This is Part 2 in a series exploring the origins of the most popular Halloween myths and monsters. Today we’re looking into the wicked past of the Witch!
The witch is a popular costume choice for girls on Halloween. So much so that many girls chose it at least once growing up. I know I did. But where does our idea of the witch come from? Mythology depicts witches as wizened hags or alluring temptresses with scant variation. The word witch comes from the Old English word “wicca” (masculine) or “wicce” (feminine). While history also saw accusations of witchcraft leveled at men, women have always been the primary target.
Much of the imagery surrounding witches reflects a curious relationship with domestic traditions. Common images include bubbling cauldrons, eating children, and flying brooms. Accused women were the youngest, oldest, unwed, widowed, or independent among their peers. Many were strong-willed, ill-tempered, sexually liberated, or otherwise outcasts in society. All were aberrant to the narrow, pre-scripted role of women throughout history.
A Wicked Past
Shamen and wise women were once pillars of early human societies. They functioned as healers, midwives, and spiritual leaders. We find evidence of this in both early European and tribal cultures. The black plague of 1347 reshaped that societal structure. 1/3 to 1/2 of the population died in 5 years, setting the precedent for the worst case pandemic scenarios.
Many sought answers in the wake of such intense tragedy and loss of life. Those left to mourn wanted someone to blame. Without today’s knowledge of epidemiology, many looked to superstition for answers. Once revered healers, mystics, and wise women became scapegoats; accused not only of failing to stop the plague but of having brought the wrath of god down upon humanity.
Social destabilization gave rise to the Great Peasant Revolt of 1381, resulting in the abolition of serfdom and the rise of capitalism. This shift appeased male laborers with higher wages, but needed other forms of free labor to sustain its creation. Repopulation became the sole purpose of femininity relegating women to maintain the homes and families of husbands. The ruling class used religion to enforce this by making motherhood synonymous with piety. 200 years later, a new plague of mass hysteria would arise in the form of the witch hunts.
The Witch Hunts
In 1486, Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer wrote the “Malleus Maleficarum”, or “Hammer of Witches”. Kramer proposed that sorcery was a heretical practice, and women were more often guilty of it. His solution? Root it out via torture and extinguish it by burning witches at the stake. At one point, the book nearly outsold the Bible. It became a key resource for those in search of witches to maintain patriarchal control or explain away personal misfortunes.
Accusations of witchcraft included illness, nightmares, or the death of livestock and infants. All were common happenings of the feudal past. Without modern forensics or an accountable justice system, tragedy ensued, costing thousands of innocent lives across Europe and the New World. In 1692, over 200 years after inciting incidents, the Salem Witch Trials became the most infamous instance of moral panic in the United States. The trials saw over 200 accusations, 30 convictions, 19 hangings and 25 total deaths. Today we remember Salem as a cautionary tale against mass hysteria.
“The use of violence in the witch hunts, allowed the state to establish a level of control over women’s bodies and lives that was unprecedented, as seen in the rise of census taking and population monitoring, and the demonising of abortion and contraceptives”“Silvia Federici, Caliban And The Witch” – Natasha Heenan, ppesydney.net
Witchcraft testimony is some of the most dramatic and creative in courtroom history. The image of the flying broomstick came from witness editorializing. Accused witches confessed to nude forest dances astride broomsticks, intending to summon demons and perform other lewd acts. They covered their broom handles in ointments made from belladonna and nightshade.
Such poisonous plants cause hallucinations of faces and feelings of flight and euphoria when applied to the skin. Yet, historians question the truth of these historical testimonies. Torture victims are notoriously unreliable witnesses. All knew that witches who confessed and repented were the only ones that survived trial. Sham trials were less justice and more popularity contests or acting talent shows.
Witch hunts continue to occur today, even receiving government support in countries like Cameroon and Gambia. Vigilante mobs hunt and murder hundreds of women yearly. India, Papua New Guinea, Amazonia and Tanzania see the most atrocious numbers of victims. Accuser’s hope to gain the victim’s property or vengeance for declining sexual advances. Rural communities weaponize accusations against poor women to reinforce patriarchal hierarchy through fear.
Bewitching Tales in Culture and Media
One of the witch’s earliest appearances in culture is the Greek goddess Hecate in the 7th century BC. This moon goddess’s domain included magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and necromancy. Biblical references include the story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor. When his own prayers and prophets fail him, Saul seeks the council of a magician. She foretells Saul’s loss to the Philistines after summoning the spirit of Samuel.
Thomas Malory published “Le Morte D’Arthur” in 1485. Yet, Morgan le fey enchanted fans of Arthurian legend as early as 1150. Her scandalous moral ambiguity enthralled readers as much as her magical abilities. This furthered a lingering understanding of a divide between white and black magic. In 1611, Shakespeare popularized the wizened crone stereotype in the play “Macbeth”. Superstition claims this play is unlucky because of the witch’s incantation in the opening act.
The original “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” collected 86 children’s folktales to the delight of generations. Included were the stories of “Hansel & Gretel” and “Snow White”. These two enduring childhood staples included witches as antagonists. Snow White’s wicked stepmother is a re-write of a biological mother, as parents insisted on protecting the now centuries-old ideal of perfect, pious motherhood.
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play “The Crucible” is a dramatization of the Salem Witch trials. Many of us gained our understanding of those events by watching the movie version in school. Miller’s criticism of McCarthyism and the Red Scare inspired the play. Communism inspired a moral panic because of tensions with the USSR. Circumstances beyond individual control again inspired witch hunts.
