“Societies who used to send women to the gallows for possessing other powers are today’s champions of women’s rights partly because attitudes have changed but mostly because laws compel one and all to respect those rights. The magic of women lies in their capacity of giving love for the betterment of society in general. Whether the potential for love is pent up at the bottom of the hearts of men and women or fully developed and expressed to promote a feel-good factor in society is an open debate…”
1590 in Scotland was a year of tragic events for women who were endowed with special knowledge and powers. Traditionally, women who could read the signs of nature, interpret natural phenomena, offer remedy to human sufferings as well as bring curse on others were considered as a refuge from the uncertainties and whims of nature, and the vagaries of life. Then, instead of being considered as a refuge, they were gradually perceived as the cause of dangers and misfortunes.
Just consider the following anecdote. James I of Scotland had just married Ann of Denmark and, on his way back with his young bride, his boat was violently rocked on a tempest-tossed sea. Agnes Sampson, a midwife working in a doctor’s home was said to indulge in magic in the middle of the night. She was denounced by the doctor as being responsible for the King’s uncomfortable sea voyage from Denmark. Soon the King had the hapless woman put to death in public in a most horrible manner. In 1997 the King felt self-confident enough to write on the dangers of magic and justified the ongoing persecution of ‘witches’.
What happened in Scotland started a century earlier during the Inquisition in Spain and the Trial of Witches in Boston, America. Plato regarded magic with ‘sympathy’ though he did not approve of wax dolls and other expressions of magic. He would have been horrified to see the cruel intolerance towards women six centuries later.
In 1593 German scholar Cornelius Loos stated that the persecution of witches was a new form of alchemy whereby human blood was transformed into gold and money. The increasing number of trials was good business for the burgeoning capitalism since it involved judges, bailiffs, jailers and executioners who had a financial interest in the persecution.
The more official religion, mostly patriarchal in character, claimed to regulate society, the more the world of magic posed a big threat to the established authority, since it offered another life which did without the authority of the Church and the hierarchy it took care to set up, and which everyone was supposed to pay allegiance to. The Church did not crusade against the magic of women on the ground that it was false and ineffective, and offered shortcuts to attain wealth and good health. Magic was simply a rival source of power.
What outraged and worried the established authorities was the principle of equality that was applied during the Sabbaths held by ‘witches’. Indeed, in the midnight session, everyone who came to attend the service was put on an equal footing – beggars, peasants, artisans, traders, nobles and aristocrats. They were simply considered as people with their own fears, worries, dreams and hopes. Status and wealth did not matter. The blending of social classes was unacceptable. No wonder that in 1926 British theologian Montague Summers declared that magicians were anarchists, enemies of law and order.
To top it all, in 1608, a witch hunter by the name of Perkins suggested that women healers should also be condemned; their healing power was even more dangerous than black magic. The knowledge which midwives had of the female body and childbirth was regarded with a deep age-old jealousy by men who felt excluded from the mysterious kingdom (or ‘queendom’?) of women and their secrets. It was a domain men could not lay their grip on and exert any control. The simple act of washing one’s hands before delivering babies was mistaken for a magical rite. Unsurprisingly, when childbirth took place in hospitals and fell under the control of doctors with the progress of medicine during the 18th century, there was a rise in infant death, and women were scared of giving birth in hospitals.
My personal position on the issue of childbirth since college days has always been that girls should acquire a thorough knowledge of the female anatomy and be taught the techniques of delivering babies. Even if modern medicine is taking care of supervising everything regarding childbirth, it is the duty of and a matter of necessity for every woman to have adequate knowledge of their own body, as a part and parcel of their upbringing.
As regards the healing power of women, call it magic if you wish, African societies have always had women healers who cure men and beasts alike, and they were highly respected. A few weeks ago, a woman from Ivory Coast related how a woman healer used to cure mental depression in her village. The healing process involves the community of people around the sick person: they accompany the latter to the river or to the sea for accomplishing various rites like pouring water over his head and chanting and so on. The idea is that the depressed person is physically touched and feels the love of people around him — a far cry from modern medicine which sends people to the offices of psychologists for a 20-minute face-to-face dialogue, and ending up with the depressed leaving with a prescription for sleeping pills which makes them feel even worse off the following morning.
People seek alternative ways to fulfil their dreams and understand the workings of their own mind and body and of the world around them because they are desperate. Their daily life is made up of loads of worries that overtax their mental and physical health, because they have no control over events around them or feel harassed in every way and crushed by multiple rules and oppressive hierarchy. Alternative healers often pinpoint other realities and make them see the universe, the world and life in a unity, and briefly open a window on a world of magic and wonder. There is nothing childish in the desire to have a glimpse of the other world.
Societies who used to send women to the gallows for possessing other powers are today’s champions of women’s rights partly because attitudes have changed but mostly because laws compel one and all to respect those rights. The magic of women lies in their capacity of giving love for the betterment of society in general. Whether the potential for love is pent up at the bottom of the hearts of men and women or fully developed and expressed to promote a feel-good factor in society is an open debate.
* Published in print edition on 7 February 2014