“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
Most folks will shrug, and say, “Cool! A scary movie!” I am not among them. I am horrified. What if the title was “Hansel & Gretel: Jew Hunters.” Not so cool anymore, right?
Maybe because misogyny is a hot button issue for me, and also because of recent attempts by the Radical Republican Right to erode women’s rights compounded with boneheaded comments trivializing rape and unwanted pregnancy, I’m hypersensitive to anything with even a whiff of misogyny to it. Even if it’s just a sequel to a classic Grimm Brothers fairytale.
I’m sure “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” probably came to be because zombies, vampires and werewolves are all so five minutes ago — been there, filmed that. And true, there are the storybook tales of wicked old witches, like the ones the Grimm Brothers created, and on that level, OK fine, those aren’t the type of witches I’m talking about. The term “witch hunt” is part of our culture, and means a frantic attempt to find, and persecute, something that doesn’t exist.
I wouldn’t agree that witches don’t exist, because they do, but not in a Grimm Brothers way. Actual witches are mostly peaceful, private people, who worship a goddess and whose lives are intricately connected to nature and the turning wheel of the seasons. The vast majority bear no resemblance to the Wicked Old Witch of fairytales.
What is not a fairytale, however, is that a stunning number of women, and a relative handful of men, were murdered from the 15-18th centuries in Europe — about 60,000. The peak occurred of from 1550-1650, commonly known as “the burning times.” Besides being burned at the stake while the crowds cheered, “witches” were also hanged or crushed with weights. What was their transgression? You might be surprised. In fact, ladies, if you did some of the following things about 500 years ago, you might find yourself strapped to a pole, with a pile of wood being ignited at your feet:
Sharing your knowledge of using herbs, teas or certain foods to cure or ease ailments; being outspoken and defiant of authority, or speaking your own mind; being old and/or ugly, or having a visible deformity or blemish; living alone, keeping to yourself and not attending church; owning a cat, particularly a black one; talking to animals; becoming a widow who owns a considerable amount of land (a particularly valuable target, because property owned by a witch was confiscated by the Church).
But here’s the worst one of all: You might be declared a witch just because somebody said you were. Unless you can prove otherwise, you’re on your way to becoming human charcoal. The Salem Witch Trials here in America are an example. On the word of some hysterical girls (who upon later historical inspection were likely hallucinating after eating grain that was tainted with a certain mold), 19 women were accused of being witches and hanged in 1692, one male “wizard” was pressed to death, and eight more were imprisoned, where they died.
Fortunately, sanity began to emerge in both the U.S. and Europe in the 1700s, and the persecution of “witches” trailed off, simultaneously with the Roman Catholic Church’s stranglehold on Europe. The Roman Church controlled the populace by executing or imprisoning “heretics,” which means anyone who defied the Church’s (and therefore Rome’s) authority. So, an old, ugly woman who suggests chewing on some ginger root to soothe nausea rather than pray to God to remove the affliction would be a heretic. A witch. And burned.
The magnitude of female suffering that occurred under the umbrella of “witch hunts” is staggering. I discovered a website dedicated to “gendercide,” www.gendercide.org, which summarizes what happened to “witches” at the hands of the Church: “The classic evocation of this deranged misogyny is the ‘Malleus maleficarum’ (The Hammer of Witches), published by Catholic inquisition authorities in 1485-86. ‘All wickedness,’ write the authors, ‘is but little to the wickedness of a woman … Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.’”
The article notes, “The importance of the ‘Malleus’ cannot be overstated”: “It was to become the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft … Its enormous influence was practically guaranteed, owing not only to its authoritative appearance but also to its extremely wide distribution. It was one of the first books to be printed on the recently invented printing press and appeared in no fewer than 20 editions. … The moral backing had been provided for a horrible, endless march of suffering, torture, and human disgrace inflicted on thousands of women.”
The story further draws a line between the Jewish holocaust and the female holocaust of the 15-1800s: “The medieval conception of women shares much with the corresponding medieval conception of Jews. In both cases, a perennial attribution of secret, bountiful, malicious ‘power’ is made. Women are anathematized and cast as witches because of the enduring grotesque fears they generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society.
“Whatever the social and psychological determinants operative in this abiding obsession, there can be no denying the consequential reality of such anxiety in medieval Christendom. Linked to theological traditions of Eve and Lilith, women are perceived as embodiments of inexhaustible negativity. Though not quite quasi-literal incarnations of the Devil as were Jews, women are, rather, their ontological ‘first cousins’ who, like the Jews, emerge from the ‘left’ or sinister side of being. (Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 435.) ”
That is what the burning times and witch hunts really were: a holocaust. So, please forgive my lack of humor over the trivialization of one of humanity’s greatest horror stories, even if it’s merely a modern day Grimm Brothers fairytale of revenge. Ditto for my lack of humor, or tolerance, of anything with even a whiff of misogyny.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com