Stella Australis
Book of Shadows*Witchcraft History*Oz Pagans in the Media*Australian Pagan Events*Australian Religious Rights*Graphics*NovaPagan*Links

Witchcraft Craze History

The Witch as Internal Other

Throughout human history, the human race has had a tendency to define themselves by how they are the same as or different to other people. Western society has been no different. The character of the Witch has been perhaps the most effectively used stereotype in Western culture and one that shares certain characteristics with others who have been considered "beyond the pale" at various times.

Those who inhabit the periphery of the civilized world, have often shared many of the same characteristics. The three most important and most often used are the practice of cannibalism/infanticide; sexual deviancy and an equal or superior role/place of women in society. It is a combination of these characteristics that has often been used by the ruling institutions of a given period or place to identify those who represent a threat to the established order or who represent the general concept of the Other - the Not Us/Self paradigm.

The identification of the outsider or periphery dweller as cannibal dates back to classical times1. This is perhaps the ultimate way to dehumanise any opponent, by accusing them of breaking the ultimate social, the ultimate human taboo, the literal consumption of a fellow human being. The Other tended to inhabit the geographical periphery of any culture. They are the ‘those just beyond us’. However, the Witch while taking on the characteristics of the geographical Other, represents what could be better termed the scapegoat or the Internal Other. In the period of social, economic, political and religious chaos that was to produce the the Witchcraft Craze or Burning Times, individuals and institutions needed someone or something tangible and nearby to blame their misfortunes on - an Internal Other - who represented a social antithesis, a root cause of evil and misfortune.

The concept of the Witches Sabbath is one of the best examples of how all of the above characteristics came to be effectively combined. Most accounts of these alleged gatherings contained descriptions of cannibalistic and sexually deviant behaviour, often led by women. One of the most potent images used by the authorities responsible for the hunts was that of the infant slaughtered in the name of Satan, its body used for the abominable rights of the Sabbath, often including ritual cannibalism.

Another prominent group of the period to be characterised as cannibals were the newly conquered Indigenous peoples of the America, the classic geographical Other. They too, once the Spanish authorities had decided there was more profit in people and gold than in souls, were to be described as cannibals. Perhaps the best example of the way in which Indian and Witch were often the victims of the same propaganda is a quote from a 16th century cleric:

I saw seven or eight old women who could barely keep themselves standing up, dancing around the pot and stirring the fire, so that they looked like demons in hell.2

The pot that they were stirring was said to contain human flesh.

The second characteristic of the Other is that of sexual deviancy. Those on the edge of civilisation are usually portrayed as having different (and therefore worse) sexual standards than the civilized centre. The Witch was seen as being capable of any sexual depravity. Using the Sabbath again, many descriptions speak of participants having sex with anyone at hand irrespective of blood ties or gender. This breaking of sexual taboos again strikes at a core issues of how any people define themselves. Those capable of incest or same-sex relations are believed capable of anything and therefore deserving of the harshest punishment.

Women were particularly vulnerable to charges of this kind as they were seen as innately more susceptible to carnal temptations, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable"3. The differing attitudes of the native of the Americas to sexual matters (free from the sexual hang-ups of Judeo-Christian theology) also left them open to similar charges.

The third characteristic is tied to the previous two. Women were thought to play a prominent role in the Sabbath (perhaps reflecting the once prominent role they played in the Old faiths), this gave the authorities (even at household level) the excuse for more strict control over the lives of women. Women in positions of power was an extremely frightening proposition for the authority figures of the time. This image also reflected how deviant the world of the Witch was, that it allowed women equal or superior status.

The characteristics of the scapegoat/Internal Other in Western society has very often been consistent. They have been characterized as cannibal/child murderers, sexual deviants and were often members of sub-cultures that gave women a place of prominence. Witch, Gay, Jew, Native Peoples have all been subject to similar charges in order to provide a scapegoat for authority of the day to help maintain the social status quo and allow society to define itself and what it considers acceptable. In the past this has led to the deaths of millions. The fight against persecution continues, and remains a matter of life and death.

By Laren

1. see Herodotus VI 20; Strabo XV 2.14

2. Father Juan De Aspilcueta Navarro, 1550.

3. Malleus Maleficarum, p.127 in Kors, A.C and Peters, E Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700: A Documentary History

Page Updated 7th April, 2000
Hosting by WebRing.