October 31, 2019
Besides the iconic jack-o-lantern and its devilish, flickering grin on a dark October night, one of the most characteristic images of Halloween that comes to the minds of many is that of the witch: a cackling crone leaning over the depths of a bubbling cauldron, possibly with green-tinted skin, a bristly broomstick undoubtedly not far away. But where did this image of the witch come from, and why has it persisted all these years?
Why do witches wear pointy black hats?
A number of theories outline the origin of the black pointy hat that we so closely associate with the witch.
One such theory asserts that the black pointy hat stems from the typical headgear worn by female ale brewers. Before alebrewing became “professionalized” and thus entered the male-dominated sphere of an urban economy, it was a typical domestic chore for women living in rural areas and a way to bring in some income to the household. While vendoring home-brewed ale at local markets, alewives used to wear tall pointy hats in order to draw the attention of potential customers more easily — so basically, the black hat that we know and love today might have started out as a marketing tool for beer! Who would have guessed?
There are other connections between witches and alewives as well; brewers of ale would have had to acquire a fairly extensive understanding of herbs, and most likely brewed ale in large black cauldrons. Furthermore, they kept cats around to keep rodents from spoiling the grains (are you seeing a theme here?) To top off the already very witchy-image of the alewife, it turns out that locations with alcoholic beverages for sale were required to post an “ale stake” outside their front doors, which looked remarkably like a broomstick (and often functioned as one, too!)
Female brewers began to be perceived in a negative light when male-dominated trade guilds realized that there was profit to be made from brewing beer, and made a move to push women out of the trade in order to establish beer brewing as an officially regulated vocation, hence the alewife developing similar connotations to witches.
An alternative theory suggests that pointy hats, long a symbol of male wizards, were associated with the points of the devil’s horns, thus solidifying the perceived connection between witches and satan, further exemplified by historical artwork of witches.
A simpler explanation is that this fashion of headwear was merely the style of the times, and that many people of all sorts wore tall, conical hats because it was vogue, not because the garments had devilish ties!
Why do witches have green skin?
Luckily, this question isn’t nearly as difficult to answer as to the origins of the witch’s pointy hat! Although there are numerous theories, it really all boils down to one film that most of us are probably familiar with.
Yup, I’m talking about the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Virtually no portrayal of witches up until this movie came out involved green skin. In fact, the decision to portray the Wicked Witch of the West as a green-skinned crone was for purely aesthetic reasons; the movie was filmed during a time when Technicolor was still coming to life, and tinting the witch’s skin green was one sure way to make her color pop while taking advantage of new technology! (By the way, the emerald face paint that actress Margaret Hamiliton wore for the filming of the movie was reportedly flammable as well as potentially toxic; at one point, her costume caught fire and she had to spend six weeks in the hospital recovering from first- and second-degree burns!)
Why are witches portrayed as old hags with warts?
A number of academics have explored the links between witchcraft accusations and land grabs — that is, women were often accused of witchcraft, and thus stripped of their rights to their properties. In turn, their land was distributed amongst high-ranking officials (often men directly involved with the trial). Pretty shady stuff — ultimately, older women (especially widows or women without sons to inherit their land) were the most vulnerable, and suffered the greatest losses, most likely lending to the modern image of the witch as an angry old hag (if my village schemed to get me kicked off my land via unfounded accusations, I’d be angry too!)
Most people know that Halloween has ancient pagan roots. The vision of the old crone is closely associated to pagan mythology, which celebrated a tri-fold goddess that encompassed the maiden, mother, and crone. It just so happens that, per pagan mythology, the time around Halloween was when the goddess had entered her “crone” phase, representing the waning of the seasons, which at least partially explains the continued symbol of the old witch as a motif of Halloween! As to the witch having warts — well, that goes back to the “witch’s mark,” which was, during the time of the witch trials, an indication that a woman might be a witch (if you have a birth make, be careful — back in the day, it would have been sufficient evidence in court to suggest some devilish tendencies on your part!)
There’s a whole lot more to the history of witches, but at least you can be assured that if you decide to dress like a witch this halloween, you’re not obligated to paint your face green because that’s a relatively new depiction (but if you decide to proceed, don’t use flammable makeup, please!) Also, it sounds like having a beer in hand could actually make your costume that much more authentic. Food for thought...
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