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Witches Automata

Maria Foka, 03 May 2021

  Riding in the night hours, having sex in the stillness of the dead of night, seduced by illusions of the devil are ways of conduct that describe a witch throughout the centuries. This misogynistic rhetoric nourished by the church suggested that women’s lack of intelligence – an absurd reasoning for the prohibition for them to be educated – made them succumb to demons, when in fact common witchcraft was associated with love, sex, forming friendships, expressing oneself and healing, practiced regardless of the societal norms of sexuality, gender roles, and identities that were heavily imposed by christianity through the fear of the after-life rhetoric. In Medieval Europe, up to 80.000 suspected witches were executed, the majority of them were marginalized women in the sense that they were single, widowed, women that have ceased to please men, women with sexual desires, and women who took on the mantle for self-empowerment, god-forbid. This group of women is not to be related with Wicca, the modern Pagan Witchcraft religious movement part of the occultist stream of Western esotericism, nor with intercontinental healing, spiritual or religious practices and activities; it is merely an oversimplification of one of the many ways that women were dealt with when not complying to male desires or societal propriety.

  The publication of ‘’Malleus Maleficarum’’ (The Hammer of Witches) in 1486, a book on how to identify, hunt, imprison and murder the combination of sorcery and heresy that mal-behaved women were, spurred a frenzy across Europe. With that, a fleet of inventions began; wearable and other machines were made to torture women, to extract confessions and satisfaction from their suffering. Both the ubiquity and invisibility of women were precisely why these machines were so deadly, in a political and material manner. See, women understood the webs of power all too well, being that they were oppressed by them; they were in need of ways to survive and keep afloat in the poisonous patriarchy of Medieval times. Thus these machines served a dual purpose; as a sacred signifier of obedience, and as an indication of accordance with the strange, i.e. a woman’s body and her power over it. They were a way to impose or simulate consciousness, a testimony to the fear of the unknown,  and the improbable male superiority. The punishers invented wearable machines that would cause pain if the wearer did not behave according to the expected ways. In a sense, they used the alleged sorcerer’s ways against them. Author E.R. Truitt traces the production of automatic machines, automata – greek for self-made-, back to the 3rd century BCE, built in Ancient Egypt. Moving figures and statues of humans, animals, and mythological monsters that used hydraulic and pneumatic engineering, falling weights, and body mechanics were part of pagan pageantry that the church would aggressively renounce. These machines were infinite, consisting of steps and making transitions taking as their argument the previous state – that of stillness – and symbol to transit – usually movement or disobedience – creating a nesting relationship with the wearer, vaguely imitating the inner workings of the Chomsky hierarchy between a set of systems. In that manner, the justification for the torture would fall entirely on the wearer, as the device would react to their actions, instilling the idea of righteous self-harm.

  This is the curious case of how corporal punishment and disembodiment became the modus for the existence of a mechanical apparatus within the body that lead to the modern notion of a cyborg, a neo-hybrid multifaceted organism. The leap from torture to pleasure, compulsion to necessity, punishment to reward, is a story for another time.

The Scold’s Bridle, unknown source, public domain

Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520

  The Scold’s Bridles, also known as the Brank, the Witch’s Bridle or Gossip’s Bridle, was a body-machine designed as a mirror-punishment to silence suspected witches, prostitutes, shrews, but mainly women who refused to be the quiet, submissive wives, and were instead nagging or gossiping. Gossip carries negative connotations through its male-washing through patriarchal circles. However, the term, which originated from the 14th century, applied to companions in the bedroom at the time of childbirth, or to describe the relationship among women-friends. As exchanging information was one of the only ways for women to acquire knowledge of the world beyond the limitations that their husbands and fathers imposed, it was slyly penalized. The Scold’s Bridle was then deemed appropriate, as a device of torture and public humiliation, causing extreme pain, physical and psychological trauma, while intimidating women into submission. It was also widely used on female victims of abuse, transgressors, women of lower classes, women suspected of witchcraft, women considered to be rude, troublesome, or female workhouse inmates, to prevent them from speaking. It consisted of a metal cage used as a muzzle that would lock around the victims head and was equipped with a spiked mouthpiece that was slid into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue, that would gag the women, causing muscle fatigue, extreme salivation, inability to drink, eat, or speak. Often, a chain was fastened to the cage and a hook was attached to it so that the woman could be easily paraded in the streets – during which time, passers-by were allowed to abuse and beat the wearer for their sins.

  The Heretic’s Fork first appeared in the 15th century and was reserved almost exclusively for heretics, heathens, and witches. This machine was composed of a leather neck collar attached to a two-way fork, of which the upper end would spike the chin and the bottom end the sternum; often, the phrase ‘I renounce’’ was engraved in the metal. The bound person would suffer abrupt pain, as they were unable to move their head or jaw, and even speak or swallow without the sharp spines piercing the skin. The length of the forks was carefully measured so that the wearer would not bleed to death, but would always be enduring that painful injection. This torture would often be the prelude to the auto da fé (the act of faith), imposed by the Spanish Institution and inforced by the authorities that concluded to the apostates being burned at the stake in public view. The construction of this device was calculated so that the wearer was momentarily relieved when tilting their head back to avoid the spikes – conveniently turning the gaze to the sky, the home of one of the one true gods. When speaking or looking down to the abyss, hell, where their sins were waiting for them, the blood would flow; permitting a perverted enforcement of compliance via body movement manipulation, as garment do, but in this case sickeningly exaggerated.

  And every wearable thing does that; that is the manipulation of the body image, the contortion of the body and its reality, the restriction of movement or the abundant expression of physicality in one way or another. The mirror punishment quickly translates into a supposed mirror expression of oneself as detainer becomes detainee, agreeing to follow societal restrictions for presenting oneself according to sex, class, age, race. Still, modern-day ‘witches’ are prone to act based on them; either through accordance and imitation, complete dis-accordance and inverted imitation, or partial acknowledgment of fashion trends as the basic axis of conducting the act of dressing. We shouldn’t, we wouldn’t, but we often do. As Georg Simmel says, If fashion expresses and intensifies at the same time the impulse of equality and individualization, the lure of imitation as well as that of discrimination, then it is clarified why women have a particularly strong dependence on fashion. The inferior social, political and personal position in which we have been condemned for centuries is tied to a set of morals, dependence, properness that are accepted and permissible, and can only be fought through a position of power we never inherited. That statement itself is a vicious cycle, all too ready to be broken, through fire, spells and sisterhood.