Witch Perspectives: Burning down the Old Standards


Witch Perspectives: Burning down the Old Standards

Ellie Baker
Published by the PIT Journal: 


When it comes to witch iconography, most people will agree that this figure is inherited from European superstition during the early modern period. Where this agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of whether the image is an incidental amalgamation of folklores, or a deliberate creation. This study explored the nature of that question by delving into the history and development of our modern “witch aesthetic,” setting out to discover why we think of witches with a specific look, find out where those visual elements came from, and unpack the various motivations behind them. By examining such primary resources as dramatic plays, popular prints, theological pamphelts, and social discourse treatises about contemporary witches, as well as modern academic writing devoted to the witch phenomenon, it was found that the figure’s history can be divided mostly into two separate motivations, those being the persecution of Jews and persecution of so-called “deviant women.” 

Jews were often seen as a threat to the cohesivity of European society from without, while unruly women were seen as a threat from within. To combat them, church officials and community leaders would commission artwork portraying women as wild animals and Jews as demons. This practice continued up until the phenomenon of the printing press, which caused a boom in the circulation of images and incidentally solidified trends popular at the time as fixed symbols. Through the next few centuries, the “Jew-demon” and the “wild woman” would be combined into the figure we now recognize as a typical witch, incorporating elements of each. The effect of this can still be felt in modern society when we examine how villains are often still “Jew-coded” in popular entertainment and women “witch-coded” in the media.


If a young child living in modern America was asked to draw a picture of a witch, the result would be fairly predictable. They would likely draw a woman with a large nose, a tall, pointed hat, and a broomstick. Perhaps there would also be a cat, a cauldron, or a wand. And it is likely that if a dozen children were asked for the same thing, they would still produce a dozen copies of the same image. The witch has been an easily identifiable figure in the popular imagination for the past few centuries of Western history. Generations have grown up recognizing this figure, producing a general consensus on what the character “ought” to look like, seemingly by the random developments of art, time, and perception. Yet, the stereotype that we as modern viewers have inherited is not an accidental product of history, but the ongoing effect of a smear campaign that began during the early modern period. Essentially, the witch was first developed as a tool of the established powers in early modern Europe to target and vilify Jewish communities and the so-called ‘deviant’ women in society as part of a deliberate reshaping of cultural perceptions, and that effect is still negatively felt today within Western society.

One might be tempted to say that the history of the witch no longer matters, that the original figure has been so changed and adapted in the ensuing centuries that its origins are no longer relevant. Yet how often do we see the villain in a movie Jewish-coded out of a knee-jerk reaction that all bad guys ought to look vaguely Semitic? How often are female politicians or businesswomen called ‘witch’ in an effort to undermine their platforms and achievements? Problems like these are the result of persecutions that began centuries ago and are still alive and relevant today. While I do not think that the witch’s problematic past calls for the destruction of every other Halloween costume or a once-and-for-all boycott on Harry Potter, I do believe that if we as a society are to continue using this character as a stock figure in our popular canon, we have a duty to acknowledge the various controversies around its past.

To examine this conundrum, we must first understand the history behind various elements of witch iconography and see how they were originally incorporated to target certain traits or qualities of Jewish communities and women. Most scholars will agree to the origins of these specific identifiers, but their consensus breaks down once it comes to determining when these patterns started and why they resulted in the witch we know today. I will attempt to reconcile their debate and present my own view on how the developments of Jewish history and women’s history converged during the early modern period and resulted in the witch figure with which we are now familiar. By then examining the current perceptions of the modern witch, we will consider the consequences of the past within the context of popular culture and hopefully realize the negative effects of the witch figure still at work.

