Understanding Legends: Witches

Have you ever stopped to wonder where the common image of that broom riding witch with her pointy hat and wart marked nose came from? In recent years, modern witches have become more and more accepted. Sure, some of them play on the old concepts of a traditional ‘witch’, but by and large the stereotypical image of a broom riding crone with a pointy hat does not match at all with heavily varied reality. So where is it that this image came from? Many of the common ‘wicked witch’ images are derived from periods of time when a witch was considered to be a catch-all term for a person who had a pact with demons or the devil himself in the estimation of the Church (note the capitalization). These are just a few of the origins for the iconic ‘witch’.
1) Conical Hats – Medieval woodcuttings showed any number of variations on what witches wore, so where did the conical black hat with the wide rim originate? The witches hat as we recognize it became known somewhere between Victorian times and the turn of the century. They became common in the illustration of evil witches in children’s stories. Why did this happen? That’s less clear. There are a number of theories about the origin. One theory says it was a modified dunce’s cap. Yet another equates it to the headgear worn by the goddess Diana who is associated with witches. Some say it is tied to the common medieval viewpoint that equated it with Jews wearing conical hats. This was due to rumors that they held blasphemous Sabbaths that were parallel to the Witches’ Sabbaths. The Church frowned on pointed hats, because they associated them with devil’s horns, so there again is another potential origin. We may never be fully certain of how the image itself was come to, possibly a combination of several of these theories is the truth.

2) Black Cats -There are two things have caused this associate, most likely. First is that a witch was supposedly granted an impish familiar by their pact with the devil. This imp would often take a more common form such as that of a cat. Since cats were so common on farms for controlling rodent populations, it wasn’t hard to find one or more when you went after someone who was supposedly a witch. Showing too much affection towards the mouser in the barn might be an indication that it was more than a working animal. Another idea of cats was that a witch could convert herself into a black cat and go skulking about. In fact, the fear of a black cat crossing your path comes from the fear that it is a witch in disguise who is bringing evil into your life. Bad luck indeed.

3) Warts – In keeping with the idea that one had a familiar that was a gift of some dark entity, the common belief was that the owner of a familiar had a small growth known as a ‘witches’ teat’ or ‘witches’ mark’. Any wart, mole or fleshy growth could be used as ‘proof’ that you were indeed practicing dark arts. This is highlighted in stories of the witch trials. In medieval times, the mark was supposed to be found on hidden areas of the body, but over time when one wanted to draw a clear picture that someone was indeed a witch, putting a visible wart on their face was meant as a symbol of their connection to the dark arts being openly displayed. Even older versions of this mark were supposed to be the branding of the witch by having the devil rake his claws or an iron on their skin to leave a blue or red mark. Of course, there are a number of theories about the witches’ mark that range from tattoos to Lyme disease, but the wart is what has become synonymous with our perceptions of the classic witch.

4) Flying Brooms – Here is where it gets odd. The flying broom concept is very sketchy and the leading theory right now is that it tied to hallucinogens that made someone feel like they were flying. Early accounts stated that a stick or similar object would be greased with a special ‘flying ointment’. Witches would ‘fly’ in order to divine the future. This flight was actually one of the spirit, brought on through the use of specialized folk medicines that were put into the body. It was known that the body would absorb these drugs more potently if applied inside the anus or vagina, so of course the smooth rounded top of a broomstick or similar tool was the logical item in ancient times for applying the ointments. Once applied, hallucinations began and the witch would ‘fly’ away from his or her body. There are also notations that a ‘wand’ could be at times disguised as the stick of a broom, adding to the association of witches to the broom.

These things we associate with the iconic image of the witch all have their origins in commonly held beliefs or logical extensions of the way things were in times past. Other aspects that had very real ties to the world that came before us include the use of a cauldron, the large buckled boots, black clothing and long crooked noses. I encourage you to seek out more if you find yourself interested in how these seemingly random jumbles of traits all had a starting point that makes good sense when you understand the history behind them.

What are your thoughts?