In the midst of a brisk October evening, just two days before Halloween, students could be observed flocking to the Music Building for a most unusual event.
On Oct. 29, Michele Lise Tarter, associate professor of English, presented her 10th annual witch lecture to a packed Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall.
“Halloween is a time to reach out to our ancestors . (and to) embrace the magic all around us,” Tarter said in her opening.
In her lecture, she addressed “the ‘W’ word,” and provided a glimpse into the complex history of witchcraft, as well as the changing public perception of witches. Quoting from “What is Remembered Lives,” a poem by author and witch Starhawk, Tarter stressed the importance of remembering the suffering women have endured in connection with witchcraft.
“Some of this material is very painful,” Tarter said. “But in remembering, we cannot sweep it under the carpet.”
Indeed, at times throughout the lecture the entire auditorium was silent, notably while Tarter displayed slides of the various torture devices used against women accused of witchcraft.
Tarter recounted an early witch hunt involving Anna Pappenheimer, a woman in Bavaria who was falsely accused of witchcraft. After a prisoner named her as a witch, Pappenheimer was removed from her rural home and brought to the town, where she was brutally tortured and publicly burned.
“I can only imagine what was going through her mind,” Tarter said. “It almost tortures me.”
She cited the “power of suggestion” as being the primary motivator in Pappenheimer’s decision to confess in order to lessen the extent of her torture. Before being burned, she admitted to having sexual relations with a demon lover, riding on a piece of wood to meet the devil and killing children as offerings to the devil.
Tarter explained that early witches were considered wise, and their guidance was sought in nearly every matter. In fact, the term “hag” was used to describe a “woman with sacred knowledge.”
“Why did the term ‘witch’ turn on us?” she asked, wondering what caused the public perception of witches to change so dramatically. She explained the church, perhaps fearful of the growing reverence toward these women, began to tell followers they were dangerous and should be avoided.
“The church needed the power,” Tarter said. The book, “Malleus Maleficarum,” Latin for “the hammer of witches,” was written by a priest. It practically became a legal document in England, and even went as far as to dictate how witches should be tortured.
“The target in this book is clearly women,” Tarter said, noting that the words “woman” and “witch” are used almost interchangeably throughout.
She was also quick to point out that witch hunts are not just things of the past, as “full-fledged hunts (are) being enacted” today, mainly in Africa and India.
Tarter also discussed the term “witch huntery,” coined by the media in coverage of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and also the title of this year’s lecture.
While at a church service during her gubernatorial campaign, Tarter said a visiting minister, Thomas Muthee, reportedly laid his hands on Palin, asking she receive the power of “spiritual warfare,” while citing the dangers of witches and witchcraft.
“Her minister is a witch hunter,” Tarter said. She described the notion of Palin being “a heartbeat away” from the presidency as “suddenly . very frightening to me.”
She also spoke about a phenomenon in Nigeria concerning “witch children,” on which a documentary is being aired in November. These children are being abused, tortured and even killed, Tarter said. “That’s what’s going on now. That’s October 2008,” she said.
Her students contributed to the lecture as well. Two performed a skit depicting the process of accusing a woman of practicing witchcraft. Another read a list of facts about witches, dispelling numerous falsities. Besides not riding on brooms, witches practice Wicca, a federally recognized religion. They were described as “healers,” and are often encountered in everyday life.
The event was sponsored by Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL). Member Sana Fathima, junior biomedical engineering major, attended the lecture for her third time.
“The best word to describe it is enlightening,” she said. Fathima noted the particular focus on the “history and progression of women through the years.”
“(The) witch hunt is just a part of a larger issue,” she said. “Witches are promoters of what we consider independent thinking, free will and acceptance.”
Tamra Wroblesky, junior history and women’s and gender studies major, found it particularly intriguing to learn from someone who practices Wicca. “You come here and you learn something new,” she said.
Tarter announced that this year’s lecture would be her last, though the stories she shared with students over the past 10 years will surely resonate.
In Starhawk’s words, “What is remembered lives, so that it never happen again.”