Before we can understand the current image of the witch and its continued effects, we must first inspect the early modern image and the social perceptions it emerged from, namely anti-Semitic propaganda and misogynist portrayals of women. Consider the main traits we associate with the witch: the pointed face, the tall hat, and the broom. We can directly trace these and other features back to their precursors in the early modern period. The witch’s face, for starters, is usually pulled into sharp angles meant to mimic an exaggerated Jewish caricature; from this early modern art practice, our current witch inherited the standard pointy nose and chin as well as the unruly dark hair and black eyes. The hat was a development of the judenhut or “Jew-hat” that many European Jews wore, or were forced to wear, to designate their ethnicity during the period. Naomi Lubrich, a German scholar on the significance of clothes, follows the significance of the judenhut through history in her essay “The Wandering Hat: Iterations of the Jewish Pointed Cap,” arguing that the pointed hat became a popular symbol in art used to designate dwarves, magicians, and criminals. Of these, we may also be familiar with the ‘wilted’ tall hat that we now see in depictions of dwarves and garden gnomes since it developed in parallel with the witch hat from the same original source. The witch hat however morphed into the taller, pointier shape that has become such a distinctive design today. Jews were also commonly portrayed with claw feet, talons, and horns as a general artistic association with the Devil. In tandem, demons were typically portrayed with the same pointy faces usually drawn from Jewish features. These visual links were encouraged by European leaders to equate Jews with evil and wickedness and keep European citizens wary of the minority. Since Jewish populations usually lived in isolated communities on the outskirts of established towns, or within isolated pockets of larger cities, this became an effective way for European village leaders to portray the Jews as vicious threats from the outside and encourage their citizens to rally around centralized authority.

On the other hand, when an artistic portrayal vilified female characteristics as threats to the community, the risk was focused as a danger from the inside. For women, artists focused on a different set of iconographic traits, namely to point out supposed loose sexuality or betrayal of loyalty. This often resulted in women shown riding broomsticks or backwards goats as euphemisms for sexual relations with the Devil. A supposed coven dance taking place in the woods would be sexualized into a mass orgy, the driving fear behind this being a suspicion of what women did together when unsupervised or allowed to meet in too large a number. During these presumed forest orgies, women usually would be having intercourse with demons, each other, or wild beasts. The stray cat was the most popular animal among beasts, giving rise to the mythos of the witch’s familiar, which served as her liaison with the Devil and later became the standard black cat sidekick in our modern depictions.

Midwifery was also commonly linked to supernatural activities as an alleged form of magical healing. With this example, we see stark perversions of the women working in early medicine shown eating newborn babies, poisoning neighbors, or deliberately killing animals, when their real intentions were to save the infants and neighbors and look after local livestock. In general, throughout early modern Europe, society pushed back against women in positions of independence by attributing every autonomous action that a woman could commit to an act of witchcraft. As Carolyn Matalene writes in her article “Women as Witches:” “the imagined or projected behavior of these witches served to emphasize and define by inversion the acceptable social role for women. Whatever a witch was, a good woman was not” (Matalene 63). In other words, the witch set a precedent of exactly what women were not supposed to do, and year by year the rulebook accrued more examples of lost opportunity for female autonomy. This “witch-coding” of female independence was an early element to accompany the witch iconography and would continue with the figure through the present day.

In the end, witch iconography became so widely recognized due to the efforts of established leaders in the church and state throughout early modern Europe. These leaders patronized artists to create witch images and used their own spheres of influence to spread the witch’s fear cult. As an American specialist on the New England witch trials, Katherine Howe speaks on behalf of early modern Europeans when she writes that “We need [the witch] in order to know who we are not so that we can begin to imagine who we are” (xiii). In essence, she argues that the witch was created to enforce social norms and maintain order despite aberrant members who may have otherwise challenged leadership. Howe describes the perceived witchcraft as “less a set of defined practices than a representation of the oppositional, as the intentional thwarting of the machinery of power, whether that power lies with the church, with the king, or with the dominant cultural group” (xii). In other words, the fear of witchcraft was not so much a fear of the actual practices of witches, but a fear of the fact that there was something subversive within the community and therefore threatening to authority on principle.

If we turn to look at the original sources, we can find a primary example of this logic in the 1621 English comedy The Witch of Edmonton. The play features a character named Mother Sawyer, an old and disagreeable woman who is abused by her town for being a witch, despite her actual spiritual uprightness, until she is so bitter and desperate for relief that she ends up turning to witchcraft out of revenge after all. The events are exaggerated for the sake of the drama, but essentially the play follows a typical pattern of taking an old, no longer sexually useful woman and turning her into a monster on account of her apparent grumpiness and indifference to society. The Witch of Edmonton allows us to realize that even early modern commentators like the playwrights could see that accusing women of being witches and then ‘discovering’ that to be the case was only a self-perpetuating cycle. Mother Sawyer herself even laments that “some call me witch; and being ignorant of myself, they go about to teach me how to be one…This they enforce upon me. And in part make me to credit it” (Dekker, II: i: 8-15). Essentially, Mother Sawyer is frustrated because the town unfairly abuses her even though she has done nothing wrong, yet it is that same abuse that pushes her towards the evil of witchcraft. By this example, we see that early modern writers were noticing that the witch problem was not so much the fault of the accused witches as it was the toxic perceptions of a society that forced the image to exist. While the details of the witch image may have evolved over the centuries, this forced toxic perception is the most enduring quality of the witch image as it is enforced on living people and continues to be the witch’s most troublesome aspect now. In the end, the most notable aspect of the witch image’s development is how it was initially developed and distributed because certain men in power felt challenged by sects of society and decided to regain control by maligning, criminalizing, and even killing those challenges. The image they created, and the philosophy behind it, maintain a legacy that lasts today.

