As Halloween approaches and costumes arrive in the shops, I started to explore our stereotypical image of a witch and wondered how we arrived here? A hag or crone. Someone who peddles magic from beneath a pointed hat, stirring a cauldron. Perhaps she has a familiar, a cat or a toad which hangs around her hovel. Maybe she uses a wand, or stones to cast her spells with. She invokes unseen spirits, elements known only to her kind, for the purpose of changing something – curing an illness, revenge against a wrong, or whipping up a storm at sea.
How did this, an instantly recognisable, image of what a witch looks like come about?
When one thinks about witches, there is often a temptation to focus on the witch trials and hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Salem, Mathew Hopkins the Witchfinder, Pendle Hill – every schoolchild is taught about these horrifying events and sinful people, partly because they are well documented. They serve as cautionary tales of persecution, misconception, and of how fear can drive policy, and politics. But, the link between witches, magic and power goes back further in world history than you might think.
To discover and understand why we have this impression of a witch, and why we continue to be fascinated by magic, we have to look into history, examine our story-telling and ask what part gender, power and politics play.
Light vs. Dark, and Stories
Although there are many who would profess to be ‘white witches’, pagans perhaps, fighting for the lighter side of magic to be more prevalent in popular culture, there is as much darkness surrounding witchcraft as there ever was. There’s an undeniable thrill about exploring the wicked – especially from the safety of a book or film. A black and white idea of the world ruled by light and dark, good and evil, is also a matter of perspective. Even Darth Vader thought he was doing the right thing when he turned to the dark side, and the best stories are driven by the conflict between good and bad choices.
Stephen Fry’s book Mythos, for example, highlights how storytelling, of myths and legends, was both an entertaining means of passing on knowledge about important things like the passing of time, seasons, the weather, as much as how humans made sense of the natural world. We may have moved on from campfire tales, but we still teach through stories, still escape into them for comfort, and use what we ‘know’ as a basis to frame what we don’t know, or can’t yet prove. How we view magic, and witches, is heavily influenced by what we are ‘told was true’ and by how much you trusted and believed in the storyteller. My husband likes to remind me, an expert is only someone who knows at least one more thing about something than you do.
The concept of magic (sorcery, spirituality) and those who practise it (witches, sorcerers, magicians, priests) dates back to the earliest human cultures.
Put simply, magic explained the inexplicable. In a time when science, as we know it now, didn’t exist, magic and belief were often bundled together.
Magic is all around us, but you might call it faith, or belief.
Belief in magic is a common thread across all ancient, and perhaps some modern, cultures. Our natural desire as humans is to frame the esoteric in a context we can understand, to create order out of what seems like chaos. Sumerians believed the world was full of hostile spirits; evidence suggests they performed exorcisms and wove spells to protect themselves. In Ancient Egypt, Heka, the god of magic, was invoked as medical practitioners and magician priests worked together to cure illness. Chaldea, an area so renowned for its magical teachings that when it was absorbed into the Persian empire, the word was then used to describe a social class skilled in the magical arts and incantation.
Magic and spirituality were, for the majority of cultures, an accepted part of life. Most people worshipped some form of deity, a force greater than themselves, which could impact their daily lives.
Faith itself, like magic, is invisible. Intangible. Binding magic to belief doesn’t require a great leap of imagination.
Faith itself, like magic, is invisible. Intangible. Binding magic to belief doesn’t require a great leap of imagination.
Evolving religions gave such beliefs a structure, which only added to the power people vested in institutions.
Sadly, a subsequent desire to use or control belief goes hand in hand with the persecution of magical practitioners. When a stricter set of guidelines from religion developed, specifically placing some magic as ‘good’ and some as ‘evil,’ the persecution of specialists, rather than magic itself, begins. In 1316, Pope John XXIII issued bulls which linked sorcery, heresy, and pacts with the devil. Miracles were still miracles, after all, so some magic was acceptable, if those in power determined it was in support of their belief system. For the past millennium, across much of Europe certainly, church and state were so closely linked, that a definition of what was tolerable magic became refined over the years by theologians and scholars, effectively giving religious justification for what would become laws against witchcraft in many countries within two centuries.
