Witches have been cast in many lights over the last few decades. One image still trumps all others.
That image is a nasty, shriveled hag wearing a stiff hat and a raggedy cloak. That is, unless you’re friends with a witch or two—causing you to forever to change your stereotype.
But the image that’s etched in your mind—the person who’s none too appealing, is the nag. You know the witch I’m talking about.
A hunched over hag standing next to a waist high pot filled with thick, bubbling liquid. That’s not a sparkle in her eye either, it’s a speck of ash from the last victim she cooked. She’s a wicked, amoral being. And whatever you do, don’t be fooled, she’d rather boil you alive than have a table side chat.
This has mostly been our archetype with a few exceptions. What exceptions? Well, we had wiggle your nose, Samantha from Bewitched, then there’s green, lovable Elphaba in Wicked, and of course, everyone knows Hermione Granger, best friends with Harry Potter.
As for the evil, wretched witch we usually think of? She’s an archetype given to us by our past.
In modern times our witch archetype is delivered to us by our media…Walt Disney’s Cinderella, Snow White, and so on, and then there’s the demented horror shows.
Bugs Bunny, to be quite honest, had my favorite – WITCH HAZEL. That particular witch was actually quite charming and had a definite sweetness about her. Though she was not a beautiful woman, she possessed a certain fun hugableness. I guess that was the point.
My favorite trio were the ones seduced by the devil, played by Jack Nicholson, in Witches of Eastwick.
Before Jack Nicholson seduced the Witches of Eastwick with his crooked grin and trademark raised eyebrows…
Before Wizards and Witches of Hogwarth fought against Voldemort…
Before Witch Hazel chased Bugs Bunny around with her ladle or cute Samantha twitched her nose in Bewitch…
Before we had the myriad of witches from Walt Disney and horror shows…what were witches really like?
How did our first archetype of witches ever become ugly hags bent on eating children and scourging villages with plagues? Honestly…
Did they really cackle, or actually just giggle? Fly on a broom or mosey on foot? Sleep in a hovel or a house? Have warts or perfect skin? Boil children or vegetables? Did they conjure up powerful spells that wiped out villages or just have the occasional bad thought?
And seriously, did witches really wear those weird looking hats?
The term witch derives from the word Wicca. The origin of Wicca is in dispute but is said to mean “Wise One”. The word derived from the Anglo-Saxon word wicce, which means to have wisdom, so as to bend or shape, like a wicker for a basket.
Witches were overwhelmingly women of all ages. They could be beautiful or haggard. The word witch was probably once neutral and as the Church grew in power the word became a stigma. By that point, it was not a self-appointed label, but a word proscribed by the zealous religious witch-hunters who meant to persecute.
Witches who used large pots to cook were boiling herbs for medicinal purposes, and when they boiled meat, well, I hate to disappoint the witch-hunter. It was pig, chicken, or beef—pretty much like we all cook. Maybe a goat here and there.
As for plagues and spells? Witches conjured up plagues and spells about as good as Congress compromises with President Obama.
Healer. That’s our witch folks. A competent woman who understood how to harvest the Earth and use its natural resources to make ailments…that’s the evil hag we fear.
The woman healer was sought out in times of great need. Hospitals did not exist. Your local CVS or Wal-Greens were scarce like the dinosaur.
The sickened villager had limited treatments at his disposal. And the treatment varied by the century he lived in.
You could try the official doctor who had been educated and trained in an university. The doctor did have several wonderful treatments to prescribe and implement. You could have holes punched in your skull to let out the illnesses. Leeches attached to relieve you of your stuffy nose, or a knife slicing you open to drain out your ailments.
How about some radioactive water to parch your thirst? Hemorrhoids, no problem, get an iron up the…wait, what? If you were three shades of crazy, then removing a portion of your brain had the knack of calming you down.
There were the priests of course. The priests were predictable and unlike the doctor’s treatment, their treatment never varied from decade to decade, or century to century. It stayed the same. He was the exception to the rule. The priest could be depended on to give you a quick prayer, gesture the sign of the cross, and ask you to say ten Hail Mary’s. Death was going to be imminent.
Or you could choose the local medicinal person…someone who had a track record of healing people, and someone who understood the herbs of the Earth.
Don’t know about you, but an easy choice for me.
Competent medicinal people were not the doctors and certainly not the Priests, but the women. The label witch was given to them by the villagers rather than by the woman herself.
How did the competent healer get the name of witch? Would you believe me if I said it came from our Early Christian Church. The beloved Christians who were known to say better to forgive than take revenge. Early Christians thought women were only a mere vessel that would breed a boy who in turn would be man someday adding more wealth and land to accumulated wealth of the Church.
