Granddaughters of the witches you weren't able to burn

May we, the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn, be weighed to reveal that we are not witches after all, but real women with real bodies who have been issued the certificates to prove it, writes Juliana Claassens.

"We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren't able to burn".

So read a placard during the January 2017 women’s marches in the United States.

In her chapter titled "Those (not) able to be burnt" in the recently released book Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women's Marches, author and activist Melanie Judge analyses the poster message "We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren't able to burn". She discusses the figure of the witch and how, in both historical and contemporary forms, it is a signifier of persistent systems of violence against women.

Being deemed a "witch", an extreme, dangerous other, threatening what is considered to be normal, traditional, safe, constituted for many women in the 16th and 17th century a death sentence. Today, many women who do not fit into the categories society wants to put them in may find themselves turned into witches who deserve to be exposed, violated, and in some extreme forms, annihilated. 

What is described here sounds rather ridiculous. Except that it is all too real. Take for instance, the manual of how to recognise and interrogate witches that was widely used in the 16th and 17th century throughout Europe and which led to the violent murder of thousands of women.

The Malleus Maleficarum, translated as "Hammer of Witches", with its distinctly feminine title that vilify women, seeks to address the question of what is witchcraft and who exactly is a witch, engaging in some rather dubious biblical interpretations to justify their pursuit. For instance, in Malleus Maleficarum Part 1 Question VI, in a section entitled "Concerning Witches who copulate with Devils. Why is it that Women are chiefly addicted to Evil superstitions?", we read the following:

"But the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives."

This manual with its distinct theological underpinnings, that we today can look back at and consider to be ridiculous, was intended to help judges root out the evil of witchcraft in their communities. And it was in some sense a great success. Spreading throughout Europe thanks to the new technological invasion of Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, it is estimated that more than 200 000 women were accused of witchcraft, interrogated, tortured, burned and hanged. 

Some of the tactics of how to identify a witch also screams of absurdity. For instance, presumed witches were thrown into the water, and if they floated, they were considered to be a witch and hence burned or hanged. If she drowned, the woman was considered not a witch. Either way, the accused woman perished.

Amidst all of this insanity, it is refreshing to read of one practice in the little town of Oudewater, in the Netherlands. The town that resisted the harmful superstitions regarding witchcraft actually used the practice of weighing witches in some huge weight scales (in Dutch called "Heksenwaag"). The belief was that because witches need to be light enough to fly on a broom, weighing women suspected of witchcraft was a sure way to identify witches. The king of that region, Charles V, actually gave the town permission to issue certificates to women attesting to their weight, and hence innocence. It is said that in the little town of Oudewater, not a single woman was ever convicted of witchcraft.  

From November 25 to December 10, all throughout South Africa, individuals and groups will be participating in 16 days of activism of no violence against women and children. November 25 is also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In some sense, the ongoing scourge of violence against our children and the women of this country is as fraught with ridiculousness as was outlined above. And yet, it is all too real.

We see also how the violence perpetrated against especially women in our country is rooted in the violence of framing and othering women in so many different ways, which then serves as a justification of that violence. We often hear and read how women are weak, not to be trusted, emotional, irrational, immoral, deceptive and the list goes on. Lesbian women are even further demonised and subjected to what the perpetrators would call, "corrective rape".

In this season in which we say "no" to violence against women and children, may sanity prevail. May we, the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn, be weighed to reveal that we are not witches after all, but real women with real bodies who have been issued the certificates to prove it.

May there be more leaders like Charles V who protect the women of his constituency from being falsely accused and violated. May there be in South Africa, and indeed the world, more towns like Oudewater that rise up and say: Not in our neighbourhood. There are no witches here.

- Prof Juliana Claassens is head of the department of Old and New Testament and Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.


Judge, Melanie 2018. "Those (Not) Able to be Burnt," in Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches (eds. Joy Watson and Amanda Gouws) Imbali Academic Publishers, 119-122.

Kvam, Kristen E. et al (ed.) 1999. Jewish, Christian and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

*This list of sources was not originally published as it is not News24's style to reference sources academically. It was included after publication to give due credit to the cited authors. 

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