Nighmarish Fantasy and Gruesome History: "Witches" Class Examines Folklore and Fact

Submitted on Monday, 11/19/2012, at 11:47 AM

By William Sweet

As Halloween approaches, witches fly through our imaginations, flitting through Western culture on a broomstick ride through children’s stories, TV sitcoms and movies. Witches are older than Christianity and as current as a Broadway musical hit. 

As fun as the scary children’s stories might be, the witch has a very long and painful history, said Kyle Frackman, Five College Lecturer in German. His fall course “Witches: Myth and Reality” has managed to enchant many students. Frackman originally conceived the idea of a 10-student seminar, but ended up with more than three times that enrollment. 

<p>Witch Attacking the Devil, Jacob Binck, 1528</p>
Witch Attacking the Devil, Jacob Binck, 1528 

“I’m happy with the larger course, and I think the students are enjoying it too,” he said.

What is the attraction? According to Frackman, witches and witchcraft are things that many students have been familiar with since childhood, but only in a passing fashion.

“It’s something that a lot of people have heard about, especially in Massachusetts, through the Salem witch trials,” he said. “It’s something that—for better or for worse—captivates the public imagination. A lot of people don’t know very much about where the idea of the witch comes from, so that can be appealing.”

Superstitions about witchcraft continue to this day. Executions on charges of sorcery still happen: reports of such persecutions have come out of Africa, India and parts of the Middle East within the past decade. (To learn about one modern-day example, watch the documentary The Witches of Gambaga on Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in Fayerweather Hall.)

Whence witches? That’s a long story. The course material covers close to 1,000 years of history, and on any day could include anything from a look at medieval torture devices to Elizabeth Montgomery twitching her nose in the 1960s sitcom Bewitched. And why is the course in the German department? Because much of the historical record of the witch persecutions was kept in German (though the course is taught in English).

While folk healing and spiritual practices later branded as “witchcraft” date back to antiquity, the witch as we know her (in most cases, it has been a “her”) first became recognizable around the 10th century, when the Christian hierarchy started persecuting witches.

“The Church persecuted or tracked down other groups that it thought were dangerous, like Jews and Anabaptists,” and witches were another “other” useful to the Church, he said. “So in the 10th century we start to see more of a crystallization of what a witch is. Does a witch fly at night? Do witches have Sabbaths where they get together, meet the Devil and sign the Devil’s book? That’s where it really gets started.”

The study of the witch appeals to some students because of an interest in gender studies. How witches are described and dealt with in a given time or culture speaks volumes about how that culture feels about women, Frackman said. Even as the image of witches evolved and changed, the image remained loaded with misogyny, he said.

“In the Catholic idea of the witch, women were seen as insatiably lustful and dangerous because of their sexuality, and when we get into the Protestant era”—which had a more positive attitude toward sex, at least when it came to procreation—“the witch is connected to the idea of the disobedient housewife,” the professor said. “In that society, women are supposed to be obedient and trust their husband and trust God’s control.”

This limiting of women’s freedoms in the name of piety “sets the stage for how women are held predominantly responsible for witchcraft,” he said. By the end of the European witch persecutions in the mid-1700s, 80 to 90 percent of the people who were persecuted or tried for witchcraft were women.

Whether they were actually practicing witchcraft is a matter of debate. In some cases, the Church was trying to stamp out folk health remedies and the practice of midwifery, which they felt competed with and contradicted a Christ-centered world view. “Wise women” healers became demonized as anti-Christian sorceresses. Truly Satanic witches existed more in the minds of church prelates than in the villages of Europe. But the idea was useful to spread fear through distant communities and promp more people to turn to the Church for a sense of safety, Frackman explained.

This is all quite a bit for some students to digest, who are surprised both by the brutality and the odd logic of the witchfinders, he said.

“A lot of the reactions have to do with students trying to get their heads around how people were thinking in this period, and how people could think it was rational,” Frackman said. “That the specter of witchcraft could be held responsible for all that was going on in society—in many ways it is illogical and irrational. And that’s difficult for the students to accept.”

Also troubling are the accounts of the trials and punishments of alleged witches. “You hear about torture, but the extent of it was shocking. What they came up with, the techniques they used were absolutely horrible,”” said UMass junior Lauren Siegel.

To counter some of this gloomy subject matter, the course also includes some peeks at pop culture—students at a recent class viewed the pilot episode of Bewitched—and at mentions of superstition and sorcery in the news. Near the end of the semester, students will meet some successors to the “wise women” of yore, namely current practitioners of Wicca, which is now seen by many, and adopted by some, as a legitimate faith.

One reason that mainstream society is still talking about witches is that so many fairy tales have survived from past centuries, brought to the screen by Disney and republished in various forms. The most enduring character from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the Wicked Witch of the West: the villain ofthe 1939 film isthe protagonist of Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel that has been adapted into a hit Broadway musical.

Hip young witches from Washington State appear in the new TV show The Secret Circle. Witches have even been edging out the vampires for screen time on the HBO series True Blood.

“Some people are saying that witches are the new vampires,” Frackman said. Not zombies: they are so 2010.

If you find this discussion enchanting, please be sure to check out the upcoming lecture by Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Teofilo F. Ruiz, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, on "The Witch Craze in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. in Fayerweather Hall.



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