Extracts from Adriana Achillini´s article ‘Las brujas’


"The witches were the Shamans of the Old Europe, spiritual cultural heir of the pagan pre-christian civilizations. In many cases, the word ‘witch’ matches up with the name of the local Goddess: Lamia, Maga Saga, Strega, Strix, Incantatrix, Lucina, Janara..., to mention just a few. In the Old Saxon language the word ‘med-wyf’ meant ‘obstetrician-witch’. The English word ‘witch’ comes from the Saxon ‘wicce’ that means ‘wisdom’. In the medieval England, the female clan leaders acted as community judges. In Chester´s Magna Carta they were called ‘iudices de wich’, that´s to say ‘judge-witches’. They kept a very high social status well into the Christian era, as for millennia, the priestess of the Great Mother held the monopoly of justice, healing and obstetrics. This last practice continued without interruption until the Modern Age since, for male doctors and the clergy, it was taboo to treat any kind of feminine condition. In pre-Christian Gaul and Scandinavia, the arts of healing were entirely in the hands of witches or wise women, midwives, herbalists who continued with the tradition of treating patients in the sacred places formerly consecrated to the Goddess. Their knowledge was based on oral traditions passed on from mothers to daughters since the beginning of the continent´s civilization.


The biblical passage ‘Do not allow a sorceress to live’ (Exodus 22:18) has been the cornerstone for centuries of prosecution. In origin, the church didn´t condemn sorcery as a sin, but Innocent VIII´s papal bull in 1484 denounced witchcraft as the Devil´s conspiracy against the peace and common order of the Sacred Christian Empire and, in this way, institutionalized a war against women.


The consequences were devastating. Not only for the number of victims (estimated between 3 and 9 million, of which 80% were women) or their methodology, but also because the secular and religious authorities who carried out this massacre didn´t hold complete responsibility for these atrocities.[…] The witches (read: women) were torture for days with the most horrific devices: the rack, , the garrotte, red-hot irons, the copper boot, the burning chairs...


Until the XV century, the herbal healing (passed on through generations like cooking recipes) were the only known medical treatments. […] Contrary to the general belief, the witches and healers weren´t some ignorant women overcome by the technical-scientific superiority of the male professionals. In fact, they have been ascribed to have used through centuries a vast number of remedies still in used by modern pharmacy. They had such phytotherapeutic knowledge to treat almost any kind of illness. Paracelsus (consider the father of modern medicine) admitted to have inherited from healers all his medic and scientific knowledge. Agrippa Von Nettesheim maintained that, when it comes to knowledge, the wise old women and midwives were by far, superior to graduated physicians. Men who had from the healing arts from the witches were free to practice, while those witches who were their teachers were persecuted.


The universities, therefore the official medicine, barred the presence of women. In 1322, a woman called Jacoba Felicie was arrested and prosecuted by the Faculty of Medicine of Paris for practising medicine, even though the report stated she was more knowledgeable in surgery and medicine than the best graduated male physician in the city.


Official medicine was strictly supervised by the clergy, the medicine studies couldn´t contradict the Church´s doctrine. As a result of it, the future physicians had little knowledge that we would hardly consider as scientific and almost no practical experience. There was little they could do to heal the sick apart from reciting some ‘magical’ formulas, prescribe laxatives, bleeding and applying leeches.


On the other hand, the witches´ practice wasn´t controlled by any religious doctrine that might inhibit their freedom to research, they based their judgment on experience and trusted their own capabilities to heal by using medicines to treat diseases, pregnancy, births, abortions and as contraception; as well as rituals and charms to activate suggestion when treating psychosomatic conditions. That´s why, from the official medicine´s point of view, their successful treatments and good decisions appeared to be inspired by some power that, as they couldn´t understand it, had to be evil.


The witches were persecuted for knowing and teaching other women how to take control of their destiny and sexuality. The Inquisition´s manual, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, by the Dominican monks Kramer and Sprenger declared: “Any evil is small when compared to a woman´s evil. The natural reason lies in the fact that women are more carnal than men. this is obvious if we look at their many carnal abominations. It is worth noting there is a defect inherent in the making of the first female, since she was made from a bowed rib from the chest, which bends in a different direction to that of man. Hence, with this malformation, she is an imperfect animal who always betrays.”


