Witches and homosexuality
July 23, 2009 1:07 PM   Subscribe

Witches and homosexuality: looking for reputable and/or academic studies on the relationship between witchcraft (historical or contemporary) and homosexuality. thanks.
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: i.e., were witches persecuted because they were gay or lesbian?
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 1:10 PM on July 23, 2009

You mean in the ~14th-17th century witch trials?

The type of homosexuality you're thinking about (i.e., a sexual identity at all) didn't exist then. People may have had sex with people of the same gender, but it wasn't an identity.

Most scholarship in this area suggests that the witch hunt was more of a political tool used by the elite. Check out Margaret Murray's work for the basis of this argument (ie, that the practices of "witchcraft" were lower-class holdovers from paganism, and thus pissed off Christian authorities to the point of burning people alive),
posted by oinopaponton at 1:23 PM on July 23, 2009

i.e., were witches persecuted because they were gay or lesbian?

Okay, this is really reaching back for some arcane knowledge in my cranium based on that one human sexuality class I took in college, but.

What oinopaponton says is right, in the sense that the type of homosexuality you're thinking of didn't really exist then. As in, it wasn't like "you're lesbian! Therefore you are evil!"

However, people probably did indeed look at some women funny, and thus accuse them of witchcraft. And part of what made people look at these women funny may very well have involved same-sex behavior. But it wasn't the same-sex behavior in and of itself that wigged people out -- it was more like the same-sex behavior was more like a symptom of a behavior pattern, if that makes sense. It wasn't so much, "ooh, she's a lesbian! Let's get her!" It was more, "oh, she doesn't know her place....you know, she's trying to start her own business, she's trying to wear pants, she's trying to vote, she's trying to flirt with other girls...it just ain't right, I tell you!" It was more about broad gender roles than it was about sexual orientation itself.

Which isn't uncommon -- there are some cultures in which same-sex behavior was tolerated, provided that you took on a different gender role. The most obvious example I'm thinking of (which I heard of in this class years ago) were that in some Native American cultures, there were some gay men who were accepted and tolerated -- provided they lived by every other strict code pertaining to women's behavior. They couldn't hunt with the other men, they couldn' t use the same tools the men did, they had to do all the same tasks the women did -- but so long as they did that, cool. They weren't seen as "gay men," though, it was more like "a man who's living like a woman (in every sense of that word)".

So there very well may have been gay or lesbian people who were persecuted for witchcraft, but it wasn't expressly because they were gay or lesbian, more like their same-sex preferences was just one of many examples those in power used to prove that they were trying to step outside these strict gender roles.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:37 PM on July 23, 2009

Murray's work is both controversial (i.e. unsupported by evidence) and woefully out of date. Please stay far away from it, and derivative works. The witchhunts were not at all a political tool used by the elite, but complex events whose underlying meaning and patterns changed from place to place and accusation to accusation but generally appear to have hinged on religious upheavel and fear among the popular classes.

Brian Levack, The witch hunt in early modern Europe is the best summary of recent research - latest edition is 2006. Start there for the issues of gender, and it will also lead you to other solid research. (PDF review of second edition). Just a note of caution: Levack's work describes the phenomenon of the witchscare as it happened in Continental Europe and in Scotland; the English phenomenon was very different and actually there wasn't really a proper witchscare in the same way. (Witches, for example, weren't prosecuted for devil worship in England, as they were elsewhere - it was about the actual crime of causing harm by witchcraft. That's also why they were hanged instead of being burned as heretics).

That said, I've never come across a connection - I'm not a specialist in either sexuality or witchhunts, but I am an early modern historian and have a passing/teaching level familiarity with both topics. With the exception of Iceland, witchhunts were more likely to target women than men, but persecution of homosexuality at the same time was much more likely to target men than women. Because sex was considered to have occurred only if penetration took place, something like lesbianism would be largely ignored unless two women did something really bad, like get married (one disguised as a male, of course). For examples of women who cross-dressed as men for both sexual/gender reasons as well as simply economic or social, the best book is the The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (should be named "in early modern Netherlands", but still excellent).

To answer EmpressCallipygos re taking on different gender roles making gayness more acceptable: this may be true of some cultures, but not of early modern western Europe (the epicentre of witchhunts). For women, at least, changing gender roles was a sign of deviance; it could be ignored if it had a "good" reason (travel, job, etc) - but if they did something like committing a crime while dressed as a man that would count against their character.

I know less about men and gender roles, but gather that it was more serious - and more dangerous - for men to take on female roles. Sodomy was a capital crime in the Netherlands, for example, while two women who married (example in the book cited above) were only whipped and exiled.
posted by jb at 2:02 PM on July 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

In that historical witchcraft and contemporary lesbianism have both been seen by some as affronts to male-dominated hegemony, yes there's a "relationship" there -- a kinship, maybe.

And the persecutions by government/religious groups are similar... but then again that applies to almost any group that threatens any status quo.
posted by rokusan at 3:01 PM on July 23, 2009

The only thing I can think of off my head would be the persecution of the Templars, where accusations of trafficking in black magic and sodomy were part of the charges levelled at the order; but that wouldn't appear to dovetail with what you're after.
posted by rodgerd at 3:44 PM on July 23, 2009

If you're interested in modern witchcraft and connections to homosexuality, I have a friend who has her phd in anthropology and this is her area of expertise. MeMail me with contact info and more specific information about what you're looking for and I'll pass it along.
posted by threeturtles at 10:48 AM on July 24, 2009

This book (Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism) is awesome.

It is one of the definitive texts on female homoeroticism in late antiquity. Offers a few anecdotes about "witches," I believe.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:50 PM on July 24, 2009

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