October Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille


Pumpkins Bloom near Halloween time


© Susan G. Butruile

As the autumn light fades and the green of summer dies, we approach Hallowe'en -- All Hallows Eve. It's the night of spooks, ghosts and goblins. Children demanding treats and threatening tricks if they don't get them. Dressing up in wild costumes and partying. It's bobbing for apples in a huge tub, decorating with sheaves of wheat and stalks of corn, and scary goblin faces carved on pumpkins that glow in dancing flames. It's tricks and chaos. It's the eve of the Christian All Souls' or All Saints' Day, the Irish Vigil of Saman, the Celtic Samhain, all based on the pagan All Hallows' Day. The celebration of Halloween has ancient common roots, and around the world it's the eve of the Day of the Dead, a feast to honor the dying earth and the souls of the dead.

From pre-Christian times, some have believed that at this time of year between fall and winter, spirits of the dead can cross through the "crack between the worlds" and visit the living. If you leave out treats -- especially milk, wine, cookies and cakes -- the souls of the dead may come, bringing treats for children. Making noise helps get the souls' attention. If you don't leave treats for them, the spirits might play tricks on you.

Among the foods of Halloween are end-of-season grains and gourds, and apples, fruits of immortality. In Italy women make pane dei morti (bread for the dead), and in Mexico it's pan de muerto. On Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico, some families take flowers, candles, cookies, pan de muerto and sweets shaped like skulls and tombs and feast at the graves of their dead. In frontier New Mexico in 1882, a missionary schoolteacher wrote in her journal: "Tomorrow is the Catholic feast of the dead. The Indians will lay on the graves tonight offerings of corn and other things for the dead."

Halloween is witches with their brooms and owls and cats and bats. The tradition of witches and Halloween is perhaps the oldest one of all. A line in a song by Bonnie Lockhart goes, "Who were the witches, where did they come from? Maybe your great-great-great grandma was one." Maybe she was, because for thousands of years witches were wise, often old, women or men. They were healers who used magical powers to keep the seasons revolving, and "bend" perceptions of reality. Witch comes from wiccan or wicca, meaning magician. Its ancient root word, wic, means willow, a branch that can bend without breaking.

In pre-Christian times when women were clan leaders, they presided over their communities' important life events, including death. This is the basis for witches' association with Halloween. Milk and wine were sacred life- and spirit-sustaining liquids, and witches mixed and brewed them in huge cauldrons, symbols of birth and fertility.

Owls, cats, bats and brooms were all associated with wise woman healers. Owls were believed to be birds of wisdom, witches in bird form. Bats were believed to be carriers of souls. Cats were sacred to witches as companions and guardians. Brooms long have been associated with woman's ancient place as keeper of the hearth and fire.

The current common definition of witch has been around since medieval times, when its meaning was stolen and changed for political purposes. The dictionary tells us that a witch is "a woman supposed to have supernatural power by a compact with the devil or evil spirits."

As powerful men took over the public practice of ritual and medicine, they began to define powerful women as evil, and associated them with the devil. These ideas culminated in the witch hunts of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. In these terrifying times people in the hundreds of thousands -- some say millions -- were tortured, burned and hanged as witches throughout Europe and beyond. Women were eighty percent of the victims in this little-remembered Holocaust.

Any woman who was old, odd, uppity, independent, powerful or poor could be pronounced a witch. A woman who challenged the authority of her husband, father, church or medical establishment could be accused of witchcraft. A woman could be condemned for practicing the same medicine or preaching the same words for which a man would be respected.

The notion remains of defining powerful and independent women as evil. In the 1980s, the women who challenged U.S. missile systems at Greenham Common in England were called the "screaming destructive witches of Greenham" and had garbage thrown at them. In 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution stating that women should not be in positions of authority because according to the Bible, "women are responsible for bringing sin into the world." That same body has continued its tradition of prohibiting women from preaching. Women -- and men -- who support abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and even birth control are commonly labeled as evil.

Witches are still with us, and they call upon the energies of Earth and spirit to restore a balance between temporal and spiritual, male and female, living and dead. You might say there's a bit of witch in every woman who decides to live her life on her own terms. As Bonnie Lockhart sings, "There's a little witch in every woman today."

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