Once upon a time, a man lost his penis. Or, rather, an evil woman took his penis and stored it in a bird’s nest, along with a brood of other stolen members, which she fed with oats. After a long quest, the man found the witch and demanded that she return his manhood. She told him to climb a tree to find the nest filled with squirming penises, and take whichever one he wanted.
When he tried to take a big one, she said, “No, that one belongs to a priest.”
This story, told in the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), the most popular witch hunting manual in history, encapsulates the crime of witchcraft: witches were women who literally unmanned men. And penises pop up everywhere in witch trial records.
A witch had a lot of power over the penis. Witchcraft could make a man impotent, but only with a certain woman. A witch could turn a penis invisible, transforming an innocent man into a Ken doll. Or she can steal it completely and treat it like a pet, storing it in a box and feeding it grains.
Witch hunters—always men—were obsessed with the power of witches to steal what they most valued: their manhood. Witches were lustful women, so sinful that they copulated with devils. As the Malleus Maleficarum warned, "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” A witch’s pact with Satan was often sealed with sex.
And witches used their demonic power to attack men.
It’s no wonder that the vast majority of witches were women. Witchcraft was a crime against society—it literally meant a witch had chosen to side with Satan over the godly community. And a witch’s crimes were always against what the society valued most: children, crops, and penises.
Witches were handmaidens of the devil, just waiting for a chance to attack the patriarchal order. And stories about witches often reveal a great deal about male anxieties.
In another story from the Malleus Maleficarum, a man dumped a woman he'd been sleeping with, and a few days later his penis vanished. He drowned his sorrows at a tavern until he came up with a plan: he'd beat the woman until she returned his penis. He choked her until she promised to restore his member, until her face was swelling and growing black. Suddenly the man knew, without looking or touching, that his penis had been returned.
If this sounds a lot more like a violent, misogynistic fantasy than a true story, well, you've just about gotten the gist of the witch trials.
And if you can't get enough about witches, check out my latest novel, Salem Mean Girls. It retells the Salem witch trials in the style of Mean Girls, and delves into the sticky question of why women accused other women of witchcraft.