After establishing the common history of witch iconography as scholars widely agree on it, we must now consider the debates held over which iconographic tradition or era is most responsible for creating the witch figure and what motivated the practice. It matters that we note when the elements of the witch figure really came together, because when it finally formed as a character, it was immediately weaponized against women and Jews and has continued to serve this original purpose even now. Within the debate, one contender, Linda Hults argues that the witch image was mostly a new development of the early modern period in Europe, stemming from contemporary competition amongst the art community for access to patronage and credit for aesthetic innovation. According to her, while the witch drew on previous artistic examples, it only became notable as a formalized character during the early modern era. On the other hand, scholars like Ziva Amishai-Maisels and Lorenzo Lorenzi contend that the “demonization of the ‘other’” was a long-standing cultural habit that, according to their research, occurred respectively in both biblical and classical visual documentation, long before the early moderns picked it up (Amishai-Maisels, 44). Jane Davidson and Charles Zika even maintain that while both views are valid simultaneously, the invention of the printing press was a crucial factor in solidifying modern witch iconography because it catapulted the witch image to an unprecedented level of recognition. Once it had captured such a wide and unexpected audience via the press, this particular version of the witch figure became the last, and therefore most famous, example in a long line of stereotypes now that it could be portrayed through a new and more easily accessible medium.

In deciding what era began the trend of “witch-coding” public enemies, Linda Hults argues it was only during the European early modern period that the figure developed a recognizable enough form for artists to identify it with just a few characteristic icons. Often this included the character riding a backwards goat or broomstick, dancing around a cauldron, speaking with claw-footed demons, or engaging in explicit sexual acts with men, animals, or other women. By establishing witches as an identifiable artistic “genre,” younger artists could essentially play a game of one-upmanship by engaging with their predecessors in this specific artistic type. Thus, we see young artists in the early sixteenth century like Hans Baldung Grien or Niklaus Manuel Deutsch contributing to the witch image as a way of competing with older and more famous masters like Albrecht Durer. Their interpretations of the witch would be immediately compared to Durer’s, for example, and that contrasted relationship would help build their credibility as professionals. Hults writes that her study on the visual development “became not simply a reading of their relationship to the waxing and waning of the idea of witchcraft and to the witch-hunts themselves, but also of the construction of artistic identity in early modern Europe” (Hults, xiii). In other words, making a successful witch image became something of a coming-of-age exercise through which young artists could finally exhibit their style and ability. Furthermore, by taking a critical stance on witches and social deviants, young artists could garner church favor and patronage early in their careers by creating art within a pre-approved agenda. Hults argues that until this popular competition could inspire innovation amongst artists, the witch image had been a latent set of iconographies denoting evil but had yet to form concretely into a recognizable character. To put it another way, she writes that the witch emerged during the early modern period from a vague iconographic tradition into a full, corporeal type that would continue to adapt and grow for the next few centuries into our modern conception of the witch.

