Life Still Shaped by the Witch Hunts? by Eline Kieft

In this article I reframe my understanding of feminism through the lens of Mona Chollet’s In Defence of Witches, and reflect on how my psyche as a woman today is still deeply influenced by the effects of the witch hunts in mediaeval times. 

Personal Trail

I grew up in the Netherlands, a country with one of the lowest teen pregnancies rates worldwide, where abortion has been legal since 1984, and home-birthing is the norm. My mum was one of the activists who helped make this happen in the 1970s and 1980s. She campaigned pro anti-conception and abortion rights, for the right to be ‘boss in our own belly’ before and all the way through a pregnancy, and raised awareness of HIV and aids. She was a working mom and loved her job. 

As I girl, I enjoyed playing with Lego, and developed a good spatial awareness. My dad taught me how to navigate by natural orientation and compass, so I also have a keen sense of direction. These are often considered masculine qualities, but for me they’ve always been a natural part of who I am, including my identity as a woman. 

As a teen, I received clear and heart-centred sex-education, had a good knowledge of my female anatomy and menstrual cycle. I never considered myself less on behalf of my sex. I grew up with the view that I could do anything I wanted, be anyone I wanted, and certainly could do equally well as boys or men.

I always felt privileged to harvest the fruits of my mum’s activism that became the norm in the Netherlands, but feminism wasn’t really on my radar, and I certainly never thought of myself as a feminist. 

It was my colleague Amanda Williamson who first described my work as feminist, because I critiqued academic methodologies derived from patriarchic worldviews, and instead called for a more inclusive life-trail approach that recognises and celebrates the body, senses, unfinished-ness, and not-knowing as qualities that enhance, instead of limit, our life and our work.*)

Of course, I am aware of ongoing inequality in the ways that men and women can live their lives: an ongoing discrepancy in being hired, differences in salaries, challenges in career progress and the glass ceiling, derogatory views on the female boss, sexual harassment, and male authority over what happens in our wombs. I know that there are still countless things to address, but I never felt that my personal choices were in limited or dictated by the fact that I’m a woman. Or were they?

In Defence of Witches**)

I always knew I was a witch, but In Defence of Witches by Mona Chollet made me wonder if I’ve secretly been a feminist too! Chollet is a French journalist who describes the witch as a symbol of female strength outside the limitations of society, past and present. She considers how the witch hunts are more than a historic phenomenon. They seeped into our collective unconscious and continue to influence the perception of women and womanhood today, and how we dare (or daren’t) be as women. This includes aspects like:

  • our struggle with wild, unruly, sexual, creative, menopausal, and ageing bodies;
  • fears of having a different body because anomalies like scars and birth marks would be hunted by the ‘witch prickers’ (p.12);
  • repression of visionary, dreaming, intuitive, and healing skills;
  • confinement to or over-identification with a role as nurturer or carer;
  • fears of speaking our mind;
  • challenges to living lives independent of men, patriarchy, and church.

These characteristics can be traced back to the dangers our ancestors faced. Don’t speak up, don’t be different, do what you’re told, keep your mouth shut, or else… Or else, you’d be raped, tortured, drowned, burned, or quartered. No wonder it’s such a struggle to step up, come out, shake off the chains and live a life of our choosing. 

Chollet pays most attention to France, UK, and the USA. The Netherlands seems to be 20 to 50 years ahead in terms of inclusive attitude. Growing up with two awesome parents in such a forward society, I realise I haven’t truly understood the general feminist agenda until now. I was shocked, of course, about recent misogynist politicians and anti-abortion laws in the USA but had no idea how tenacious negative views on women continue to undermine so many lives.

Do you recognise this?

Describing the The Witches of Eastwick, Chollet neatly summarises the ongoing effects of the witch hunts: “the women have been constantly holding back, restraining themselves, pretending to be ‘half of what they are’ and conforming to the rules of a patriarchal and puritanical society” (p.69). 

I wondered how my life has unconsciously been shaped by them too. Is my psyche free of the fears they induced? Have I been truly able to choose and create the life I want, as I always believed? I think not. I now recognise two major ways in which the above dynamic played out in my own life. 

The first one is the value I placed in obtaining degrees and diplomas that give a sense of recognition and apparent safety. When insecure, my default mode used to be ‘train in another modality’ or ‘get another degree’. I believed this would build my credibility and give me a ground for speaking up. Although valuable in certain ways, these degrees mostly emerged from masculine ways of seeing, perceiving and valuing the world. They can stifle the creative fire for developing our own unique views and processes, and capacity to think outside of the prevailing frameworks and offered solutions.

The second one was the fear of aligning my work with spirituality. Having trained in anthropology, a usually open-minded academic discipline, talking about soul and spirituality as a personal experience was taboo. It could be studied from the outside as an intriguing, ‘exotic’ phenomenon, but admitting to one’s own spirituality would endanger the objective quality of our scholarship. 

Reading Chollet, I wondered if this fear is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our collective unconscious that any woman who thinks outside of the box, sings her own tune, yearns for independence, is not as domesticated as those around her, is still frightened into submission because she fears ‘this never again’.

Although my concerns are of course much less severe than those around chances on the job market, abortion choices, or sexual harassment, they nevertheless had a strong impact on my self-actualisation, and on daring to bring my talents and skills to fruition. 

I know I’m not alone. When will we dare to truly follow our own path, and learn to support each other in the choices that feel right for us – even though we might not always understand them? This exploration and support is at the heart of my Art of Thriving Network. Any and all genders welcome!

*) Referring to my contribution “Soul Loss and Retrieval: restoring wholeness through dance”, Kieft, E. 2017, pp. 180-206, in Williamson, A. & Sellers-Young, B. (eds.) Spiritual Herstories: Soulful research in dance studies. Intellect.

