Reflection: The Burning Times

Perception influences reality, stemming out of centuries of erroneous stereotypes and blurring lines of rationality. Echoes of practice of witchcraft are still heard through crackling walls and dusty lands across parts of India, with more than 1,700 women being murdered over a period of 19 years as they were heralded with renditions of “chudail” and “dayan”. A perception which was thought to be lost in times of kings and queens exerts its prevalence even today, with the stigmatisation of “aberrations” of the society across tiny pockets of the world.


The most concrete comprehension of witchcraft the world draws back to today is the notoriety of European countries in conducting the witch-hunting trials. Imagery of sinister smirks, juicy cauldrons brewing with rats‟ tails and newts‟ eyes, fingers crackling to give way to lightning as broomsticks fly across the dark night are often assumed to be the uncontested landscape of a witches‟ habitat. The solemn and ominous ruminations are further fed with an unkempt portrayal of the female who is to be the designated witch, with distinctions to mark her out from the domain of the accepted. The jump to the eerie and disconcerting sketch of a witch contrasts starkly with the early comprehension women as priestesses and entities of reverence in the society. The idolisation of women as figures of devotion has been reflected across different cultures, and it is the oddities of these women which later carved a space in the „menacing‟ world of witchcraft.


The Elizabethan age marks as the dominant period which brought about a shift in the primal understanding of women and their connections to witchcraft. The policies and cultural ideologies prevalent then conflated with the advent of the printing press, which gave birth to the most prominent text concerning the identification, treatment, and cure of witches in the 16th century. Malleus Maleficarum was the literary and symbolic response to growing concerns about witchcraft during the realms of Queen Elizabeth. The automated response to diseases, floods, deaths, or any other natural calamity was the inevitable implication of witches for their sinister presence. The belief that any unnatural occurrence in the society or to an individual could only be prompted by the ominous actions of a witch led to witchcraft being evolved into a statutory crime in England post the Reformation period. Over 200 years, more than 40,000 people were prosecuted for witchcraft, the majority of which accounted for women. Out of the 270 witch trials to be conducted, only 23 were for men and the remaining for old, poor, unprotected, and single women or widows. Victims also received random and whimsical modes of justice through the agency of common assaults and social ostracism.


The acts “agaynst Conjuracions Inchauntmentes and Witchecraftes” were of varying intensity through Queen Elizabeth and King James‟ reigns, with the latter exercising enhanced severity as he believed a coven of witches conspired to murder him through the mysterious ropes of magic, thus, leading to the emergence of the witch trials. This was contrasted with the apparent leniency of Queen Elizabeth, who might have adopted such an attitude due to the conjecture hurled at her mother, Anne Boyle, of being a witch to account for the mole on her neck and a sixth finger in growth.
The height of the witchcraft trials ironically overlaps with a growing consciousness of the Renaissance period, where individualistic abilities were regarded as supreme and emphasis was laid on a more modern approach to humanistic viewing. With the inception of various texts condemning witchcraft and subsequent statutory laws against the sinister art, the Renaissance period became a mockery of what it actually set out to symbolise. The two monarchs with their superstitions about their apparent deaths at the hand of witches led them to construct policies in protection and preservation of their lives, but reflect a manipulation and subversion of alternate forms of knowledge. These alternative forms of knowledge in theory belong to those sects of society who stand outside the circle of the normal, and any practice of intellect and art on their part was inherently deemed to be dangerous. The aberrations of society were thus condemned from the age of Renaissance and into a burning pit of accusations and stereotypes.


Returning to the primary victims, or culprits even, of witchcraft, the unbalanced scale of people accused of this art reflects a disconcerting agency of gender politics at work. Staggering statistics, numbing numbers, and fermented facts all converge into identifying women at the center of these troubling times. Single, old, divorced, and unprotected women fell outside the norms of the accepted gender equations, wherein a woman‟s equitable space lay with her husband within the premise of their house. This deviation led to a consequential transgression in their perception as being malcontents, who wished ill for other people which ended up in bad outcomes for them. The witch trials conducted by King James and which continue to be practiced in different permutations in the world today have only one accepted result: with the female accused of witchcraft being burned in the ire of stigma as the flames of misconstrued justice rising higher and higher.


Traces of these snippets of history along with an enhanced comprehension of witchcraft resurfaces time and again in popular culture and influences the mass audience which follows it. Salem, a TV series which seeks to portray the 17th century trials on screen, accents the supernatural horrors which plagued these victims 200 years ago and demands for these notions to be reassessed. Similarly, JK Rowling‟s Harry Potter establishes Hermione‟s character as the „good witch‟ who overcomes every hurdle to ensure that the world of magic and mortals is protected from harm. Her allusion to witches as enjoying the sensation of burning as it tickled them questions the morbidity surrounding these burning times. This characterisation allows her to be an anomaly to the accepted threatening perception of a witch during the textual reign of Malleus Maleficarum, and her fictional nature highlights the heroism witches might harbour and excel in.


Times of now reflect a perception of truth closer to reality, but the reality still stands to be plagued with horrors from the past. The past ideologies get carried forward in the realm of the normal and keep getting reiterated over times, compelling to be countered with a dose of justice. The cultural anxieties subjected to these victims further leads to their marginalisation and increasing instances of their killings. The burning times continue to burn in the ire of history as the constructs of innocence, progress, and peace fade away into ashes.

This article was published in Tegh, 2017-18 edition. Tegh is the annual college magazine published in the month of March by Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, University of Delhi. The writer has served as the Associate Editor (2017-18) and Editor-in-Chief (2018-19) of the magazine.