Apl. Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer / German Studies
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

Witches - from persecuted victim to empowered woman

The Germanist Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer on the changing conceptions of witches in the German-speaking world

'A witch is first of all a woman`, wrote the Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer in his book "Malleus maleficarum", better known under the title Hexenhammer, published in 1486 and with a print run of 30,000 copies until the end of the 17th century. According to today's estimates, it caused the deaths of up to 60,000 people, mainly women, through torture and the stake. However, no woman saw herself as a witch, explains German scholar Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer, who has studied the phenomenon in detail, but women were 'declared' witches. The reasons for this are manifold and actually also have to do with the climate.

Witch hunt due to climate change

Between 1550 and 1650, one can identify the peak of witch hunts in Europe. During this time, thousands of women were brutally murdered because they could not defend themselves against accusations. The reasons for these barbaric acts cannot be explained so easily, according to Meyer's assessment. "Surprisingly, however, the weather, or more precisely: the 'Little Ice Age,' probably had something to do with it," she begins, because "between the early 14th and the late 19th centuries, it became quite uncomfortable in many places in the world, including Central Europe, especially during the core phase of this cold period between 1560 and 1630. Summers were cool and damp, winters hard and long. There were often strong storms. One can imagine what this meant for agriculture, which was not yet industrialized at the time: low yields at best, but often failures of entire harvests. This led to enormous dearness, to hunger and, in turn, to the spread of epidemics in the weakened population." People looked for culprits, and many of those affected assumed they had been victims of witchcraft. Thus, witches would have influenced the weather and purposefully destroyed crops through storms, rain and frost. "Experiences of crisis and the belief in witchcraft are probably directly related," Meyer says. "Interestingly, the persecution of supposed witches was often worst where the most weather-sensitive crops were grown: in wine regions." But persecutions and executions also took place in other areas, the researcher knows, because it was enough if witches were hunted in the neighborhood. "Another reason was certainly that people were afraid of crises and wanted to prevent them by persecuting witches. What is certain is that the difficult, insecure living conditions, such as desolidarization, brutalization and violence, strongly favored the persecutions."

Demonization of People Helps to Master Difficult Life Circumstances

To the question of whether the 'witch hunt' was intended to combat evil per se, Meyer answers: "'Evil per se does not exist. Something can only be judged as evil within a certain culturally and historically changeable frame of reference. This can be many things: something that affects me in an unpleasant way, such as suffering, illness, death, a disaster, war. Evil, however, can also be something for which I myself am responsible through my actions, for example, because I have willfully and knowingly violated rules of a certain morality, because I am unjust, deliberately harm someone else, etc. Inexplicable phenomena have been explained from time immemorial by the work of good or evil spirits. Among other things, religions are known to have developed from this. In the case of the 'witch hunt` we can say that demonizing people as witches was a form of coping with difficult life circumstances and finding culprits for them." Within a Christian-oriented worldview, there is even a certain logic in this, because connections are created, causal chains are formed, and it is by no means the 'good Lord' who is responsible for hunger, hardship, illness and death.

The Dominican monk Heinrich Kramer and his "Hexenhammer

In 1486 a book was published that brought death to thousands of people: The "Hexenhammer". "In his Malleus maleficarum - the original Latin title - Kramer legitimized the persecution of witches and thereby promoted it," Meyer explains and continues: "The book provided the definition of what a witch was. First of all, a woman. Witchcraft, he says, is female. Male sorcerers are only mentioned in passing. The book is dominated by a misogynistic discourse: women are sexually insatiable and much more susceptible to all forms of 'black magic' than men. Therefore, they are often in league with demons. Deficient from birth, women are less firm in faith and eager to make men their will, if necessary with the help of the devil. While the world of science is open to men, women have to resort to magic and do harm. Kramer defines the magical practices of witches, which mostly had to do with sexuality, and explains and describes the procedure during witch trials."

'Witches` in literature

Literature has also taken up the phenomenon of witches around the world. Meyer already offered a seminar on the subject titled 'Evil is Female`, examined texts from Goethe to Updike, and says, "Writers were and are fascinated by witches. We find them in different guises around the globe: in Russian as well as French, in Anglophone as well as Asian and African literatures, and in many other places." In German-language literature, for example, we know the seductive, sinister woman, a variety of femme fatale who manipulates men with the help of magic. Ludwig Tieck described such a type in 1808 in his novella Liebeszauber, which ended in bloodshed. "Then there is the demonic, ugly, scary old woman, as immortalized by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Hansel and Gretel. Unfortunately," Meyer regrets, "it has to be said, because they implemented a very stable, discriminatory image of women as a result. This is still present in the literature of later centuries, not only in German, as for example in Roald Dahl's The Witches (German: Hexen hexen, 1983) and in fairy tales in other languages." Goethe, in turn, in Faust I, describes witches as thoroughly vital, sensual devil companions whose sphere is clearly separate from that of most people, while Theodor Fontane, in his famous 1880 ballad The Bridge on the Tay, portrays them as destructive forces. They joyfully corrupt and kill people and become an allegory of indomitable forces of fate. In the 20th century, however, a kind of rehabilitation takes place. According to the literary scholar: "In 1957, Otfried Preußler created a positive identification figure through the title character in his children's novel The Little Witch. In doing so, he inspired entire generations of writers to create good witches, including such well-known ones as Bibi Blocksberg, the witch Schrumpeldei and Witch Lili."

