Friday, October 6, 2023

No Treat for Women

Halloween is the modern celebration of the pagan Samhain, in which the veil between worlds is pierced and spirits make their way back into the land of the living. It is a lovely concept, so strongly held onto over the centuries, that even Christianity incorporated the ritual into a holy day, All Souls Day, on November 1.

Here in Salem, Massachusetts, where I live part of the time, Halloween is celebrated all month, mostly by tourists eager to dress as goblins and witches and by the businesses that cash in on the reveling. I hate the traipsing and traffic of the crowds. More than that, I hate the (typically unwitting) celebration of the barbarism practiced by Christians over the centuries.

 Image from the internet

As we crack open our Kit Kats, we might remember that branding a woman as a witch was a way to control her. And what better way to control her than by killing her—by burning, as was done in Europe in the Middle Ages and by hanging, as was done in Salem, Massachusetts. Consider Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in 1431 in Rouen, France, for being a heretic, sorcerer, and crossdresser. 

Burning continued in Puritan England for almost 300 years. According to the magazine Historic UK,From 1484 until around 1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt, or hanged in Western Europe.” 
I remember reading of advice offered to women of the time: Breathe deeply of the smoke so that you will be killed by asphyixiation before the flames char your flesh.


A depiction of Joan of Arc at the stake

Below, an image from the internet showing a baby tossed in for good measure (a reminder that terrorism has long been with "civilization")

The numbers were much smaller in Salem, and the manner of killing different, but the deaths were no less appalling. In a year between June 1692 and May 1693, 19 people were hanged as witches, 14 of them women, including the women whose names you see on the monument at Proctor’s Ledge in Salem. Tituba, an enslaved woman of Barbadian or indigenous South American origin, was reputedly the first woman to be accused. She was not hanged but spent a year in jail after accusing others of the crime. That “confession” was beaten out of her. After she was released, she disappeared from Salem’s historical record. (Of the five men, 81-year--old Giles Corey was pressed to death with heavy stones.)

Contemporary memorial to the women and who were hanged as witches at Proctor's Ledge, on Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts, where the killings took place.
Photo Jim DeGennaro from the internet

Below, a closer view of one stone
Image from the internet

The inquisitioners in both England and Salem had a unique method of determining if a woman was a witch: dunking. They dropped a bound woman into a body of water. If she somehow survived, she was a witch and was burned or hanged. If she drowned, she was innocent.

If she escaped the flames or the noose, there were other punishments in store for an outspoken woman. In 16th- and 17th-century England and Scotland, her head might have been strapped into what was called a scold’s bridle. This was not just a muzzle, but a contraption that contained a metal plate that pressed on her tongue. In its most extreme form, the plate had a spike that pushed into the tongue itself. So much for having an opinion. 

Do I need to add that this unspeakably cruel punishment was meted out only to women?

Worse than being branded with a scarlet A,  the scold's bridle encased a woman's head. Presumably she was still required to keep house and care for her children

Below: the actual bridle was far more sadistic. And note the little bell atop the contraption. Clearly it was designed to add insult to injury, drawing attention to the woman when she ventured into the marketplace

Mussolini had a way to deal with independent women or those whom he saw as not conforming to his fascist ideas about how they should behave: For two decades he locked them away in mental asylums. Their families were so ashamed, that many women were refused return by their own families.

Our rights have always been tenuous and the punishments for our “transgressions” sadistic. The GOP  reminds us of this daily. Fight back! Enjoy contemporary Halloween, but donate--to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and to Democratic candidates at the local, state, and national levels. Vote Democratic.

And remember . . .


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