In memory of witches

In memory of witches

The village of Vardø, in the Norwegian Arctic, with a population of little more than 200 at the time, saw as many as 70 witchcraft trials between 1601 and 1663. Steilneset, the striking memorial to those executed, is a global reference for historians and activists calling for a respectful and faithful reminder of such events.

(Bjarne Riesto )

“Persecution based on social or political prejudice” is the definition given to the term ‘witch-hunt’ by the Spanish language dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE). At the root of the phenomenon is what academics such as Marshall McLuhan refer to as “moral panic”. For three centuries, this panic extended across many parts of Europe and what is now the United States, and claimed the lives of between 40,000 and 60,000 people.

For the author of the study Folk Demons and Moral Panics, sociologist Stanley Cohen, during periods of moral panic, “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” This terror is nourished by “moral entrepreneurs”, who initiate the panic, and “folk demons”, the supposed threats to the social order. In this sense, witch-hunts were seen as a ‘war on terror’ in which the accused aroused no compassion.

Several researchers such as Marko Nenonen, lecturer in Finnish History at the University of Tampere, warn that the historiography of witch-hunts is reduced to the “western European paradigm”, leaving out what happened in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. This has given rise to“false assumptions and generalisations”, such as those regarding gender. In Russia, Estonia or Finland, for example, the victims were predominantly male. In the Finnish Karelia of the 18th century, writes the historian in his thesis, 80 per cent of those executed were men.

Institutional ‘pardon’, memorials and ‘rehabilitation’

Data on Scotland, such as that gathered in a study by the University of Edinburgh, coordinated by Julian Goodare, among other historians, indicates that over 85 per cent of those persecuted were women and that an estimated 2,500 people were executed by strangulation or burnt alive for witchcraft.

In an interview with Equal Times, Goodare gave his view on official pardons granted centuries later: “I’m sceptical about pardons, as they seem like an attempt to rewrite history. As a historian, I accept that we can learn from the past, but I wouldn’t want it to be rewritten. We should talk, rather, about memorials.”

The first memorials, such as those in Salem (United States) or Cologne (Germany), were erected at the end of the last century, as part of a wider movement to remember the victims of injustices, to restore their dignity and provide moral redress.

The Steilneset memorial, a long wooden corridor with 91 windows, one for each victim, was erected in the Norwegian Arctic, at the site of the executions. Next to it is an installation by Louise Bourgeois, who specialised in the visual representation of emotional pain and trauma: a chair in flames.

As for Scotland’s memorials, Goodare laments that most of them are little-known and historically inappropriate. “I sent an email, some time ago, to the Scottish government, suggesting that it should create one, but they replied saying that they have a policy of not paying for memorials,” he explains.

Another form of redress is ‘rehabilitation’. Anna Göldi was the ‘last witch’ to be executed in Europe and also the first to be ‘rehabilitated’ by a parliament, that of the Swiss Canton of Glarus. An eternal flame burns in her memory at the court where she was condemned to death.

“Hers is a story of power, politics, intrigue, torture and passion: a judicial murder,” Maggie Wandfluh, a member of the Anna Göldi Museum, tells Equal Times.

Göldi was rehabilitated in 2008, when journalist Walter Häuser, now president of the Anna Göldi Foundation, requested that the canton’s government clear her name. “Not everyone in Switzerland was happy about resurrecting this historic event. But the public response was huge,” he says.

“It is not only about recalling the injustice that Anna suffered; that would be very poor. We want to raise public awareness about the human rights violations and the legal injustices committed today. The museum also covers present-day injustices, so the message remains current,” Häuser tells Equal Times. Göldi’s rehabilitation has garnered widespread public support in Switzerland and has led to a similar process in Zurich, where a proposal to erect a monument for others accused of witchcraft is being studied.

In Spain, witch-hunts were largely concentrated in the Basque Country and Catalonia. The publication of Caliban and the Witch, by feminist historian Silvia Federico, inspired the author and the publisher to launch a campaign to restore the memory of the women executed for witchcraft.

“When touring the country during the presentation of the book, we realised that the depiction of these events was more folkloric than historiographical,” Beatriz García, editor at the Traficantes de Sueños publishing company and head of the campaign, told us. “The ugly old witch on her broomstick nourishes the image that the inquisitors gave these women and trivialises the extreme acts of violence committed against them. There are various hypothesis [about why they were persecuted and condemned], but they were certainly not witches,” she underlines.

One of these is linked to the “patriarchy of the wage”, says Federici.

“During the Middle Ages, when European peasants were evicted from their lands, they lost their means of production and had to rely on a wage. Female peasants were consigned to reproductive tasks and left dependent on the money that only the men could earn,” explains García.

“Witch-hunts were organised to force them to accept their new position. It was a ‘search and arrest’ operation targeting women with a degree of power or influence in the community or with knowledge related to the body or medicine. The state also launched a fierce attack on the contraceptive and birth control methods available to women,” she adds.

“Women were repressed and had no rights in those days. Anna was a victim in a man’s world, because she was a woman,” says Wandfluh. “The concepts of ‘human rights’ and ‘women’s rights’ didn’t exist, although the situation is not much better today in many countries,” she adds.

Witchcraft, although not clearly defined, continues to be a crime in the penal code of Cameroon. In Saudi Arabia it incurs the death penalty, and in India, according to official figures, over 2,500 people, mainly woman, were persecuted, tortured and murdered as part of witch-hunts between the years 2000 and 2016. As in the past, many of the accusations are rooted in disputes over property, local politics and illnesses.

Memory and tourism

“We are working to encourage the creation of a memory, the most faithful possible and disassociated from mythology and superstition, wherever a witch-hunt took place,” says the publisher of Caliban and the Witch.

“We welcome the fact that they are remembered at the Museo de las Brujas de Zugarramurdi [Witches’ Museum], in Navarra,” she adds. The museum has become one of the main tourist attractions in the area (with over 30,000 visitors a year in recent times, and rising). Salem, the “city of witches”, attracts 250,000 people every Halloween, and the Anna Göldi museum in Glarus, Häuser says, has become a “major tourist attraction”.

“It is one thing to use mythological characters to attract tourism and another thing to exploit a historic process in which women were killed,” warns García. “This is not a crusade but a call for greater reflection about what we do with the memory of these historic processes,” she explains.

“I would like people to understand the witch-hunts better, but we cannot expect everyone to be experts,” says Goodare. “People want to tell stories, and witch-hunts make for a good story. At times, a good story can also be a true story, at others, a ‘good story’ is more powerful than the truth,” he adds. “I think people would like to hear the truth, and I do what I can to help them understand it.”

If the witch-hunts have left us with one lesson for the 21st century, for Goodare, it is this: "We should try to better understand those we consider our enemies; to realise that neither are they entirely wicked, nor are we entirely good. If not, we will feel entitled to treat them inhumanely, which is what the witch-hunters did. We should try to understand why they did it, but also to learn from it.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.