Malleus Maleficarum. That’s Latin for ‘Hammer of Witches’, or Hexenhammer as it was called in German. It was published in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German Dominican Inquisitor, two years after the ironically-named Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull recognizing the existence of witches. This hateful book became the most-used tool in the mass torture and murder of countless women based on supposed witchcraft or diabolism.
Estimates are extremely unreliable, but over the centuries tens or hundreds of thousands (some sources even say millions) were burned, drowned, hung or otherwise executed in Europe and North America. Some say 1 percent of victims was male, some say 10 percent, but the persecution of witches is very obviously the persecution of women.
The Malleus Maleficarum concentrated almost exclusively on women, and the men who were murdered were often accused of being accomplices rather than witches. In fact, the feminine possessive in the Latin title already says it clearly: if the book were about male witches or both sexes, it would be called Malleus Maleficorum. Women were declared to be weaker in their faith and more ‘carnal’ than men–because women make men feel ‘carnal’, of course. That’s why we’re so evil, you see, because men have historically always been incapable of taking sexual responsibility for themselves. Note how the narrative has shifted over the centuries: men are now seen as the more carnal, less sexually disciplined ones, but women’s bodies are still blamed for that. Catholiceducation.org calls the Malleus Maleficarum,
“a vicious misogynist tract. It depicted women as the sexual playmates of Satan, declaring: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.” Ironically, Sprenger also had a deep devotion to Mary. He helped to shape the modern rosary and founded the first rosary confraternity.”
Interesting that a deeply devout Inquisitor who worships the Virgin Mother could see all women as carnal beasts with a primal connection to the very essence of evil? The virgin-whore dichotomy is no coincidence. It’s sexuality itself that makes women evil, because the man-ego, hungry for the reassurance of absolute control, perceives sexual attraction to a woman as an attack on his rightful, complete dominance. Thus, virginity/chastity is glorified in women as the opposite of sexuality. The woman is entirely defined by her sex(uality) in the patriarchal view, unlike the man (who, ironically, is the one whose sexuality is truly being defined here, unbeknown to all). Sex, and through it becoming the giver of life, is the only remaining source of potential female ‘power’ in a patriarchal society, and as such it must be identified with evil and brought under control.
The threat of female power
As soon as a woman transitions from ‘virgin’ to ‘sexual’, there is a potential for power over a man (in the paranoid, wishing-to-be-omnipotent male mind), and so she becomes demonic and dangerous that very instant and must be denigrated and dehumanized. Remember that horror movie trope? In stupid slasher flicks, as soon as you see a girl or woman engage in any kind of sexual activity, you will see her brutally murdered soon after. It makes her fair game to kill (I believe my attention was called to this fact in the movie Scream, and I’ve seen it confirmed many times since).
Since girls are increasingly sexualized at horrendously young ages, both by the media and religious zealots, this also means they become fair game sooner. The girl becomes valid prey and must also be disappeared, be it that a man will want to punish her with his body or with a different weapon. Terrible as it sounds, when a little girl is made to dance around suggestively on stage in make-up and ‘sexy’ clothing (as little girls are frequently found to do these days), seen through the patriarchal filter this means: ‘look at her, she is Eve, the mother of all sin, purge yourself by dominating and destroying her.’ It is understandable that people shy away from this analysis and find it to sound extreme. The reflex to repress the horrible truth is strong.
So witch hunts, connected as they are to the perception of all that is female and/or sexual as threatening, are a means of quelling female power. The witch or sorceress is a concept that has been closely associated with the woman healer, the midwife, the mystic, the shaman. Not only female sexuality but also female knowledge has been associated with evil. Anything that makes women something other than helpless is perceived as threatening (cf. the systematic killing of medicine women so that the field of medicine could become entirely male-dominated to school girls being hunted down and shot in the head by fanatical soldiers of the patriarchy in Pakistan, for instance). Among those burned in Europe in centuries past were many women who went against the status quo or dared to claim a place for themselves (I’d touch on ‘heathen’ religions at this point, but it goes beyond the already large scope). They were eliminated, driven by a deeply misogynist church-empire and economic pressure and religious-social upheaval in the population (which does sound frighteningly similar to a few regions on the planet right now).