Widows and unmarried women were fair game

There are also traces of them in the Bergisches Land. There was a witches' dance in Solingen, the witch of Eulswag is said to have drunk the oil from the grinders in the Kirschberger Kotten and paid with her life, and the witches' well in Odenthal commemorates the witches burned there. They become quasi scapegoats for everything that man could not explain. "Women or girls were and in many places still are the most vulnerable social group," Meyer explains. "In our culture, especially older women who were not under male protective rule, such as widows or even younger single women, were virtually fair game in many places for centuries. So it's no wonder that in the search for someone to blame for various ills, the choice fell primarily on women. Especially since they did not have a good image anyway due to the unfortunate work of the churches."

The last execution of witches took place in 1782

Although the Swiss Anna Göldin was the last victim of a witch execution in Europe, defamation nevertheless continued. "Literature, for example through texts such as Hansel and Gretel, helped to spread and solidify the image of the deadly, old, ugly woman," Meyer knows. Belief in supposedly evil witches was also passed down orally in sagas. "We see this, for example, in the Blocksberg in the Harz Mountains and the stories associated with it." But literature also helps to identify what social mechanisms lead to something like witch hunts, he says. "A key text in this context is Ludwig Tieck's 1832 novella Witches' Sabbath, in which he makes it possible to see how discrimination and radicalization can arise in a society and ultimately how people are murdered in the name of a particular ideology." In 1953, American author Arthur Miller tackles the subject. The term 'witch hunt` is familiar to many people through his play of the same name. The problem: the accusation itself is already considered proof of guilt. Thus, the term 'witch hunt` has established itself in the present as a synonym of a hopeless situation. According to the researcher, "Miller's 1953 play The Crucible (Eng: The Witch Hunt) demonstrated psychological and social mechanisms that contribute to destabilizing and ultimately destroying the bonds in an entire village. Set in Salem, in the state of Massachusetts, in the late 17th century, the play was written as a commentary on the hunt for communists during the McCarthy era. It shows how fear and denunciation lead to finding people guilty and executing them, or 'merely' socially destroying them, without solid evidence and due process. A key role in this is played by the representatives of the authorities - church, state, police - who either misuse or fail to use their power properly. It shows us that we should not disregard principles of the rule of law, principles of fair interaction and consideration, out of a feeling of consternation, however justified, nor out of an understandable need for revenge and satisfaction or the knowledge that we are on the morally right side. Even if it is difficult. To these texts, which are still relevant today, I wish many, many readers."

The concept of witchcraft in the 20th century has undergone a transformation

In the 20th century, the concept of a witch has undergone a transformation. It is no longer about the persecuted victim, but about empowered women demanding their rights. During the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, women in France and Italy took on the role of witches. In the U.S., the "Witch Block" formed in January 1968 against the election of U.S. President Richard Nixon. They were attested courage, aggressiveness, intelligence, independence and sexual freedom.
"Witches were and are a fascination whose supposedly real existence is still played with in popular culture," Meyer says. "Blockbusters like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT` also bear witness to this." Numerous women reevaluated witches in the second half of the 20th century, he says. "Instead of an embodiment of evil, a death-and-doom-bringing, sexually threatening horror figure, they now saw her as a self-confident and self-determined woman. She is often a nature-loving healer who can alleviate all kinds of ailments with herbs, but no longer practices black magic. Such an identification figure successfully defends herself against social constraints." She is no longer a poster child for feminism, however, and Meyer reports that literary figures have also dealt with this. "We still find her in the literature of the late 20th century in John Updike's novel The Witches of Eastwick (1984, German: Die Hexn von Eastwick). In research, this text is partly evaluated as strongly feminist, partly as the exact opposite, namely as a satirical reckoning with feminist concepts and discourses. The book became very popular due to the film adaptation of the same name starring Susan Sarandon, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jack Nicholson. Updike also wrote a sequel, plus a television series and a musical."
We find witches today for every age group in a variety of settings. "They can be good and cute and do well as main characters in children's literature. Series like CHARMED and comparable book publications appeal to young people with psychologically complex female characters endowed with magical abilities and powerful. A literary example of a good witch is Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter novels. Witches, however, still appear as creepy characters that are difficult to defeat, for example in TV series such as GRIMM or THE WITCH HUNTER, or in novels such as Wolfgang Hohlbein's Die Moorhexe (1988)."
They also promoted tourism, which can be well observed in the Harz Mountains, where Walpurgis Night is still a big event. "In southern Germany, witch masks are traditionally worn at Fasnacht. That's also why legends and fairy tales featuring witches are still printed and read today."

New meanings against a real-historical background

"The modern witch doesn't exist," Meyer says, because witches are fantasies and myths that have no real-world counterpart. "They always carry the burden of centuries-old attributions, but they are also always given new meanings. These changes are what interest me as a literary and cultural scholar. It is important not to forget the real-historical background: Tens of thousands of women were victims of the Inquisition and other forms of witch hunts throughout Europe from the Middle Ages to the late 18th century. They were defenceless and powerless, brutally tortured, deprived of their possessions and often murdered. Rebels these women most certainly were not."

Uwe Blass (conversation of 07/20/2021)

Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer studied General and Applied Linguistics, Modern German Studies and Romance Studies at the University of Bonn and received her PhD ibid. in 2000. Meyer habilitated at the University of Paderborn in 2009. In 2018, she was appointed apl. professor at Bergische Universität. She teaches Modern German Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Natural Sciences ibid.



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