This story is based on historical facts from around my home community in Bavaria, Germany. The area was ruled by the bishops of Bamberg and the second largest number of people in all of Europe were sentenced to death there during the witch trials. The insanity only stopped when the area was depleted of wood.
Before then, the first crematoriums were invented to save wood and efficiently burn the bodies of the so-called witches. They eerily appear to resemble the death chambers of the Nazi concentration camps and seemed to have been their precursors. It is no surprise to me that later on in history, Hitler had a strong hold in Bavaria, with the town of Nuremberg not far away being one of the places where he garnered the most support for his cruel and insane plans. In my mind, the seeds for this to happen had been planted during the burning times. The witch tower where the accused were awaiting their torture and/or death is now a museum for tolerance and coexistence where people are asked to examine their values and belief systems around foreigners and so-called “others”. May we wake up to the truth of our interconnectedness and inter-being and may the following story never happen again!!!
The young woman had a chain around her feet, her hands were swollen and barely able to move and she was very thirsty. To torture them even more, the guards had given her and the other prisoners nothing else to eat but salted herring in an even saltier brine with lots of pepper. They refused to bring them anything to drink. “Help me” the prisoners moaned, dehydrated and weary. All but her, Katrina, were demoralized and scared. She still, in spite of everything, managed to hold onto her hope and love for life and took it upon herself to share it with everybody else.
“We need to be strong. Maybe there is a way that we can get out of here alive. Think of your children and grandchildren, parents, your husbands and wives. Stay focused. Remember something beautiful, think of the flowers of spring, think of the power of love ... “ she would implore them and extend her own strength out to the hungry hearts of her companions. Sometimes, she would sing to them, tell them stories of a different time before the tides had turned, before things got out of hand.
There were mostly women in the prison tower, and only a few men. She had heard from one of the minstrels that in certain places in the South they also tortured children. The thought of it made her stomach churn even more and her resolve to get out of prison alive much stronger. Long ago it seemed now, as a mere child herself she had given her life to the healing arts of serving her community, of carrying the wisdom of her elders, the cures for the fever that came with the mosquitos that followed the flood. Hers was the task of binding off the severed limp in times of war, finding nutritious healing herbs in the summer time for the many hungry and sick children of winter and stemming the blood flow that followed birth.
But lately the blessings of summer had not come, cold frosts would trail the blooming times and kill precious new plant life in their wake.
The usually warm summer weather had changed to cold nights and late frosts and their plight had become unbearable. The people were hungry for culprits, for scape goats to watch them burn on the fires that glowed in the village centers with more and more frequency. “Burn them, burn them, burn those witches!” the angry and scared crowds would demand, not knowing that soon the witch hunt would be reaching their own families, causing immense pain and suffering that made fear soar and basic human decency and values vanish in its wake. They burned the precious wood that was much needed in the winter when the cold would penetrate through the cracks of the houses. They wasted it on the fires of death. Just as they were wasting the precious lives of their community members. By now, “they” could be anybody, from family members to church and community leaders to complete strangers. A carefully orchestrated system of blame, accusation, trial and execution had been put in place and was now threatening the very core of the peopleʼs existence.
“I was just minding my own business when I was accused of being a witch, of bringing harm onto others, of changing the weather, of forging a bond with the devil” one woman who was incarcerated with her had told Katrina.
“I tried to stop them, tell them that she was innocent and a respected member of the community, that she was needed by her husband and children” another prisoner, her neighbor and the blacksmith of the village had finished her story. But they had arrested him, too.
An older woman lay with her eyes closed in the corner. She had been a woman of status when her husband died and left her unprotected. Her son-in-law who had his eyes on her property and wanted to take possession of it before her death was the one who had mentioned his mother-in-lawʼs name in conjunction with the devil, the barren harvest, the cold summer nights. Her heart was broken and she might as well have been dead already.
Then there was the young woman, the servant who had refused to become the old magistrateʼs concubine. “He came after me whenever his wife was not in the house and I always managed to fight him off. But one day his wife came home and saw us and heard what he was saying to me. The next day they came for me, accusing me of consorting with the devil.”
Now they were all here in the witchesʼ tower awaiting their verdict. Torture was the way to get them to confess that they were in cahoots with the devil. If under the immense pressure of their pain they confessed what their torturers were accusing them of their fate was sealed and death awaited them in the form of publicly being burned at the stake. Renunciation of their confession later was futile and resulted in more torture. In case they resisted the urge to confess in the throes of pain they were pronounced innocent and let go. This was a possibility, a ray of hope. Yet, nobody had heard of anybody coming out of torture alive, especially when it was administered repeatedly. Nobody had survived the torturous instruments so far without confessing to being a witch, a consort of the devil, an evildoer to mankind. After a few rounds of torture, Katrina had not confessed yet and in her mind she was never going to. What gave her the strength of that vision was the fact that she had learned to endure pain of a magnitude that was unfathomable to most people by a human being who had the foresight to conceive that times like these were fast approaching and that she had to protect her apprentice. That extreme endurance of pain had been part of Katrinaʼs training by the herbal doctor woman of the village, the healer, the comforting, beautiful, wise one, the old lady who had died as one of the first because her bones were too brittle to withstand the torture. Katrina had overheard the angel faced prison guard tell one of the new prisoners with an air of fright in his voice “She died with a smile on her face. And before she took her last breath she forgave us. Told us ʻI forgive you for you know not what you do” can you believe that?
How Katrina missed her now, her magnanimous, caring spirit, how her heart was aching for the comfort of the old womanʼs presence. Not now! She shook off her thoughts. She was needed here and could not allow herself to trail off into the past.
“Help me”, she heard those pleading words again and with much pain emanating from her broken hands reached over to caress the cheek of the woman next to her. Her name was Emma and they were the same age. She inched closer and put her arms around her, with the utmost tenderness and love for her beloved friend. “Thank you!” the young woman managed to say. “I will remember you when I am in heaven. I am so scared. I know that they will burn me today. I can hear the people rallying outside. I can smell the fire, can you smell the fire?”
“Do not be afraid. You will die the way you have lived. Talk to fire and make it your friend and you will not feel its sting as much as its mercy for carrying you to the other side.” Katrina smiled at her friend. They had both been accused of changing the weather with witchcraft, ever since that frost came in the middle of May, that thin sheet of ice that covered the blooms and blossoms and baby shoots in its blanket of death. That made sure that winter would be harsh again and bring much hunger. Katrina and Emma had been out in the late evening, before the frost, collecting the fresh shoots of the powerful stinging nettle and the early coltsfoot for they had known it in their bones that this night would be coming and had gone out and met it with their love and care. Upon their return, their hands and pockets full of the healing powers of the plants they had been seen by a neighbor and that was enough to ensure their arrest.
Katrina put her mouth to Emmaʼs ear and breathed her own undying hope into it. “Imagine, a time when this will not happen anymore, when fireʼs power will return to warming us in the winter, when children will be dancing around the glowing embers again. A time of sharing, celebrating and story telling around the hearth. When nobody turns anybody in anymore. Imagine ...”
Her voice trailed off as the heavy tower door screeched open. She knew it then and there, without a doubt: The guards were coming for her, not Emma. The one with the face of an angel approached her with a hood in his hands. “No”, she said with her inborn strength that came from deep within her. “No”, she repeated and locked eyes with him. “I want to see the people and meet death with dignity, awake and conscious.” With an immense surge of power from within she managed to raise herself up and all of a sudden, she seemed tall and immortal. The guard took one step back. Her voice rose above it all. “Fire is my friend. I will meet her without fear. Today is a good day to die.”