes. No wonder, then, that its people feared written magic more than the herbs, charms, and demonic pacts associated with women.

To summarise, when men used magic, they used spell books, written rituals, and were generally allowed to carry on in the name of scientific interest, except in the cases of Iceland and Finland. Women were more often associated with natural magic and maleficence: herbs and lore, poisoning crops and turning milk with just a glance, killing newborn babies with a touch. Put simply, the sort of thing that gets one killed. Perhaps this explains why Queen Elizabeth I was able to keep Dr John Dee, an astrologer who purportedly communed with angels, at her court whilst two hundred and forty seven women were tried for witchcraft during her reign. If our modern stereotypes of witches and wizards are anything to go by, we still haven’t moved past this gendered view of magic-wielders – or have we? After all, arguably the most famous witch of all these days is J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger, a bibliophile whose aptitude for magic comes from academic study and intensive reading. With any luck, the next generation will allow witches down from the pyre and into the library, and perhaps spare a thought for the male witches whose deaths have been largely forgotten.


1 Anne Theriault 'The Real Reason Women Love Witches' reason-women- love-witches-
647d48517f66 [accessed 25/11/2017]
2 Anita Anand, Women, Witches and Witch Trials, The British Library, 05/12/2017
3 For example, in-witch- hunt-murders- 523-women- lynched-
between-2001- 16-ncrb/story- oNIPZYiPrnzOrwGS6EKvEP.html [accessed 10/12/2017]
4 Davies, Owen, Grimoires, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009
5 Malcolm Gaskill, Women, Witches and Witch Trials, The British Library, 05/12/2017
6 Grimoires p.39
7 Grimoires p.40

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