How trauma from the European witch hunts has harmed today's generation

Can’t get ahead at work? Don’t trust other women? Blame the witch hunts! Psychotherapist claims women hold back due to inherited ‘self-destructive’ traits like ‘a fear of being heard’ that ancestors needed to survive

  • Cali White, of West Sussex, insists women have inherited ‘self-destructive’ traits 
  • Says behaviours are inherited from ancestors who suffered in the witch hunts
  • Between 1450 to 1750, tens of thousands of women were executed as ‘witches’ 

A psychotherapist has claimed the trauma suffered by ancestors in the European witch hunts has harmed today’s generation of women.

Cali White, from West Sussex, insists women have inherited ‘self-destructive’ behaviours like a ‘deep-rooted mistrust’ of other females and a ‘fear of being heard or seen’ after their forebears had to adopt the traits to survive the witch hunts.

During the Early Modern era – 1450 to 1750 – tens of thousands of women were executed as ‘witches’ across the continent.  

Cali is a lead curator of an exhibition I am Witch – Tales from the Roundhouse, which is to be held at The Storey in Lancaster throughout January, and will explore claims that the witch trials left a ‘wound in our collective psyche which still affects us today’. 

She believes that the survival strategies of people’s ancestors over 25 generations ago are now entrenched beliefs and behaviours that ‘wreak havoc with our own health and well-being and can be extremely self-destructive’.  

Recent studies have revealed that traumatic events can alter a person’s genetic make-up, meaning the effects can be carried through generations.

Cali White, from West Sussex, insists women have inherited ‘self-destructive’ behaviours like a ‘deep-rooted mistrust’ of other females and a ‘fear of being heard or seen’ after their forebears had to adopt the traits to survive the witch hunts (pictured)

Cali, who is collaborating on the exhibition with her group the Silver Spoons Collective, said: ‘The Burning Times (the European witch hunts) divided our communities, taught us to play small in order to survive and broke our trust in the people closest to us. 

HOW TRAUMA IS PASSED THROUGH GENERATIONS 

The mid-20th century gave rise to the relatively new field of epigenetics, the biological study of genes that switch on and off. 

A turning point for this area of research was the Dutch famine at the end of the Second World War, which led to two generations of smaller-than-average babies being born, and was later tipped as the first recognised example of ‘inherited trauma’.

Since, the field has gained weight, particularly in the last two decades.

A groundbreaking study in 2013 showed mice can inherit their grandparents’ and parents’ fears, and that that fear can even be triggered by the same smell – even if they didn’t experience the pain themselves. 

Crucially, the team at Emory University showed, this was not the result of a genetic mutation, but of a ‘chemical modification’ to DNA that blocked a gene’s expression, without altering it.

A study in 2017 showed the daughters of Finnish women separated from their parents during the Second World War had higher rates of psychiatric hospitalisation.

Elsewhere, in 2018, a Canadian study showed Indigenous women have a 20 percent higher risk of post-partum depression than white women, which was attributed to generations of trauma and suffering. 

‘The scars we still carry show up in many ways – fears of being seen or heard, experiences of betrayal, mistrust of other women, feelings of disconnection to nature, irrational fears, and struggles to feel at home in ourselves. 

’25 generations on we are left feeling powerless, isolated, stuck, divided, unsafe and unsupported. It is affecting our health and well-being in so many ways and we’re tired of it.

‘The Silver Spoons Collective is on a mission to shine a light on the shadows of the past so we may heal, grow and create new ways of being, rooted in healthy connection to ourselves, each other and the Earth.’

Cali suggested the ‘inherited wounds’ are now deep in ‘our own psyche and keep us stuck, small and separate.’ 

‘What were survival strategies for our ancestors of 25 generations ago, are now entrenched beliefs and behaviours that wreak havoc with our own health and well-being and can be extremely self-destructive,’ she said.

‘During the Burning Times, women were forced to betray each other under brutal torture which broke the bonds of sisterhood and connection,’ Cali continued. 

‘Without this vital sense of community support, we are left feeling isolated and alone. Over time, the witch hunts became a way to rid a community of anyone who was deemed a “problem”. 

‘People who questioned the authority of the Church or State could easily become a target. Women learnt it was safer to stay quiet than speak up or stand out.’ 

Here Cali tells FEMAIL five ways women today can carry the legacy wounds of the witch hunts: 

1. You feel a deep rooted mistrust of other women and hide your vulnerability to protect yourself 

Cali claims: ‘During the witch hunts, women were forced to betray each other which, over time, broke the bonds of sisterhood and connection. 

‘Due to the widespread belief back then that ‘witches’ never worked alone, accused women were forced under brutal torture to give the names of those they conspired with. 

‘Some brave women held out, but the extreme pain was too much for others. At a time when most people lived in small rural communities, the names they shared were often their nearest and dearest. 

‘Trial records show women even accusing their own family members, as was the case during the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 which resulted in a daughter giving evidence in court against her own mother, grandmother, sister and brother. 

‘Betrayal led to mistrust, and the need for self-protection to keep oneself safe. 

‘Women mistrusting women has unconsciously been passed down through the generations and plays out today with our “I’m fine” masks, and our fears of sharing our true thoughts and feelings. This is not how we were designed.’

2. You carry a fear of being seen or heard which keeps you from fulfilling your potential 

The psychotherapist said: ‘The Witchcraft Act of 1563 imposed a death sentence on anyone found guilty of practising witchcraft whereby their practice resulted in the death of any alleged victims. 

