It’s almost Hallowe’en time again, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about one of my least-favorite Hallowe’en symbols: the Wicked Witch. Much-maligned in folklore, witches suffer from bad press at the hands of an aggressive and ruthless enemy.
As far back as there have been humans, there were wise women (and men) who knew what herbs and roots to use to soothe pain and treat maladies. They were the herbalists and midwives, and they earned the respect of their fellow villagers. However, things change, and gradually, villagers began viewing these healers with suspicion and scorn. Why – what changed?
In my view, it was the spread of the Christian church. Whether they opposed women in positions of authority or feared the healing skills and knowledge they possessed, “witches’ were viewed as a threat, and were painted as evil devourers of children. Hansel and Gretel, the Wicked Witches of the East and the West from the Wizard of Oz, and even Baba Yaga are all classic examples of this stereotype. The image of the old crone with an absurdly long wart-covered nose has become a pop-culture fixture associated with Hallowe’en.
The 17th Century was notorious for its many witch trials, both in Europe and in colonial North America. Thousands of people were killed during these trials, nearly all of whom were innocent of any crime. People in Central Europe – and the area now known as Germany in particular – were notoriously vicious in hunting down and killing witches, so it’s surprising to me that even today there are annual celebrations on Walpurgisnacht (April 30) to commemorate the burning of the witches. Legend has it that this was the night when witches would gather to pledge their loyalty to Satan. May 1 was the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon missionary who converted much of the German-speaking areas to Christianity, and was said to have powers against witchcraft. Walpurgisnacht also happens to be the Wiccan holy day of Beltane, celebrating the arrival of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
I know more than a few people who are Wiccans. Some of them refer to themselves as witches and some don’t, but there is no doubt that their faiths have suffered enormous levels of religious persecution – even to this day. Certain ultra-conservative Christian sects still believe in witchcraft, and their preachers rail against the evils of Hallowe’en festivities as tools of the devil. It’s with all this in mind that I can’t look at these caricatures of witches and feel anything but embarrassment – at how innocent people were persecuted tortured, and killed, all in the name of a faith whose very first commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.” Clearly, that order should’ve had a few amendments and qualifiers tacked on later for clarity’s sake.
It’s good to re-evaluate from time to time, and during this festive season, give a thought to how some of our legends came to be, and who profited by creating and spreading them.