The Night of the Witches: continuing the legacy of women’s resistance to patriarchy

Walpurgis Night. From the arrival of summer to the arrival of the Devil.

The night of April 30th is celebrated in different places in the north and center of Europe, known as “Walpurgis Night” or “Witches’ Night”. The origin of the festivity is connected with different Germanic pagan traditions. The tradition indicates this date as the transition from spring to summer, the Beltane festivity in honour of Belenos, god of fire, in which bonfires are lit to renew the villages and their inhabitants with smoke, as a method of purification.

While in Greece and Rome bonfires were maintained as a means of purification and worship of the gods, over time a new narrative is being built around women in order to impose patriarchal rule: we go from a tradition linked to the mother goddess and nature, with the use of natural medicine by women, to the story of witches and their evil intentions connected to Satan. We see this clearly in for example the Christianisation of the festival through the saintly Walburga of Heidenheim, acclaimed for her fight against “plagues, rage and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft”.

The bonfires were lit that night as protection against witches, since it is said that the night of Walpurgis was one of the days when witches held one of their most important meetings, called “sabats” (or “covens”), to perform their rites.

Witches as a representation of patriarchal domination and women’s resistance.

The night of Walpurgis and its historical development is an example of how women have been attacked, criminalized and killed with the aim of establishing changes in social organisation. But it is also an example of our resistance against state and patriarchal impositions. This episode of women’s subjugation took shape in the most cruel way with the murder of around 80,000 women accused of witchcraft, especially in Central Europe (more than half of them in Germany), between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Even so, the prosecution and killing of women for their practices, which were contrary to the patriarchal values of the states, relating them to witchcraft, was not limited to Europe or to those centuries. With the colonization, witch hunts were exported to Latin America as a tool of enslavement. Even in non-Christian regions or regions that have recently been Christianized, the persecution of witches, witchcraft or magic appears again and again. For example in northern South Africa, India or Papua New Guinea. Or in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, related to the process of globalization, privatization of land and dispossession.

In this sense, the author Silvia Federici analyses the witch-hunt associated with the enforcement of capitalism as a hegemonic system in modernity, as a process for which they had to carry out this brutal attack on women in order to gain power and control over reproduction and the land:

“The witch-hunt, as well as the slave trade and the conquest of America, was an indispensable element in establishing the modern capitalist system, since it decisively changed social relations and the foundations of social reproduction, starting with the relations between women and men as well as women and state. At first, the witch-hunt weakened the resistance of the population to the transformations that accompanied the emergence of capitalism in Europe: the destruction of communal land tenure; mass impoverishment and starvation; and the creation among the population of a landless proletariat, starting with older women who, not having land to cultivate, depended on state aid to survive. State control over women’s bodies was also expanded by criminalizing women’s control over their reproductive ability and sexuality (midwives and elderly women were the first suspects). The result of the witch-hunt in Europe was a new model of femininity and a new conception of women’s social position, which devalued their work as an independent economic activity (a process that had already begun gradually) and placed them in a subordinate position to men. This is the main requirement for the reorganisation of reproductive work demanded by the capitalist system”.

We cannot only see the continuity of the witch-hunt in those countries where femicide continue to develop under this pretext, as we believe they are linked to exploitation processes. But we also see that the position of women in society is deeply marked by disciplinary processes such as these. Moreover, the witch-hunt was also a campaign of extermination against women, which had a very strong influence on the social situation and at the same time changed the image of women considerably. It contributed to destroying the social power of women and devaluing women as social subjects. This made it possible to create the model of the “good woman” in relation to the patriarchal values for which we are nothing more than an object in their service, and in the same breath to break the bonds and resistance of the community. The population was encouraged to accuse each other, and women’s spaces were from now on presented as a danger because they were not controlled by men and state represented by the “covens”.

