With Halloween coming up and everything being appropriately themed just about everywhere you turn, it’s about time we discussed one of Halloween’s most popular recurring characters; witches. We see them everywhere, from history books to pop culture to the foil around a piece of chocolate, but how many of us have really stopped to wonder about where these ladies came from?
The minor goddess Circe, from Homer’s Greek epic poem ‘’The Odyssey’’ is often credited with being the first witch. In typical witch fashion, she was known for luring men to her magical island and then turning them into pigs. Likewise, Medea and Hecate, two other women featured in various Greek myths, also seem to be associated with magic. Especially Hecate, who has come to acquire the title of the goddess of magic. Though certainly not celebrated as feminist icons during their time, these women and their stories exuded a sense of power, the way any justified villain does.
Since then, most stories about witches don’t cast them as strong, powerful entities, rather fairly repulsive, evil little creatures that seem to enjoy terrorizing local villages and testing rich people’s morals for the fun of it. Medieval fairy tales usually include some sort of old woman who lives in a cabin by herself, who spends all day cackling over a cauldron of something green and bubbling. Perhaps one of the best known fairy tale witches is Baba Yaga, Eastern Europe’s interpretation of the malicious forest-dwelling spinster. She spends most of her time in her house (one that stands on chicken legs, naturally), kidnapping local children, or using an oven to get around. The first literary account of her is from 1755, though stories featuring her presumably predate that by at least a couple decades.
No matter where they were or what sort of feet their houses had, witches have always been antagonized. Perhaps the best known example of their persecution took place from the middle of the 15th century to the 18th, when ‘’witches’’ were hunted, tried, and executed in America and Europe. These witch hunts resulted in around 80,000 trials and 35,000 executions of what were most probably perfectly innocent people. Of these, 80% were women. But why is that?
The huge cultural phenomenon that is the witch and the hunt for her is far too old and widespread to be able to pinpoint one reason for why she’s always a woman. Yet there are plenty of assumptions. The most popular and plausible lies in female oppression. Being able to execute women for just about anything, including but not limited to being too poor, too rich, having too many or too few children, being unmarried, being married to someone above or below one’s status, being ill-tempered, being too good humored, being good at healing people, or someone in your village dying, must’ve come in handy whenever men felt like women were having a bit too much of that sweet freedom of will they so ardently saved for themselves. Accusing someone of being a witch when they were exhibiting scandalous behavior that could wreak havoc in the community, such as staying single, would discourage other women from participating in the practice.
Contrarily, women aren’t in the minority when it comes to those who accused women of witchcraft. In fact, as a lot of the more concrete instances of magic (such as killing children, interfering with fertility and pregnancy, spoiling bread and beer making) would happen in female-dominated areas, it is quite impossible to solely blame men for the executions.
Still, this could be a case of women turning on each other because of sexist ideas perpetuated by men. Certainly, it must’ve also been a way to protect oneself from similar accusations. That only goes to show how deeply ingrained the fear of being labelled a witch must have been to women back then, having had multiple centuries to do so. Fortunately, the fear of witchcraft has subsided, along with its negative implication.
Over the past few decades the term ‘’witch’’ has been reclaimed and redefined. The former by those who practise Wicca, an officially recognized religion in the United States, and the latter by the countless TV shows, books, and movies centered around women and girls exploring their magical powers. At the end of this article, you’ll find the, in my opinion, best things to watch if you’re interested in 20th and 21st century witches.
Whether you see witches as feminist icons or sexist imagery, there is no denying the sense of power the word is connotated with. After all, what’s wrong with seeming a little evil if you can do magic?
If we’ve learned anything from witches throughout the years, it is that you shouldn’t care so much about what others think, but about what makes you happy and what you’re passionate about. And if it just so happens you’re passionate about turning people into beasts or chasing kids around forests, so be it.
The promised list:
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch
- American Horror Story: Coven
- Good Omens (the book, too)
- Wizards of Waverly Place
- Hocus Pocus
Hana Kanter, 12b