Those Pretty, Sexy Witches
It is known as The Season of the Witch, a time when hefty bags of candy appear on shelves, skeletons come out of dark closets to dance among us, and that ugly, green-faced hag stalks the store aisles, frightening little children and annoying real Witches no end. For many years now, both in response to that Hag, and for my own amusement, I have collected items that portray her opposite. As a result, I have dozens of pretty, sexy, positive Witch figures, toys, trinkets, and images in my collection. Some of these pieces feature young women and little girls, while others depict sweet-faced older gals. The elders are often shown hugging cats or puppies or they carry books, flowers or tiny bags of chocolate. For those in the know, that pretty much says it all.
Finding Positive Witch Figures
When I began collecting twenty years ago it was easiest to find such images in vintage postcards published before 1925 or in copies of pin-up posters from the 1950’s and 60’s. Modern representations were much harder to find. After years of asking for “pretty witches” in stores, and getting odd looks, and after much searching, I began to find what I was after. (1) This was long before the collectible fantasy sculptures you see now were available, and before those pretty fantasy witch outfits for young girls and women could be found in on-line catalogs and the Halloween stores. These days, you can walk into any collectibles store and find sculptures of charming, pretty, sexy, witchy women. During Halloween you can even find these types of items in drug stores. Many of the sexy ones are a bit outré, that’s true. This has often been the case.
The Witch as Sex Toy
One way to remove power from a female image is to make it too cute, too busty, too Marilyn Monroe-ish, and so turn Her into a sex toy. That has been going on for a very long time. There are many provocative and in some cases, charming witch images in art, photography and advertising. To see some of these check out the Sexy Witch Blog by Red Witch (the link is below) . Please Note: This contains very Adult Content, folks – Do not watch this site at work.
Taming the Sexy Witch
Because the young witch is seen as sexy and alluring she has power over those who desire her. That makes her dangerous. So our culture sought to tame her and keep her power for it’s own use. Examples of this can be seen in the 1958 film “Bell, Book and Candle” and in the television series “Bewitched”. As a girl growing up I could never figure out why someone with Samantha’s life experience, talent, and wit would be happy living a boring, subservient life with a dim witted dullard like Darrin. (Being ten at the time, I did not realize that “Bewitched”, “I Dream of Jeannie” and shows like it were a cultural backlash in response to the early Women’s Movement, portraying women with power as besotted handmaidens to rather nervous males) . At least the television version of Samantha (as played by Elizabeth Montgomery) was powerful, subversive and smart, unlike her later counterpart in the film remake of that name. (A link to an insightful review of the remake is noted below.)
Finding the Center
The pendulum swings and swings again. The characters of Willow (from the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer) , Hermione (from the Harry Potter series) , Tiffany (from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series) along with many of their sister witches in fiction are antidotes to the negative, exploitative or simply silly image of the witch. More positive portraits will come in time.
Crone or Hag?
Whenever we work with the Crone image, we confront our own fears about death, aging and the unknown. As Pagans know, the Crone can be both our ally, and our teacher. But how do we define a Crone? I believe the woman of the Elderflower Festival in California (www.elderflower.org) have done this rather well. They note that the Crone “has often developed a deeper awareness of her own mortality, either through her own brush with death or through facilitating the passage of another. She is shifting from an external focus to a more introspective state. She experiences a sense of urgency to get on with the real business of her life, and she has begun to shed the old in order to pursue what has now emerged as her life purpose.”
This is a figure to be honored, not feared, so it is not surprising that some Pagans find the classic Halloween caricature of the Crone to be deeply offensive. Others shrug it off with a smile. What seems ominous, to me, is the way in which the use of this green-faced creature in modern day culture mirrors the historical periods of Pagan and Witch persecution. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, western patriarchal culture, fueled by the fear of women, (especially older, independent women) promoted a monster known as the Witch.
Frequent crop failures, famines, global weather changes (known to us as the Little Ice Age) as well as injustice, poverty, constant warfare, religious scandals, torture, imprisonment without trial, abuse of power, and political unrest haunted those times. The vicious, vengeful, envious Witch figure was used by those in power to blame ‘the other” for their problems. During this period, professional Witch Finders were paid for every witch they found. How’s that for incentive? Any money, property and animals owned by these witches (mostly older, usually widow women) enriched the town and the church after their deaths. This made the Witch business a very profitable one for all concerned.
Bashing Witches is Good Business.
