Content warning: mentions acts of violence and sexual assault.
Edinburgh is filled with witches. Some are fictional, brought to life by the city’s favourite author JK Rowling, while others lived long ago. But could it be possible that witches belong in our lecture halls now too?
Popular Religion, Women and Witchcraft isn’t a module you’d see in most prospectuses, but Dr Kirsteen Murray’s course fills classrooms twice a week. Asking her why this unusual course is so important to teach, she responded that, “every place and era has its stories about magic and what a ‘witch’ is. These ideas shift and transform over time and that is what makes looking at the early modern period so interesting. Why were so many people (about 80 per cent of them women), accused of the crime of witchcraft and why did society perceive them as such a serious threat? Struggling to understand perspectives so different from those of today gives us valuable and humbling insights into other ways of being human. On the other hand, grappling with historical issues can sharpen our perceptions of what we see around us in the present.”
It’s not just Dr Murray that finds these issues fascinating. At two on a Monday afternoon, the Newhaven lecture theatre is packed with students studying religious riots, healing, magic and myths. In order to define what made this course so appealing, I talked to Morgan, a Religious Studies student who takes Women and Witchcraft as an optional module. Morgan explained that for her, witchcraft is a feminist issue. ‘It’s such a large part of women’s history… it helps us to understand the current climate of religious and class struggles, as well as addressing inaccuracies surrounding perceptions of witchcraft.’
Edinburgh’s fascination with witches isn’t unfounded. Between 1563-1736, 4,000 Scottish women and men were accused of witchcraft and killed for their sins, more than anywhere else in Europe. The offences they were tried for were wide-ranging and obscure, from communing with fairies to drinking ale. In subtle ways, our city remembers these people. The Witches Well at the Castle marks the location where 300 women were burned at the stake. The women were tried first by being tied up and thrown in the No’r Loch, now the site of Waverley Station. If they drowned, they were innocent.
Another tribute to the history of witches is the work of the Scottish History department at the University of Edinburgh. In 2003, the department designed a database that details the stories of men and women who lost their lives during the craze of Scottish witch hunting. It makes for difficult reading. Midwives and healers were tortured for their work, the mentally ill were slaughtered and innocent bystanders accused out of spite. The database can be searched by factors such as name, location and key features of the trial. It’s a brilliant historical resource that brings these stories to life, putting names to statistics. It can be accessed at www.shca.ed.ac.uk/Research/witches/.
But why bother? Why now? These atrocities occurred so long ago and in communities far more superstitious than ours today. Natural remedies are now fashionable, mental illnesses better understood, and cats are no longer thought to be the messengers of Satan, even if you are more of a dog person. However, I would argue that it has never been more critical to study historic social injustices. We live in a time when survivors of sexual assault are put on trial in front of millions, asked to relive their trauma, and then brutally picked apart by the media, as shown by Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Post-Brexit, hate crimes in Britain have risen by a third. Being different is still dangerous. This time though, it is the witches who are speaking out. People are reclaiming the word ‘witch’, dismissing stereotypes of ugliness and evil. Witchcraft has transfigured into a political movement, intersecting with issues as wide-ranging as queer identity, sexual rights and environmental advocacy. Witches don’t burn anymore, witches vote. That sounds like magic to me.
Image Credit: Wellcome Collection Gallery via Wikimedia Commons