**) Mona Chollet: In Defence of Witches, The Legacy of the Witch Hunts and Why Women Are Still on Trial.


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Eline Kieft danced from a young age, including rigorous classical and contemporary training to become a professional dancer. She then studied anthropology, deepening her fascination with worldwide similarities between indigenous traditions regarding intangible aspects of reality and other ways of knowing, including embodied epistemologies and shamanic techniques. 

She completed her PhD in dance anthropology at Roehampton University, trained in depth with the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies and the School of Movement Medicine. Eline worked at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) at Coventry University for five years, where she created a Somatics Toolkit for Ethnographers, and pioneered soulful academic pedagogy. Her recent book Dancing in the Muddy Temple: A Moving Spirituality of Land and Body was well received as a unique blend of theory and practice and a medicine for our times. 

She is now a full-time change-maker and facilitates deep transformation through coaching and courses both online and in person. Her approach The Way of the Wild Soul offers a set of embodied, creative, and spiritual tools to re-connect with inner strength and navigate life’s challenges with confidence. 

Website: Also on Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn

Author: Eline Kieft

I'm passionate about tending and mending the soul in everyday life! I offer Qi Gong, courses on embodied spirituality and shamanic techniques, and safe online community spaces away from Facebook, especially through The Art of Thriving Network!

16 thoughts on “Life Still Shaped by the Witch Hunts? by Eline Kieft”

  1. Thank you! I’m so glad to know about this source, and loved your reflections on how the witchhunts have shaped your own behavior and actions. I have been thinking about this for a long time, and first wrote publicly about this in my FAR post on the Burning Times a few months ago. I genuinely appreciate everything you said here. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You were fortunate – privileged – to develop without so many of the constraints that the rest of us experienced. Personally, this kind of upbringing is beyond my imagining. Good Mothering helps… Unlearning the various truths after accruing our degrees is part of escaping patriarchy. As far as I’m concerned witchery is part of being a woman – we all have these gifts, buried as they may be. If we step out into the public realm we must expect to be shunned as I was refusing to “it” or de -personalize nature, and being called crazy – branded “different” ostracized – always the outsider – I survived only to discover that today even science is starting to glimpse the truths I gleaned/ continue to glean from being a student of nature – which also by the way led me to feminism through my love for the natural world. Martin Shaw a mythologist states that in order to follow the way of myth ( and make no mistake we are living a myth) we must LISTEN – ask ourselves three questions: what do we love most, wha will it cost, and what price are we willing to pay, When I stepped into my own life no one was there to ask these questions… I know now that all are critical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sara, yes I know, I am so grateful, and so sorry to hear this is even beyond imagining for you! I love how you write about being a student of nature and the way of myth! And great questions indeed. We’re all finding our path and perhaps it might even come home to us more when we’ve needed to find the questions by ourselves…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this article and references Eline. I didn’t get to completely align my work with my spirituality until retirement from formal employment, and I did experience some fear about what people in my small town would think. I’m over it now thankfully, intending to keep writing and telling the witch hunters to get lost.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for your reflections on how we are still affected by the Burning Times – they ring very true. I have always rebelled against the patriarchal establishment while at the same time I know I fear letting all my power out for fear of being harmed – subsequently finding ways to make myself small. The backwards movement of recent years shows that fear to be based in current reality too.

    I, like Sara, forgot to ask those 3 questions when I was young. Now I know what the cost of living outside of the system is and it is truly high. But I still would chose the life of an artist who wants to express the body and soul are one whole – that compassion, beauty, love and joy are the best roads for us to travel on this mysterious journey of life on Earth.


    1. Hey Judith, thanks so much for your comment! These are such good points, and in a way we can only ‘weigh the scales’ in hindsight. After diving into adult life as a dancer, realising I wanted more intellectual stimulus, I cut myself off for a time from those dancing roots, confirming to a student life. I truly love anthropology, which was my chosen field of study, and yet it took me 20 years to come back to dancing the life force, and now integrating all the academic stuff as a soulful entrepreneur. I wonder if that’s in or outside the system. Often I long for a concrete ‘label’ on the door, a ‘craft’ I could offer… Still feeling like the witch between worlds, on the outskirts of the village, between community and spirit! And here we are in good company. Thanks again for connecting!!!


      1. More than likely being a soulful entrepeneur puts you outside of the system. I think you have your label – “soulful entrepeneur” – love it! I think part of what keeps many of us who long for a more balanced life and world outside of the system is the fact that there really is no community any longer.
        After I got so involved in research that takes me to the ancient world I’ve thought I could have been an anthropologist had I only known how much I love studying the ancient. Glad you found your way back to dance though. BTW – I love dance myself and always say I’ll come back next lifetime as a dancer – LOL.


        1. Thank you Judith, your comment means a lot! I’ve always continued to dance in my personal life, wouldn’t have been able to navigate academia without it, but it’s a different kettle of fish when everything is truly integrated. Perhaps we can be each other’s community, here on FAR and in similar soulful settings! Yes, I love your research, it’s thorough and detailed and always inspires me! So let’s continue to share the magic seeds of the ancient, dance, goddess, culture, ritual, art, ceremony….. YUM!


          1. Absolutely – FAR is such a wonderful space for us to connect in community. I’m dreaming that we find a way we could come together in the physical world also. Wouldn’t that be inspiring!


  5. Thank you Judith, your comment means a lot! I’ve always continued to dance in my personal life, wouldn’t have been able to navigate academia without it, but it’s a different kettle of fish when everything is truly integrated. Perhaps we can be each other’s community, here on FAR and in similar soulful settings! Yes, I love your research, it’s thorough and detailed and always inspires me! So let’s continue to share the magic seeds of the ancient, dance, goddess, culture, ritual, art, ceremony….. YUM!


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