Witch’s boom

Notes on Mothers, Witches and Mining / Lauren Bliss

Some envious unthinking people have been conned
To think prosperity is created by waving a magic wand


On Mother’s Day in 2012, an inspirational protest took place in Broome, Western Australia. Families, children and representatives from the local community marched with signs announcing “mum loves Broome”. The demonstration was to protest the proposed development of the James Price Point gas hub, a gas processing plant, that, when complete, will be the world’s largest.

The invocation to mothers on the part of the protestors is described in the documentary Three Sisters: Women of High Degree (2014), recently premiered at Melbourne University’s Reading the Country festival. The film tells the story of Nyikina women living traditionally on the Fitzroy River, and shows the inventive methods of protest against the development. The message on the placards, “mum loves Broome,” aimed to visually and emotively disarm the aggression of the police and channel the power of a collective community. Like the umbrellas that pro-democracy protestors used to shelter police and anti-riot troops from the rain in Hong Kong’s recent demonstrations, this form of protest involves the conflicting side, rather than taking a purely oppositional stance. By drawing on the symbol of the mother, the protesters drew attention to how we are all complicit in the actions of the mining company.

Through its use of visual statements, this protest offers potential ways of thinking through the relationship between visual modes of storytelling and protest. By invoking mothers (on mother’s day no less) the protest also conjures the myth and figure of Mother Nature, foregrounding her as central to the dramatic politics of the debate about the human use of the natural environment.

How might we use narrative and myth to approach mining? For the most part, the notion of Mother Nature does not play much of a role in discussions of mining and environmental politics. When we talk of the science of climate change, for example (and by proxy the damage that mining causes), we typically rely on a definitive aetiology to assume a means to fight it. To frame this from a slightly different angle, I think there is a certain tendency in our culture to treat science as though it supersedes all other human invention, particularly fiction. As metaphor, mining could be seen as the practice of shaping, altering and delivering the earth – radically transforming it, shifting its time, its place and purpose and posing new beginnings and ends. I wonder: Can we mine Mother Nature to save us from ourselves?

The History of Witchcraft

By revisiting the history of witchcraft, we know – with the exception of research by Carlos Ginzburg,1 who found evidence of the existence of 16th century pagan cults in the remote north-eastern provinces of Italy – the witch-craft of early-modern Europe was the product of the Christian elite, who created it in order to be able to persecute. There is more-or-less no evidence that witchcraft was actually practiced by the people of early-modern Europe. In the 1930s, the anthropologist Margaret Murray would espouse the still popularly held belief that ‘witches’ of early-modern Europe were a pagan fertility cult (in the 1970s Ann Oakley would call them a group of early feminists), but this has all been debunked.2  Unlike the witchcraft of antiquity, or that of the Azande, for example, there is no proof that witchcraft existed in a separate form of ritual, religion or rite in the early modern period. There are no folk stories, songs, or objects that have been discovered.3  Instead, evidence of witchcraft is only found in court transcripts, civil proceedings, news reports, and of course ‘confessions’, a ‘top-down’ social phenomenon that saw witchcraft take the form of hysterical and irrational explanation for misfortune and tragedy. Witchcraft was a crime concocted by lawmakers and theologians and adopted by people to justify tragic uncontrollable, domestic events such as stillbirths, miscarriages and the death and illness of livestock.


A witch rides a goat through the sky, causing a rain of fire. Woodcut from Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (1610)
from Silvia Federici Caliban and the Witch (NY: Autonomedia, 2004) p217

The Virile Member

Witchcraft was often charged in place of ‘aberrant’ female sexuality. Single women, widowers and prostitutes were the main victims of the witch-hunts that saw to the death of up to 100,000 people over a roughly three-hundred year period, from the late 1400s until approximately 1750.4

Indeed, it is interesting that most charges of witchcraft centered on the ‘womb’ as creator or destroyer of man and beast. In this sense, Murray and Oakley were not wrong to consider witches as some kind of female-oriented fertility cult but, what they overlooked, was that witchcraft was based on an absence of physical or material cause. Reading the handbooks to the witch-hunts, such as the Malleus Maleficarum or the Compendium Maleficarum, it’s clear it was necessary that witchcraft was only ‘illusory’. A witch could not actually kill, maim or injure the body but use “prestidigatory illusion” to conjure illicit spirits. If what she did had any physical reality, the taking or creating of life, then a witch would be committing an act of God.5  Deviant sexuality was a main theme in charges of witchcraft and it was believed that witches had the power to control a man’s penis – through her “glamour” she could detach the image of it and manipulate it to her own fancy. There are a number of horrific cases where women were persecuted and burned, because a man got an erection (or, indeed, found himself impotent).


