Of all the Halloween symbols, the witch is one of the most popular, frightening and enduring. The image of the witch is pervasive in our culture. It is seen in the pictures children color in kindergarten, as well as in episodes of the latest television shows.
Witches date back to ancient times. In the Old Testament, King Saul demands that the Witch of Endor summon the dead prophet Samuel's spirit, so that he can ask how to defeat the Philistines. The ghost, angry at being disturbed, rebukes Saul for disobedience to God, and predicted his impending doom. Saul’s army is routed and he commits suicide— a powerful object lesson about consorting with witches.
It was in the Middles Ages, however, when the witch became so closely associated with evil and Satan. In 1487, two German monks published a manual on how to combat witches, “The Witch's Hammer.” In this work, witchcraft was presented as a real and dangerous phenomenon, and accordingly, those accused of it were subject to brutal persecution.
The book affirms the existence of witchcraft and links it directly to traffic with the devil, rather than more innocent pagan folk magic. It accused witches of infanticide, cannibalism and the casting of evil spells.
It was also decidedly misogynous, arguing that women are more susceptible to satanic temptation because of the weaknesses of their gender, character and faith. This book, superstition and competition for “purity of faith” between Catholics and Protestants, ignited by the Reformation, contributed to a dark period of witch hunts lasting from 1450 to 1750. It was open season on women, especially herbalists, healers, midwives and women without men to protect or supervise them, such as widows and spinsters.
Although some of the persecuted were obviously people with mental illness, psychologist Thomas Stoneman from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., says most often “the typical accused witch was an impoverished woman with a sharp tongue and a bad temper.”
At least about 40,000 people were executed during the witch hunts. The infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts took place between February 1692 and May 1693, and resulted in the execution of 19 women. Salem has been the subject of numerous creative efforts including Arthur Miller’s classic play “The Crucible,” which was inspired by the McCarthy Hearings in the 1950s. A brand new account by historian Stacy Schiff entitled “The Witches: Salem, 1692,” is scheduled to be release later this month. Also, “Salem,” a cable television fictionalized version of the witch trials, was just renewed for its third season.
Historically men have often employed the witch as symbol of all the negative aspects of women, especially their dark side that many men fear. In recent years, the figure of the witch has fused to some degree with that of the older wise woman (Crone) and been adopted as a sign of protest against male dominance by some feminists.
Witches have also been employed in mother-bashing by some psychodynamic theorists. For example, psychologist William Stewart from St. George's and Roehampton College of Health Studies in London believed the witch is “the archetype of the evil and destructive mother.”Often the witch takes the form of a malevolent stepmother to disguise or distance this threat. This archetype can be seen in a number of fairy tales and legends.