Pagan Myths Debunked: Where Did You Think That Pointy Hat Came From, Anyway?
by Lilith Veritas
It’s never been easy to be a pagan in a world where differences are feared and minorities are persecuted. It’s made even tougher by how little nonpagans usually know about the realities of our lifestyle and beliefs. How many times have you had to explain that Satanism is not Wicca, or that Wiccans are not the only pagans? Most nonpagans get their information about Wicca, neo-paganism and other Craft-related beliefs from the mass media, which has faithfully clung to stereotypes and painted a sensationalistic picture of pagans, just like they do about everything else. TV shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have contributed much to making paganism seem less frightening and more acceptable to the mainstream, but they’ve also continued to support misinformation and superstitions that have plagued pagans throughout modern times. Shows like Sabrina, or even the old favorite Bewitched, leave nonpagan viewers with the impression that witchcraft is all fantasy and special effects, and anyone who believes in such things might have a screw or two loose. Really, do you know anyone who has a talking cat or has developed a working teleport spell?
The reality is that the majority of pagans today come from other religions and backgrounds and are at least partly self-educated, and many bring some of these ideas with them! It’s really difficult to educate the nonpagan public if we’re not clear ourselves on the history of witchcraft and the origins of our symbols, tools and stereotypes. While it’s hard to change deeply held beliefs, the truth is a powerful weapon against fe
and prejudice, and acknowledging our own history is the only way to move forward to a (hopefully) enlightened future.
For a quick example of the history of a pagan tool, let’s look at the Book of Shadows. Many pagans take it for granted that these books are an integral part of being a pagan. The term itself has been popularized by the media; the sisters on Charmed have a family Book of Shadows, which seems to be a universal encyclopedia of all things magickal, and the sequel to the popular Blair Witch Project movie was called Book of Shadows. The common perception seems to be that Books of Shadows have been handed down from medieval times and contain wisdom gathered hundreds of years ago. How accurate is that perception?
The first recorded reference to an actual Book of Shadows was in 1939, by the founder of modern Wicca, Gerald Gardner. He claims to have received pieces of this book during his initiation into the religion now known as Gardnerian Wicca. Both Doreen Valiente and Aleister Crowley appear to have added to the book, after Gardner “restored” it. Prior to that, however, there is no known recording of a Book of Shadows, at least not by that name, and few references to grimoires or books of knowledge used specifically by pagans. The book Aradia: Gospel of the Witches was written by folklorist Charles G. Leland in 1899 and appears to be the closest historically, but it would hardly have been ancient knowledge a mere 40 years later. Books of Shadows are now used by many pagans, both Wiccan and non-, but that name seems to be solely a creation of Gardner and his contemporaries.
Many pagans would like to believe that there is a written source for ancient spells, rituals and traditions to which they can turn to validate their current practices. They may forget that in ancient times, and often through the first part of the twentieth century, the common person didn’t know how to write or read! Most pagans in the Western world today can both read and write, and even those deemed “illiterate” can often do both enough to get by. During the height of the witch hunts and in rural areas where folk medicine and pagan rituals may have continued more or less uninterrupted, literacy was not common, and it is unlikely that many witches, if any, kept such a book. Most commoners didn’t keep books at all!
There is another argument against the idea of ancient grimoires being commonplace: Anyone found with such a book would likely have been found guilty of heresy and possibly put to death, and the book summarily burned. This threat would have been lessened for someone of the upper classes, but for typical rural folk would probably have been too big a risk to take. During the times when herbal healers had to be very careful to hide the tools of their trade and be sure to put their best Christian face forward, it would have been virtual suicide to have a book of “arcane knowledge” laying around the house, even if most of your neighbors couldn’t read it! Having books at all was cause for suspicion amongst the lower classes, since they were poorly understood by most and rarely read by any but high society. The few documented grimoires likely did belong to folks of higher classes, as they were the ones who could afford them and could also afford to learn to read.
As I mentioned, many pagans would like to have a historical book of knowledge to justify their current practices. While it would be nice to trace such things unbroken into the past, “new” does not mean “bad” or “invalid.” Newer ideas aren’t automatically bad ideas! Now that we have the means to write down our beliefs and rituals to pass on to future generations, or just to remind ourselves, many of us will choose to do so. Knowing where a practice comes from allows room to change and grow, and keeps folks talking from a place closer to truth than superstition. And knowing that new practices are springing up will hopefully keep the pagan paths alive and vital instead of bogging them down in the dogma so common in many mainstream religions.
