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Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV Scene i
A hagged crone leans over a steaming pot, warts on her crooked nose, whispering incantations to turn people into frogs. This is most likely what many will think of when asked to describe a witch, and a certain William Shakespeare has a lot to answer for, after his description of the hags in his play Macbeth. However, perhaps he's not totally to blame, as witches have traditionally been misunderstood, persecuted, vilified and driven out of town by scared and angry people.
So where did the concept of the witch arise? The first witch may well have been the first woman! Eve? Jewish folklore tells that the first woman was in fact called Lilith. She was apparently Adam's first wife, but was unceremoniously cast out of paradise for being naughty. This idea of a woman being sin is quite possibly the beginnings of the concept of the witch - a woman who can only do evil. However, Lilith has also been worshipped as a goddess and seen by some feminists as a figurehead - so it's not all bad. Lilith may in fact be the Greek Goddess Hecate, just in another form. These powerful women were not called witches for a very long time, the word 'witch' only coming into common usage much later.
'Witch' itself most likely originates from the Old English wicce - meaning 'wise one who casts spells'. There is no record of whether this was the casting of good spells or bad spells, but it more likely the former, as persons who practiced witchcraft were quite often midwives, herbalists and to some extent apothecaries. It was not until the late 15th Century that witchcraft was perceived as more of a threat to the 'common people' and organised religions of Western Europe.
The Classic Witch
I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog too!!
Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz
So, what is the classic witch? Well, she generally lives in a ramshackle hut on the edge of town, is pretty old and wrinkly, has a pet black cat, wears black clothes including a pointy hat and goes down the shops on her broomstick. She can poison crops with a stare, alter shape into various animals including black cats, ravens, black hares and even the odd black horse. She might have a magic book of spells and a wand, but most likely brews potions in her huge black cauldron, which is kept hot by a fire made from the bodies of her victims!
The modern idea of the witch can be seen in the Disney movie Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, where the evil queen disguises herself as an old woman to lure Snow White into biting a poison apple. This portrayal left a mark on western society's concept of the witch, along with the Wicked Witch of the West in the film The Wizard of Oz, and it is these images that are most commonly referred to, especially by young trick-or-treaters at Halloween. It is actually centuries old, and famous stories like the Brother's Grimm tales of 'Rapunzel' or 'Hansel and Gretel', all include a terrifying witch. Folklore from around the world mentions the witch as an evil being, quite probably the worst of all being Baba Yaga, an ugly old woman who ate children!
People were often so fearful of witches that many found solace, oddly enough, in magic charms or wards against witches! These superstitions included hagstones1, horseshoes and sprigs of rowan. This fear of men and women who practised witchcraft, and the belief that they were all devil worshippers and heretics, led to mass persecution, and killing.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.2
King James Bible, Exodus 22:18
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, it was common practice for people to be hunted down if there was a suspicion that they might be a witch. Witches were thought to have made a pact with the Devil, giving them supernatural powers and all kinds of terrible abilities. To be in league with Satan or Lucifer, or Beezlebub was to work against God - the act of heresy. A manuscript of 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum3 by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger was the pocket guide of witchhunting at the time. The Inquisition, the secular authorities, and the Protestant reformers all persecuted witches. Two of the most famous witchhunts were that of the Englishman Matthew Hopkins (the 'Witchfinder General') and that in Salem, Massachusetts, USA (brought to life by Arthur Miller's play The Crucible). More contemporary witchhunts, while not hunting down actual 'witches' per se, include McCarthyism which led to the mis-trial of many innocent people in the United States.
Finding a Witch
Villager - We have found a witch. May we burn her?
Crowd - Burn her! Burn! Burn her! Burn her!
Sir Bedevere - How do you know she is a witch?
Villager - She looks like one.
From the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
To discover a witch was a fairly simple affair. Anyone with a wart or mole on their face, perhaps lived alone with only a pet for company and liked herb-gardening could be accused of the crime of being a witch. Once you had your accused witch there were various ways of testing their guilt.
Early methods of testing to see if the accused was in fact a witch were simply forms of torture, that any sane person would succumb to and confess to being a witch. Some of the more familiar were;
- Dunking - The witch would be tied to a contraption known as a dunking stool, which would then be lowered into a fast flowing river, lake or large water container (usually blessed), to see if they would float. If able to float, then the accused was possessed with the 'Spirit of Satan' and ergo, a witch. Questions of whether clothing had filled with air and formed a convenient buoyancy aid were usually dismissed out of hand. If, however, the 'witch' drowned or died of hypothermia, they had obviously not been under Satan's protective watch, and were therefore innocent. Unfortunately for the person concerned, they were also dead, so it all ceased to be of relevance.
- Scales of Justice - An alternative trial was often to weigh the accused against a copy of the Holy Bible. If heavier than the book, the accused was being pulled down by the weight of the 'Spirit of Satan', and therefore a witch. If however, the good book proved the weightier, the person was not a witch and was free to go. Again questions of simple physics were discarded as irrelevant. Variations of this method were used, including weighing the witch against other holy relics, or indeed any object that was undoubtedly lighter than the accused.
- Pricking the Flesh - This involved finding a mark of Satan upon the accused, usually a mole, wart, scar, skin blemish, birthmark or even third nipple. Once found, an accuser would push a knife or needle into the irregularity. If the wound drew blood, the 'witch' was innocent of the charge. If, however, no blood flowed from the wound, allegiance with the Devil was assumed. This test worked fairly well for the innocent, until some accusers found that a false knife, sleight of hand or even knowing places on the body where a needle could be inserted without pain or blood loss when 'pricking the flesh' could produce a more desired effect. The discovery of a witch!
- Burning at the Stake - Self explanatory really. The accused was tied to a stake and set fire to. If the witch survived the smoke and flames (highly unlikely), they were said to be in league with the Devil and able to endure the flames of Hell and thus taken from the flames and hanged. If they burnt to death however, they were innocent of the crime of being a witch. Burning was also the preferred way of disposing of a discovered witch, as it meant that holy ground was not tainted with a witch corpse.
The Modern Witch
I'm a witch! I-I can make pencils float. And I can summon the four elements. Okay, two, but four soon. A-and I'm dating a musician!
Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV Series
In the late 20th Century and early 21st Century, witches have become less of a taboo in western cultures. Dr Gerald Gardner, the co-founder of modern Wicca, assisted in debunking the myths surrounding witches in the 1940s by supporting the supposedly 'occult' religion. Witches, no longer feared, began to enjoy a renewed respect and just decades later the likes of Samantha4, Sabrina - the teenage witch, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy and the Charmed ones have made witchcraft increasingly popular. In literature the witch has also gone from being the evil hag who eats children, like Roald Dahl's horrible creations, to either the young adventurer such as Mildred Hubble - the Worst Witch and Hermione Granger, friend of Harry Potter, or the laughable 'Wyrd Sisters' in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.
However, the witch that is waiting to scare you can still be found, in horror movies, comic books, dreams and the imagination. But with further tolerance of what was once deemed 'unholy', many young women (and men) have taken a strong interest in learning the ancient pagan arts or Wicca, and it is future generations who may turn to the past and become not only qualified midwives and nurses but also - wicce - witches.