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  • Writer's pictureJ Nicole von Germeten

Coven of Sisters and the History of Witchcraft

I just watched this 2021 movie, also known as Akelarre [the Basque word for Witches' Sabbath]. Whenever I watch a movie about early modern witchcraft trials, I can't help thinking about what I learned writing Violent Delights, Violent Ends, which drew from the extensive surviving documentation of seventeenth-century inquisition investigations in Cartagena, Colombia. Here are a few points where I feel Coven of Sisters did really well historically, and sources if you want to learn more:

  1. First, the white-heard skeptical character taken notes and drawing [very modern-looking] pictures is based on a real-life inquisitor, studied in depth by Gustav Henningsen in these books: The Salazar Documents and The Witches' Advocate.

  2. Perhaps most important, the portrayal of the Basque women as able to joke and talk about sex, and act resourcefully when men were away rings true with the studies of authors such as Allyson Poska and her book Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia.

  3. The movie reflected what I observed for the witch trials in Cartagena in the same era:

    • women conspired in their cells planning what to say during interrogations

    • people tried to say whatever would get them out of trouble, watching what the inquisitors responded to but also including experiences from their own lives.

    • women criticized the authorities through their stories told during their interrogations. I learned this from Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany.

    • what male authorities viewed as Sabbaths, which were called juntas in Cartagena, were probably real gatherings with food, drink, sexually-charged socializing, music, and dance.

Not as well done:

  • The movie never seemed to mention that this was an investigation by the Holy Office of the Spanish Inquisition with approaches that would never include the penultimate scene of the movie - although this was a great scene for a climatic moment!

  • It also never mentioned that, very much like the Salem, Massachusetts witch craze, teenage girls started this one, claiming that they could see marks in hundreds of people's eyes proved they were witches

  • The ending of the movie worked well, I thought, but it is worth mentioning that Salazar later sent a document to the tribunals around the Spanish empire to exercise a great deal of caution and doubt in any similar witch crazes. As shown in the movie, he believed this was all fantasy and lies.

  • Lots of silly details, like the food at juntas was supposed to be tasteless and lacking salt... but read you should read the above books to learn more!

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