This text shows us how the accusation against them was their feminine sexuality. In the old pre-Christian cultures sexuality and fertility were revered as a gift. The primitive Church attacked very strongly the many pagan traditions that considered sex as sacrament, the sacred union of the Goddess and Her Spouse, the ritualistic sexual union of the priestess and the priest that warrants the abundance of the crops and the general welfare. The witches were the direct descendants of those priestesses and, no matter how decimated those traditions were and how diluted those beliefs became throughout time, the concept of the triple goddess (maiden, mother and hag), the cult to the land´s fertility and the ‘Hieros Gamos’ (Sacred Marriage) still resonated within the culture of those farmers from the Middle and modern ages, who sowed, grew and harvested following ancient lunar and seasonal ceremonies (in fact, the word ‘pagan’ comes from the Latin ‘paganus’ which means ‘peasant’). The witch represented the third aspect of the Goddess, Wise Hag, highly revered for her services to the community; who, as a consequence of the ruthless persecution and the terror the inquisition provoked, became feared and repudiated by her own people.


The peasants live their celebrations uninhibited and in ecstasy, and men and women took part in these festivities maintaining them for centuries. The church witnessed this burst of joy with clear disdain, that´s why it took those celebrations, removing their sensual nature, putting in their place the most important Christian celebrations. Thus it moved the important role of the Sacred Feminine, replacing the ancient places of worship of the Goddess with temples dedicated to a virgin who gave birth and was mother without sexual intercourse, an ideal that no normal woman can aspire to.


According to the Christian morals, woman brought death to the world and sex perpetuated it. Women were associated to indiscriminate pleasure and so transmitted that sin to men. Any woman reactionary to this morals, who didn´t give in to the discipline of the marriage nor accepted celibacy, or even worse, who dared to live on her own, could be accused of witchcraft and be killed for it, never mind if she followed pagan traditions or not.


As the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ says: “All magic has its origin in the lust of the flesh, which is insatiable for women... To satisfy their lust, they copulate with demons... It is clear enough why is not surprising how witchcraft affects more women than men... Praise the Lord who´s kept men from such an appalling sin.”


Another of the accusations blamed women for supporting the organizing networks of peasant rebellions against God´s kingdom on earth. Every seasonal gathering summon thousands of people, it attracted dissatisfied inhabitants as much as it established better relationships among the villages and parameters of solidarity and autonomy among peasants. It is not hard to imagine how witches fomented the overthrow of the religious and political regime that both, them and the peasants, considered unjust and invader.


The people mistrusted the doublespeak of the church, which on one hand it suggested a bare life for peasants and on the other hand its priests were a corrupt and privileged class that oppressed with an standard they wouldn´t follow themselves.


It is worth to mention as well, that these processes of witchcraft yielded important profit to the church and the local nobility, kings, judges and courts who received from the inquisition a share of the booty; as all property was confiscated after the arrest of the accused. The papal authorities held that confiscation was the first weapon against heresy. It took place before the sentence since it was assumed that no one would survive it. It some cases it happened before the ‘confession’ was made. In 1300, a noble called Jean Baudier was arrested the 20th of January. He refused to confess until torture broke his spirit on the 5th of February. He was condemned on the 7th of March. However, his property was sold on the 29th of January, a week before his confession.


It was expected of the accused ones to pay for the expenses of their process, even for their torture and their food. If they had no money they died of starvation. The 15th of August 1376, Gregory XI, commented how many of the accused women died of starvation prior to their execution. He church had no intention to provide from its own funds, although granted indulgence to those who provided food for the heretics starving in the dungeons, waiting for the pious generosity of the believers who might help them out of charity.


The witches´ hunt shows us a history of men who persecuted women with the aim of monopolizing profitable professions such as medicine and religion. The witch represents a menace to the Church´s power for various reasons: she was a woman and honoured her own sexuality as sacred; she was wise and the continuator of a pre-Christian religious tradition; she was respected for her knowledge on medicine, an she was part of a peasant women´s movement. Compared to the church´s oppression, she was the obvious hope of change based on communal relationships.


Modern witches claim their predecessors to be the victims of a patriarchy and they re-create an new spirituality based on the pre-Christian matristic traditions such as:



a) Celebration of the divinity as feminine, the creator principle of the universe, while her sacred partner is her lover, friend and companion.


b) Body and soul exist in unity, the female´s body far from unholy, guards the secret of creation and is the means to connect with the sacred.


c) Nature is sacred, therefore it shouldn´t be abused nor ‘conquered’.


d) Time is not experienced as linear but as circular and cyclic. The image of the triple Goddess represents the cycles of birth-life-death-life.


e) The individual is worth by him or herself, not subordinated to any ‘revelation’ that commands his or her devotion to any deity.


f) There is no concept of Original sin and the ethical model says ‘do as you please hurting no one’.