The ‘Splainer: Why is the Halloween witch mean and green?

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The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

Dressed as a witch, Maisy Thompson plays with pumpkins in the pumpkin patch ahead of Halloween at Crockford Bridge Farm at Addlestone near Woking, southern Britain on October 26, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Luke MacGregor *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SPLAINER-WITCH, originally transmitted on Oct. 27, 2015.

Dressed as a witch, Maisy Thompson plays with pumpkins in the pumpkin patch ahead of Halloween at Crockford Bridge Farm at Addlestone near Woking, southern Britain, on Monday (Oct. 26, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SPLAINER-WITCH, originally transmitted on Oct. 27, 2015.

(RNS) Dress as a witch this Halloween and you have a frighteningly high chance of meeting other witches on the trick-or-treat trail. That’s because the National Retail Federation predicts the witch will be the most popular Halloween costume for the 11th year in a row — and that’s just among adults, with 4.3 million saying they plan to wear black and pick up a broomstick and a pointy hat.

But that image of a witch is one most cultures, both ancient and contemporary, would not recognize. To the ancient Greeks, the witch Circe lived in a mansion and helped Odysseus get home (eventually), while the Bible depicts the Witch of Endor as giving comfort to a distraught King Saul. How did our image of the Halloween witch evolve, and why? Let us ‘Splain . . .

Q: Why do witches wear black?

A:  Witches wear black only in our contemporary imagination. The first witches were healers, herbalists, midwives and wise women — village women who likely wore homemade dresses and robes that blended in with the outdoors they roamed for the goods of their trade. Our American idea of a witch in black likely comes from two sources:

  1. The Massachusetts witch trials (1645 to 1693). More than 300 people — mostly women — were accused of being witches, and more than 30 were hanged or pressed to death with stones. Most of the victims (and their tormentors) were Puritans — members of a Christian sect that favored dark clothing, including tall, black hats.
  2. The 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” with its Wicked Witch of the West, immortalized by actress Margaret Hamilton in full green makeup, flowing black dress, pointy hat and flying broomstick. The film won two Oscars and by the 1970s was aired annually on television in October, further cementing the image of the black-clad hag on a flying broomstick. How could Glinda the Good Witch, the other Oz witch, hope to compete?

    Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West with Judy Garland as Dorothy in 1939 "Wizard of Oz."

    Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West with Judy Garland as Dorothy in 1939’s “Wizard of Oz.”

Q: Yeah, but the Wicked Witch of the West had flying monkeys! And all I get as a Halloween witch is a stupid cat! How did that happen?

A: Witches are often shown with “familiars” — animals thought to do their bidding. But the cat is only one of a long list of creatures thought to cavort with witches — goats, toads, dogs, snakes and even cattle were sometimes associated with witches. But try to get one of those on a broomstick! Other cultures associate different animals with witches. In Japan, they are thought to have sinister pet foxes. Meow!

Q: OK, now explain the flying broomstick.

A:  Witches didn’t always ride broomsticks. In the 15th and 16th centuries, illustrations show them riding goats, stools, even cupboards. By the 17th century, witches are shown riding out of chimneys. Scholars speculate this evolved as women grew more linked with the hearth and and less with the farm and the field. So what fits up a chimney and is kept by the hearth? A broomstick. Then there’s the less-G-rated version — women believed to be witches often dealt in hallucinogenic herbs. They got, quite literally, high. “Some historical accounts suggest witches applied these ointments to their nether regions,” writes Megan Gannon at LiveScience, in an attempt to explain how witches might fly.

Q: Why do we think of witches as evil? Why aren’t we dressing as, say, politicians on Halloween?

A: Thank Christianity for that. In 785, the church banned belief in witches and ignored them for a couple centuries. But by the mid-1400s, Pope Innocent VIII, faced with challenges within the church, went after heretics — including witches. By 1515, 500 witches were burned in the city of Geneva. Two years later, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral and witch hunts began in earnest. From 1500 to 1660, between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches were killed in Europe, according to scholar Douglas Linder. The vast majority of those killed were women. By 1611, when William Shakespeare needed a dark force to kick off the action in “Macbeth,” all the elements of the contemporary witch were there in his “weird sisters” — the steaming cauldron, magic potions, creeping familiars and women who can conjure spirits and fly away.

Q: Are there real witches today?

A: You bet — though most prefer the original Old English word “wicca” to “witch.” Most are neo-pagans — people who revive pre-Christian religions and give them a contemporary twist — and there are many men in their ranks. Today’s Wiccans focus more on “good” or “white” magic, crafting “spells,” which are a kind of prayer or intention to the Goddess. And in a real twist, there is a even a “church” and “school” of Wicca, the latter offering an “essential witchcraft course” for $190. That and a broomstick should stand you in good stead for more treats than tricks.

