Hunting Witches: Historical and Contemporary Wars on Women

Written by Han Slater

Introduction and Disclaimer

The first thing that comes to mind about Witch Trials is the Salem Witch trials. The second thing that comes to mind is the dark and brooding history surrounding it. People rarely think of Scandinavia, Germany, Russia, or England in the context of witch hunting, despite its steeped origins in paganism and magic. Germany was known to be the “Heartland” of witch-hunting that influenced its European neighbors in their methods of hunting witches. This article will examine witchcraft and witch-hunting origins in differing countries and discuss the significance of historical and contemporary wars against women because of witch-hunting. I will give a disclaimer here on torture, burning, and drowning; I will discuss murder, sexual assault, and physical, emotional, and mental abuse against women. Please, dear reader, tread carefully in this article. I will provide resources for those struggling with mental health, violence, and pregnancy at the end of the article. 

Scandinavia Origins

During the early modern period (1450-1800 CE), the Danish-Norwegian king, Christian IV (1577– 1648), led a dramatic seaborne expedition to the north of his lengthy realm. Christian IV often confiscated Dutch and English merchant ships and claimed sovereignty over the waters near Northern Russia. However, the extent of this northeastern part of Denmark-Norway was uncertain, as there were disputed frontiers with Russia and Sweden/Finland. The indigenous people of northern Fennoscandia, the Sami, lived in all three countries and traveled between them to trade with each other and with foreigners. Living and moving within three countries caused a problem. What the indigenous populace regarded as common districts challenged the Denmark-Norway realm’s national aspirations. In addition, the indigenous way of life caused increasing concern for representatives of the emerging state powers. Gradually, the effort to control the native people of the contested territory centered around Sami’s skills in performing different kinds of magic. Portrayed as evil witches from the remote north, the Sami became infamous all over Europe as The Lapland Witches— a favorite and influential motif in travel narratives, literary fiction, and demonology in the early modern era. William Shakespeare himself references The Lapland Witches in his Comedy of Errors from the early 1590s and how barbarity can be found in parts of Lapland and Finland. However, this group of people is referenced as witches and not entirely just women. So how much of witch-hunting history is solely women-centric? Let us consider another example from history, then.

Malleus Maleficarum (1486 ~ 1487)

Returning to Western Europe’s witch-hunting phenomenon, there is considerable evidence in a document known as the Malleus Maleficarum to indicate that men were as frequently persecuted as women were. How could something significant like this go unnoticed for centuries? According to Marko Nenonen in his section “The Dubious History of the Witch-Hunts,” the Malleus Maleficarum was a “bible” for misogynistic churchmen when considering the witch-hunts. Perhaps this indicates that church authority went unquestioned and inflated the egos of churchmen, bestowing the power of people unto them, which enabled their crusade against women they deemed unsuitable for society. Nenonen denounces the stereotypes associated with witch-hunting and provides evidence that not everyone accused of witchcraft was poor, a social outcast, or unmarried. Nenonen provides documentation of accusations occurring in areas where the populace was largely unmarried, but not necessarily the accused being available women. Nenonen argues further that the “Scapegoat Theory” is what upheld the witch trials and became the driving force for the trials. To support this idea, Nenonen explains that historians look to when there are times of struggle, particularly after bad harvests, persecutions would increase. Deteriorating conditions would provide ample reason for people to accuse another of witchcraft to avoid collective blame or to undermine competition, despite all this evidence to suggest that churchmen could charge any of witchcraft. “The advocates of the trials asserted that ‘the fragile feminine sex. . . feebler in both mind and body was particularly prone to witchcraft” and used this as means to justify their accusations as statistics show an 80% of women were accused in a majority of regions in Europe (Bever, 2002). 

I can hear the questions formulating now. I thought this article was on the war on women. Were women targeted as much as we believe them because of modern media? Before discussing contemporary wars against women can happen, history must clarify where these misogynistic beliefs stem. For example, the witch-hunting phenomenon in history ultimately affected men more often than women because of the laws implemented, and women were considered less than men. So, from where strictly does this image of evil sorceresses come? 

The Evil Temptress

This image of the evil temptress may present different figures in one’s mind. Some depictions might include Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959), Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989), Mother Gothel from Tangled (2010), or even Olive from Easy A (2010). Some less common images that may come to mind are people like Marilyn Monroe, Circe from the Odysseus myth, Meg from Hercules (1997), Eve from the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which took the idea of a temptress to a dark extreme. These women are depicted as evil temptresses in one way or another. I did mention Eve, a controversial character in the story of Adam and Eve, as an evil temptress in her story. Reader, this is my bias. I do not believe Eve is an evil temptress. However, Eve’s role has been debated heavily in the academic field and religious terms; therefore, I will be using what has been said about Eve to understand from where the archetype of evil women originates. Jean Higgins, in her article, “The Myth of Eve: The Temptress,” cites a significant quote from a Commentary on the Holy Scriptures “The first female sinner becomes, after Satan’s fashion, the first temptress,” and then is followed by a recent interpretation of the former quote “the woman is tempted and falls first; she then tempts man,” (Higgins, 1976). Higgins is commenting on how the understanding of scriptures has been adapting and changing in history to provoke this imagery of women becoming temptresses. Eve is tempted by Satan, who appears to Eve as a snake, to eat from the tree of knowledge; she does so after being coerced into it and then encourages Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge. Therefore, Eve, the first female sinner, becomes the first temptress after Satan’s fashion because she has tempted Adam, the first man, into sin. 

