Bayonetta and the myths about witchcraft

Bayonetta and the myths about witchcraft

The theme of the witch hunt was central to the plot of the first Bayonetta, a title that in 2009 had a sensational impact on the landscape of action games. Even today, historians and anthropologists question the actual extent and reasons of one of the most debated phenomena in history: the representation made in Bayonetta, although totally the fruit of fantasy, offers an interesting opportunity to reflect on some false myths concerning the witch hunt and which still remain strongly in the collective imagination.

The universe told by PlatinumGames is made up of opposites: light and shadow, men and women, Sages of Lumen and Witches of Umbra. Our goal in this special on Bayonetta and the false myths about witchcraft is to demonstrate how reality is much more nuanced and complex than that, and to do so we will talk about who could have been accused of witchcraft in past centuries (and, in some areas of the world , still today), of the controversial numbers of witch hunts and of the macabre instruments of torture - often false - that are held in the museums dedicated to the theme around the world.

Light and shadow, men and women

The original Bayonetta In the world of Bayonetta, the maintenance of the universal balance is entrusted to two groups, among which - at least initially - there is no violent opposition: they are the Sages of Lumen, guardians of the Eye Right of the Light, and of the Witches of Chade, whose superior forces entrusted the Left Eye of Darkness. However, after centuries of peace, the forbidden union between the wise Balder and the witch Rosa, from which Cereza (our Bayonetta) was born, represented a point of no return in the relations between the two clans.

After a fierce war that saw almost all the Sages of Lumen succumb, Balder himself stirred the fears of the people against the enormous powers of the Witches of Umbra, capable of forging alliances with the demons of Hell to gaining magical abilities beyond human understanding. It was the beginning of the witch hunt, which saw the members of the clan succumb, one after the other, already severely tested by the war waged against the Sages of Lumen. With a terrible final attack, launched by an angry mob, assisted by the Angels of Heaven, the extermination of the Witches of Umbra was completed ... Or almost, because Bayonetta and her friend Jeanne managed to survive, and are alive in the present time represented. in the PlatinumGames series.

A spectacular showdown in Bayonetta A preliminary clarification: in some tweets answering questions from fans on the point, Hideki Kamiya stated that the Sages of Lumen and the Witches of Umbra are not necessarily alone and only men on one side and women on the other. However, Lumen women or Umbra men never appear on the screen, returning a clear binary contrast between the members of the two clans. Considering the basic moral implications of the light / shadow binomial and the source of the witches' powers - as mentioned, the infernal forces - it is evident that the Umbras constitute the evil pole between the two; on the contrary, the Lumens have a direct relationship with Heaven and the sphere of the sacred. It is a relationship of yin and yang, in which the witch-women fully realize the image given by the Christian apologist Tertullian of the female sphere, defined as "the door of the devil".

The witches were only women?

Some disturbing characters from Bayonetta 3 We do not want to discuss here the numerous (and fascinating) reversals brought about by the creators of Bayonetta - the Angels of Heaven and the Sages of Lumen are anything but embodied goodness - but to question historical reality of the persecutions against witchcraft. There is no doubt that, in the collective imagination, the word "witchcraft" immediately invokes the image of a woman, young like Bayonetta (this was the dominant representation in Renaissance iconography) or old and decadent (think of Snow White's witch) .

It is a long-standing tradition, given that witches like Hecate, Circe and Medea were hugely popular in the literature and visual arts of ancient Greek and Roman, and have been widely taken up by the Christian world as symbols of wickedness and perdition. In particular, Circe was the meeting point between human and bestial, a liminal space inhabited by witches, whose alleged ability to change shape was mentioned in several treatises and court proceedings: Bayonetta herself has this ability, and can transform into a panther. , crow, snake, and much more. Furthermore, the powers of the PlatinumGames witch reside in her long hair, a part of the body that had very strong sexual connotations in the past centuries in the West: in numerous works of art from the Renaissance era, witches have a long hair moved by the wind, a symbol of an out of control sexuality. function ready (fn) {if (document.readyState! = 'loading') {fn ()} else {document.addEventListener ('DOMContentLoaded', fn)}} ready (function () {window.addEventListener ('message', function (event) {let target_origin = ''; if (event.origin! == target_origin) return; if (typeof == "object" && ( "type") && == "embaff") {let embed_id =; if (embed_id == '1006') {document.querySelector ('#_ aff_embed_1006'). setAttribute ('height ',;}}}, false);}) However, even treated as the famous Malleus Maleficarum - full of discriminatory considerations on the female gender, on the wave of that Christian literature that belonged to Tertullian - they specified that the phenomenon of witchcraft did not concern only women. The woman-witch association was therefore not automatic, although it registered a crescendo at the end of the fifteenth century, remaining stable in the following centuries and fixing itself in the popular imagination: witchcraft was increasingly represented and defined as a female phenomenon. In the last years of the 1500s, between 80 and 95% of those accused of witchcraft in Europe - the calculations are difficult, given the great lack of procedural documents - were women.