The tone may have changed, or some of the focus, but women are generally still portrayed as the same threats to the sanity and the souls of men, and at the same time their necessary servants and admirers, as they were in those days. Some of the ubiquitous stereotypes of today include women being ‘teases’ who lie about being raped and assaulted and abused, ‘gold diggers’, or ‘attention whores’, with complicated, unknowable, irrational and unscientific minds and hysterical emotions. Infantile, vain, shallow, malicious, fickle, deficient in body and mind…there are countless hateful stereotypes about women, surviving until today with only slight variation (if any) from their ancient time of origin. How much difference is there between a 15th-century Witches’ Hammer that says women have less faith and are more carnal (i.e. are closer to animals) and the 19th-century theories of the still-revered Charles Darwin and his ilk?
“Darwin concluded that adult females of most species resembled the young of both sexes and from this and the other evidence, “reasoned that males are more evolutionarily advanced than females” (Kevles, 1986:8). Many anthropologists contemporary to Darwin concluded that “women’s brains were analogous to those of animals,” which had “overdeveloped” sense organs “to the detriment of the brain” (Fee, 1979:418). Carl Vogt, a University of Geneva natural history professor who accepted many of “the conclusions of England’s great modern naturalist, Charles Darwin,” argued that “the child, the female, and the senile white” all had the intellect and nature of the “grown up Negro” (1863:192).”
As if the parallels weren’t obvious enough already, the above quote takes a racist turn. I have frequently thought about how little difference there is between some of the antisemitic propaganda in Nazi Germany and the hateful vilification of women as it has been practiced over time. Mainly women were targets of the Malleus Maleficarum and the witch hunts, mainly Jews were targets of Mein Kampf and the Nazi ideology of extermination. A holocaust in both cases, only one of them being industrialized, thus accomplishing more death in a shorter time.
Ideology of death
Systematic dehumanization of an entire class of people preceded and coincided with large-scale, organized murder, the populace working in guilty concert with the authorities. Women have consistently been seen and treated as less-than-human, as the quote above nicely illustrates. We are animals, beasts of burden that are inherently sinful, like the Nazis painted Jews as innately polluting, parasitic vermin and all other races as inherently inferior. And if you didn’t think the above was clear enough yet:
“One reason nineteenth century biologists argued for women’s inferiority was because Darwin believed that “unchecked female militancy threatened to produce a perturbance of the races” and to “divert the orderly process of evolution” (Quotes from Bergman, J. 1994. Darwin’s Teaching of Women’s Inferiority. Acts & Facts)
Nazi ideology is built on social Darwinism, so obviously these mentalities are a good fit for each other. Both ideologies, that of Nazism and that of misogyny, place two opposing sides in a state of perpetual war, only that one of them is called sex and carried out on the battlefield of women’s bodies*. A hunger for absolute control and domination combines with a belief in the inferior, dehumanized nature of the scapegoated ‘other’ to unleash genocidal/gynocidal storms of boundless terror.
Lest you should think the Nazi-like judgment of our characters and minds based on our bodies has disappeared in our oh-so-enlightened 21st century, with its nanotechnology and quantum machines and legal ‘equality’ for women in a great many countries, let me bring to your attention the respected Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge and peddler of misogynist brain-sex theories that he pulls out of his behind (autism is really just being ‘extremely male-brained’ because empathy is a female trait and thinking logically is male. No, seriously, I’m not even greatly simplifying or phrasing it mockingly).