Witches offer children to the Devil. A woodcut from a tract on the trial of Agnes Sampson, 1591.
from Silvia Federici Caliban and the Witch (NY: Autonomedia, 2004) p183

Science and Witchcraft

A witch is, in other words, what causes you to hallucinate the image of your own body. This is her psychotic, or schizophrenic, potential – but I do not think this means she is a figure of absolute incoherence or sheer madness that escapes understanding. For one, I’m intrigued by the fact the witch-hunts occurred at the time of enlightenment and the scientific revolution, and that many founding fathers were active believers in witches – or at the very least were complicit in the hunts. As Silvia Federici, following the work of Brian Easlea, suggests in her feminist text Caliban and the Witch, “there is no evidence that those who promoted [science] ever spoke in defense of women accused as witches”.6

Witchcraft provides a useful and rich history through which to investigate the irrational excesses of human society. Most interestingly, it is an anti-humanist figure for thinking through this excess. This is what I find most compelling about it.

Mother Nature is not an Environmentalist

There is a paradox in green movements. In his recent essay “Mining Hell” Justin Clemens studies the idiomatic expression ‘Mother Earth’, noting that arguments both for and against the protection of the environment use a “shared rhetoric” that is based on the same body of Mother Nature. Climate-change deniers and advocates are two sides of the same coin. He writes, “Mother Earth is at once living and dead, a woman to be used and abused or protected and celebrated”. Both sides express “an entirely perspicuous lingua franca”,7  for in each case her natural abundance is there so that it can be made available to all.

The End of the Rainbow

Those who seek to find an end to the story of mining, knowing the resources of the earth are not just finite but also potentially dangerous and destructive, might seek to dismantle any utopian and thus radically disconnected view of the body of Mother Nature and seek out a figure who turns this goldat the end of the rainbow, either as money or mineral, into what it really is: shit.

Look Deep into the Porcelain Bowl

The witch and the devil have a long history of turning the treasure-hunter’s gold into faecal matter. The person who makes a pact with the devil to seek great fortune will find his treasures turn to faeces once the pact is complete. And the German statue “shitter of ducats” – which craps out golden coins – is another example. Freud also makes this connection, linking the use of gold and money to the process of defecation, insofar as its use value is only as refuse. In The Solar Anus, surrealist writer George Bataille links the sun to the anus. The sun, giver of life, also possesses the ability to destroy – a correlation that leads him to figure both creation and destruction as pure parody. “Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation. Thus lead is the parody of gold. Air is the parody of water. The brain is the parody of the equator. Coitus is the parody of crime. Gold, water, the equator, or crime can each be put forward as the principle of things”. Here, he is giving the anus an eye to see – encouraging us to displace an enlightened vision to a position where we see our own shit.

The Witchcraft of the Inverted Eye

A witch’s eye would not be anal in the parodic and surrealist way that Bataille figures his anal eye. Rather, a witch’s eye is an anti-human eye or an inverted eye. As she causes us to hallucinate the image of our body, does her eye bring to light how the natural world turns to shape and figure us?



  1. Carlos Ginzburg, Night Battles Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries John and Anne Tedeschi (translators). (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966); Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). []
  2. Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult of Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921); The God of the Witches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936); Ann Oakley, The Captured Womb: A History of the Medical Care of Pregnant Women (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) G.R. Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: The Witch in Early Modern Europe (London & Sydney: Croom Helm, 1987). []
  3. Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1976). []
  4. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004). []
  5. See witch-hunting manuals: Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum [1486] (New York: Dover Publications, 1971): 118-122. See also Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum [1608] (New York: Dover Publications, 1988). []
  6. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004): 202. []
  7. Justin Clemens, “Mining Hell” Arena Magazine No. 124, June-July (2013): 47-50. []
Lauren Bliss is a writer and PhD student at the University of Melbourne.