Although Hults agrees with Amishai-Maisels and Lorenzi when she says the witch came from a long history, their view is that the ancient and classical traditions were much more significant than the early modern contributions and deserve far more attention. They argue that the witch figure existed as an identifiable, canonized figure long before the early modern period and only saw a new wave of adaptation during Baldung, Manuel, and Durer’s time. For them, the witch stereotype was inherently tied to the group of people it was based on and always had been, although Amishai-Maisels and Lorenzi point to different demographics when it comes to the inspiration. Amishai-Maisels asserts that the witch is just one of many expressions of anti-Semitic stereotyping as part of a long-standing convention that traces back to biblical times and depictions. In her essay “The Demonization of the ‘Other’ in the Visual Arts,” she writes that this vilification occurs when others are represented “not only with different costumes or facial features, but as subhuman beings with evil overtones” (44). According to her research, societies that were hostile to Jewish communities would depict Jews as increasingly monstrous, eventually leading cultures to automatically associate Jewish characteristics with demons and witches. She argues that the figure from the early modern period which Hults identifies as the first standardized witch is just one of many expressions of the same old hatred and the same old depictions. Lorenzi however, though he too acknowledges the ancient history of the witch figure’s image, traces it back through popular understanding of female magic-users and magic healers within classical mythology. He presents the concept of the witch more from a women’s history approach, beginning with early Hellenic depictions of Circe, Medea, Hecate, or Medusa and the Gorgons. He then follows the presentation of their visual characteristics up through the early modern age and into the early modern manifestations of the European witch.

Mediating between these two viewpoints are the works of scholars Jane Davidson and Charles Zika. These two agree that the newly popular witch’s influence, like many negative stereotypes, grew from systematic and long-standing discrimination as Lorenzi and Amishai-Maisels suggest. At the same time, they also agree with Hults that the newfound interest amongst early modern innovators led to significant and lasting developments in the witch figure’s progress. According to Davidson and Zika, however, what was so significant about the witch at this particular moment in history was that its popularity coincided right with the advent of the printing press and was the first trend to be made permanent in mechanized ink. As Zika explains in his book The Appearance of Witchcraft, “the print workshop, as a new space for the interactions of intellectuals and moralists… constitutes the key social and cultural environment for the visual imaging of witchcraft” (4). In other words, the printing shop became the perfect incubator for developing the witch image and then provided the perfect opportunity to send that image out into the world.

Davidson also draws the parallel between printing and witch popularity when she writes that “the real story of the sources of witch images in the art of the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries begins fittingly enough with the printed literature which was being generated in large amounts as the witch craze expanded” (The Witch in Northern European Art, 12). Had the printing press become viable technology a century later, then the iconography behind the witch trend could have transformed into a totally new expression of misogyny and anti-Semitism and developed into a completely different figure. As Zika and Davidson argue, the capability and timing of the printing press had just as much to do with the modern witch as the early modern artists shaping her or the ancient traditions inspiring them.

Among the above scholars, I am most in agreement with Davidson and Zika. I think that Amishai-Maisels and Lorenzi are correct that the witch was a long-standing figure used commonly as a tool of vilification and persecution; throughout history, the Jewish figure and the independent woman were both portrayed as monstrous as a way to keep them in line with European society. But without the later contributions of competing artists, as Hults argues, the modern witch would never have formed into the figure we recognize today. It is only because the printing press intervened in the ancient pattern that young artists in the early modern period were able to compete with each other in newer, more technologically advanced ways that had not been previously available. They also had greater ability to engage in the tradition of art that came before them due to the availability of older prints. This theory neatly and I think rightly reconciles the two dominant parties that were caricatured and criticized, namely women and Jews, and acknowledges the major contributions of early modern artists as well as the ancient history of art that preceded them.

From my own perspective as a scholar, I think the witch was primarily formed out of a combination of two earlier iconographic stock figures, specifically the Jewish devil and the depraved woman. When we follow depictions of the Jewish figure through art history, as Amishai-Maisels did, we see that it was developed to be more and more symbolically akin to a demon. Concurrently, the deviant woman was characterized more and more as a wild animal or a lunatic. Since these were both rejected members of society, their stereotypes were brought closer together by association and by the time they entered the early modern era, the images had combined, demon and depraved, into an identifiable first stage of the witch. In the end, I think the witch is better imagined as a combination of two different figures representing past injustices on two separate groups of people, rather than a figure with one origin in history. Indeed, we can only understand the witch’s complicated iconography at all when we take into account both Jewish history and women’s history.

