I am on a fact finding mission focused on the history of traditional Halloween “monsters” and the evolution in folklore, literature, and pop culture. Today, let’s take a look at WITCHES!
The origin of witches in historical context is unknown. One of the first references is found in the Bible–1st Samuel referring to the Witch of Endor. Of the various Halloween “monsters,” witches are one of the few (possibly the only one) to be called out in the Bible by name as something to condemn.
The fear of witches by European society appeared to hit it’s zenith in the late middle ages and early modern age. Over the years, women believed to be witches have been persecuted over and over. Between the years 1500 and 1660 in Europe it’s believed over 80,000 women suspected of witchcraft were put to death. Witch trials hopped the pond in the 1690s resulting in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
While men were “tried” and killed for witchcraft as well, the numbers were disproportionate compared to women who made up 70-80% of the numbers. According to HistoryExtra, this was “because women were believed to be morally and spiritually weaker than men, [and] they were thought to be particularly vulnerable to diabolic persuasion. Most of those accused were also poor and elderly; many were widows, and menopausal and post-menopausal women are disproportionally represented among them.” By the 1730s laws were passed to protect people from wrongful accusation, and witch hysteria died down.
However, witchcraft in various forms is still practiced today in many cultures. According to wikipedia, “Historically, and currently in most traditional cultures worldwide—notably in Asia, South America, Africa, the African diaspora, and Indigenous communities in the Americas—the term ‘witchcraft’ or ‘witchery’ is commonly associated with those who use supernatural means to cause harm to the innocent.” Other terms (such as shaman) are used for healers or those who use religion or belief or power to benefit their community.
“In the modern era, some use ‘witch’ to refer to benign, positive, or neutral practices of modern paganism, such as divination or spellcraft, but this is primarily a modern, western, popular culture phenomenon.” Modern-day witches of the western world still struggle to shake their historical stereotype. Most practice Wicca, an official religion in the United States and Canada. According to the History Channel, practitioners of Wicca “avoid evil and the appearance of evil at all costs. They’re motto is to ‘harm none,’ and they strive to live a peaceful, tolerant and balanced life in tune with nature and humanity.”
These worldwide, continued, and varied practices today alone makes witches very different from the other Halloween “monsters.” Meanwhile, popular culture remains fascinated, primarily picturing the medieval incarnation. But when, in western culture at least, did the shift from fear to fascination begin?
Likely this started in part when those laws were passed in the eighteen century to prevent indiscriminate accusations and witch hunts (anyone else feel like we need this in social media today?). For me, I turned to how witches have been portrayed in stories and writing over the years.
In early literature, witches appear in many famous works including Circe in The Odyssey and Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian legends. Shakespeare included several most notably the Weird Sisters in MacBeth. Almost all these portrayals are cautionary tales or show witches as something to be feared. In earlier 1900s literature, we got such icons as the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda in The Wizard of Oz and the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia.
More recent witches in stories are a combination of corrupted, power hungry, or basely evil creatures to fear–like Lamia in Stardust, Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter. But they are also shown as innocent, helpful, and trustworthy people to admire–like Harry /Hermione/Ron/etc from Harry Potter.
There is a wide variation on witches in pop culture and so many different takes on the “magical” world around us–Hocus Pocus, Maleficent, Harry Potter, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, Bewitched, Charmed, Halloweentown, The Good Witch, Magic, A Discovery of Witches... In addition, witches are prevalent on various shows/movies that are not primarily witch related including Lord of the Rings, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, The Witcher….
Even more recently, we’ve also seen some previously “evil” magical characters get to be the hero of their own stories, like Maleficent in the two movies by that name with Angelina Jolie, and the Wicked Witch of the West in both the movie Oz as well as in the book and musical, Wicked. I personally love to see this more dynamic characterization. Witches are, after all, human, and therefore would deal with their powers in a very human way in a world that’s not exactly black and white.
As far as Halloween is concerned… the tradition of dressing up started as a way to ward off evil. It’s not surprising that, given this holiday appeared to originate right in the peak of witch hunts in Europe, that witches would make the list of the traditional “monsters” to portray. Most of those monsters–vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein, mummies, zombies– come with a physical indication of what/who they are–fangs, rags, bolts, fur, rotting skin, etc. Witches, on the other hand, do not necessarily have a physical means of identification.
These days, most modern costume incarnations are a take on the medieval European images. Historians argue that some images, like the big pointed hat, originated elsewhere such as ancient China. Just like with the other monsters–yes, even zombies–modern Halloween goers have sexified the witch costume, finding power and sex appeal in the figure. (Thank you Hollywood?!)
I couldn’t touch on the iconography and portrayal of witches without touching on diversity, or lack thereof. For the most part in pop culture, witches are white women. Perhaps this comes from the current more western history and influence of the medieval European figures. However, remember that history lesson above about the historical and current practice of “witchcraft” in many cultures? Witches are or have been found in most if not all cultures world wide. Something for writers to think about moving forward (definitely myself included).
I think magic and witches will continue to fascinate the general public and permeate pop culture because we all want to believe that power to affect true change is real, and because, at least when it comes to the fictional portrayal of powers, one’s imagination is the only limit.
Looking for some terrific magical witch books to consume? Check these out…
- Death & Destiny Series by N.D. Jones
- The Hidden Legacy Series by Ilona Andrews
- Magic & Mayhem Series by Robyn Peterman
- A Song of Wraiths & Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
- The Perfect Brew series by Jo-Ann Carson
- The Stay a Spell Series by Juliette Cross
- Bait N’ Witch by Abigail Owen