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What does it mean to be a witch in 21st-century Europe? Our new cross-border reportage tries to answer ...
2020-05-13 09:00:00
cross-border reportage

There Were no Witches, Only Women
A European Witch Hunt

Zugarramurdi. Photo by Mikel Iturbe Urretxa/flickr (CC BY 2.0)
There Were no Witches, Only Women
There Were no Witches, Only Women

In the early 1600s, 7000 people were interrogated and tortured in the dungeons of Logroño. It was the world’s largest-ever documented witch trial. 400 years later, women are reclaiming the memory of these events.

Read in 7 minutes

Spanish Salem

On a warm Sunday morning in late March, the Basque mountain village of Zugarramurdi is buzzing with tourists. “Mommy, is this the water of the witches?” a boy asks, waving a bottle of water from a roadside shop. “Is it true that there are still witches in the caves?

Situated close to the border with France and inhabited by only 224 people, Zugarramurdi carries the nickname of the “Spanish Salem”. Between 1609 and 1610, it was at the heart of the only witch trial conducted by the Spanish Inquisition – and the largest ever to be documented. Almost 7000 people from the Zugarramurdi region were transported 170 kilometers south, to Logroño – the local headquarters of the Inquisition. The interrogations and tortures that followed left behind 11,000 pages of testimonies. However, only five out of the 53 accused of witchcraft were burnt at stake – a modest number compared to the purges that took place elsewhere in Europe.

Witch hunts came in waves during the early modern period in Europe. A substantial number took place between the 15th and early 16th centuries. Then they subsided and emerged again in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years’ War. This second wave of civil trials took place between 1560 and 1680, resulting in what historians and sociologists today agree was essentially mass murder.

400 years after the infamous Basque witch trials, Zugarramurdi has become a tourist destination. Visitors from across the world flock to visit the Witch Museum and the Witch Caves (Cuevas de las Brujas), where the annual summer solstice festival marks the Day of the Witch.

Zugarramurdi cave. Photo by Mariesaraphy/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Zugarramurdi cave. Photo by Mariesaraphy/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The museum opened in 2007 in the building of a former hospital. Among the artefacts on display are floating dresses and goat heads. Visitors read the stories of prosecuted herbalists (for centuries associated with witchcraft), before heading to the gift shop to buy T-shirts, mugs, books and, of course, witch dolls  riding brooms in black pointy hats.

There are no witches, only women

On the morning of March 24, 2019, an unusual group of visitors arrives in Zugarramurdi. 40 feminist academics and writers from across Spain, the United States and South America descend their bus and head straight to the museum’s gift shop. They are not here for sightseeing. They have come to protest against the sale of witch dolls, which, they claim, perpetuate the myth of a repulsive old witch with supernatural powers, when in fact, the victims of witch hunts were peasant women of flesh and blood. “There are no witches, only women,” a protester declares on her way to the museum.

Activists in front of Zugarramurdi museum. Photo by Ana Maria Luca
Activists in front of Zugarramurdi museum. Photo by Ana Maria Luca

Among the activists, is a petite, grey-haired woman in her late 70s – the feminist Italian-American scholar, Silvia Federici. In her high-profile books and essays, such as Caliban and the Witch, she famously argues that the early modern witch hunts, which claimed tens of thousands of victims across Europe and its colonies, were fundamental to the birth and success of capitalism. According to Federici, the majority of history books falsely blame these crimes on irrational, pre-capitalist hysteria. In reality, the contrary was true – subduing women into the unpaid labour force enabled the creation of aviolent new social order: capitalism.

“Today, when we say ‘witch’, we are using the language of the witch hunts,” Federici tells me. “People don’t realize that these women were not mythical. During the hunts, real women were persecuted, tortured and killed. We still haven’t answered the following question: why was all this history concealed? We do not learn about it in school. We need to reclaim it, because it had serious implications for the social position of women. Our project is to recover this political meaning.”

The witches of Navarra

Historian Amaia Nausía Pimoulier studies witch hunts “case by case” rather than examining the statistics, as is common practice. She claims that, although the Basque trials were initiated by the Inquisition, it was the civil courts in Navarra (a region neighboring the Basque Country and Logroño) that perpetrated the cruellest murders. In fact, the Inquisition itself put an end to the witch trials in Spain in 1614.

“Witches' Flight” by Francisco de Goya, 1797-98.
“Witches' Flight” by Francisco de Goya, 1797-98.

“Women were persecuted for various reasons, but one idea was present in all cases: the notion of a woman as a temptation for a man,” Pimoulier claims, pointing out that it’s difficult to overlook the large number of widows among those accused. “Under the Navarra laws, a single woman had autonomy in handling her deceased husband’s wealth, which stirred uneasiness among both the authorities and the community. Navarra was a patriarchal society.

Although the time of the witch trials is long gone, the folkloric caricatures of old hags dressed in black and riding brooms remain widespread across Navarra. “The witch was never, absolutely never part of our mythology. Our mythological feminine figures were not associated with the diabolical. And yet today children dress as ‘witches’ during the carnivals. It’s a myth that is very difficult to dismantle,” Pimoulier stresses.

