Photo of the Massa Marittima Mural in Italy
CW: violence, homophobia, misogyny
Historically, the queer community has flourished during holidays like Halloween. It is the night where identity is clouded, irregularities are cherished, and the things that scare us are joyfully detached from reality. One iconic Halloween symbol is the witch: a term that often brings to mind green skin, pointy hats, and striped tights. Many, however, associate the term witches with a plethora of other images: hunting, manifestos, political insensitivity, homophobia, and misogyny.
The term “witches” has a very cloudy history. Between 1500-1600, some estimate tens of thousands were executed due to social upheaval and sectarianism. Andrea Dworkin’s book, “Women Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality,” estimates the number of witches killed to be nine million in the span of 300 years. Their crime? Any act that deviated from her traditional role as a woman. Any outcast, old person, healer, or individual that questioned the patriarchy and power structures like the Crown or the Church was threatened by these witch hunts. And, yes, that absolutely includes queer people. These witch hunts were merely an excuse to persecute women that defied their role, and millions were killed as a result. The explicit misogyny and women-hating during these times was a response to powerful men feeling intimidated by the women who stepped even a toe out of line.
Perhaps as a testament to men’s discomfort surrounding sexuality, many allegations surrounding witchcraft were related to female sexual desire. Folklorist Moria Smith writes in her paper “Penis Theft in the Malleus Maleficarum” that a woman could be accused of witchcraft for things like abortions, causing sterility and stillbirth, and destroying sex lives between a woman and a man. And, yes, for gay sex as well.
In the 15th century, Heinrich Kramer wrote a witch-hunting manifesto called “Malleus Maleficarum” that resulted in countless women dead. One excerpt from the manifesto reads as follows:
[W]hat shall we think about those witches who somehow take members in large numbers—twenty or thirty—and shut them up together in a birds’ nest or some box, where they move about like living members, eating oats or other feed? This has been seen by many and is a matter of common talk. It is said that it is all done by devil’s work and illusion, for the senses of those who see [the penises] are deluded in the way we have said.
These women were accused of stealing penises, putting them into a bird’s nest, and feeding them oats. One story recounts a man on the hunt for his missing penis. He apparently approached a witch in search of his dick and she instructed him to “climb a particular tree where there was a nest containing many members, and he was allowed to take any one he liked.” The man obviously reached for one of the largest dicks and was spurned because it belonged to a parish priest. Kramer wrote in his manifesto, “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” This text not only speaks to the misogyny and fear of women at this time, but also the discomfort men felt around women’s bodies and women’s sexuality. This discomfort is still present today. It calls to mind the men that say they have no problems with queer people but there’s no reason to “shove it in their faces.” As long as men continue to feel this discomfort around non-male bodies, women will always be persecuted and marginalized. The story of dicks growing on trees, however, does leave us asking one question. As Callie Beusman from Vice writes, “If dick grew on trees, would anyone need men?”
However, when we hear of witch trials, many of our minds take us to Salem, Massachusetts. In 1641, it was written “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.” Between 1692-1693, some 150 people (primarily women) were accused of witchcraft, and ultimately 19 were hanged./ The Salem Witch Hunts mark a particularly dark period in America’s dark history. It tells a story of fear, outcasts, and persecution by the rich and powerful on the marginalized outcasts of society. And it didn’t stop there.
The witch trials have been repeated in Central Africa, with queer people at the focus. The year? 2018. One victim’s name is Viviane, who was outcast by her family and dragged to a witch doctor. In Cameroon, even authorities consult sorcerers, who recommend things like “corrective rape” and ritual sacrifices to “treat” homosexuality. Viviane’s story is hardly rare. Between 2010 and 2014, at least 50 individuals were convicted of violating the ban on homosexual activities; a crime that results in at least a five year sentence.
According to the Atlantic, in 2009 Saudi Arabia formed its “Anti-Witchcraft Unit” to “educate the public about the evils of sorcery, investigate alleged witches, neutralize their cursed paraphernalia, and disarm their spells” Concerned citizens are urged to call a hotline should they notice any suspicious behaviors. By 2011, the unit had processed at least 586 cases of magical crime, the majority of which were foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia. In 2012, the unit saw a dramatic increase in power as they found sorcery to be one of the core instabilities in society that must be put to an end.
The grim reality of women’s mistreatment around the world makes the term “witch hunt” a sensitive one, and one that is often manipulated for political gain.
Some of our most powerful political leaders in the United States use this term to allude to their innocence. Their insensitivity to the implications of witch hunts and the millions of women dead because of them shows us that women’s persecution has never really ended. Witch hunts were and always will be a power play between society’s elite and society’s outcasts.
Witchcraft and sorcery is, however, being slowly reclaimed, and largely by the queer community. Queer women are taking over the witchcraft scene and using it to build community and find strength in numbers. One 1968 women’s liberation movement was affectionately named W.I.T.C.H., short for Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell. The group would march down Wall Street and place hexes on this financial heartland wearing pointy hats, black robes, and carrying their finest brooms.
Though witchcraft and sorcery is turning into a symbol of queer power, it’s important to remember the history behind the term. So as we celebrate our queer holiday of Halloween, remember the history behind what we find horrifying. And, of course, keep your eyes in the trees for nests full of stolen penises.