Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Changing Image of the Witch -- or What I Did for Halloween

It's interesting how common ideas of witches have changed over the years.  Until well into the late middle ages, most people -- and the church -- thought of witches as people, usually women, who looked just like everyone else.  In fact they were considered people like everyone else, except that they'd switched allegiances to Satan instead of Jesus and were therefore in the same category as heretics and secular traitors.  'Twas around the 1500s, when mere heresy was branching out into the Reformation, that witches were seen as something different; almost always women, either ugly hags or at least branded with some tell-tale mark -- likewise different from the "mark" of Jews and Moslems (the men, at least), who were circumcised.  Professional witch-hunters had great fun stripping women naked and poking them, looking for the marks.  Witch-hunting ebbed and flowed with the progress of the Reformation, reaching a high point in the Salem witch-trials of 1692, after which religious wars became unpopular and witch-hunting died away to an embarrassed memory, then a fairy-tale.  At least by 1939, and the movie "The Wizard of Oz", there was the image of Glinda the Good Witch as well as the green-skinned and eagle-nosed Wicked Witch of the West   By 1983, when Raould Dahl published his children's book "The Witches", the image of the witch was more of a joke than anything really scary.  Finally, the play "Wicked" even did a good job of rehabilitating the Wicked Witch of the West, green skin and all.

Real witches, of course, said nothing -- in public -- about any of this until the mid-1970s, and then told their tales only in books or magazines found in "occult" bookstores, or in scholarly papers seen only by university Anthropology departments.  Of course the occasional heavy-rock band would do an album or a whole shtick about "witchcraft" or "the devil" -- having no relation whatsoever to the real thing, but good for scaring the grown-ups.  It wasn't until the 1980s that the Neo-Pagan movement in general grew big enough to start going public: hosting Pagan Pride Day in various large cities, holding "open" rituals to which the public was invited, complaining about the portrayal of pagans in general and witches specifically in movies and TV shows.  Good witches started showing up in lighthearted TV shows and the occasional movie -- much to the annoyance of super-conservative fundamentalist Christians, who kept trying to whip up Satanism scares, which always fizzled out for lack of evidence.  Pagans finally gained legal respectability in 2007, when the pentagram was accepted as a symbol on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

Nowadays witch costumes are usually seen around Halloween, either as cute little robes and hats on young children, or sexy outfits on teenaged-or-older girls.  The green skin, warts and eagle-beak noses have vanished with the last decade's fashions.  Nowadays witches are at least cute, if not glamorous.

So I've had no problem spending my last few Halloweens wearing a witch costume (long skirt, long-sleeved lace blouse, pointy hat -- all in black), sitting out by the front door flanked by jack-o-lanterns and a black cat or two, playing solemn pagan tunes on an eerie-sounding bowed psaltery, offering candy to any little kid (or enthusiastically costumed adult) who'd be brave enough to take it from the mouth of a scary-looking carved pumpkin.  Only a few kids came down my street this year (possibly because, Halloween being on Friday, it was overshadowed by the town high school's nighttime football game), but all of them liked the costume, and the idea of braving the "goblin" to get the candy.  It seems that witches are getting downright respectable these days.

Cotton Mather should be spinning in his grave, at several thousand RPMs.  No doubt the few religious bigots who are left (like those fools in La Mesa, California, who tried to get Raould Dahl's book banned from the public library because it stated that witches look just like other people) are squirming a good bit above the ground -- primarily because their political power has drained away so that they can't hang or burn witches any more.  Boo-hoo, and BOOOOOO!

--Leslie <;)))><   )O(              


Paradoctor said...

Cracked.com has a similar take; they ran a video where image consultants tell the witch that the green and old and ugly is retro, you need to go sexy.

Yeah, sure, the Crone's boring, it's time to run with the Sexy Maiden. But remember, she's got a third identity up her sleeve, and a really scary one too. Mom!

Leslie Fish said...

*Snicker* Mom as Mother Earth/Teacher/Healer is actually a popular image these days. We can thank the ecology movement for that, and Wiccans have always worshiped Mother Nature anyway. ...Damn, I wonder if I'm not slipping into that role, with my orchard and cats and all. Yeah, scary thought!

Paradoctor said...

Mom cackles: "Yes, dear daughter, yes my child, I'LL TURN YOU INTO ME! HEE, HEE, HEE, HEE, HEE!"

windmills said...
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