‘At a time of little scientific understanding, belief in witchcraft was commonly accepted and deeply feared. 

‘Whilst initially the witch hunts may have been a genuine attempt to wipe out what was deemed a harmful practice, over time they became a way to deal with any adversary and a way to settle neighbourly disputes. 

‘Trial records indicate that accused women were noted for having a strong opinion or owning land – a clear message to women that it was safer to stay quiet and not stand out – which has been passed down from mothers to daughters to today. 

‘Embedded into our unconscious belief system is the notion that it’s not safe to speak up, and for many this sense of feeling restricted and repressed results in living un-lived lives. 

‘Even though modern feminism is making progress to further women’s equality, creating opportunities for us to excel, many women are still hindered by their fears of being seen or heard, which holds them back from following their dreams.’

Between 1450 to 1750, tens of thousands of women were executed as ‘witches’ across the continent in witch hunts (pictured)

3. You feel the need to compete with other women and experience jealousy when you deem them more successful than you 

Cali claimed: ‘The need for validation is part of being human, as is the desire to contribute to life in a meaningful way. 

‘The lived experiences of our “witch” ancestors, however – where standing out meant risking a brutal death – led to many denying themselves such opportunities. 

‘The handed-down messages of ‘stay small, stay safe,’ has kept us from living our full potential. Feelings of oppression fester within us and over time breed anger and resentment. 

‘Faced with other women’s success, and wanting it for ourselves, we have a tendency to project our negative feelings onto them. 

The European witch hunts: Tens of thousands of women executed as ‘witches’ across the continent between 1450 to 1750

Between 1450 to 1750, tens of thousands of women were executed as ‘witches’ across the continent. 

According to Britannica, witch hunts predominantly happened in west Germany, France, northern Italy and Switzerland, when a climate of superstition led to the persecution of those thought to be practising witchcraft.

In Spain, Portugal, and southern Italy, witch prosecutions rarely occurred, and executions were extremely rare.

The law played at least as important a role as religion in the witch trials, with local courts more likely to be strict and even violent in their treatment of supposed witches than regional or superior courts.

The decline of witch hunts, like their origins, was gradual, and the demise of them continued during the late 17th and early 18th century partly thanks to increasing literacy, mobility, and means of communication.

Although it varied according to region and time, overall around three-quarters of convicted ‘witches’ were female.

Some say the executions were linked to bad weather, with an increasingly colder and wetter scene in Europe meaning plagues of mice, caterpillars, crop failures and an increase in famine and disease.

When these difficult situations emerged, ‘witches’ were often blamed, with suspicions prompted about the suspect by sometimes simply one person blaming their misfortune on another.

However, others suggest that when competition between Catholics and Protestants heated up, witch-hunting reportedly became a way of appeasing the masses by demonstrating their devil-fighting prowess.

‘“Who does she think she is?” is a common response we might feel towards other women who are receiving acclaim and achieving more than us.’

4. You lack a spiritual connection to nature and have little understanding of the medicinal and healing properties of plants or herbs 

‘Did you know that that nettles contain more iron than spinach, and more calcium than milk? What we now consider unwanted weeds were the staple ingredients of our ancestral medicine cupboard. 

‘During the witch hunts, when conventional medicine was only just getting started, every woman had a working knowledge of the plants and herbs around her home as a source for healing. 

‘Without any scientific evidence, decisions on which plants to use came from wisdom passed down from elders, as well as a felt sense, or intuition about which plant to use. 

‘At a time before GP surgeries and the NHS, people were responsible for their own health decisions and might have consulted a local ‘Cunning Woman’ who used herbs and intention, or ‘magic’ to create healing potions.  

‘These were often the women targeted as “witches”, like Geillis Duncan, a maidservant in Scotland, accused of witchcraft by her magistrate employer in 1590. 

‘Known to have had a reputation as a healer, Geillis’s brutal torture sparked the North Berwick witch hunts in which 70 people were tried for witchcraft. Healing and plant knowledge became a dangerous occupation.’

5. You have a fear of authority and prioritise the needs of others over your own in order to comply 

The psychotherapist claimed: ‘During the witch hunts, power was held by the church and by the wealthy landowners who provided employment. 

‘People relinquished their authority and autonomy for fear of stepping out of line and facing harmful consequences. 

‘Those who didn’t attend church risked being accused of witchcraft; if a woman didn’t serve God then it was presumed she must be serving the Devil, and “witches” were the Devil’s handmaidens. 

‘In Geillis Duncan’s case, it was her employer, a wealthy magistrate who accused her of witchcraft, and subsequently tortured her in the most brutal of ways. 

‘If those our ancestors depended on for their livelihoods had the power to ultimately send them to their deaths, it stands to reason they would choose to comply with rules and orders for fear of reprehension. 

And this fear has continued to be the systemic scaffolding to today. Fear of authority is conditioned into us from an early age. 

‘We see the beginnings in school where children fear their teachers. We then take this, often unconsciously, into our adult lives and fear our bosses. 

‘We burn ourselves out working overtime to remain in favour, or say yes to things when we mean no, in order to placate those with the power to negatively impact our lives.’

The I AM WITCH: Tales from the Roundhouse educational and experiential exhibition at The Storey in Lancaster, 4th-28th January 2022, will explore the history of the European witch hunts. 

Half of profits from the exhibition will be donated to charities working to stop modern-day witch hunts in Africa and India. 

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