Fertile Ground: A Witch's History Lesson
To me, witches are the quintessential ecofeminists.
“Witch” is a word that was sullied by various groups of long ago, but it's been reclaimed by herbalists like me. Witches and the word "witch" have many meanings in many cultures, but for the purposes of this post, I will touch on just one context, one dark moment of history: The suppression of witches—or healers who were mainly women—in medieval Europe that went on for centuries, and the themes behind those witch hunts that still appear in society today.
My mind began to swim with this idea of witch-as-ecofeminist while working at a medicinal herb farm as a farmhand long ago. I had been seeding herbs in the greenhouse alongside another worker, who was semi-complaining about the job, but then finally shrugged. “This one is way better than my last job at an herb farm,” she said. “That one was way too feminist for me.”
Feeling a twinge of disappointment, I pressed her; “You don’t consider yourself a feminist?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so,” she sighed. “I guess I just see myself as more…neutral.”
Cue heart sinking. At the time, Bush was in office, his so-called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was going full force, and this didn’t seem like any kind of time to be “neutral” about anything. It was surprising to me—most all of the farm workers were women, and we were working at an organic medicinal herb farm, for pete’s sake. Herbal medicine, I felt, was a fairly radical subject to be learning amidst our right-wing, pharmaceutical-obsessed backdrop. If it weren’t for feminism, I figured, we could be a lot less busy making plant tinctures and a lot busier getting burned at stakes for practicing magic and witchcraft.
The European witch hunts took place from the 14th century to the 17th century, from Germany to England. It is estimated that the numbers of women healers getting tortured and killed for being “witches” reached the millions. No matter where in Europe these burnings occurred, the basic theme was always the same: the ruling upperclass aimed their reign of terror towards the poor peasant women in the villages. It was largely rationalized at the time, and for some time after, as the female peasant population going mad, getting in touch with the devil, and needing to be stopped. In truth, it was a much more calculated ordeal, however, and was initiated and funded by the church and state.
As for these women’s crimes? The first was female sexuality. The medieval Catholic Church saw women and sex as tied together in the worst way. Lust in either the man or the woman was always blamed on the woman, and lust and sex were both considered sins. The second crime was that these women were organized. It was thought by the church that they had secret societies where they held powerful meetings, talking in dark rooms in hushed voices about sorcery and magic. The third crime was for harnessing power, or magic, from nature—i.e., knowing how to use plants for different ailments. Witches had a powerful connection to the local flora and fauna, and how to use it to heal, which was seen as a threat to those in power.
What’s amazing and disturbing about history is that it tends to repeat itself. For something that happened centuries ago, some prevalent attitudes in today's society sure have a lot in common with those from witch-burning Europe.
Historians who study the European witch hunts now think what the Church called “secret societies” were actually gatherings of these women healers, in public during festivals or in the privacy of their homes, to swap information, herbs, ideas, and support. Nothing displeased the upper-class, male-centric medieval society more than women, largely poorer women, coming together and being powerful in their own right. We can see this displeasure reflected in pop culture today. We delight in the hair-pulling nature of women-pitted-against-women reality shows (The Bachelor, Flavor of Love, America’s Next Top Model). Magazines beg us to hate/condemn women in the celebrity spotlight.
When women combine forces and decide they aren’t going to take it anymore, it is threatening to patriarchal society. In medieval Europe, something needed to be done about these uppity lower-class herbal healers to knock them down to the dirt they walked on—literally, by burning their bodies to ash. That sentiment isn’t restricted to the history books, either. Women’s reproductive rights are diminishing at the discretion of politicians’ personal, religious, and fundamentalist views. Planned Parenthoods that have lost their funding will no longer be able to provide cancer prevention services to low-income women. Verdicts everywhere tell women that rape is their fault. Feeling like a witch on trial yet?
The European witches were accused of harnessing power from nature. Witches of yesteryear—and herbalists today, from western herbalists to Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners to Ayruvedic doctors—know the power of plant parts, from leaves to stems to roots. Plants are powerful, and they will speak volumes if you listen. They appear out of nowhere, and are everywhere. Dandelions spring up in our fields, uninvited among the packed salad greens; thistle will appear from underneath the stoop of your apartment building. We have a lot to learn from them; they are unsinkable. They don’t give up. They cluster and grow in numbers, together. And that should make all of our little witchy hearts soar.
Yesterday I harvested stinging nettles from our farm, a small patch I had planted a few years ago. It is a wild, unruly plant, very old, and very nutritious and healing. At a nearby school garden, I harvested some of another of my favorite wild weeds, plantain. Both were for my son: nettles for his allergies and building of immune function, plantain for his general digestion. As I harvest these plants I think of women who died for their healing of others. They did so as women, knowledgeable women, organized women. I think how now we have a legacy and mission to fulfill for them. I think about how when things look so bleak, so dreary, and so hopeless, we have to look at each other, and think what really matters, how to be strong standing with one another, what wildness can teach us. We have to keep going, become unsinkable, not give up.
Do I believe in magic? Hell yeah I do.
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