When Scotland became one of the first countries to formally apologize to the nearly 4,000 people accused of witchcraft during witch trials that took place more than 500 years ago, it sparked a feminist movement among present-day witches and their supporters.
The head of the Scottish government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, announced the apology on March 8, International Women’s Day, as part of a push in Parliament to recognize misogyny as a hate crime at the request of the Witches of Scotland, a campaign that also seeks a formal government pardon for those accused of witchcraft and a national memorial for the lives lost during the trials.
“We want to know our own history, and we’re no longer happy with the one-sided history, the same history that men or scholars have reported,” said Claire Mitchell, a lawyer who started the campaign with Zoe Venditozzi, a teacher. Neither identifies as a witch.
The Scotland witch trials began after the passage of the Witchcraft Act in 1563, which made practicing witchcraft or consulting with witches capital offenses. An estimated 2,500 women were killed for allegedly violating the law, according to the University of Edinburgh. It was repealed in 1736.
None of the accused women were practicing witches, Mitchell said, but the Scottish government used women as scapegoats to explain away the country’s adversities.
“I absolutely believe the accusations of witchcraft are a feminist issue,” she said. “It was always women to a greater degree that were accused of witchcraft.”
Practicing witches are using past mistreatment to inspire a new feminist movement among their ranks globally, with a goal of erasing the stigma surrounding witchcraft. In the U.S., 1 million people are estimated to identify as pagan or Wiccan, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center; not all of those who practice witchcraft are Wiccan. The infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts occurred in 1692 and 1693.
Pam Grossman, the author of the book “Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power,” said the feminist movement has been a long time coming.
“We’re starting to see people re-appropriate ‘the witch’ and redefine the witch as this rebellious, feminist being who is a conductor of feminine power,” she said.
But some have criticized the witch community for racism and appropriation of proper witchcraft techniques.
Aurora Luna, who practices witchcraft in the U.S. and shares their insights on social media, said they have noticed some disturbing trends.
“There are clear divides,” Luna said. “There is extreme racism and blatant negative aspects. Wanting to make the [craft] palatable is the watering down of witchcraft.”
In a report last year, the United Nations said the number of albino people killed because they were suspected of witchcraft has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, as some believe the superstitions that albinos are Covid-19 carriers or that using their body parts in potions can bring good luck and wealth. The U.N. Human Rights Council passed a groundbreaking resolution condemning violations committed through witchcraft accusations and ritual attacks.
Campaigns like the Witches of Scotland face pushback from critics who do not see the point of pardoning convicted witches from centuries ago. Venditozzi said the reaction shows there is more work to be done. Her group is working with members of the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the accused witches of old are formally pardoned and that a national memorial is established.
“We are in no way out of the woods of misogyny,” she said. “Humans always go back to the idea of attacking the vulnerable in society.”