Brian Levack, one of the most authoritative scholars on the subject, warns against a too general consideration of the data relating to witch hunts: the geographical variations are, in some cases, extremely marked. As a general figure, Levack states that the percentage of women exceeds 75% in upstream European regions, while in some places - such as the county of Essex, England, the diocese of Basel and the county of Namur - it is close to 90%. In contrast, in Normandy, Russia, Estonia and Iceland, men made up a massive majority of all persons accused of witchcraft, while in Finland the proportion of men and women was about the same. These are interesting data, which contest an overly simplistic view of the phenomenon; considering the various historical periods is equally important, but for obvious reasons of space it is not possible here.

The settings of Bayonetta 3 are not very witchy There is no doubt that Christian literature has always shown a strong prejudice in against the female sphere, but to consider the phenomenon of witch hunts as a massacre of women only would be incorrect, as demonstrated by the data collected by historians in the trial archives. Not to mention that the persecutions against witchcraft have also been carried out (indeed, above all) by the temporal courts, and not only by the Inquisition. In other words, we are far from the Manichean representation given by the creators of Bayonetta, who - for entirely legitimate artistic needs - carried out a reconstruction far from reality.

Millions of witches have died?

A monster from Bayonetta 3 PlatinumGames depicted in a very dramatic way the final phase of the persecutions against witches: an angry mob, aided by the Angels of Heaven, breaches the stronghold of the Witches of Umbra and exterminates those hitherto escaped trials , fires and unimaginable torture. Only Jeanne and Bayonetta survive, and the latter will sleep a long sleep before awakening in the contemporary world, five hundred years after the dramatic events that led to the death of her mother and the other witches of the clan.

The screen of Game Over of the game further strengthens the concept of total extermination of witches: the word "The Witch Hunts are Over" appears and, if the player does not press the Continue button, a demon drags Bayonetta into the bowels of Hell, as established in the signed pact between witches and infernal forces. We get the image of a persecution without borders, of a popular fury - stirred up by Balder, the Sage of Lumen who survived the war against the witches - capable of almost completely canceling the presence of these women on Earth.

All this brings us back to an age-old problem on which rivers of ink have been spilled: the real numbers of the witch hunt, a question on which scholars have been struggling for years, also discussed by demonologists for centuries. It was their specific interest that witchcraft was considered a pervasive phenomenon on a social level, thus fomenting the attention of the judges and intellectuals who bought the treatises. In 1602, Henri Boguet deduced that there were 1,800,000 witches in Europe: according to him, there were "witches by the thousands everywhere, multiplying on the earth like worms in a garden". As for the infernal demons, responsible for the corruption of witches and sorcerers, according to the Spanish theologian of 400 Alfonso de Spina, author of a meticulous count, they would have been 133,306,668. It is really difficult to surpass the estimates of Sigmund Feyerabend, who in 1569 proposed the round figure of 26 billion!

These numbers help to understand why the educated classes of Europe were so terrified of witchcraft, and also why they raged against witches with such ferocity. We speak of "educated classes" because access to literature on the subject was impossible for a large part of the illiterate and impoverished population. A threat of this magnitude could not be ignored: it was necessary to face it by putting in place all the resources available to the judicial power of the European states.

