For several hundred years during Europe’s Middle Ages old women played a central role. In village after village they were revered as healers, midwives, and caretakers to the dying.
In the mid 1500’s as the Catholic Church sought to extend its power, the influential village wise women were a clear threat to a looming patriarchy. Church propaganda insisted that wise women were in reality witches who consorted with the devil. Torture, burning at the stake, and the dunking stool awaited women who defied the ban on women healers.
The focus on accusing women of witchcraft turned into a mass paranoia. In some cases whole villages of innocent women and girls were tortured until they confessed to being witches.
Historians refer to the 300 years during which nine million women were killed in Western Europe and Scandinavia as “The Women’s Holocaust.”
Today we continue to experience the effects of the “burning times.” Older and old women have been cast aside, no longer valued for their wisdom (except among the Native Americans and a few other traditional societies).
Every Halloween we’re reminded of how undesirable it is to be an older woman.
Stories of witches and hags are brought forth to scare little children. Girls and boys grow up with an image of the old woman as pejorative. It’s been said that a society’s myths are seeped in our unconscious. Older women who look old and worn down are often called “witch” or “hag,” while women in a position of power may be termed “witches” to discredit them. (Hillary has had her fair share of being dubbed a “witch.”) All older women are prone to the witch stereotype, helping to explain why so many of us feel ashamed of our wrinkles and aging bodies.
Let’s turn all this around. We don’t have to accept society’s disregard for us just because we look old. Let’s not stand for being labeled “witch” or “hag.” (By the way, the Anglo Saxon word for “hag” is bearer of sacred knowledge.)
Let’s insist on honoring the wisdom of the older women as we join in spirit with our persecuted foremothers whose wisdom was a threat to society.
Let’s claim our wise woman persona and the responsibility this role carries: to impart our wisdom to the next generation of women and men. For many wise women, this means using our voices as a moral force to rail against injustice and wars.
Isn’t it about time the wise woman experienced ascendancy?
We need her measured voice more than ever: her deep regard for Mother Nature, her aversion to drone warfare, to the plight of Palestine, to poverty and inequality at home. The list goes one and on. Wise women can help turn the tide. They may be the only ones who can.