The Nazis, with their obsessive focus on blood, race, and the body, have shown how the ideology of perpetual patriarchal war sees women: as breeding machines of soldiers, cannon fodder. Our bodies are nothing but commodities and factories of more commodities in the industrialized death machine. This is the only sexual ‘use’ of the female body that is permitted in patriarchal culture, the only kind that saves us from whoredom despite having lost virginity, but in the end absolutely nothing can save us from being identified with evil and becoming the hated enemy within patriarchy.
“And what are we to think? Because if we begin to piece together all of the instances of violence— the rapes, the assaults, the cripplings, the killings, the mass slaughters; if we read their novels, poems, political and philosophical tracts and see that they think of us today what the Inquisitors thought of us yesterday; if we realize that historically gynocide is not some mistake, some accidental excess, some dreadful fluke, but is instead the logical consequence of what they believe to be our god-given or biological natures; then we must finally understand that under patriarchy gynocide is the ongoing reality of life lived by women. And then we must look to each other— for the courage to bear it and for the courage to change it.” (Dworkin, Andrea. Our Blood. New York: Perigee, 1976)
Patriarchy, when followed through to its ‘logical’ (all-but-logical when seen from without, of course) conclusion, is an ideology of exterminating the female. It is a system in which women must be possessed, used, abused, and completely eradicated, all while being blamed for the very things that are being done to them. History doesn’t really repeat itself, it actually just stagnates in certain aspects. We haven’t escaped the male supremacy and the constant violence and death this results in for females. Because it isn’t merely a matter of inequality.
Patriarchy doesn’t simply paint us as ‘less than’ men, it paints us as the enemy and every man as a warrior. Contempt for and dehumanization, demonization and hatred of women are highly sexualized–and male desire is, in turn, strongly connected with all these (as those familiar with the un-sugarcoated reality of the ‘sex industry’ will be able to attest to. Mainstream pornography is nothing an alien race unfamiliar with the whole mess patriarchy calls ‘sex’ would ever associate with love or reproduction; it looks like one type of person doing their best to destroy a different kind of person). Then as now, it’s still either virgin or whore, and even that choice is an illusion because in the end we are all, collectively, always to blame and deserve only extermination.
And the mill of death keeps grinding…
Everyone knows the line about feminism being the radical notion that women are people. Well, that notion remains a radical one, not just in those places where women are still accused of being witches (which, and that’s kind of the point of this post, we still are everywhere in one way or other). Over the millennia, millions and billions have died and will continue to die the deaths of condemned witches, until patriarchy has been overcome.
The burnings did not reach their peak in the Middle Ages, by the way. They started many centuries before, and they peaked around the 16th and 17th centuries, just when the Age of Enlightenment was gearing up to wash over Europe. People like to pretend such terrible acts are only possible in the Dark Ages, and now that we have an enlightened world, everything is looking up. Except it isn’t. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Papua New Guinea, women are still accused of witchcraft and burned alive, and burnings of girls and women are common in other countries without connection to witchcraft. In Saudi Arabia, the death penalty officially awaits a convicted witch.
In India, the notorious custom of Sati (the Sanskrit meaning having become that of ‘good wife’) was last banned in 1829 but continues to be practiced occasionally until today. Burning alive in self-sacrifice was (and is, if mostly figuratively) glorified as the greatest deed a woman can perform, annihilating herself in devotion to a man, usually her late husband. And we know that self-sacrifice, if not given willingly, is taken from us, as our presence must be erased. In Saudi Arabia and increasingly in Israel and other places, images of girls and women are systematically erased or hidden from public view. This is a highly symbolic act that stands for our physical removal from reality, carried out by those who cannot stand the presence of a living female for the weakness it makes them feel.
There are many ways in which gynocide is happening: foeticide and infanticide (not only in India, but also in China, Pakistan, the Caucasus and other places), murder (besides of course being a global issue, Honduras and Ciudad Juárez are two places that deserve a tragic special mention), ‘honor killings’ (Middle East/Africa and worldwide) and high mortality rates of mothers and infants, whether from deliberate, habitual or involuntary neglect, as well as through the disproportionate way women are affected by poverty, which is also a form of violence given that our world actually has abundant resources that would only need to be distributed fairly.
