Women today are experiencing the “inherited trauma” of the persecution and execution of their forebears who were branded as witches, according to the curator of a new exhibition on the period known as “the burning times”.
Thousands of women were accused of witchcraft in the UK and Ireland between 1450 y 1750. Many were tortured until they identified relatives and neighbours as witches; those deemed guilty were hanged or burned at the stake.
“The burning times affected everyone within a community – men, women and children alike, not just those branded as witches,” said Cali White, the exhibition’s lead curator. “Our whole nation was traumatised and divided by what became a mass hysteria, passed down over generations. The legacy of this has left a collective wound which affects us all in some way, and which we are now being called to understand and heal.”
The exhibition seeks to dispel myths of “black pointy hats, devil-worshipping and warty-nosed old women”, instead educating people in the “untold history lesson” of what happened over three centuries.
“Witch-hunts affected everybody, not just the witches. It affected whole communities,” said White. It became a way to rid a community of anyone viewed as a problem. “People who questioned the authority of the church or state could easily become a target. Women learned it was safer to stay quiet than to speak up or stand out.”
Women were forced to betray each other under torture. “There was fear of betrayal, fear of persecution, fear of ostracisation. And then when the hanging or the burning took place, the whole town was expected to go and watch. Can you imagine watching somebody you know being put to death in such a brutal way?"
Witch-hunts “divided our communities, taught us to play small in order to survive and broke our trust in the people closest to us. The scars we still carry show up in many ways: 25 generations on, we are left feeling powerless, isolated, stuck, divided, unsafe and unsupported,” said White.
En 2020, a campaign was launched in Scotland to pardon about 2,500 mujeres who were burned at the stake, often after prolonged torture, and for a national memorial to be created. The number of accusations of witchcraft was four times higher in Scotland than elsewhere, according to Claire Mitchell QC, the campaign’s founder.
According to White, existen 36 countries in the world where witch-hunts still take place, resulting in thousands of people being tortured and killed every year. Half the profits from the exhibition will be donated to charities working to stop modern-day witch-hunts.
But the notion of witches was also being reclaimed as a “positive force”, said White. “There’s a younger generation that has grown up with the likes of Harry Potter, for whom being a witch has become a positive identity.” Witch groups have large followings on social media, and for some it is a “pathway to spirituality”.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a memorial comprising 4,000 hand-printed and stitched pieces of fabric, each bearing the name of a woman found in records of witch trials in the UK and Ireland. Más que 1,000 women across the world were involved in making the memorial, which White described as “beautiful, very feminine and very tactile”.
The exhibition, created by the Silver Spoons Collective, also includes interactive installations, cuadro, película, music and storytelling. “We offer a powerful opportunity for reflection and reconnection, and the chance to be part of a growing movement for social change and healing,” said White.