As the season approaches the end of October, and Witches come out more into the mainstream media, different opinions are bound to surface. Heading the top of these things are typically complaints made by practicing Witches about decorations and images of green-skinned, warty women with broken teeth and ugly features.
I remember some time ago, reading an article about a woman who complained of a neighbor’s Halloween decoration: A Witch hanging from a noose on a tree. She was upset and said it was a ‘hate crime’ to portray witches in such a manner, that we are a religious group and are guaranteed freedoms and rights just like anyone else and that if the man had hanged a black guy, it would have been deemed a racial slur, but since it was a witch it was okay.
One side of me says that she, and folks like her, should just relax and get over it. Halloween has been plastered with images of witches as the green-faced hag with the conical hat, black clothing, and the ratty broomstick for generations and to be honest, I don’t see that stereotype changing any time in my lifetime.
Another part of me thinks of the Wise Woman, the energy of Death in the waning year that also has a part to play in this. I think the image is a mixture of many things, rooted in ancient beliefs and understandings and colored over with events that took place in our history. This image isn’t just there for show. The Witch Archetype exists and part of her allure and power is the unsettling way that we as people look at the elderly and are reminded in that instance of our own mortality. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unsettling, and it’s feared, and that’s part of this archetype’s power and influence. It’s what happens when fear replaces wisdom and understanding.
I remember many years ago when I was also outraged at depictions of Witches with warty noses being said to eat children and turn people into toads. Witches were the quintessential ‘bad guy’ of fairy tales and folk stories. I remember being upset at being labeled with these malicious defamatory images. Witches –real Witches– are loving, caring, protective, responsible defenders of animals and nature. We are people who revere the Earth and elements, seeing them as manifestations of the Divine, and recognizing that the Divine is also in us as it is in everything.
Then, digging deeper into the history of the “Burning Times”, of the Witch Trials of Europe that followed Puritan Englishmen to North America, I read something.
The Malleus Malificarum, the most cruel, hideous, and malicious piece of text ever to be printed, identified the supposed qualities of Witches. It said what crimes they were guilty of and it gave detailed instructions on how to persecute, torture, and finally execute the people accused of Witchcraft, which in most (but not all) cases were women. This was a book written in the fifteenth century and used by Witch Hunters for many generations afterward.
It said that a Witch could be identified by a marking, blemish, or mole upon her skin… Any slight imperfection could serve as a death sentence. Anyone, by this physical sign could then be a Witch, and many were accused based on less. A freckle… or a wart was a sure way to know a woman was a Witch.
It said that Witches had sex with the Devil and suckled demonic familiars on a ‘Witch’s Nipple’ – which could have been any number of things commonly found on the human body. Something as simple as an ingrown hair would be looked at as one of these nefarious things. It said that Witches ate babies and used the fat from unbaptized infants to make their mysterious flying ointment or other such potions. It said that she used a broom to fly to the Sabbats, to make merry with demons, imps, and other Witches, casting spells to blight crops, cause disease, harm children, kill people, and even magic away men’s penises.
It told how to torture Witches, how to promise freedom if they confessed or if they implicated others, so that the list of the damned would just keep growing and growing, continuing to fill the torture chambers with more and more people screaming in pain, begging for mercy or death. But then it said that such relief should not be granted, because after all, they were deserving of punishment and death for committing these crimes.
During the torture and interrogation, teeth were knocked out, hair was ripped out from the roots, flesh was torn off with hot pincers, legs broken, arms dislocated from sockets, tongues pulled out, prisoners were beaten and raped, there were dunkings, strapping, the rack, flesh slowly roasted over hot coals, and finally with judgement pronounced, being burned at the stake, many times while they were still alive.
To me, it’s no wonder that the Witch is depicted as green, with a crooked nose, missing teeth, mangled hair, hunch-backed and bearing warts as the sure sign of her pact with the devil. Imagine what being in a chamber, and subjected to those sorts of tortures would do to the body. Her hair was straggly and damp and her body unkempt with her clothes torn or missing – because torture was performed with the victim in the nude and she would be wrapped only in a ragged bit of cloth on her way to be executed. The Witch’s nose would be misshapen from being broken, her hands malformed and nails blackened from the thumbscrews to where she could hardly hold on to the side of the cart as they wheeled her into the town square for the burning. Her skin would be a mottled green or sickly yellow from bruises that had faded from their darkened blue or purple. Her smile was now a mess of broken or missing teeth between blood-flecked lips. She would be half-bent over from the pain of standing, if she could still stand, from being pulled on the rack or facing the strappado.
The people watching could have learned what a Witch looked like from these public executions and they heard of the crimes they were found guilty of through torture: luring children into danger, eating infants, casting evil spells… The image obviously persisted in their minds and was passed down through generation after generation.
This, to me, is what the image of the “Halloween Witch” is rooted in. So to me, instead of being offended… now I am thoughtful. Where each green, grinning, old woman with her broomstick and black cat leers at me from store windows or displays, I can see the image of a woman who once was accused of Witchcraft and died for it. I think of it more as a reminder of intolerance and what can happen when things go too far — for any group of people.
Let the public keep their decorations and “hanged witches” in their front yard.
And let us all remember why such an image is even in our minds.