I was going to take you all to Italy in order to have a nose at the ‘Feast of La Befana,’ which celebrates a woman who is very similar to Santa Clause but is a little different. The thing about La Befana is that she’s a Witch. She’s an old woman, wears a black shawl and rides through the sky on a broomstick. Which sounds to me like the traditional image of a witch- Only she gave presents to children, like Santa Clause, instead of being evil. I was going to write about this but then I got thinking… When did witches stop riding broomsticks and when did they evolve to become the mystical ‘super sorceress’ types you so often see today?
The traditional image of the witch isn’t all that traditional at all. It mostly comes from a particular period in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is from whence we have the most famous incidents of witches and witch hunting occurring. For instance we have Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, going around East Anglia in the 1640s. You have the Pendle and Samlesbury witches in 1612 and you have the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s, plus probably a lot more in between. Interestingly, in Europe at least, it coincides with ‘The Anglican Era’ (Roughly about 1500-1745) and the wars of religion and a time when the Catholic church was struggling to maintain its supremacy. Some people usually thrust the blame for the witch hunts on the Catholic church but when you look you see that they were all over the place and across all society, not just in catholic society. You can see these witch hunts present everywhere from the end of the 1400s right through to the start of the 1700s and beyond.
But how far were these witches associated with what we know of as the ‘traditional witch?’ For a start most of the accused witches were associated with an animal or a ‘familiar,’ a demon spirit disguised as a shape shifting animal. Usually it was a dog or a cat, and the cat was sometimes black which is where the whole idea that witches have Black cats come from.
This era is also, probably, where they started to ride broomsticks. Because, in those days, everybody had a broom and it was easy to claim that they were riding around on it, it was a common object they could use to easily accuse. There are pictures of women riding brooms in a French manuscript called ‘Le Champion De Dames‘ dated to 1451 but if these are actually witches, I’m not so sure. Either way it at least shows that the riding around on brooms thing was, at this time, a common enough idea to stick on the pages of a manuscript.
Some reckon this idea of witches riding around on brooms comes from people ingesting hallucinogenic plants and I think this is likely. Farming practices weren’t as efficient then and so all manner of stuff was collected with the harvest and made its way into daily foods such as bread and beer, things like stones, weeds, rat droppings, magic mushrooms… You know the sort of stuff. Your average peasant was half way off his head most of the time so it’s no surprise when they claim things like they’ve seen women flying around the skies on broomsticks.
And, surprise, surprise, guess how old the average witch was at these trials? The supposed ring leaders of the Pendle Witches, Elizabeth Southerns (AKA: Demdike) and Anne Whittle (AKA: Chattox) were both in their eighties. Many of the witches accused by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins were also elderly. Elizabeth Clarke, the first to be hanged under his auspices was eighty. Sidonia Von Burke, a Pomerian lady accused of witchcraft, was seventy two. Of course, not all people executed for Witchcraft were that old, many of the Salem witches were much younger, but a lot were what would perhaps be considered old for the time. If you lived to at least sixty you had probably led a good life.
In many places across Europe there were also people known as ‘cunning folk,’ a term for someone who practices magic but wasn’t harmful to anyone and usually worked against ‘witchcraft.’ They were also known as a good witches, Dysbys, white witches or even ‘wise women.’ Of course, all it took was a simple accusation and a cunning folk becomes a real witch. The two have an awful lot in common (like animal familiars) and it seems to be just an excuse to not execute any witch you just so happen to like (Maybe the cunning folk were the more attractive?)
And there’s one more thing we can pluck from this age of the great witch hunts… The opening scene from Macbeth. What do we see? Three old women around a cauldron, casting spells… WITCHES! Shakespeare’s witches are, fundamentally, the traditional image of the witch. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to throw a black cat and a pointy hat in there, and that was first performed in 1606, just over half a decade before Pendle and Samlesbury in 1612. It was an image with which Shakespeare’s audience would have no doubt been familiar.
This image of the witch persisted for a long time, long after the witch hunts, through fairy tales and popular culture. Take the witch in Hansel and Gretel, she’s a traditional witch. And Snow white? The queen disguises herself as a wrinkled old hag to give Snowy the poisoned apple (you’re thinking of the Disney version but it’s pretty much the same across the board.) And look at the Wizard of Oz. the Wicked Witch of the West has a pointy hat and a broomstick. Likewise in the book so too presumably does the Wicked Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the South. (Why is the Witch of the North the only ‘good’ one?) In the films the witches are really Witchy especially in the 1939 and 1910 version. The traditional image seems to have persisted almost up to the present day, and that’s where it changes.
It’s only in the 1980’s that the changes start to occur. Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches‘ (1983) does away with much of the traditional imagery, though his witches are an altogether more sinister concoction. Then you have films like The Witches of Eastwick and Hocus Pocus where the traditional Witch is almost there but ever so slightly altered. There are echoes of the traditional witch in both films but this is where you see the split. In one film the witches are evil and in the other they are good. And it is this ‘good’ witch type which seems to have taken over.
Of course there were ‘good witches’ before- The popular children’s book series ‘Meg and Mog’ were first released in the 1970’s. Likewise, ‘The Worst Witch’ series began life in the 1970’s. Of course, they still rode broomsticks and had pointy hats. The first sign of the ‘non-traditional good witch’ I could find was the television series ‘Bewitched,’ although she still looked like a traditional witch in the titles. It’s only when you reach the nineties that things start to change and the witch becomes something altogether less scary. In the late nineties in particular you have a slew of ‘good witch’ related media. Sabrina the Teenage Witch (although based on an earlier comic) started in 1996. Harry Potter began in 1997. Then you have a ‘Worst Witch’ TV series in 1998. ‘Charmed’ also began in the same year. There was a series called ‘The Belfry Witches’ which started in 1999… There were also witches in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘ trilogy (First published 1995.) Yes, some of these had traditional elements of witches but mostly they were meant as being ‘good witches’ and not the old traditional scary type.
Since then, however the witch seems to have lost all the last remains of her traditional form. They are more like a sexy, seductive sorceress than the witches of old. Granted, there have been inklings of the ‘Sorceress’ before now, Morgan Le Fay from the Arthurian legends and The White Witch of Narnia spring to mind. But these sexy sorceresses just aren’t scary. Try and recall the last time you saw a proper old school witch on a modern TV show or in a modern book. Most of the time they seem to have taken from the ‘Charmed’ school of Witchery- Young, vaguely attractive, hardly close to evil at all. I noticed there was a very similar Witchey programme being advertised not that long ago. Even if they’re really baaad to the bone witches they’re now more likely to be the sexy sorceress than a withered old hag. And they just aren’t scary. There’s no mojo there. They are, in a word, a little bit too ordinary. Like how we’ve seen how vampires have changed over the last few years, the witch did it first, and not necessarily for the better.