What is it about Witches? We can’t get enough of them. For women they speak to our fantasies of glamour and power, even as we fear their negative connotations. But why do we have all this imagery of witches? And what are witches, really?
For quite a long time, “Witch” (in Europe, at least) was sort of a blanket term for various practitioners – herbalists, midwives, spirit healers and conjurers…there wasn’t really one way to be a witch, and if you needed an herbal salve, help with a cow that didn’t produce milk, or maybe a cure for a broken heart, you’d find a wise woman (or man) to help you. And it wasn’t that big a deal.
But there was more going on behind the scenes in medieval Europe. People were getting high – hallucinogenic herbs were well known by herbalists of the day, and pagan rites and celebrations had coexisted with Catholicism for ages (Halloween itself is a pagan holiday.) Legends abound regarding Wild Rides – women getting high on hallucinogenic preparations administered via greased poles “under the arms and in other hairy places” – early allusions to “riding” broomsticks!
Certainly these practices were frowned upon by the local clergy, and with the looming Reformation, the powers-that-be were frantic to keep social chaos to a minimum. But it took the power of mass media to turn legend into hysteria. Hans Baldung was a fantastically talented artist, gifted in painting and printmaking. A student of Albrecht Dürer, Baldung painted portraits and altarpieces throughout his career as any master artist would. But Baldung had a dark side as well – he painted several versions of Death and the Maiden, and he had a thing for witches. Maybe that’s why he was nicknamed “Grien”, which could mean either “green” or be short for “grienhals”, which is German for witch.
In 1510, Baldung made this etching:
Baldung’s etching was a masterpiece of imagery. All the symbols that would come to represent medieval witchcraft are here: naked women straddling boiling cauldrons and cooking forks, skulls and bones, ritual writings, mirrors and brushes, goats being ridden backwards, and numerous sausages laid out to dry (or roast!). These were the symbols of women using the tools of their natural trades for supernatural purposes – to gain unwarranted power over nature – or over men.
You wouldn’t think this one etching could cause much trouble, but by 1510, the printing industry was booming – it was the first era of mass media. And tracts regarding the evils of witchcraft, replete with naked women to ogle, were sure to be best-sellers. And Baldung didn’t just make one etching of witches – he made lots of them. He might have been obsessed – he may have been the John Willie of his day.
So witches had a serious media bias against them from the beginning. The plethora of frightening images by Baldung (and others) of Real Satanic Witches (who may or may not have existed) allowed for the sermonizing against the disruption of moral order. These evil women, who might either seduce a man and steal his seed, or cause his impotence, were usurping male power. And somehow their evilness made it okay to ogle their nakedness as well. Women’s potentially overpowering beauty and sexuality was both exploited and denigrated in these tracts.
A little later, in 17th-century Massachusetts, America got its own witch craze. Nineteen men and women were hanged as witches in 1692, and although there were no gifted artists present to document the hysteria, about a century and a half later we get this:
This is a detail of the painting, which portrays a meetinghouse full of townsfolk eagerly awaiting the unveiling of any sign that this comely young woman is a witch. There are even people fainting. That Puritans in Salem might have needed a witch trial to get their ya-yas out might be obvious to us in the 21st century, but once again, the Sexy Witch is a danger to society, and needs to be stripped and examined…
Witches kept a pretty low profile after that, but with the invention of moving pictures, the iconography of the Witch was about to change. Hollywood movies needed to be filled with beautiful faces and magic, and the image of a Good Witch arises, courtesy of The Wizard of Oz:
Combining the idea of a fairy godmother and witch, the Good Witch uses her special powers for the good of others. The beautiful Good Witch upends the norm of witches being awful, even as it reinforces the Hollywood ideal that pretty=good and ugly=bad, especially for women.
Halloween itself also comes into its own as a holiday in America, so advertising, pinups, and movies portray witches to promote their goods. These witches get the full-on sexy treatment, promising more naughtiness than evil. Though you might not want to push them too far!
Here’s 1940’s actress and World War II pinup model Dusty Anderson going on the wartime version of the Wild Ride:
Obviously Anderson’s sex appeal is the highlight – there’s nothing frightening about this witch. WWII combatants had their own horrors – fantasizing about the wholesome sexiness of the Girls Back Home was far more necessary than worrying about their spell casting!
By the 1960’s, the witch gets on television – and she’s been fully domesticated:
Samantha Stevens is the Witch turned Housewife. Pretty, kind, intelligent, she gives up her power to be married to
Derwood Darren. And she still has to explain apologetically that yes, this beautiful, charming woman is a witch. Oh well.
Was I the only one who was disappointed by Samantha giving up her powers to be a housewife? Can this imagery be taken back? Well, yes. Here is a still from The Craft:
The Craft brought Witch imagery to life in a newly diverse way, with its Catholic schoolgirl witches using their powers to improve their looks, their love lives…even trying for an ultimate power grab. And while they end up either reverting to their good-girl mortal lives (or going insane), the girls are working their talents for themselves and each other, for everyday things. They’re not just there for ogling, and they’re not roasting sausages and riding goats, either.
Fashion is working at taking back the Witch’s image as well, and why not? Fashion is an ideal place to experiment with identity and imagery, even as it goes into “don’t try this at home” territory:
And with the rise of social media, lots of women are taking back the Witch, collecting inspiring images on their blogs:
These modern-day Witch images are muses for women, who are taking the symbols of sexual power – and danger – as our own. We’re seeking the perfect visual balance of beauty and power, of come hither/don’t f#ck with me, if such a balance can ever be found.
And in the end, the power of the Witch is her beauty and strength. Even if she and her reputation have been gutted by history, our fantasy of her is that, with her powers, she’s going to have the last word. And in the era of social media, she just might.