English Professor Michele Tarter’s interest in witches extends far beyond the commercialized green faces and cackling laughs to a history rich with misunderstanding and scapegoating. She wants to “reclaim the stories of wise women and hags” that have been muddled by superstition.
“Society loves and is fascinated by the witch, and also hates and fears the witch. And that conflict is what keeps her going,” Tarter explains. “Society keeps recreating her for its own purposes. She’s the nonconformist and the outcast, but she’s also mysterious and magical.”
Tarter’s interest in witch history stems from her dissertation research on British and early American Quaker women. She was amazed, she says, by the accounts of women accused of being witches and the torture they endured. “I started exploring why they were charged and why they were being punished. I found that, uniformly, these women were very strong, very nonconformist, and they were threatening to mainstream society.” That theme of nonconformity is also found in the witch histories of Europe and New England, Tarter says.
Through the years, Tarter has studied the witch’s evolution from revered village healer to hated and hunted scapegoat. “She was the doctor, the apothecary, the herbalist, and the midwife. So how did that woman, the wise woman who was honored and revered get turned into evil? That question is at the heart of what I teach.”
Students in Tarter’s The Witch in Literature class learn of the injustices these women endured. “The witch craze in Europe is called ‘The Burning Times,’” Tarter explains. “And it’s so horrible the number of women who were killed. They were innocent; they did nothing. They were scapegoated.”
Tarter describes the study of witch torture as a “painful but necessary” lesson in group mentality and tolerance. “Teaching about the witch is really teaching about something so much larger in the human psyche. The capacity to band together in that mass mentality, to not think and just react. Our society, across time, has trouble with difference. And if the only thing this course does is inspire people to tolerate and embrace differences then, ‘rock on!’ I succeeded.”