With this knowledge, we can now recognize that women have been set up for failure. No matter what women do, men label them feeble, weak-willed, and sinners. After all, Eve was the first female and now has set the standard for other women. However, of course, this outdated ideology is riddled with misogyny and steeped in a religious tradition that has no place in dictating how women or men will be. Do not mistake me for saying we must do away with religion entirely; no, I believe that misogynistic traditions from the past have no place in the opportunities for faith to grow anew. Now that we understand how women have been set up for failure in the past, let us return to the witch trials and learn why the war on women is severe. 

In High Road to the Stake, Michael Kunze presents the elaborate show trial, lurid torture, and execution of a family, the Pappenheimers, accused of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Bavaria. What is particularly striking about this trial is the act of cutting Anna’s, the mother’s, breasts from her chest and wiping the severed appendages on her mouth and her two accused sons’ mouths. Kunze states that executioners rarely did this in witch trials in Bavaria, but it was an act to degrade women when accused of witchcraft.  However, Kunze says that it was not unusual during the time of the rule of Duke Maximillian (1597-1623) for women’s breasts to be cut from their bodies when accused (Kunze, 1989). So, perhaps we can infer that this form of torture and degradation against women was not common in other parts of Europe. With this imagery and knowledge behind us, let us look further into why torture for women is so heavily degrading. 

Assertive and aggressive women challenged a patriarchal order. As a result, they could be beaten by their husbands, punished for moral offenses ranging from scolding to adultery, or, at the extreme, burned at stake for witchcraft. In Early Modern England, what is known as the Witchcraft Act came to pass in 1563 as a way to ratify and maintain witch hunting through a court of law. However, it came under heavy scrutiny because it was believed that not all men were capable of hunting witches and that the jurisdiction of witch hunting should be left to the local lay magistrate and clergy members. Although this was the argument against the courts participating in witch hunting, England continued to hold trials for women accused of witchcraft (Gaskill, 2008). A significant thing to consider because women were still viewed as property, and their fathers or husbands were the ones to be held accountable. Still, religious men delivered punishments directly to women. The argument could be made that the perpetrators were to receive the sentence, but remember, reader, 80% of the accused and arrested were women. The implication is that men targeted women because of the misogynistic ideals held by witch hunters and their belief that women could be easily corrupted. With all the evidence discussed, it is very probable to believe that women were under constant scrutiny, even more so during the witch-hunting phenomenon. This circumstance also infamously affected the small town of Salem, Massachusetts. 

Tituba and Salem

This article would not be about witch-hunting if I did not discuss Salem at least a little bit. However, I will be speaking about a specific individual that goes overlooked that played a significant role in the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693).  A slave woman named Tituba (1674-1693) was the first woman to be accused of witchcraft in Salem. Tituba was also the first woman to confess to practicing witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. Unfortunately, the judicial record describes Tituba as “a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing ‘hoodoo,’” and leaves scholars with very little information because of their lack of inquiry into her origins because of her social status (Tucker, 2000). The judicial account details Tituba’s testimony of riding on a broom into Boston and practicing satanic rituals (Tucker, 2000). However, what is interesting about the testimony and the interrogation of Tituba is that the judiciaries did not execute her; instead, they used her testimony as evidence “as proof that a diabolical presence had invaded their community” and imprisoned Tituba for some time (Tucker, 2000). There is no doubt that the Puritans accepted Ttiuba’s testimony as factual because of their ingrained racial prejudices and religious biases. Of course, there is also the idea of women being weaker than men, and Ttibua was a woman; these gross misconceptions of race, gender, and religious beliefs sparked the severity of the Salem witch trials. We draw focus to Tituba and the Salem witch trials because it is one of the cases where a woman of colour is accused of witchcraft but not executed. Tituba would be confined to a jailhouse within Salem, and bail was set for her, which she could not afford to pay because she was enslaved. What is even more strange is that a man came to the jailhouse, paid bail, and swept her away from Salem during the height of the trials almost a year later (Tucker, 2000). Tituba is just as much of a mystery to us as she was to witch hunters in America. New research will surely provide better insights into the strange case of Tituba. The reality of the situation in Salem is that extreme panic is what caused over 200 people to be accused of witchcraft, 30 people were found guilty, and 19 people were killed by hanging. The engrained ideology of hunting witches became a noble quest and spread from Scandinavia, Russia, Europe, and America. It should be no surprise that vicious misogyny that stems from accusing women, torturing, and murdering women stands the test of time. 


It is essential to examine women’s history from varying timelines and case studies because it reveals important information about women’s situations that are often overlooked. A complex topic like the witch trials needs to be discussed thoroughly and considered from multiple perspectives because of their intensity. Something to consider as we enter into the full swing of the spooky season and pop-culture references is the witch-hunting phenomenon and the Salem witch trials. Approach the topic with sensitivity dear reader, and remember to do your research before you blindly accept something as fact.


Bever, E. (2002). Witchcraft, Female Aggression, and Power in the Early Modern Community. Journal of Social History, 35(4), 955–988.

Gaskill, M. (2008). Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England. Past & Present, pp. 198, 33–70.

Higgins, J. M. (1976). The Myth of Eve: The Temptress. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44(4), 639–647.

Kunze, M. (1989). Highroad to the Stake. University of Chicago Press. Internet Archive.

Nenonen, M., & Toivo, R. M. (Eds.). (2013). Writing witch-hunt histories: Challenging the paradigm. BRILL.

Tucker, V. Smith. (2000). “Purloined Identity: The Racial Metamorphosis of Tituba of Salem Village.” Journal of Black Studies 30, no. 4: 624–34.

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