Witchcraft was not, unfortunately, a "playful" event like in Bayonetta The numbers of witchcraft have also been the object of attention from the feminist movement, which especially in the 60s and 70s appropriated the image of the witch to claim female power and accuse the authorities who had conducted in previous centuries an (alleged) extermination of the female gender, thanks to spurious accusations of witchcraft. In 1965, Wanda von Baeyer-Katte proposed an estimate of around one million victims; in 1974, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin claimed that the witch hunt would lead to the deaths of nine million women.

These are numbers that have no confirmation in the trial data, and that warn against the ideological use of (alleged) historical data. It is impossible to calculate the precise number of trials and death sentences for witchcraft, but the most reliable and consolidated estimates speak of about 90,000 trials in the European area and 45,000 total executions for witchcraft. Historian Ronald Hutton has analyzed the period of three and a half centuries that goes from 1424 to 1782, the date of the last trial for witchcraft which ended with a capital execution which took place in Europe: it is estimated that between 40,000 and 60,000 people were legally killed. It is a very sad reality that does not need to be inflated by false and tendentious considerations: many men and women were convicted, and in numerous cases killed, for crimes they had never committed. Not to mention the climate of distrust and suspicion that surrounded those against whom accusations or even mere rumors of witchcraft were pending. However, it was not a ruthless extermination like the one described in the fantasy world of Bayonetta.

The Iron Maiden

A fight of Bayonetta 3 Bayonetta's fighting style is stands out for being unscrupulous and over the top, with a sensational reversal of roles: the witch, part of a clan exterminated by the Angels of Heaven, inflicts on her enemies the same tortures that were used against her persecuted sisters. The game manual invites the player to torment the Angels using various torture tools evoked from the bowels of Hell. The curses cast by the slain witches have dramatically amplified their powers, making them unparalleled weapons to finish off enemies.

Some of these are clearly fictional - no one would think that an electric saw could have been used to extract a confession from an alleged witch in the 1500s - but others offer the opportunity to dispel some myths relating to instruments of torture used by the Inquisition and by the courts present on European territory. In fact, many of these were actually built between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to gain from the ingenuity (and, in some cases, from the cialtroneria) of the wealthy lovers of these morbid curiosities, which often went to fill wunderkammern already full of other objects of questionable authenticity.

The Iron Maiden Emblematic is the case of the Iron Maiden, in which Bayonetta locks up the Angels with a well-placed kick. Equipped with an unmistakable female form and full of metal spikes inside, the virgin is undoubtedly one of the most present instruments of torture in the collective imagination. Too bad there is no trace of this macabre object before the end of the 18th century. The first written testimony of an iron maiden is contained in a guide to the city of Nuremberg written by the German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees (1759-1796), in which it was claimed that the virgin was first used in 1515 for the execution of a forger. Today we know that Siebenkees' tale was a pretty and good fraud, but in the following decades an iron maiden was put on display in the city of Nuremberg: not surprisingly, this instrument of torture is also known as the virgin of Nuremberg. This particular piece was destroyed during the Second World War, but before then it had been established as a fake by historians.

Thus began a real fashion: that of exhibiting false iron virgins for profit, which inevitably scandalized the populace and fed the myth of the "dark ages". An iron maiden made a fine show of herself at the Universal Exposition in Chicago in 1893; still today there is no shortage, in Italy and abroad, of torture museums that exhibit these fakes: no virgin from Nuremberg that has come down to us has ever been dated before the last years of the 19th century. Furthermore, in the inquisitorial manuals and in the trial reports - often very accurate in the description of the instruments of torture to be used - there is no trace of this notorious instrument of death. Obviously, these considerations do not prevent us from appreciating the spectacular torture attacks used by the PlatinumGames witch.

Bayonetta The Bayonetta series is a perfect example of how videogame representations can provide ideas for analyzing our reality, in search of stereotypes and false myths. A decree of the Court of Turin in 2020 in which the status of refugee in Italy is conferred on the mother of an Ivorian girl accused of being a witch: both women, due to the alleged matrilineal transmission of witchcraft, would have risked their lives in the Country of origin. It is therefore worth asking ourselves about the real contours of the witch hunt, a phenomenon that is still a reality in some countries of the world, and which deserves reflections that can undermine some preconceptions that are still very common.

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