Wise Women

On the 22nd September 1692, the last executions for witchcraft were enacted in the USA. These terrifying punishments were a consequence of the hysteria and paranoia that had gripped the populace for that entire year. The population had experienced misfortune on an unprecedented scale and they needed to find scapegoats.

These were frontier people who sought religious and economic freedom after suffering prejudice and penury in Europe. They were deeply pious but prone to their own prejudices, particularly directed against women and especially women with intelligence and independent spirits of their own.

Throughout history women have been the focus of awe. Men feared the power of female sexuality as well as enjoying the allure of it. This is the root of the myth that a mighty woman has the feat for destruction. Eve had the wiles to convince Adam to eat the Forbidden Fruit. If Eve had not convinced Adam then human beings would not have acquired the knowledge to develop and we would have lived like the animals. However Eve also made man self-conscious and ashamed of his own physical desires.

In classical myth the most alluring figures are female, they have the power to inspire poets but also the potential to confuse, to blind and to maim. Mediaeval Europe had absorbed the Biblical and classical perception of women. This led to the first recorded examples of literal “witch hunts”, where women could face arrest for practising sorcery or witchcraft. A proportion of these women were not sorcerers or witches but simply clever and capable, often with highly sought after skills in medicine.

The greatest male writers of the twentieth century channelled their awe, fear and desire for female sexual energy and intelligence into their work. D.H Lawrence built his entire literary career upon fierce and inspiring women, a mirror of his own life as a young man surrounded by strong women. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, though entirely different in terms of poetic style, were driven by the energy of the women in their lives.

It is vital that when we consider the “witch” as an aspect of feminine sexuality we should remember that it is a powerful symbol in our culture and history.

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