Just as Jerry Falwell tried to blame feminists, gays, lesbians and Pagans for 9/11 in order to raise his TV ratings, so too did Church and State powers once blame women, Jews, and lepers for the Black Plague. As the Germans used the Jews as scapegoats in Hitler’s day, so did Medieval and Renaissance cultures in the West use non-Christians, cats and old women as the focus for the fear and blame felt by those who suffered because of their greed, corruption and incompetence. When we Pagans say “Never again the Burning Times” we mean that we will not allow ignorance or any Powers That Currently Be to scapegoat or harm our people again.
The Origins of the Green-faced Hag
As far as I can tell, the green colored skin dates from the character of The Wicked Witch of the West as portrayed by Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz”. (See link to Wikipedia entry below, which shows her portrayal in the movie compared to the original illustrations for the book) . As the Wikipedia entry notes, “In the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch, played by actress Margaret Hamilton, was stooped, green-skinned, and dressed entirely in black. In many people’s minds, this representation of The Wicked Witch has become an archetype for human wickedness.”
Advertisers and toy makers picked up on this version and the classic Hag persona, (which featured wrinkles, a long nose, a wart or two, claw like hands, and a pointy chin) added on the green skin. The green colored skin makes the Halloween Witch seem even less human, and more demonic, than before. It is now a standard feature of this image.
I should note here that there is another, far sadder potential origin of this image. This was pointed out by a writer named Angel in 1999 in the form of a prose poem which has been seen at many a Pagan newsgroup since it first appeared. To read it, visit the Endnotes section of this article, and click on “She Returns: The Halloween Witch”
She Who Changes
Can a pretty Witch figure do anything to change people’s hearts and minds? You never know. But keep an eye out for pretty Witches this season and see how many more of them you see now, than you ever saw before. I would argue that the image is changing, as more and more of us come out of the broom closet in positive ways. We change the image, and the image changes the way people see us, as well. When you think about it, the process is…magical.
Uppity Older Women
Most cultures realize that elders, assuming they have paid attention to life’s many lessons, know a bit more then their younger counterparts. Some cultures fear that knowledge, some honor it and use it. Suzanne Braun Lavine, in an prescient article for Ms. Magazine some years back, (see link below) quoted Gloria Steinem’s famous saying that that older women tend to get more radical, not less, as they age. She also quotes Gerda Lerner’s observation that “Such a critical mass of older women with a tradition of rebellion and independence and a way of making a living has not occurred before in history.”
Yea, verily. That fact is only beginning to be noted and we’re going to hear more about older women changing this culture. This is why the old woman in the conical hat with the black cat in her arms can make me smile. I know her true power. Her headgear has long been associated with medieval noblewomen and mystics and outsiders in general (2) ; groups viewed as threats because of their learning and their frequent refusal to toe the dogmatic party line.
Patriarchal culture made these women into such an out-sized caricature so they could mock them and assure that others who might listen to their wisdom would shun them in fear. But in mocking these old ladies (old ladies back then being anyone over the age of 35) , they have unwittingly brought Her down to us through history. Now we can restore that “old” woman to her rightful place, that of experienced, well traveled, thoughtful Elder.
This is not the wizened, frail Crone of yesteryear. Older women today are independent, sexual beings and they have means. They are also powerful Healers, learned Advocates, courageous Guardians, effective Organizers, and a clear-eyed, questioning Seers. As the saying goes, “Everything She touches, changes.”
There are millions of us now, and we are standing up, changing things, and demanding to be heard. And, by the way, we vote.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Sexy Witch Blog:
Article by Levine for Ms. Magazine:
Pagan Myths Debunked: Where Do You Think That Pointy Hat Came From, Anyway? by Lillith Veritas:
Review of Bewitched Remake by James Bowman
The Wicked Witch of the West:
Another Theory for the Green-faced Witch
She Returns: The Halloween Witch
(1) Feminists, Pagans, store owners, and collectors were a bit ahead of a coming trend back in the early 90’s and were, perhaps, a small influence on that trend. This is what Malcolm Glaswall in his book “The Tipping Point” calls The Law of the Few, which contends that before widespread popularity can be attained, a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point. Glaswell describes these key types as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. If individuals representing all three of these groups endorse and advocate a new idea, it is much more likely that it will tip into exponential success.
(2) Excerpt from Pagan Myths Debunked: Where Do You Think That Pointy Hat Came From Anyway? By Lillity Veritas (a link to the full article is above)
“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.”