Nonetheless, at the peak of the European witch hunts in the 1600s, the pre-Christian cult of Mari – a local goddess of the earth – survived in the western part of the Zugarramurdi region, close to the Atlantic. Just like the cult of the Lamias – the celebrated half-woman, half-animal creatures. It was probably the festivals dedicated to Mari that attracted the initial attention of the Inquisition, Pimoulier explains.

According to the historians, there is a strong movement among Navarra’s academics and civic activists to recover the memory of the victims of witch hunts. “We feel the need to get closer to this story,” Pimoulier confesses, quoting the famous feminist slogan, popular in Navarra: “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.”

The pointy hat and crooked nose that conquered the world

“When you watch Zugarramurdi, you see where it could go thirty years from now and that’s Salem, US. On this year’s Halloween, Salem was packed with tourists celebrating the spooky and the magical,” Alice Markam Cantor, a New York-based anthropologist who researches witch hunts, explains. One of Cantor’s ancestors (11 generations back) was among the victims of the notorious Salem trials. She was hanged for practicing witchcraft in 1692, eight decades after the mass trial in Logrono.

“Perpetuating the belief in ‘witches’ is problematic because it covers up the brutal history,” Cantor points out. “All these commercial artefacts – souvenirs, hats, posters – they assign magic to places of murder.”

Cantor believes that the mystery of magic is especially alluring to young people. “When talking about Salem, they often say: ‘But maybe these women were really doing magic.’ People simply want to believe in magic. It is consistently seductive, but it’s not right.”

The cliché of the evil witch, who entered into a pact with the devil in order to hurt others, gained traction in popular folklore through Malleus Maleficarum. This 1487 treatise, written by the discredited Catholic cleric Heinrich Kramer, was a voice of hatred against women and endorsed the mass extermination of “witches”.

Historians and anthropologists alike agree that across Europe, heretics of all sorts were the victims of stereotypes constructed by clerics at an institutional level. The image of the “enemies of faith” had to be dark and sinister. That is why almost everywhere in Europe and its colonies, the so-called “witches” were tried for infanticide, cannibalism, ritual murder or sexual intercourse with the devil. This campaign incited social friction, which often led to psychotic episodes and mass murder, experts say.

A place of memory, a place of tourism

Helena Xurio Arburua, one of the three employees of the Zugarramurdi museum, is reading her speech in Euskera, the Basque language. Next to her, on a small podium, stands scholar Silvia Federici. The room is packed with feminist protesters holding printed Spanish translations of Arburua’s speech.

“Four hundred years ago, the Spanish Inquisition arrived in this village to impose their language on us. We have the same feeling now: once again, outsiders command us in foreign languages,” she says, alluding to the fact that the feminist group used Spanish when calling for the meeting.

Silvia Federici (on the right) and other activists in Zugarramurdi. Photo by Ana Maria Luca
Silvia Federici (on the right) and other activists in Zugarramurdi. Photo by Ana Maria Luca

Traficantes de Sueños (Spanish for ‘Smugglers of Dreams’) is a left-wing NGO based in Pamplona that gathered feminist activists and scholars from across the world for a campaign to recover the memory of the women killed under the pretext of witchcraft. “We demand that all places where the historical persecution took place should be focused on emphasizing its memory and not on making profit from selling dolls that reproduce the monstrous image created by the hunters,” the manifesto of the campaign reads. “This representation is not innocent. It conceals a bloody reality [...] and perpetuates to new generations an image that is degrading, especially to older women.”

The campaigners sent several emails requesting the museum management to stop the sale of the dolls, but until Federici’s arrival in Spain they received no answer. In the packed cinema room of the Zugarramurdi museum, Arburua explains why: “We partially agree with your manifesto. When we decide to make changes in the museum, we will take your opinions into consideration,” she declares. “Unfortunately, what failed here were manners. Your manners.”

The witch motive in Zugarramurdi. Photo by Ana Maria Luca
The witch motive in Zugarramurdi. Photo by Ana Maria Luca

“Maybe we need to change the way we approach this issue,” Federici agrees. In the end, the activists leave without staging the protest. However, many feel confident that they have sowed the seeds for future dialogue.

According to Arburua, the museum is a small public enterprise run by women from the countryside: “It gives us the chance to keep living here,” she says. “We want to take part in telling the story of the witch hunts”.

The granddaughters of the witches

400 years after the world’s largest witch trial, herbalists, fortune tellers, doulas and other women who might have been prosecuted in the 17th century are returning to Spain. 

Among them is Leticia Cayota Dufour, 41, from Uruguay. She grew up in Montevideo, in a family of academics and dissidents who fought against the military dictatorship. Today she divides her time between Madrid, where she practises humanistic psychology and the Sierra de Gredos mountains, where she organizes women’s circles and full moon gatherings, inspired by the indiginous traditions of South America.

“I wanted to open a space where women can tell stories. Simply get together, you know?” she smiles. “These spaces are sacred, because they serve the holiest of purposes: to celebrate life, joy and memory.”

Interview with Leticia Cayota Dufour

This story is part of the cross-border reportage project “Witch Hunt”. The research was enabled by a Reporters in the Field grant from the Robert Bosch Foundation.

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Ana Maria Luca

is a journalist based in Bucharest, Romania. She writes and edits for EasternFocus – a regional English-language international affairs publication. Previously, she was an editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Between 2008 and 2016, she was based in Beirut, Lebanon, where she covered regional Middle Eastern affairs and security.