Resist Much, Obey little- Walt Whitman
The Oxford dictionary describes witch as a woman who has evil magical powers or an ugly and an unpleasant woman.
Call them Chudail or Dayan (in Hindi) Pichal Pheris (in Urdu), or Hexe in German; there is no culture that does not believe in some form of witchcraft. Whether it is the Philippines, Mexico or the West Indies, witchcraft is prevalent everywhere.
And mostly they are women- mostly old and dying and sometimes young, beautiful and enchanting.
Baba Yaga is a popular witch-like old woman in folk cultures of Eastern Europe and Russia who lives in the thick forest and scares people to death. She is associated with birth and death and is considered to eat her victims. It is said that bones and skulls surround her hut.
Wahini Hai is a demonic seductress from Polynesia who steals and eats small children.
Spear Finger is a Cherokee goddess who ate livers of human beings especially children.
Khon-Ma is a Tibetan ghost-like queen who comes at night and enters unguarded houses. A ram’s skull is to be placed outside the home to thwart her.
Hekate is a three-headed (Serpent, Horse, and a Dog) dark colored Greek Goddess of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft who roamed the streets at night.
Nasu, a female Zoroastrian demon, takes the form of fly to devour corpses. She resides in the North, where the Zoroastrian hell lies.
Edgar Thurston in his book, Omens, and Superstitions of Southern India writes about Chedipe (meaning prostitute) applied to sorceresses or witches in the Godavari district of India. It is believed that Chedipe rides on a tiger at night, sucking the blood of bare bodied men whom she did not like and returns home in the morning.
The common theme that runs across them is of supernatural powers, darkness, and an evility.
To me, these women did not prescribe to the standards of the society and were seen as strange and vulnerable. And hence, they were associated with dark and evil to scare the rest of the society.
Why mostly women were branded as witch and evil is worth pondering upon?
Such practices and women existed freely, albeit at the margins and periphery of the society in the ancient times. The women will either roam at night or reside in the forest or at the cremation grounds.
But with the advent of formalized religion in different parts of the world, primarily, Puritan religion, hysterical campaigns were undertaken to silence the women who were considered a threat to the society because of their alternative views and practice of occult.
Everything magical and something which was not understood by all came to be associated with Devil and Satan.
Women who were accused of witchcraft were hanged, burnt and tortured based on superstition and rumor.
Whether it was infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in colonial America between 1692 and 1693 or execution of witches throughout Europe from the 15th century to 18th century, belief in magic, spells, potions, and superpowers was a common crime.
I think these women were merely misunderstood, who believed in their intuitive powers of healing and well -being. There was indeed nothing evil or harmful about them. They were only different than the rest.
To me, it became a fight between the spiritual, psychic and intuitive powers which were freely utilized by free-spirited women vs the formal religion.
The village population which was divided on petty local issues such as grazing rights, property disputes, illicit love affairs and other jealousies combined with establishing supremacy by the Church led to the execution of mostly women who were considered different and untameable. The deeply rooted misogyny against women was reflected in charges such as flying in the air to meet the demon, a pact with the demon, whore of the demon to the failure of crops, death of child, infertility, and stealing of garments. The women were made to confess under immense physical torture about their innate powers.
Even today women are killed in the name of witchcraft.
In Tanzania alone, 427 women accused of sorcery were killed in the first half of 2017. For decades, women suspected of witchcraft in Ghana between the age of 48 and 90 years were banished to live in witch camps where they were persecuted and tormented.
Every day we hear news of women being burnt or killed in India as she is suspected of witchcraft. From rural areas, this menace is spreading to urban areas.
It is surprising to see that ancient Vedic practices and Tantra makes generous mention of the use of magic and spells for every day well being of people.
Witch hunt had no place in ancient India. At least there is no documented evidence to prove it. The first case of witch hunt was reported in 1792, i.e., after the advent of Britishers in Santhal.
How did this practice of witch hunt or killing become part of the Indian society?
Is it mere superstition or is it a sinister way of making the women toe the line?
Pic: The Four Witches- A group of four nude women standing underneath a sphere inscribed with the letters “O.G.H”. 1497 Print made by Albrecht Dürer
Pic Credit: http://www.britishmuseum.org/