The image of the women who were accused also helps us to better understand the patriarchal mentality that tried to assert itself. Many of the women accused of being witches were healers, but also cooks, midwives and child carers. Many of them were older than 50 years. Most of the women accused of witchcraft were single or widowed and generally belonged to the lower social classes. As we can see, women who had control over health and reproduction were those who were considered non-productive by the patriarchal and developing capitalist system and were thus declared enemies.

In this sense, we cannot look at the reality of two dates, which are united not only in the calendar but also in their historical sense and in their militant perspective for the future, in an incoherent way. The oppression of women, which reached a decisive stage with the witch-hunt and which is commemorated in many places in Europe on 30 April, was necessary for the construction of capitalism, which oppresses the entire working class and for which 1st May was set as its international day of struggle.

The attack on society brought about by the introduction of capitalism was brutally expressed in the lives and bodies of women with the witch-hunt. In the same way, this continues to be the case in modern exploitation and imperialism. Here women, who are the conquered territory of the occupied communities, become the cheap and free labour of insatiable capitalism and the scapegoat of men who continue to commit femicide throughout the world. It is therefore necessary to put this in the context of a struggle for the emancipation of working people. It is necessary to recognize the role of women’s oppression and disconnection from nature in the development of capitalism and to make women’s liberation a fundamental point of the struggle. The Walpurgis Night and 1st May show us the challenge of leading struggles that have the context of the struggles as their basis. Which take into account the gender dimension of capitalist exploitation and the class and colonial dimension of women’s oppression.

The path to freedom. We’re the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.

As in the whole history of women’s oppression, it has been marked by resistance, which, although it has been tried to erase from our collective memory, is still well present in women’s struggles today. The existence of the “witches” in itself represents a sign of the rebellion and disobedience against the assimilation of church and state that these women carried out by keeping their models of life apart from their impositions.

It was the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s that revived interest in the history of witch-hunt. Feminists realized that this was a very important phenomenon, which had shaped the position of women in the centuries to come, and identified with the fate of ‘witches’ as women who were persecuted for resisting the power of church and state.

An example is found in Germany. Reclaiming our legacy as women, in the late 1970s and 1980s, women all over Germany demonstrated during Walpurgis Night with torches and candles against “the curfew for women in the dark”. This year, the campaign “Fighting Together for Self-Determination and Democratic Autonomy” (Gemeinsam Kämpfen für Selbstbestimmung und Demokratische Autonomie), makes the following call out for Walpurgis Night:

“We call for April 30th of this year to be filled with conscious and feminist actions and meetings. In the tradition of the “Reclaim the Night” demonstrations, it is a day when we want to take up the space against patriarchal violence. Right now we need a strong feminist response to the growing violence and attacks of the state in times of corona.

April 30 is also dedicated to the memory of one of the greatest femicides in our history, the murder of the so-called “witches”. The witch-hunt laid the foundation for the destruction of large amounts of knowledge, most of which was held by women about health and healing, and was therefore taken away from the population. Today more than ever we are facing a crisis in the health system and we need strong feminist responses to this as well.”

Because no matter how much they try to disconnect us from our past and from nature, to criminalize us for not complying with patriarchal mandates, to persecute and murder us with a femicide that continues to take place in the face of the most overwhelming normalization, this only gives us more energy to continue the struggle, knowing us to be granddaughters of those witches who you couldn’t burn, guardians of the memory of those who did burn. With the legacy of all the murdered women and above all of their resistant fight against patriarchy. Recovering and strengthening the links between women around the world and our link to the earth. Aware that we are because they were, and that the steps we take today in search of freedom will only lead us to a good end if we turn our heads to look at the steps of all those “witches” who preceded us.

That is why, in this context of femicide, of increasing patriarchal violence, but also of struggle and resistance by women throughout the world, and on the occasion of the Night of the Witches, we want to reaffirm the struggle for women’s freedom. So that our brooms may guide us towards it together with all the women of the world. Heirs of all the witches who were burned, of all the women who were killed in the imperialist wars, such as the one that is taking place today in North and East Syria, of all those whose lives and freedom are being stolen but whose struggle is resisting the patriarchal mentality of the state. For them we fight and for them we will win.

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