I have established some of the key traits a witch could be recognized for in early modern art and what the immediate inspirations were behind these visual cues. I have also considered the debates surrounding which historical traditions can claim responsibility for contributing to the witch image as it stands today. The major problem left to examine with this figure is how the effects of its dual-sided past in both women’s and Jewish history have had a continuing impact on the present. This impact of course pertains to the easily-recognized, easily-drawn witch character our young child could create in a few seconds, but if no one knows the full secret history behind this image, then some may ask who it even continues to affect. After all this time, what negative power could the witch image possibly still have? But the main problems that we in Western society have inherited from this figure are that our villains are still so often Jewish-coded in media and that women in positions of power, whether that is politics, business, or just society at large, are so often labeled as ‘witches’ in an ad hominem attack that ignores their power and backgrounds as influencers.  

    For examples of Jewish-coding, look to the Evil Stepmother from Disney’s 1936 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or her updated model Mother Gothel in the 2012 film Tangled. In the designs of both witch characters, we see the distinctive nose, over-sized dark eyes and heavy eyelids, pointed chin, and, with the latter, the dark curly hair, as well as a greedy and deadly obsession with their children. For Jewish men cast in this same “witchy” depiction, think of Gargamel from the Smurfs franchise, a hook-nosed, wide-eyed, robe-wearing, miserly man who wants to steal from and destroy the sweet, homogenous Smurf community. Is it a stretch to say that these characters were all created with malicious, racist intentions? Probably; but the visual proof is undeniable that, whether consciously or not, Western society has a preoccupation with making its villains “look the part,” which we have unfortunately curated as distinctly Semitic.

    On the other hand, it is not hard either to find examples of women who have risen to power have their efforts branded with this particular insult. A momentary search on the Internet will yield photo manipulations of Prime Minister Theresa May portrayed as the Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl’s The Witches, or articles telling of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” played on London radio stations at the announcement of former P.M. Margaret Thatcher’s death. In March 2016, a Bernie Sanders supporter famously launched his own anti-Hillary Clinton campaign using the hashtag #BerntheWitch. It is an insult that only women in positions of influence will have hurled their way, with no accompanying explanation other than the fact that they are female and they are apparently displaying an inordinate amount of power for their community. Just as before when early modern men felt threatened by women of rising influence or independence, so we see the same reaction now as many men in power develop and distribute the idea of the witch in order to invalidate their opponents. The brief but provocative #BerntheWitch campaign was not so different in its intentions from the mobs shouting the same thing five hundred years ago, “burn the witch!”

It’s ironic considering the role of the village mob intent on destroying witchcraft when we examine another usage of the modern witch, when public figures—usually men—use the accusation of “witch hunt” against those investigating them whenever their actions come under popular scrutiny. The same media market that capitalizes on portraying women as aggressive witches will turn around and capitalize on portraying a male personality as the victimized accused and his opposition as the crazed mob. This pattern reveals a fault in our society in which, when confronted with a gendered division of witch victim versus witch aggressor, or an innocent claimant versus a pretending claimant, we will cast the woman as an aggressive pretender seeking attention, and the man as the innocent victim of an unfair mob mentality, with both sides using the exact same symbol. Through this example, we see that the same reasons the witch was created in the first place—as a symbol of maintaining control over those in insecure positions—continue to exist, albeit in different, updated forms today.

I have now examined the historical context of witch iconography and how it developed from various motivations through the centuries until the present day and we are left with a question of what to do with the witch now? While there are many voices and artistic movements currently working to reclaim the witch as a populist and powerful figure, we cannot immediately move ahead without first acknowledging where the character has come from. Re-appropriating symbols can certainly be a compelling form of taking agency over past wrongs and preparing for a more balanced outlook on whatever comes next, but we cannot responsibly rehabilitate an image if we are not totally aware of its history and its impact. Part of our duty in continuing to use certain symbols and figures is in understanding what their original intention was and what they continue to mean. The concept of the witch is everywhere, and unfortunately so are the subtle signs of her negative impact left over from early modern Europe. However, the witch does not have to maintain its negative impact forever, so long as its problematic history is fully recognized and educational awareness improved in its future. Only then can the witch reclaim a place in contemporary events, not as a condemning figure for Jewish representation or women in the public sphere, but as a symbol of agency and survival in spite of institutionalized villainization.                                    [Word Count: 4,372]

Works Cited


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About the Author(s)

Ellie Baker is a sophomore student currently studying English and Art History and hoping to minor in Writing for the Screen and Stage. Around UNC, she can be found working with Her Campus magazine or putting in time with the Carolina Film Association. She enjoys stargazing, thrift-shopping, and working as a pirate during the summers at Bald Head Island.