Women were considered inferior by men of all castes, but especially by men of power. The Church was absolute power once upon time, and it influenced everything from politics to your school. A side note, the United States has a constitutional amendment that separates church from state.
Ultimately, there was a time the Church perceived women as a threat to their power structure. They depended on men for manpower. It was an honor for a family to send a son into the Church. It was such a great honor they’d not only give the son away but donate land and money. The young men could never marry or have families and this ensured the Church would accumulate land. Look, it was a pretty good gig. The church was assured to grow in power and wealth.
Women can give birth and this was problematic. A young priest might sow his wild oats but he could deny any he ever did or the Church could cover it up. A woman giving birth was hard to cover up. Better to keep women where they belong…along with the farm beasts.
A Christian philosopher, Boethius, had these inspiring words for women in the sixth century, “A woman is a temple built upon a sewer.” Saint Thomas Aquinas was a bit more circumspect. In the thirteen century he suggested God may have made a mistake in creating women. Another wonderful Christian of this time period debated whether women were actually human beings at all. Ouch.
If a woman was considered inferior to man, then it’s easy to see that a woman holding any power is a threat. And it’s easy to see where’s this is going. Any group that is marginalized and oppressed can be easily vilified.
The Church back in the day jumped on this train and made damn certain the woman was. Woman of any kind of power, especially someone who could heal people, was going to be labeled, a Witch.
Witch-hunts picked up steam in the fourteenth century and by the 1400’s it was running hot.
During Pope Innocent the VIII’s reign the Malleus Maleficarum was written by two friars. It was the best known manual known on witch hunting. It was so well crafted it created an obligation for all Christians, regardless of how pious or liberal you feel, to hunt down witches. Among the prattle the Malleus told, it said witches had sex with any demon close at hand and regularly killed babies. Not to mention they could take away your penis. The nerve!
The accusations flew. Women were arrested, charged, and convicted. You never knew your accuser and could be anyone. A right to a counselor, really? A jury of peers…are you kidding? A fair trial? That’s laughable. Fairness is for men of power, not witches you imbecile.
It never ended well for the accused either. Torture was imminent even if you spilled the beans the second you were grabbed. After all, we had to make sure we got everything out of you.
Your menu selection on ways to be tortured were as grim and colorful as the ways you could be medically treated for an ailment. Torture ranged from removing fingernails to placing on well-designed collars with sharp spikes to dislocating of joints to dangling people in air by their fingers to placing your lowers in vices that turned them to jelly. The torture procedures were cleverly designed to maximize your pain.
It’s quite amazing what confessions you can get under duress. Bizarre ones too. People confessed to licking the anus of the Devil and fornicating with a hundred Demons. A hundred demons? That’s a lot of, uh, uhm, Demon flesh.
When you were executed it was never a pleasant hypothermic needle. You were guillotine or hung if lucky, and if you were unlucky, sawed in half during the torture period or burned alive at the stake.
The Church was the sheriff, prosecutor, and executioner. The Church were quite busy too. It’s estimated from the fourteenth century until mid-1600’s that half a million people, so-called-witches, were killed. Eighty-five percent were women.
The children of the murdered women were forced to beg on the street and prostitute. Family and friends of the child were long gone. Given the time of deep seeded superstitious thinking, would you associate with a child who could be possibly be the spawn of a demon? And if you dared to take the kid in, well, you might be asking for the wrath of the Church. That’s right. The Church just might take you during the night if you took in that witch’s child.
The men of authority, the Church, depended on the ignorance of the populace to achieve their end. And they had it.
A sick villager one year may take his child to Old Neil living in the forest. Neil was a weird woman to be sure, but she was known to heal you. The real doctors were fifty miles away, and too expensive-this was just convenient. The next year, when Old Neil was accused of witchcraft you crapped your pants and either fled, went underground, or got on board of the accusation train.
If you didn’t, then you might end up next to Old Neil during the lovely interrogation period…God only knows what you’d confess.
You see. The witch was not a supernatural being. Nor was she a haggard, bent up ugly, warty hag who was boiling a school of children in her pot. This image does not depict the witch.
She was simply a woman.
In the world psychology we use a term called projection. Projection means you take everything you see about yourself that is wrong and unconsciously project it on to someone else. We do it all the time.
In a very real sense, the image of a haggard, warty witch, bent on evil, is an accurate portrait of the Church once upon a time. It’s the Church’s projection of themselves once up on a time.
Thank God that witch-hunt business is all done…we can move on.
Wait, you say they still have hunt witches? Really?
You heard me correct. Just recently, in Africa, a village burned seven witches.
One of the people who lead the burning was the village witch doctor. Holy Cow. Witches burning alleged witches.
The witch doctor apparently felt his hold on power was threatened by the people who he called witches…hmmm. Now this story sounds familiar?