When I say (type) the word Witch, what do you think of? For me, it's kind of the typical picture. A woman keeping watch over a black cauldron that's sitting atop of a strong fire with a mysterious fog overflowing it and filling the ground around her ankles. Nearby, a cat watching over her as if to warn her of any coming danger. Growing up, those were the kind of pictures I always saw associated with a witch, be it in books or movies. Back in the day, if you wanted to know if you were looking at a witch you could hit the checklist. Cauldron, check. Pointy hat, check, broom, check. Cat, check. ...Yep, you're looking at a witch! Think about it, The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Witches (1990) both films showed us the ugly, long-nosed women that liked to use children for evil means. Throughout history, literature and media have told us told what a witch looks like.
Nowadays, the witch has taken on a different look. For example, look at the Halloween customs. We see all sorts of versions of a witch. Be it, the short-skirted "sexy" witch all the way to the old school traditional style with the crooked nose and a giant wart, but we're seeing more and more that a witch... looks normal. So, why the change? Well, part of that is the changing of times. Again, literature and media are hard at work telling us that witches can look like "normal" everyday people. For instance, Practical Magic (1998) and The Craft (1996) were films where we don't see any of the "witch checklist traits". All the women in the movies looked like everyday people. No warts, cauldrons or broom riding, just woman doing their magic thing.
So, if a witch can look like anyone and doesn't need the pointy hat and cauldron anymore... where did all that stuff come from in the first place? Well, it took some digging, but I found my answer!
Now, this might get a bit long in the tooth, but stay with me. Throughout history, society has run with the idea of the male as the hunter/protector and the woman as the gather/caretaker. So, it was up to the woman to clean, cook, etc. What does any of that have to do with my search to find the first witch? Well, come to find out, my journey starts thanks to one word... Alewife. Back in the 15-century, mostly women would brew ale for either their home or to sale it. Because brewing involved a lot of tasks with proper kitchen chores, it was considered a "domestic science" that was reserved for the wife. Think about it all the work women did back then. They would make dough, grow herbs, boil ingredients (in large cauldrons) and grind up grains. Back then, they felt it was economic for the women to handle it. Fast forward a second, now we know women made and sold ale, so where's all the witchy stuff at? No worries, stay with me. As the woman went around selling the ale, they would wear tall black pointy hats (✔) so they could be found in crowds. They made the ale in black cauldrons (✔) and they kept cats (✔) around to keep mice out of the grain. So, where do the brooms fall into all this? A broom (✔) was hung over the door to let people know that this house was a seller of alcohol. Witch checklist... complete! So, how did all of these things, that seem pretty normal and made sense, become a stigma against them?
Enter... the Spanish Inquisition! During the 15th and 16th century, the Inquisition was in full swing. As some of you may know, it was a dark time for many, but especially for women. Keep in mind, they were living in a time period where clean water was in short supply, so alcohol... was a money maker. Certain individuals realized there was money to be made and used the Inquisition to make a power move, which would change who could make and sell alcohol. So, how do you get rid of the competition? Turn those alewives stereotypes (hat, cat, cauldron & broom) into a negative thing. When a church was built in a town the local guilds were given money for the construction. This gave the guild say over the artwork and decorations for the church. Scattered throughout England you could find artwork depicting alewives being carried off to hell by demons with a drink in hand. Artwork also showed them as immoral and worthy of reproach. Between the propaganda and the power shift going on behind the scenes... alewives didn't have a chance. That's not to say all women gave up the ale making, but most did. Especially after the Brewer's Guild made their constitution in 1639 that detailed the exclusion of women based on them being unfit to brew or sell alcohol.
So, what did we learn from all this? Basically, if you stuck with me this far, (thank you if you did), the "witch" that I grew up knowing wasn't so bad after all and if it wasn't for 15th-century marketing propaganda... we might not even have a witch to dress up as nowadays. Also, all those outcries of witch might not have had anything to do with anyone actually dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. Maybe they were just trying to get someone bumped off while keeping their hands clean. So, next time you grab a beer, don't forget to pour out a little for the homies... and the alewives.