In 1990, the National Film Board of Canada sponsored The Burning Times by director Donna Read. It is a documentary on the witch hunts of Europe that led to the torture and death of many people, often women, and makes the case that violence against women and mistrust of women’s power today are echoes of those horrific times. Halloween is a fun time of year for silliness, fun, costumes, and horror for entertainment; The Burning Times calls out a period of real-life horror, tells the story of women in those times, and seeks to inspire a world where women’s voices come into fruition, are heard, and are fully valued. The Burning Times is part two of Donna Read’s trilogy on women and spirituality. Goddess Remembered was the first and Full Circle followed.
Telling the Burning Times Story
The film begins with the image of a spring once considered sacred to the Celtic goddess Sulis, then later, Minerva. Water flows as the narration begins; the haunting sound of Loreena McKennitt’s singing in the background is a beautiful choice. Various scholars on the Middle Ages and religious history bring together pieces of the story, the soundtrack goes a long way to evoke the emotions that go with it. A signature image of the film is the graceful silhouette of dancer Barbara Pecarich that frames the telling.
Through narration and interview, the story is outlined: There once was a time when wise women were honored. They were often the keepers of knowledge about folk healing, and they were often spiritual leaders. Paganism – living in sync with nature and observing rituals associated with the seasons – was the prevailing tradition. During the “witch craze,” women’s power became associated with darkness and death, and folk healers were misconstrued and condemned as worshippers of Satan. Well-organized campaigns of tortures like burning, dunking, and the application of thumb screws enforced the suppression of what was by then called heresy. Millions died, and 85% of those killed for the crime of witchcraft between the 15th and 17th century were women. Modern witch and activist Starhawk and the late author and journalist Margot Adler make notable appearances to tell parts of the story. A most powerful moment is the reading of an excerpt from a letter that survives – a tortured woman who wrote in utter desperation to her husband. Though the story is grim, the film encourages the resilience of women as well as new awareness of traditional wisdom, and notes earth-centered spiritual gatherings on the rise today.
The number of those who died, according to The Burning Times, is stated at nine million. This is now thought to be an extraordinary overestimate. It is a factual error that was believed by many to be the case at the time the documentary was made. Margot Adler, in “A Time for Truth,” comments:
We now know that most persecutions of witches occurred during a 100-year period, between 1550 and 1650, and the total number hanged or burned probably did not exceed 40,000…
“Nine million” still gets repeated every time “The Burning Times,” a searingly powerful film, is screened or shown on public television. The film’s heartrending and appalling descriptions of some of the trials, tortures, and deaths that did occur is not nullified by this new and more accurate research.
Halloween is a favorite holiday to those of us who love a good party, ghoulish decorations, and a reason to dress up. Many Neo-Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate Samhain on October 31st as a time to recognize the beginning of the cold months of the year, the time for inner spiritual work, and especially the time to honor loved ones who have passed on. Whether you are celebrating Halloween, Samhain, or both, think about watching Donna Read’s The Burning Times to learn, reflect, and remember.
A freelance writer and performing songwriter, Robin Renee‘s work has appeared in many publications including PanGaia, Blessed Bi Spirit, Big Hammer #12, The New York Quarterly, Songwriter’s Market, and That Takes Ovaries – Bold Females and their Brazen Acts (Random House). Her recordings include In Progress, All Six Senses, Live Devotion, spirit.rocks.sexy, and This. She is one of the co-hosts of the Audacious Eleven podcast, part of the Biff Bam Pop! Podcast Network.