The modern, possibly better educated mind, might question whether magic exists, and if therefore true practitioners of magic can be real, but during the history of human civilisation, magic, and the Devil (or whatever your religion called it) absolutely existed.
My theory is, at the point where science started demystifying some magic, our perception of what a magical practitioner looked like stalled. It did not particularly evolve, but, I believe, became re-enforced as the stories we told about witches seemed ever more like tales than truth. With all good stories, any conflict is exaggerated for greater emotional effect, until we end up with a virtual caricature of what a witch really looked like.
Let’s break down the stereotype…
She’s a witch, part 1.
Evidence – she’s a woman.
You cannot escape the fact that for the vast majority of people you could ask to describe what a witch looks like, the witch is a woman. The overall impression is usually unpleasant – ugly, peculiar-looking, weird. Not like us. Someone to be derided by normal society. It is, without a doubt, a very medieval image, and perhaps that’s why it’s stuck, because the fear of the witch was at its height in those decades when mankind ‘claimed’ a victory, or a control, over magic by legal means. The witch was tried, sentenced then dead, burned at the stake or by the means of testing for witchcraft itself. Order restored once we purged ourselves of the creatures who practised such dark arts.
In a medieval world ruled by men and faith, gender mattered. Few organised religions (such as Catholicism, Islam, Judaism) had women in powerful positions. One’s place in society was defined as much by economics and class, as one’s reputation and gender. In the vast majority of cultures, women were essentially property. This view is still prevalent in some societies today.
But that doesn’t mean women were without knowledge or power. Without childbearing women, there could be no continuity of human life. Even though they were not often afforded a formal education, skills such as healing, herbology and ritual, were passed down in the oral tradition from mother to daughter. The concept of a family unit revolved around a father and mother as household figureheads, each with their part to play in bringing up the next generation and contributing to society. Women were essential to the balance, but simultaneously, of lesser ‘value’ than a man and considered incapable of things like, ruling a country.
The Power in Rumours
The more well-born or wealthy you were, the more power you had (within reason). Yet, rising in political power, for anyone, makes you more of a target. This is especially true of royal women – you only have to think of Anne Boleyn and the rumours spread about her to see how easily a woman could be brought down by malicious gossip. I’m not sure at what point she became a six-fingered witch who cast a spell over Henry VIII, causing a break from the Catholic church to marry her, but the more we discover about this vilified Queen, the more ludicrous the 1536 treason claims seem, let alone her being capable of sorcery!
Throughout history, royal women have been accused of witchcraft, usually as a political tool. Take for example a Dowager Queen, the French-born Joan Navarre, one of the wealthiest women in England and beloved step-mother to King Henry V. Despite a victory at Agincourt, England’s finances in 1419 were crippled by the rising cost of war with France, not to mention the cost of servicing her high dowry. Her lands and possessions were seized and given to the Crown upon her arrest, for causing ‘maleficio’ (an evil deed or crime) that would cause ‘lesionem’ (injury) to the King. Interestingly, chronicles differ in specifics, which suggests that the arrest was made more on the basis of rumour than actual evidence, and she never went to trial. She was not the only Queen of England to face such accusations based on rumours from the patriarchy, and bear in mind, this happened some 144 years before the English Witchcraft Act even passed!
Although perhaps we shouldn’t impart too much significance to the commonly cited figure of 75-80% of witches who were tried in the 300 years of European and American witch hunts being women, because it does not take into account regional variations, we cannot escape the fact that, when it comes to persecution, the proportion of women being investigated for the act of witchcraft far exceeds men overall. With the exception of Iceland, Normandy and Estonia, thousands of women’s names were recorded in witch trials between 1520 – 1777, but, there were many other arrests, tests, and accusations which remain unaccounted for and were dealt with on a ‘local’ level. In North Berwick, only 70 were formally accused during the 2-year period of the trials but it’s estimated that 2500 were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the witch trial era.
