TERRY PRONE: It’s a day for high spirits now, in the past, it proved wicked for witches

Women were murdered during the witch craze. So why do we play it for laughs, asks Terry Prone.

Their friends and neighbours cheered in the dark as the women designated as witches died in agony.

THEY died in terror and pain. They died in public shame, their screams drowned out by a mob of neighbours, relatives and those they had, up to the previous week, called friends. They suffered as they died, and they died certain of further suffering in hell.

And yet, every year, we mock their memory and involve our children in our heartless mockery. We dress the kids up in pointy hats and long claw-like nails, because that’s the wardrobe for a witch.

We give them broomsticks, oblivious to the claims made about broomsticks during the witch craze. If anybody gives it a moment’s thought, the assumption grows that witches flew around on broomsticks.

Or were believed to fly around on broomsticks. Forgotten are the trials where one woman alleged that all of the coven of witches she hung out with used evil herbs mixed with goose fat to smear on their broomsticks in order to put them flying in the sense of having self-induced orgasms.

Pre-electric vibrators, in other words, are memorialised in Halloween props carried by innocent children.

This aspect of the Halloween story matches the preferences of children.

It gets told year after year, generation after generation, down all the days. Under-age witches dance around bonfires in celebration of something which should never be celebrated; the extermination of certain women of Europe at the behest of the Catholic Church, which gave the mass assassination an elaborate rationale and drove it with a will throughout even the most remote areas of the continent.

We do not terrify today’s little girls with the truthful “Once upon a time.”

As in, “Once upon a time the men of Ireland, Britain and Europe ganged up on women and killed them”.

Once upon a time, motivated by the twin desires of suppressing the sexuality of women and the matching desire to remove them from the healing profession where they had held sway for centuries, men moved from town to town, picking out women for destruction.

They picked the old, senile and disabled first.

Then they moved on to the young, the beautiful and the clever. There was no escaping them if a woman was exceptional in any way.

Not that this was obvious, at least in the beginning. In the beginning, the zealots clothed themselves in the garments of fairness.

It was, they indicated, vitally important that every woman accused of witchcraft be vouchsafed the opportunity to prove her innocence, and they developed a method to ensure this would happen.

The sequence went thus.

First of all, women sold each other down the river. Literally. Because the witchfinders would take the accused woman, tie her to a chair and duck her in a river. Again and again and again.

The stated objective was to identify the real witches in the female population of the area, and the ones who survived repeated submerging in the local river or lake were clearly in league with Satan, since the reasonable natural thing to do in such circumstances was a quick decent drowning.

So the survivors were guilty as hell and immediately subjected to the funeral pyre.

The innocent women who drowned were given a proper burial.

This polygraph of the time was used to separate witches and non-witches in a way that depopulated large areas.

As time went on, perhaps because they were running out of women, they decided witchcraft was an equal opportunity profession and did in a few men along the line, too.

But the vast, the overwhelming majority of those put to brutal death were women.

I don’t know if the dipping-for-coins or fruit games played at Halloween echo in some way the ducking of women to prove their innocence through drowning, but the bonfires, while they may recall Guy Fawkes in England, should give the rest of the woman of Europe a shudder, because this was how the sisterhood died.

This was how they died, leather-strapped to a central pole, high on a pyre of dried branches. They flinched at the first flames at foot level, did those women.

They fought their restraints as the flames climbed higher, gasping through the smoke, eyes watering away the image of those they had known and trusted all their lives, baying now for their blood as that blood came to boiling point within them.

Their friends and neighbours cheered in the dark as the women designated as witches died in agony and then disappeared from public memory.

They didn’t disappear completely. It’s arguable that the witchcraze left women with a race memory that prevents them fully trusting other women.

At the time, every woman had a brutal choice: accuse or be accused.

Live, as a traitor to gender and friendship.

Or die in the most pointless way, at the hands of other, often female, accusers.

No matter what they chose, women died, and the ones who lived remained in terror for the rest of their short lives.

The witchfinders clapped each other on the back in congratulations for a job well done, and the profession of medicine was handed over, for several centuries, exclusively to men.

Job done.

What’s not to like?

The Church was always great at taking over pagan festivals, and so the harvest festivals that had gone on for millenia became All Hallows Eve, with loads of freshly harvested fruit and nuts, glorious night-piercing bonfires, and a new theme: witches on broomsticks.

‘C’mere lads, let’s have fun reminiscing about how we reduced our granny to a crispy critter.’

The horrifying thing is that it sustains to this very day.

It is the exception that proves the rule of our view of history.

We in Ireland believe we have a national responsibility to learn about and do something to respond to the generations of single mothers immured in mother-and-baby homes and to their babies, taken from their arms and placed for adoption.

We do not celebrate the decades within which this happened.

Nor does Drogheda hold street parties in memory of the days when, thanks to Cromwell, the streets of the town ran red with blood.

When some not-so-bright spark recently floated the notion of a musical based around the Famine, almost everybody exposed to the idea set out to extinguish the bright spark.

Fun and games about starvation? Yeah, right.

Yet, every year, we dress up children as witches.

Sure, we dress them up as skeletons and vampires as well, but to my knowledge, the world has yet to experience a committed attempt to exterminate skeletons or vampires.

The world did, however, witness the mass murder of real, live women during the witch craze, and not only do we not address it as an atrocity worth collective acknowledgement, but we play it for laughs.

Trick or treat...

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