How Witches Have Held Us Under Their Spell for Centuries

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How Witches Have Held Us Under Their Spell for Centuries

She’s gone by many names in many times and places: Hekate in ancient Greece, Isis in ancient Egypt, Baba Yaga in Eastern Europe, Ceridwen in medieval Wales, Freya in Norse mythology. Whether as a poisoner, healer, seductress, or crone, the witch has appeared in cultures across the globe for thousands of years. Witches have inspired the likes of Shakespeare, Goya, and Dalí, and are the protagonists of countless fairy tales, legends, books, films, artworks, and songs. A new book, Witchcraft (Taschen) co-edited by Jessica Hundley and Pam Grossman, delves into the witch’s complex history, symbols, and depictions across time through more than 30 essays and hundreds of full-color illustrations. Witchcraft explores the witch’s lasting hold on our imagination, and her current-day iterations.

As a free, powerful, and unpredictable woman, the witch has long been a crucible for mainstream society’s darkest fears. One of the first recorded instances of the word ‘witch’ was in the Old Testament, where a merciless verse from Exodus commands, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The story of the witch is inextricably linked with the brutality and persecution of the Reformation era. It’s estimated that 50,000 to 80,000 suspected witches were killed in Europe between 1500 and 1660. Some 70 to 80% of the victims were women, the majority being poor and elderly. Witches became a catchall scapegoat for all sorts of ills at the time, including disease, death, infertility, bad weather, and shipwrecks, and news of their highly publicized trials and supposed evil deeds spread like wildfire in books, pamphlets, and other propaganda thanks to the birth of the printing press.

It’s impossible to know how many of those accused were actually practitioners, but the mere threat of witchcraft — or of women acting independently outside of established norms — was enough to drive those in power to murderous hysteria. “The witch craze took different forms at different times and places, but never lost its essential character: that of a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population,” historian Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her 1972 book Witches, Midwives, and Nurses. “Witches represented a political, religious, and sexual threat to Protestant and Catholic churches alike, as well as to the State.” 

With the rise of the Age of Enlightenment in the 1680s, witch hunts faded in Europe. But they continued in the New World, where they were used to villify Indigenous people, survivors of the translatlantic slave trade, and famously resulted in the execution of 19 villagers in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. By the late 1800s, Western creatives began to reexamine the witch, recasting her as a nonconformist hero in their artworks. Witches later served as inspiration for the Surrealists and feminists in the 1960s, including the activist group W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell). Today, witchcraft is an adaptable spiritual practice embraced by a wide swath of people. In light of women’s still-fraught place in the world, Witchcraft offers readers a study of an empowered archetype that continues to evolve.

Kiki Smith, “Pyre Woman Kneeling” (United States 2002). A bronze female figure tops a pyre. In Smith’s narrative style, the statue commemorates women who were burned for witchcraft. (© /La Monnaie de Paris, photo by Martin Argyroglo)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, “The old devil woman retrieving her arm” (Japan 1889). A woodcut from a series of illustrations created for a 19th-century Japanese collection of ghost stories and folktales. (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)
Lauren Lancaster, “W.I.T.C.H.” (detail) (United States 2017). The Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell was founded in 1968 by feminist antiwar protesters. The black-dressed, pointy-hatted, faceless witches were an undeniable vision and significant force during a time of political urgency. (© Lauren Lancaster)
Albrecht Dürer, “Four Witches” (Germany 1497). Four witches convene in secrecy, as a demon lurks in the corner. One of the earliest, pre-Renaissance examples of witches appearing nude in art, the engraving alludes to Hekate, patron of witchcraft. (© National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection)
Maria Giulia Alemanno, “Yemayá asesu” (Italy 2006). Mother of the oceans and their contents, the particular avatar of Yemayá from the Yoruba tradition is the patron saint of ducks and geese. She frequents the swampy waterways and is often depicted as a mermaid and associated with the moon. (© Maria Giulia Alemanno)

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