The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries

a review by Jenny Gibbons

Z Budapest's _The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries, Pt II_ offers an excellent example of the "average" Neo-Pagan view of the Burning Times. Consider this summary:

(Pg. 214) "Estimates by women historians and scholars today place the number of women exterminated during the witch "trials" at eleven million, and still claim that the estimate is conservative. There are records of certain towns where as many as 400 women were burned to death in ONE day. During this shameful period in the life of the world, no male uprising occurred to stop the murder of women. No husbands, sons or lovers banded together to stop the hysterical slaughter of millions of women."

There are several typical Pagan flaws and stereotypes lurking behind this one passage.

1. Inflated death toll estimates. I have no idea what "women historians and scholars" Z was talking about, but they're certainly nobody reputable. _The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries II_ was written in 1980. Even back then, no experts were suggesting more than a few hundred thousand deaths, total. Today we're sure that the real number is less than that.

I think the appeal of the Nine Million Martyrs is pretty clear: it makes us the most persecuted religious minority in history. Although this death toll was first suggested back in the 19th century, it didn't become popular until after World War II, after the Holocaust. I wonder sometimes if the Pagan insistance that nine (or eleven) million of us died isn't a way of trying to "one-up" the Jews. It's like we're saying, "Look at us! Look at us! We were persecuted too!"

2. Demonizing our critics. Understated in this passage, but I think it's still there. Pagan history is very different from mainstream history. A common way of excusing this discrepancy is to insinuate that there's something wrong with historians -- that they're prejudiced, bigots, or brain-washed by their education. Here, Z points out that her figures come from women historians (who are assumed to be reliable), implying that lower numbers come from men (who are thus somewhat suspect). We are told nothing about these "women" historians, nothing about the quality of their research and why we should believe them. All that's important is their gender.

3. Erasing men. 75%-80% of accused Witches were women -- but that means that 25%-20% of them were men. Many Pagan writers treat Witchcraft as an exclusively female experience, erasing all reference to male Witches. If a history ignored other minorities -- gays, Jews, or blacks -- we'd be disturbed. Yet too many Pagans blithely write men out of our history.

4. Bad info. The "400 in one day" trial never happened. It comes from Etienne Leon de Lamothe Langon's forged Witch trials. This forgery was uncovered in 1972, yet its lurid, fictional trials continue to be cited regularly in Pagan books.

5. Good Girls and Bad Guys. The standard Pagan view of the Burning Times is intensely dualistic. There are Good Guys (the gentle, enlightened Pagan Witches) and Bad Guys (the violent, hysterical Christian Witch-hunters). Usually the stereotype breaks up along sexual lines: women are Witches and thus good; men are Witch hunters and thus bad.

Here, Z portrays women as Witches, men as Witch-hunters or silent witnesses who did nothing to stop the slaughter. First, she's wrong: while Witch- hunting usually enjoyed great popular support (from both sexes), there are several instances were towns revolted and tried to stop the trials. Second, how did women try to stop the trials? Z lambasts men for not doing anything, yet she never asks what women did. You see this same sort of double standard in discussions of healing. Male healers (doctors) are savaged for blaming diseases on Witchcraft. Female healers -- who did this more commonly than doctors! -- are never censured for their acts.

If you look at our evidence, the Good Girls and Bad Guys disappear. Both sexes were Witches; both were Witch-hunters. Both supported the trials. I think these types of sexual stereotypes are intensely damaging, and are one of the key reasons why we fail to learn from the Burning Times. We insist on having Good Girls and Bad Guys, White Hats and Black Hats.

Some more illustrations from _The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries Part II_, pages 187-188.

"The persecution of the witches may be best explained as a desperate attempt, on the part of the new-fangled Christian churches to establish themselves with the peasants and townspeople, and to accumulate wealth... The budding medical profession was also hungry to rid themselves of the herbalists, who rivalled them. To cure was a bigger sin than to curse as a result of this deep jealousy."

Again, this is a great summary of the "average" Pagan explaination for the Burning Times.

Historically, it's silly. The "new-fangled" Church was almost 1600 years old when the great crazes began. When Christianity actually *was* new, and *was* struggling to win the peasantry, there were very few Witch trials. The Burning Times didn't arise until the Church was well established.

Even then, the Church did little Witch-hunting. The panics and major persecution didn't start until secular courts wrested control of the trials away from the Church. Except in Germany, Witch trials were usually a money-losing proposition. It cost tons of money to jail, try, and execute a Witch. Few towns made money at it, and a number wound up almost bankrupting themselves.

And finally, there's the myth of the midwife Witch. Statistics show that only a tiny minority of Witches were healers (as little as 2% in some countries). In this myth doctors (who accused few Witches) are presented as murderous monsters. The wise-women (who accused lots of Witches) are passed off as the innocent victims of male jealousy. Witches who cursed were always treated much more harshly than "white" Witches or healing Witches. In many countries, you couldn't try a Witch who wasn't accused of killing or harming someone.

What is the appeal of these myths? I think the largest one is duality. These "explainations" create a comfortable split between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. On the one hand we have the Baddies: Witch hunters, the Church, men, doctors -- who are motivated by greed, jealousy, and a lust for power. On the other we have the Innocent Victims: the women Witches -- who are blameless and wise. Readers will of course identify with the Good Guys. As a feminist/Dianic text, Z's book is aimed primarily at women Witches.

Duality offers a great deal of psychological reassurance. When you look at an atrocity like the Burning Times or the Holocaust, you have to ask, "How could any human being *do* this? Could *I* ever do this?" Faced with the horrors humans are capable of, our first reaction is often to distance ourselves from it. To insist that "I would never do something like that!" Rather than trying to understand how decent people could do indecent things, we take shelter in blame, in distancing ourselves from the "source" of the evil.

This is precisely the appeal of the Pagan myth of the Burning Times. We create Good Guys and Bad Guys, and then ensure that we will always identify with the Good Guys. Our history thus tells us that we aren't responsible for what happened -- none of the horrors can be blamed on us.


Z concludes her discussion of the Burning Times by saying, "This shows what Judeo-Christianity has done to my religion. It indicates the tremendous suffering and pain that is the heritage of Women's Religion. Every woman who embarks on the Path must allow herself to feel the rage of the Millions of women executed. This atrocity must not be allowed to occur again."

I think it lies at the heart of the problems with the Pagan view of the Burning Times. We insist on seeing the persecutions as what They did to Us. Rather than admitting that all segments of European society -- including Witches themselves -- supported these trials, we search desperately for scapegoats to blame the horrors on. We refuse to empathize with the Witch hunters, to confront the ways in which our spiritual ancestors encouraged the persecution. By doing so, we also refuse to confront the ways in which *we* can be part of the problem, not the solution.