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Take Back Halloween: The Secret History Of Witches

Look around this Halloween: When you see your co-worker dressed as a witch at your company Halloween luncheon, make the mental note that what you are really looking at is a gynecologist. Every "sexy witch" out at a Halloween party Saturday night is really a gynecologist. And that little girl trick-or-treating in green face with an unfairly lumpy nose? She's a gynecologist too.

Anytime you see a pointy hat or a magic wand, please know that what you are really looking at is a stethoscope and a speculum.

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“Witches” were gynecologists!  Did you not know? True witches were female health doctors and midwives-- peasant healers, not unlike acupuncturists, who used plant life and a bit of superstition to provide medical care predominantly to women and the lower class in the late medieval period in Europe. Most of what was considered magic at the time, we would now simply call “gynecology” and “obstetrics:” Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft would have more likely taught pap smears and labor induction than the Patronus Charm. Think of them as Ye Olde Planned Parenthood.

Halloween is tragically to these maligned healers what Thanksgiving is to the "savage heathen" Indians: a digestible vehicle for a mystified history, reframed in the service of a white male power play. It is for this reason that I propose this is the year we take back Halloween!  If Americans can finally accept that Columbus Day is actually a celebration of a man who facilitated genocide while establishing American sex slavery, we can reframe Halloween for the witch.

We will no longer celebrate the misogyny that positioned wise women as ghastly, leather-skinned, hairy-chinned crones! We will no longer associate the desire to grant health to women with devil worship, baby-eating and demonology! Together, we can make Halloween the "Indigenous People's Day" of peasant healers! Together, we can proclaim October 31st as Gynecology Day!

Gynecology Day will finally acknowledge that the concept of "the witch” was created by the medieval Catholic Church as a campaign to deny women’s access to healthcare (as prayer should be enough); to stigmatize female medical practitioners and prevent them from organizing; and to undercut any rise of populist medicine in order to keep the lower class dependent on the church.

The women accused of being “witches" were actually lay healers and wise women who were denied admission to male-only universities yet still provided traditional and herbal medicine to people who had no doctors. They specialized in the healing properties of plants and trees: they had access to painkillers, digestive aids and anti-inflammatory agents; and they discovered several herbs like Digitalis that are the foundations for the pharmaceuticals we use today.

They focused much of their care on women’s health- providing contraceptive measures, performing abortions, offering drugs to ease the pain of labor and menstruation- but only because the Catholic Church held firm that gynecological pain and disease was God’s just punishment for Eve’s original sin so medicine would be of no use.  The Church maintained that only prayer could treat a threatened miscarriage or agonizing cramps obviously, but these non-Christian peasant healers didn’t buy that, and formalized medicinal treatment that sought to alleviate these conditions which the Church viewed as a traitorous violation of God’s law.

In 14th-century Europe, where witch-hunts began, centuries before the more isolated events in Salem, Massachusetts, several political developments catalyzed the persecution of female healers: peasant uprisings; a need to assign blame for the Bubonic Plague that had ravaged Europe; the rise of Protestants that prompted the Catholic Church to tighten its grip on lower class “heretics”; and Renaissance occultism gaining traction with the educated classes, motivating an assortment of new Christian doctrine, including Pope Innocent VIII authorizing capital punishment against devil worshippers in 1484.

Linking peasant gynecology to Satan was too easy for the Church: menstrual conditions were viewed as an extension of female genitalia, therefore sexual in natural, and therefore really demonic. Never mind the fact that these women healers were forced into treating menstrual conditions because Church-approved male physicians totally ignored the existence of these conditions or told women they deserved them. (Keep in mind that these same "physicians" were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and the four humors.)

The healers’ only crime was providing abortions to low-income women, which was outlawed by religious conservatives but only punishable by death so long as it could be however-tenuously connected to devil worship, which is exactly what the Church managed to do. It drew a false line between female healers and the devil, maintaining that witches literally received their healing powers from being fucked by the Devil himself—all to justify the legalized massacre of potential heretics and to stop women from organizing and asserting economic independence.

Vilifying these women provided one other important benefit to the Catholic Church: it limited access to medical care for the diseased and disenfranchised which forced them to rely entirely on religion and prayer for their for their very lives, keeping the Church in power. And the campaign to do so took the lives of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of women in 15th and 16th century Europe (some German towns killed a thousand women a year; Toulouse, France, put to death four hundred women in a single day).

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The face you see in your mind when you think of a “witch” is literally the filter of how the religious conservatives of the Middle Ages viewed women’s bodies and health: wart-nosed spinster hags with post-menopausal dry hair is what the Church thought of gynecologists.  Such disdain the Church had for the female body that it associated its health practitioners to flying on brooms and eating babies, and celebrating “Halloween” only cosigns that disdain.

My proposed Gynecology Day is not a time for this kind of misogyny! Gynecology Day will not validate the medieval Catholic Church’s cruel reframing of the importance and power of female health doctors!   (Nor its maligning of women born with warts on the tips of their noses!)

Gynecology Day is a day to honor brilliant strong beautiful female health practitioners throughout time who sacrificed greatly to help women in the face of sacred and violent men! Gynecology Day is a day to celebrate peasant doctors as feminist heroes and not sad, eccentric aunts with a hairy chin who own a bunch of cats, smoke too many cigarettes, and collect porcelain figurines she calls her babies.

Furthermore, Gynecology Day is a day to recognize and challenge the age-old religious paternalism that hyper-sexualizes and punishes the female body according to nonsense Christian dogma.

This year there will be no dressing up as levitating devil-worshipping witches! Only magical, brilliant Reproductive Endocrinologists! This year’s cutting-edge costume of choice is “female health coach”—complete with fun hormone-testing kit and yeast infection antibiotics! And when you see a sexy witch, or an ugly witch, or a white witch, or a zombie witch, you thank her for her unrecognized civic duty and wish her a most happy Gynecology Day!

HappyGynecology Day, to one and all!

 

This is a guest post by Russell Brown, a licensed acupuncturist in Los Angeles and owner of POKE Acupuncture. He published a book on meditation for people who don't own billowy yoga pants called "Maya Angelou's Meditation 1814." This post originally appeared on www.pokeacupuncture.com

 

Images via Poke Acupuncture and Vintage Everyday

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