With Halloween just around the corner, I got to thinking about witches and healers and midwives, and the long and complicated history surrounding these three labels.
It’s funny how at this time of year, you can see the image of the witch everywhere. Yet how much do we actually know about those so-called witches. And how often has society destroyed a woman under the pretense that she is a witch? What is a witch but a women who knows her own power, has the skills to heal, and is unwilling to pretend that she is anything else?
Everyone it is seems is familiar with the story of the early Christian martyrs. Those who died for their Christian faith, when the world was pagan. Less well known is the story of the pagan martyrs many of whom died for their faith when the “world” went Christian. And yes, I am using the term “world” very lightly. Actually I am referring to the Roman empire when it made the switch overnight from pagan to Christian. Part of the fallout from that event was that the women priestesses and women healers/midwives had no place in the masculine focused Christianity and were forced to quit their practices or die for them. Midwives, women herbalists and healers took a hard blow, and in some area, were essentially wiped out for centuries.
Even once midwifery started to re-establish itself in the 1700s, it was still viewed as a somewhat questionable profession. Midwives often mixed some spirituality with their herbal remedies. For example, they might encourage a woman to plant a certain type of flower during a new moon, while saying a prayer to Mary, in addition to taking certain herbs to help the woman conceive a child. So perhaps from the outside, it could look like a spell. Today with our knowledge of how the mind works, it appears more of a method of getting a woman to believe in the possibility of a child, then magic. In addition to help women with conception and birth, a midwife was also the person that a woman turned when she found herself pregnant with an unwanted child. Midwifes often helped these women as well; quite against the teaching of their society. Those who were a bit too outspoken, could often find themselves as outcasts.
My bookclub recently read the novel, the birth house by Ami McKay. It’s a fascinating novel set in early 20 century Nova Scotia which explores the clash of traditional midwifery with our modern birth practices. The main character, Dora Rare, is taken under the wing of Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for storytelling and herbes. As Dora grows, she becomes Miss Babineau’s apprentice and together they help the women of their small town of Scots Bay through infertility, labour, breech babies, and unwanted pregnancies. With the arrival of Dr. Gilbert Thomas, a new medical doctor who promises sterile, painless (unconcious) childbirth, Dora struggles to protect the birthing rituals of her ancestors. The book really brings to light the differences between the midwifery model of care and the medical model, as well as the power struggle between the two. When one of the women dies, there is an outbreak of mistrust, gossip, and scapgoating that is quite remenesant of early witch hunts.
Even today midwives are not out of the woods. Look at the current situation in the states, where a powerful group of doctors, the American Medical Association is lobbying congress to pass a bill that would make homebirth illegel across the entire US. This in spite of the fact that all the scientific studies have shown that home birth is just as safe and in some cases safer than hospital birth. So since their stance is not based on evidence, then one has to assume that it’s political; a strange type of turf war.
Although the situation in Canada is much better… it’s still not perfect. Many many women are still not able to access midwifery services. As is currently the case in Saskatchewan. Most people who are unconnected with the situation assume that everything is wonderful since midwifery was legalized half a year ago and is now publicly funded in Saskatchewan. However the reality is that only one of the active midwives has completely the licensing procedure and in that in the last 6 months, not a single women has received publically funded services.
So my post today, is a salute to those brave women who went out under the darkness of night to tend to the ill and to attend to women as they birthed their babies. Despite the fact that there was real risk to themselves. And to those women who were branded as witches and tortured beyond recognition, or until they began to resemble a halloween witch. As you see the witch images this Halloween, give your thoughts over to the midwives, whose paths, though not as horrendous as their predecessors’ , is, nevertheless, in as much peril.