Over the course of less than a century, about 50 million girls and women have been eliminated in India. Looking at the genocidal reality of this figure gives us a glimpse of what is possible to hide in plain sight, of what a people can become accustomed to and even ignore completely (I have an educated, male Indian acquaintance who recently asked me if I thought sexism was still a problem in the world). Says Rita Banerji,
“Doodh-peeti, another old tradition still practiced in the north-west, is a method of killing new born girls by drowning them in buckets of milk. Kuri-mar is a reference to the communities in northern India that traditionally killed all their daughters. The Kuri mar or ‘daughter killer’ communities at one time openly bragged about having ‘no daughters’ —only sons. Most new-born girls would be buried underground in earthen pots. It is said, that Sita, the heroine of India’s 2000-year-old epic saga, who was found in a pot underground by her adopted father while he was ploughing the field, was perhaps one of the earliest girls thus rescued. Johar is the practice that socially compelled women to commit individual or mass suicide, when they were attacked and raped by rival communities, in order to preserve their family’s honour. When a practice acquires a name in a society, it becomes acceptable at the subconscious level of that community’s collective thinking. Its premise becomes sacrosanct, and the lines between crime and culture, and what is permissible and reprehensible, become blurred.“
This of course goes for all patriarchal societies. By calling it tradition, all manner of atrocities have been justified, accepted, ignored and glorified, in every part of the world. As a vegan, what do you think I see when someone puts on a silly hat that looks like a cooked turkey’s carcass and laughs? I see someone to whom atrocity is a normal thing, due to the societal conventions they have grown up with. I see exactly how much is possible through making something a tradition and deciding what to name it. (I also see, considering my own past and transformation, that nobody is without fault and simultaneously nobody is at fault either. It’s a matter of awakening, not of being inherently good or evil)
Speaking of tradition, ‘modesty’ or ‘chastity’ is the protective mechanism against evil female carnality, and it is placed on girls from birth like an invisible and at the same time all-too-visible yoke with which we are to pull the plow of our own oppression. The Modesty Cult is alive and well worldwide, be it in countries where heavy clothing restrictions apply at all times, in the West with its purity balls and its ‘slutshaming’ (which I will write about at some point), or in Israel, where little girls are increasingly segregated, spat upon and assaulted for their ‘immodesty’, for their dirty, still-too-human, still-too-capable, still-too-attractive, still-too-visible bodies. Some Jewish women in Jerusalem have even taken to wearing burqa-like garments, adding a cone-shaped object on the head to further obscure their human form.
Short of being able to make themselves completely invisible, women do their best to obscure the fact that they have capable, natural, strong, human bodies. If we do not live in a society that teaches us to vanish from sight by covering up, we make ourselves tiny by fasting, we stalk around on crippling and helpless-making shoes, we wear restrictive, uncomfortable clothes and use toxic chemicals and potentially deadly procedures to change our appearance, distorting our form and making ourselves sick and vulnerable. Of course, this doesn’t even come close to covering the whole range of ways in which women are expected to let themselves be crippled (and indeed to enthusiastically cripple themselves), but you get my meaning.
The holocaust of women is an ongoing one. We live in the First Reich, that of male authority, and its sick ideology of dehumanizing and annihilating all that is female. Whether we seemingly annihilate ourselves by wasting away from anorexia or other self-harming behaviors, falling from a building after being raped and humiliated by a boy with a phone, or committing suicide because we were relentlessly verbally attacked and threatened; whether we are actively hunted and lynched, executed with the bureaucratic precision of a death machine government, or slowly ground to dust by the patriarchal forces at work around us–the war will not be over until patriarchy is, and so we must keep fighting until we can fight no more, come what may.
[emphasis in all quotes mine]