The most well-known franchise featuring the mystical today is “Harry Potter”. First published in 1997, “Harry Potter” is now one of the most profitable franchises ever. The plot is a reiteration of the Hero’s Tale. A young boy from an abusive home goes on adventures to fulfill a magical destiny. This popular fantasy trope reflects the viewer’s desire to be special. Ironically, the series inspired its own moral panic. I was one of many children forbidden from reading the books.
Most recently, “The VVitch” has made waves as a return to form for the horror genre. This eerie, subdued 2015 film threw out jump scares and excessive violence. Instead, it favored a menacing atmosphere and instrumentals that make the skin crawl. The settler family’s circumstances proved antagonistic even before the onset of demonic threats. Homesteading apart from the community left the family vulnerable to natural threats. We frequently see witchcraft used as a metaphor for fear of the unknown within dark, untamed forests and of our own primal past.
Wicca is the most practiced form of modern paganism, claiming 5 million practitioners worldwide. 1.5 million of these being from the United States, outnumber Presbyterians (1.4 million) in the country’s religious landscape. The religion prioritizes freedom of expression and the affirmation of life. It is a bi-theistic religion claiming one god and one goddess, though several “traditions” or denominations exist. Wiccans represent themselves with the pentagram or pentacle. Pentagrams symbolize wholeness, perfection and humanity. The five-pointed star represents five elements: fire, water, earth, air and spirit.
What’s the Science Say?
Finding the truth behind witches isn’t as direct as other mythical creatures, professed and accused witches exist throughout recorded history. Science must look into individual practices to determine the truth behind witchcraft. Herbalism was a fundamental building block of modern-day medicine. Many of today’s over-the-counter medications come from plants. Black willow bark contains the painkilling ingredient in aspirin. The anti-biotic Penicillin is a mold that grows on the skin of citrus fruit.
Sage smudging is another practice with some basis in reality. Sage purportedly cleanses personal spaces of negative energy or dark spirits. We have found burning sage to have antibacterial properties. It can drive away insects and pests. The pleasant smell of the incense can even improve mood. Yet, its effect on energy and spirits is unquantifiable. Refer to Part One of this series, for the many reasonable explanations for evil spirits.
Those interested in herbalist traditions must be wary and have their facts straight. Many scams exist promising extraordinary feats from ordinary ingredients. Oils, herbs and crystals have their uses. However, they should never take the place of real medication for severe illness. Miracle cures are an age-old manipulation tactic designed to separate desperate people from their money. Always be wary of exaggerated, too-good-to-be-true claims.
The Law of Attraction
The Law of Attraction is a philosophical principle compiled in the 1800s. Practitioners cite it as the functioning principle of magic. The idea is based on Plato’s, “Like attracts like.” This principle claims thoughts and desires have energy and attract certain outcomes. Positive outlooks attract positive outcomes and vice versa. Like any religious prayer, the practitioner thinks or fixates on their desired outcomes. Instead of a higher being acting on their behalf, the LOA claims to be a “scientific” function of the universe.
The LOA is considered pseudoscience for a core misappropriation of scientific principles. For instance, the LOA misinterprets cellular cohesion. Cellular cohesion explains the attraction between water molecules. Abstract concepts like thought and success have no physicality. We agree upon their definitions as a society.
Another misconception of the LOA is the power of the Placebo Effect. Placebos have some affect even when the patient knows they’re taking a sugar pill. Placebos stimulate body chemistry to make people feel better, but it does not heal them. The act of taking a pill is like a ritual. Performing rituals stimulates dopamine production to help achieve the desired effect. Think of recovering smokers eating lollypops or chewing on straws. The familiar movements provide almost as much satisfaction as the nicotine once did.
And Still Something Wicked this Way Comes
The witch’s history is that of desiring change, to stop preserving failing systems at the expense of people. The witch trials display our tendency to turn against one another in times of crisis. Especially against those best equipped to help. Yet, society does not equip the average citizen to provide well-informed criticism of itself, leaving room to manipulate perceptions as needed. We take peace and stability for granted and seek only to place blame when it is gone.
Moral panic arises out of a balance of factors. Various agents, whether they be medieval inquisitors or media outlets, manipulate public perception. This can be in pursuit of everything from malignant personal bias to an honest basic income. Young people, foreign cultures and new ideas are frequent targets for misrepresentation due to limited universal understanding. Moral panic deflects open discussion of issues with uncomfortable resolutions for the most powerful.
We create monsters out of what we don’t understand because fear sells. Viral content spreads the furthest, and nothing is more contagious than panic. Knowing this about ourselves is the best first step to becoming a better informed citizen and social critic. Recognize the patterns of manipulation and seek understanding from the source, be they young, old, foreign or even witch. You may surprised by what you find.
“We stand therefore at a crossroads – which is fitting, since crossroads are sacred to Hecate, Greek goddess of witchcraft. Will we continue to fear and punish women with power? To call them evil? Or perhaps we can at last celebrate female strength, recognising that witches – and women – are not going away.”“From Circe to Clinton: Why Powerful Women Are Cast as Witches” – Madeline Miller
Witches succeed as a modern mythological monster because of the ancient fears they represent. Our vulnerability to the untamed threats of nature is one example. Religious anxiety of living up to impossible standards is another. The threat of the young and the new on established traditions falls in the same vein. The most enduring however may be the unsubstantiated fears of material loss in an egalitarian society. The classical cautionary tale of the witch is to meet the unknown with an open mind else we may risk destroying ourselves.