Moving into the realm of stereotypes, many Americans think of the pointed black hat as the key identifier of a witch. These folks are often the most surprised when they meet a real, modern witch wearing jeans and a T-shirt. But where did the stereotype of this pointy hat come from?
One thing to keep in mind in the search for this stereotype’s origins is that it is peculiarly American and Western European, particularly from the British Isles, and it is a fairly modern invention. Witches in Eastern countries do not appear wearing pointy hats or any of the accoutrements that we commonly associate with the Halloween-style witch. Early woodcuts of witches in the Middle Ages showed them wearing scarves, or hats popular at the time, or even with their hair flying in the wind. Our media has popularized the view of witches with pointy hats as well as green skin, warts and brooms. I suspect the Wizard of Oz movie released at the dawning of the media age has more to do with the current stereotype of the “wicked witch” than does historical evidence!
The most positive interpretation I came across was echoed by Doreen Valiente as the probable source: Pointed hats were actually a visual representation of the Cone of Power that witches drew upon during their rituals. While this puts a nice, witch-friendly spin on the image, I find it to be rather unlikely. People in previous centuries who were creating woodcuts of witches tended to paint a very unkind picture and did not include positive aspects of true witchcraft as it existed at the time. Witches were portrayed dancing with devils and participating in all varieties of heinous rites, not drawing down the moon and healing the sick. It is unlikely that someone projecting a witch in such a light would bother to represent a Cone of Power, which is typically a positive force.
There is another, commonly held belief that the pointed hat originated with another persecuted group in Europe, the Jews. While Jews did wear pointed headgear, most scholars now believe these hats were not a likely source for the witch’s pointed hat. After all, pointed hats were fairly common throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
This fact leads us to the source I find to be most believable, and most mundane, for the Pointy Hat Look. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, commoners in Wales and England often wore pointed hats. As fashions changed, the last to retain the old styles were the rural and peasant folk, who were considered “backward” by higher society and were usually the ones accused of heresy and witchcraft. Much as we today have stereotypes of the sort of student who might commit violence at a high school, so did the medieval people have their ideas of what sort of person might be a witch.
Along these lines, Gary Jensen, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, postulates a connection between the persecution of Quakers in America and the stereotypical appearance of witches in our folklore. Quakers did wear pointed hats, and the negative image of witches wearing conical hats in America became common about the same time anti-Quaker sentiment was at a peak. Quakers were thought by some to consort with demons and practice black magic, things also associated with the early American view of witches. Once again, an easily recognized symbol of an oppressed minority may have become generalized to a group equated with them.
In the final analysis, it’s likely that more than one of these issues came into play to ingrain the pointy hat into the mainstream idea of what a witch looks like. After all, the ideas that stick most firmly in the mind are the ones repeated from different sources, and many things in history can’t be traced to a single root cause or moment.
In the Craft, as in all aspects of human culture, the powers of media and modern communication weave together a new “truth” from bits of folklore and whispered traditions, and picking apart this fabric to get at the real foundation requires persistence and the willingness to view your own ideas in a new light.
For those interested in further reading about pagan stereotypes and history, I suggest the Internet as a great source of information, if one takes the information found with the proper grain of salt. Two articles in particular that I came across stand out in my mind, and I believe it would benefit pagans in general to read and consider the implications of both of them.
First of these is a speech by Doreen Valiente at the National Conference of the Pagan Federation on November 22, 1997. As a founding influence on the modern practice of Wicca and a contemporary of both Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley, Valiente had a unique perspective. In this speech, she questioned many “truths” about Gardnerian Wicca and presented views that some may find surprising. Transcripts of her speech can be found at http://www.users.drak.net/lilitu/valiente.htm.
Second is a very well-researched essay about the Burning Times by Jenny Gibbons, which can be found at http://www.cog.org/witch_hunt.html.
While I don’t endorse either of these sources as the absolute truth, they are certainly thought provoking.
Some other sources:
The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Best Witches site, http://www.rci/rutgers/edu/~jup/witches
“The Witching Hours,” by Shantell Powell, http://shanmonster.bla-bla.com/witch