Halloween: How Wicked are Wicked Witches?

So, of course you know that Halloween is upon us. It’s time to celebrate all things spooky! Eat candy, carve pumpkins, dress up. Watch horror films, then regret it when you wake up at 3am and convince yourself that there’s a ghost/monster/demon/axe murderer hiding in your room.

To join in with the festivities my post this week is all about some figures widely associated with Halloween: Witches!

One of the most common costumes for women is a witch, probably because it’s so easy to do. Just whip out your little black dress, grab the kitchen broom, buy a pointed hat and voilà! Instant witch. But is that all there is to it? Witches have been around for thousands of years in a variety of forms, and are constantly being represented in new ways. Sometimes they are good, others evil. Putting a witch in a story immediately gives it an element of ambiguity. But there are many different types of witch to choose from, and perceptions of them have changed drastically over time.

Many adult female witch costumes are very revealing. Does ‘wicked’ also equate to ‘sexy?’ Image from Fancy Dress Ball.

According to the dictionary, ‘witch’ has three meanings:

1. A person, now especially a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic, especially black magic or the black art; sorceress.

2. An ugly or mean old woman; hag.

3. A person who uses a divining rod; dowser.

Now, I think there’s a bit of stereotyping going on here. Firstly, not all witches practice ‘black magic or the black art’. Secondly, neither are they all an ‘ugly or mean old woman.’ Practicing black magic I can go with to a degree, but just a plain ugly and/or old woman? That’s just mean!

Thirdly, what about real life witches? There is no mention here of the Pagan community.

As for someone who uses a divining rod, well that has to be the loosest sense of the word ‘witch’ ever established!

So okay then, a witch is a female who uses magic. Let’s go with that. But where did the other stuff come from? I would argue that the majority of images of witches come from two places: history and fairy tales.

Witches, or at least suspected witches, have come up against a lot of judgment in the past across the world. Just look at the Salem or the Pendle Witch Trials. Thousands of innocent women were burnt, hung, drowned, and tortured on the accusation of witchcraft. If a woman had a strange mark on her skin, she was a witch. If she had a cat follow her, she was a witch. If she gave some herbs to a neighbour to heal a cough, she was a witch. And being a witch was never a good thing. Once branded, you were automatically evil and Devil-worshiping.

Statue of Alice Nutter in Roughlee, Lancashire, England. Alice Nutter was one of the women hanged in the Pendle witch trials of 1612. However, much controversy surrounds her accusation. Image from Executed Today.

So if witches were viewed as evil in real life, then why not in stories as well?

Fairy tales are just as old as witches; stories which have been handed down by word of mouth for centuries. In ages where superstition was rife, it is only natural that the ‘evil witch’ stereotype should emerge. In many fairy tales, the witch is depicted as an old hag who seeks to harm the main character. The epitome of this stereotype has got to be the Russian folklore character Baba Yaga, well-known for her appearance in the fairy tale Vasilissa the Beautiful. She is old, crotchety, and merciless, eating anyone who dares to cross her path. Her isolated house in the woods is surrounded by a fence made from the skulls of her victims, and she travels around in a pestle and mortar. Baba Yaga is everything a fairy tale villain should be: scary, gruesome, and cunning. She is also the ultimate witch-hag.

Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga, the fearsome cannibalistic witch from Russian folklore. Image by kGoggles on DeviantART.

But ‘hag’ is not the only common style of witch. Where is the pointy hat and cape, and the broomstick? My brother has a two foot statue of a witch with all of those and a gnarled, wrinkly face. She used to terrify me when I was little (and if I’m honest, she still does a bit now!) Elphaba from Wicked is a very typical witch in this way, and she has all of those things. Plus she is green. I don’t know where the idea came from that witches have green skin, but it seems to be another common thing. Look at masks in any fancy dress shop around Halloween and you will see. Elphaba is also not entirely good, hence her being called the ‘Wicked Witch of the West.’ Nice piece of alliteration, and adds to the idea that witches are bad. However, Elphaba has an opposite: Glinda the Good. Only if you ask me, Glinda looks more like a fairy than a witch with her puffy dress and glittering wand (but that’s another stereotype to deal with in another post). Suggesting that witches can be good or evil raises the question of personal choice, implying that witches are not automatically ‘wicked’ just because they are witches. Since the plots of many fairy tales are simplistic they don’t go into detail. It is easier for them to just accept that witches are bad. But in Wicked, witches have backstory and motives. They have more voice, and move away from the image of the hag. Also, both Elphaba and Glinda are pretty young women, so I’m sorry dictionary but your second definition has been disproved!

Glinda and Elphaba: Good and evil. Image from Broadway.

Young witches come under a whole different kind of fire than hags. Not only are they accused of being evil, a new label often gets given to them: Whore. The novel Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth emphasises this in the character Selena Leonelli, who actually lives up to both titles. She is told that in order to be a witch she must be a whore, as being something like a wife or a nun would be too respectable for her to also practice magic. However, contrasting with this is the novel Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Here the main protagonist, a young girl named Corrag, is assumed to be a witch because of her knowledge of herbs and free-spirited attitude. Through this, she is then also assumed to be a whore simply because she is young and a little bit different. Both ‘whore’ and ‘witch’ are names thrown at outsiders, when in reality they are not always true and do not mean one and the same thing. Selena calls herself both as a means of self-definition. She knows she is bad, and admits it to the other characters. Corrag rejects them both because she wants to be seen for her personality, instead of what others perceive her to be.

Strega Nona Tomie Depaola
Strega Nona: Hubble, bubble, toil and pasta. Image from Wikipedia.

If Corrag was to be described as a ‘proper’ witch, then she would best be categorised as a wise woman or kitchen witch. This is your classic friendly village herbalist, with no supernatural powers as such but instead a acute sense of intuition and the ability to heal. Kitchen witches are very homely, and are a fine starting point for thinking about good witches. Okay, some kitchens may be stocked with jars of grisly things for malevolent purposes, but on the whole, think ‘kitchen witch’ and think ‘grandma’ shortly after. The Italian children’s book character Strega Nona is literally this: An elderly, good witch who wants to help people. This is a complete turnaround from the old hag image seen in Baba Yaga.

The image of the witch has evolved in both literature and real life over time, switching between combinations of good, evil, young, and old. In contemporary society, the New Age movement is thriving and having an interest in the supernatural is more acceptable than it was in the past. No more burnings at the stake, thankfully. But in stories, the evil woman stereotype seems to still be prevalent. After all, a good story needs a villain. People want something to be afraid of, and the traditional fairy tale witch provides just that. It’s just disconcerting when people see my pentagram necklace and ask me why I’m not green and slaughtering goats in my cellar…

Happy Halloween everyone, stay safe and have fun however you’re celebrating! And if you’re dressing up as a witch, be creative with those costumes!

Featured image from Fly 

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Currently she is studying for a masters degree in Ethnology & Folklore at the University of Aberdeen. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

2 thoughts on “Halloween: How Wicked are Wicked Witches?

  1. Oh wow, that it really interesting! Thanks for sharing. It's funny how words shift meaning over time.

  2. You might be interested in looking up the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. I recently did, and the earliest reference to it was ambiguous. It wasn't until hundreds of years later that the connotation was negative. Interesting!

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