Thursday, October 28, 2010

It's time to rethink the witch: "The Burning Times"

Here's something to ponder over your Halloween weekend:

We forget that Halloween wasn't always "trick or treat." Originally it was called Samhain (pronounced saw-when) and was a time to remember our ancestors.

Correspondingly, we forget that the word "witch" -- and connotation surrounding it -- has also been distorted and lost with time.

Unfortunately, the denotations -- dictionary definitions -- that remain are ones similar to this one from Merriam-Webster:

1: one that is credited with usually malignant supernatural powers; especially : a woman practicing usually black witchcraft often with the aid of a devil or familiar : sorceress — compare warlock
2: an ugly old woman : hag
3: a charming or alluring girl or woman
4: a practitioner of Wicca

And yet...

We forget that the women branded as "witches" were also once considered healers. In fact, many of the drugs we use today were used by these wise women long before the age of patriarchal medicine and capitalist drug companies.

This particular definition is interesting on two counts. First, Merriam-Webster includes "charming ... girl or woman." It is true that not all wise women -- later branded witches -- were old.

Second, the fact that it equates the word "hag" with an ugly old woman. Back in the days when older women were revered and respected, a hag was considered to be a wise woman.

Somewhere along the way, something changed. That would be around the time of the Renaissance when Europe went into a "witch craze."

What the history books don't tell us -- and history classes don't teach -- is that an estimated nine million women were killed over a 300-year period that included the "Christianization" of Europe.

Effectively, this was the "Women's Holocaust."

Do not confuse these events with the Salem witch trials -- these were different events within their own context.

I had never heard this story before until I took introduction to women and gender studies with Professor Kathy Patterson-Hawes at Oakland University. She showed an amazing film called "The Burning Times."

I'd like to share it with you now. I could not find the entire production available to embed here. What I did find was the film broken into 10-minute segments on YouTube thanks to the efforts of DMSelina. Watch a little, or watch a lot, but once you start, I think you'll want to finish this important -- and for the most part -- untold story.

So this weekend, take a few minutes to remember your ancestors, including all these wise women of the past who died because of the constructed definition of "witch."

Happy Samhain and Blessed Be.

"The Burning Times"

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Related links:

Starhawk's homepage:

Read an interesting etymological discuss of the word "witch."

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