She’s a witch, part 2.
Evidence – Her appearance. She looks odd. Old. Poor.
The vast majority of these so-called witches were from the lower ranks of society – sometimes ‘cunning women,’ skilled in the art of healing, midwifery and often unmarried. Women in general were considered easily influenced, so ripe for the devil to do his work through them. Many accused of witchcraft were desperately poor, therefore all the more likely to take part in activities which could better their lot in life. Being poor also meant you could not pay for treatment of your diseases, so might well be disfigured as a result.
You were also more likely to be accused if you were a widow in a land dispute with someone wealthy… hmm. When times got tough, it was easier to blame a person than find an alternative explanation or accept events as fate.
Perhaps the common thread of being on the fringes of society explains the witch’s peculiar clothing? Cobbled together and out of fashion, she looks different from ‘normal people’, shabby even. To hide her activities or devils’ marks, she doesn’t join in with everyone else. Keeps herself apart and doesn’t go to church much. Perhaps she treated a family member who subsequently died. She must be a witch.
She’s a witch, part 3.
Evidence – a witch’s accessories.
For millennia, tokens like amulets, images and ritual handling of icons have been a part of everyday life. Even during the height of the witch trials, people treasured certain objects to bring them luck, and their existence was ruled by superstition. This goes beyond carrying a lucky stone, wearing a cross, or religious rituals like taking the sacrament, symbolism associated with particular items ran deep.
Any power invested in such objects or rituals has been granted by belief, often coupled with anecdotal (subjective) evidence that the object itself had an effect. This association of objects with magic was willingly reinforced by religion – a sip of wine WAS the blood of Christ! Transubstantiation was practised every Sunday, so it is not hard to see why a witch’s accessories were held up as proof of malicious, supernatural activity.
The stuffed/straw doll or wax figure representing a person. That stick, used to stir potions in a that household essential, a cauldron, for example, might then contain remnants of the ‘magic’. Charms (or spells) written down or incanted, not forgetting her dangerous herbs hanging out to dry. Items which once were the staple of curative magic or healing took on a more sinister meaning in the court of public opinion as fear spread.
The origin of a broomstick and pointy hat remains less easy to pinpoint – and I speculate these are embellishments added latterly to draw parallels with both ordinary women who might perform chores around the house, and certain religious movements which waned in popularity through the course of the 400-year persecution of witches.
The broomstick is, I suspect, in part Pagan in origin – a ‘witches whisk’ was fashioned from dried-out blackberry stems (considered sacred to some Pagan deities of Europe and used in worship) and the ends bound to make a handle. The brush is then wafted around to clean the area of evil forces; ‘cunning women’ would also habitually sweep areas before performing incantations or medical procedures to push out malevolent spirits and invite in the healing ones. The blackberry brush would then be set alight to banish them for good.
So, the next time you wonder how we got to have such a stereotype, I hope this little insight into my theory has helped inspire you to look back through history to find the origins.
Through researching for my historical fantasy Naturae book series, I’ve become very interested in how the accusation of witchcraft was levied as a political tool, in the highest echelons of courts across Europe. I write magical realism, where ‘true’ witches (along with vampires, fae and daemons) co-exist with humans, hiding their powers. As the series is set during the Tudor age, my characters are faced with a mounting human fear of ‘the different’ and this poses an existential threat to them. It is literally only a matter of time before one of them is exposed and has to face the consequences.
If you would like to find out more about the #naturaeseries, please check out my website www.escapeintoatale.com/books where you can download a free copy of the series prequel, Risking Destiny, which challenges some of the perceptions we have around our ‘stereotypical’ ideas of the Vikings, by signing up to my monthly newsletter.
This article was written as a guest post on the Faerie Review – please check it out here: