Real-life 'witches' shared modern women's search for meaning
Keith Gerein, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Friday, May 04, 2007
EDMONTON - Utter the word witchcraft and familiar images are immediately conjured up.
For some, it's the traditional Halloween pointy hat, flying broom and black cat; for others, the association is more closely tied with characters described in Harry Potter stories.
Such depictions are products of a mythology that has little to do with the real-life "witches" whose exploits were recorded in history. Though they did not cast spells or use magic wands, such women were in many ways more fascinating than their fictionalized counterparts, says University of Alberta scholar Kirsten Uszkalo.
"They were called 'cunning women' -- those suspected of being too influential or having unexplained power," says Uszkalo, one of the presenters this week at a conference focusing on the role of women in society, the economy and academia.
"They were really a lot of regular women trying to make sense of their lives and the tragedies in their lives ... but were considered kind of in league with the devil."
Among the talks by researchers, business leaders and administrators at the conference, the presentation offered by Uszkalo and colleague Stan Ruecker is clearly one of the most offbeat.
Yet Uszkalo believes the witches of history have much in common with modern women, especially in their search for meaning and the struggles they faced trying to assert themselves.
Uszkalo's research is primarily focused on the witches described in England during the Renaissance period, roughly between 1500 and 1700.
Those witches were often mothers and religious teachers, she said. Sometimes they were herbal medicine practitioners or people who claimed abilities to predict the future. On other occasions, they were simply "bad ass" women who had been hurt in love affairs and went looking for revenge.
Accusations of witchcraft made against them were often products of a superstitious society and unfortunate circumstance, Uszkalo said.
A typical scenario might have begun when a woman told a young mother that she had a beautiful baby. When the baby became sick the next day, people started to wonder if the woman's words contained a curse, Uszkalo said.
Though witches could be persecuted, tortured, subjected to barbaric "tests" and occasionally hanged or burned at the stake, receiving the label also had its advantages, because "no one wanted to mess with you," Uszkalo said.
Uszkalo and Ruecker's latest project involves the use of modern technology to re-examine old texts about witchcraft, including books, pamphlets and documents from trials.
The texts have been converted into a digital form, allowing the researchers to use computers to quickly search through them for patterns other scholars may not have seen. Specific words, names, locations and concepts can be tested to see where, when and how often they occur and whether they have connections to other concepts.
For example, in analyzing written accounts of witches' familiars -- demonic pets that acted as agents of mischief -- it's clear such creatures became increasingly bizarre over time, going from simple cats to things like miniature cows.
Whether the project can discover something that will add to the witch mythology remains to be seen, but regardless, Uszkalo believes people will continue to find them enthralling.
"The story of witchcraft is not only about where we've come from in the past," she says. "It is also relevant to where we are now, in the sense that people are still trying to find answers to things in life they can't explain."
Asked if she personally believes in witches, Uszkalo smiles. "I like to answer that by quoting a historian who said we have no proof they didn't exist."