Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this series, Muriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.
Distinctive signs: Pointy hat, unflattering nose, warts, flies on a broomstick, has unusual pets
Likely to say: “I like children and I could eat a whole one!” or “Cackle, cackle!”
Good points: Can fly, can change their enemies into pretty much anything they like, black is slimming
Bad points: Shrill laugh, their cooking is an acquired taste, think of children as snacks
Many cultures throughout history have an association with an individual who possesses a special knowledge or remarkable powers. Although not exclusively, when applied to women this notion often manifests as witchcraft. It seems to be primarily a female trait and their exact profiles vary depending on the era and the part of the globe they’re from.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe was a goddess of magic and an expert on drugs and potions. She lived on the Island of Aeaea which she shared with strangely docile wolves and lions: male victims of her spells. When Ulysses’ men, led by Eurylochus, set foot on the island, Circe offered them delicious food and beverages (secretly laced with one of her potions). Once full of these delicacies, she changed them all into beasts.
Although many of the women accused of witchcraft were on the fringes of society, outcasts and “strange”, throughout history famous women have also been accused to varying degrees. Perhaps because men thought it was the only way to explain their power. Maybe it was just a ploy to put these trouble making women in their place. In some cases it was simply politics. Either way, I’m sure they had enough to fight against without sorcery accusations too.
One such example lived and ruled in Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was often accused of being a sorceress by her enemies, in part for venerating animals as gods (unthinkable to Romans) and in part for her ability to charm powerful men like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Her marriage to Marc Anthony was in accordance to Egyptian rituals: his moving away from Roman traditions was deeply unpopular and Cleopatra was blamed. Thus, she was identified by some as a sorceress with the power to charm even the strongest men of the Roman Republic.
Among other crimes, another famous and powerful woman was accused of witchcraft: Joan of Arc. There were several charges laid against “the Maid of Orléans”, from heresy and wearing men’s clothes to sorcery. Joan appeared to meet the criteria for being a witch at the time: her “strange” behaviour, wearing men’s clothes, hearing voices and remarkably good luck. Of the many dozens of accusations she was tried for, she was found guilty of only twelve. Witchcraft wasn’t one of them
The main crime she was found guilty of was cross-dressing. In addition to this, Joan of Arc also behaved in “masculine” ways: carrying out traditionally male duties; being in command of armies; and liaising with authority figures including the King (all men, of course). Joan of Arc, therefore, whilst attempting to transcend the gender roles of the time, was labelled a witch.
In Japanese cultural tradition, the most common type of witch is the one that uses foxes. Foxes (kitsune) are considered to be magical creatures able to shape shift into humans, become invisible and cast illusions. “Fox witches” can allegedly bribe foxes into lending them their powers in exchange for food. As soon as the fox enters the service of humans it becomes a force of evil.
Another Japanese legend tells of a monstrous, cannibalistic crone: a mountain witch called Yamauba. In one tale, she appears kindly when helping to deliver a baby but in fact desires to eat the baby she helped bring into the world.
In Africa, a Witch Doctor (a term still in use today) is usually a figure of authority and a healer. Rather than casting spells on people, Witch Doctors produce remedies to protect against other people’s bad spirits. Witch Doctors can also be referred to as shamans or medicine men. They are important members of the community with in-depth knowledge of plants and who can allegedly communicate with the spirit world.
One of the oldest mentions of witches is in the Old Testament:
Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to The Lord. Deuteronomy 18:10-13
In the years between the late 15th and 18th centuries, the number of women accused of witchcraft increased massively. People having “supernatural” abilities was thought to be the result of a pact with the devil and therefore and sign of heresy. Read about the relationship between cats and witches in a previous post.
To counter this, Protestant Christianity organised campaigns of witch-hunts, the most famous being the Salem witch trials. In colonial Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693, several trials of people accused of witchcraft (mostly women) were conducted and resulted in the execution of 20 people.
In England, Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, was a witch-hunter in the 1640s. It is said his despicable work led to the deaths of over 300 women.
From this very quick world tour of witchcraft, it seems witches were traditionally identified as old and bitter, allegedly using their skills merely to get back at men. The feminist in me cannot fail to notice that their male counterparts – wizards – do not suffer from the same negative stereotype. Indeed, you can’t get much cooler than Merlin or Gandalf!
Although often presented as villains or monsters in league with the devil, it seems the women accused of witchcraft (falsely or otherwise) were often those with power, possessing strong personalities and great knowledge. With Harry Potter, Charmed and other recent portrayals of witches in pop culture, we can appreciate strong women with powerful skills without necessarily explaining them away with devilry or malevolent forces.
Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
Read the rest of the series as they become available.