YS/MG END WINSTON

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  • Religion News Service welcomes thoughtful comments from all viewpoints.
    Rules are simple:
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  • With respect to the final point of the article, I’d like to point out that wicca.com is only one of the training options that exist online within the larger Pagan community. There’s also witchschool.com, the Temple of Witchcraft offers a correspondence course, Circle Sanctuary has a ministry training program, and we can’t forget Cherry Hill Seminary just to name a few.

    I’m a contemporary Pagan and while we don’t have “official” authority figures (like a Pope, for example), if anyone has any additional questions about Paganism and/or Wicca, I can do my best to answer or find an answer.

  • Larry

    One of the most eccentric and interesting films on the image of witches in Medieval imagery is Haxan aka Witchcraft through the Ages (1922).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMN3i4tUy8M
    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/haxan_witchcraft_through_the_ages/

    It has zero value as an accurate or historical depiction of witchcraft, but as a film it is one of the wildest of the Silent Era.

  • Diane

    Very interesting. But I’m curious: What is the connection between Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the witch hunts?

  • Jon

    Overall, a good article and especially timely. It’s good to see this explained well and not kept in the code of silence. Something to correct for next time – the quotes in the second to last sentence of the article imply that this is a fake religion and school. Please don’t support Christian privilege, where non-Christian religions get insulted by implying that they are somehow “less” of a religion than Christianity.

  • No intention of implying it is a fake school! I am sure it is not.

  • Neon Genesis

    I’m all for positive portrayals of witches but most scholars don’t believe there is any historical basis for the witch cult hypothesis and most accept there is little connection between pre-Christian shamans and modern day neo-pagans. Wicca, for instance, has long been accepted as being largely the creation of Gerald Gardner’s imagination. That does not make it a less valid religion but we don’t need to spread misunderstandings about history to foster a positive interest in paganism.

  • Papa Ken

    I fail to understand the connection between Luther’s posting the 95 theses (having to do with indulgences and papal prerogatives) and the witch mania of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

  • Shell

    Dan Horn with the Thomas Hardye School has a paper which might help you on this point. http://www.thomas-hardye.dorset.sch.uk/documents/news_12/dan_horn.pdf
    In short, economic instability lead to both the Reformation and witch hunts. When people are scared for their futures, they lash out at what they perceive to be wrong. Same thing going on in the Middle East, Africa, and for that matter, the US.

  • So Mizzle

    The witch of endor was not presented as a comforter to Saul, but rather a for-profit charlatan (similiar to today’s “spiritual readers”) who was freaked out when an actual spirit (Samuel) started conversing with Saul. Go back and re-read the text if you me mistaken.

  • Jon

    Not a fake religion either? The quotes are still there in both cases. However, thanks for clarifying that you had no intention of implying it was a fake school.

  • I see what you are saying. Those quotation marks are there to show that I am reporting they call themselves a school and a church but that I have no actual knowledge of whether they are incorporated as such. But your point is well taken and I will raise the question with my editor.

  • Bingo

    It’s sad that “witches” have to suffer the humiliation of being portrayed as ugly hags, causing distress in our world. These fine, gifted women should be recognized for the gifts inborn in them as healers, mystics, and cleansers of souls.

  • It’s not only women. “Witch” is generally considered a non-gendered term in contemporary Paganism; both male, female, and trans* persons can use the term.

  • George Nixon Shuler

    “Witchhunt” is a metaphor for a search for incriminating evidence after the searcher has already decided the individual is guilty for good reason: the middle ages religious police and those of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 followed that modus operandi exactly. The fear of witches is a usage of superstition in order to maintain power and control over others. We saw this in the “ritual child abuse scare” of the 1980s and in actions by today’s religious extremists. Rousas John Rushdoony’s advocacy of the death penalty for witchcraft is one of many examples of his sociopathy in action.

  • George Lucas

    “The witch of endor was not presented as a comforter to Saul, but rather a for-profit charlatan ”

    This is what you get for hanging out with ewoks. 🙂

  • Ben in Oakland

    Two much easier explanations.

    1) an uncertain, ignorant, superstitious world, where everything was considered magical.

    2) there is a fungus called ergot which grows on stored wheat, especially where the wheat isn’t entirely dry. Ergot has an derivative very similar to LSD.

    Put the two together. Witch hysteria.

  • Larry

    Throw in sectarian/political hysteria as well.

    Witch hunts, especially in Civil War/Cromwell’s England were used to root out Catholic supporters of the monarchy.

    Although entirely fictional, a good film on the subject is “Witchfinder General” (also known as “The Conqueror Worm”) with Vincent Price.

  • Ben

    Bingo, “healers, mystics, and cleansers of souls” are all fraudulent, all the time. There’s not a one that can prove results, and there never has been.