This week my parents went on a tour of Massachusetts for their anniversary. They texted me pictures of Boston hotspots, the beautiful Massachusetts countryside, and… decorations of...little witches in Salem. It got me thinking...how did the infamous Salem Witch Trials progress into such a popular tourist attraction? How did witchcraft --something so dark and grim-- become a cutesy costume that kids wear October 31st?
It probably goes without saying that the "modern witch" costume originates in ancient wicca practices. But why are witches so prevalent in pop culture? Why does she wear a pointy black hat and ride a broomstick? Why is she green? Why is she a she? Well I took the liberty of doing some research, and have the answers to questions you are dying to know.
1. Why is she associated with Halloween?
It all started about 2,000 years ago when the Celtics celebrated their new year on November 1st. The day before, October 31st, was a holiday called "Samhain." On that day, the Celtics believed that those who had recently passed away would enter into the afterlife. In order to ensure their ancestors a safe journey, the Celtics would "ward away" evil spirits by building bonfires and (you guessed it!) disguising themselves as evil witches, goblins, and ghouls. For generations, this tradition was passed on throughout Europe. In the 1800s, as Europeans immigrated to the United States, they brought their holiday (and witch costumes!) with them.
2. Why is she a she?
Last night I watched Hocus Pocus with my roommates. What used to be one of my favorite Halloween classics, I suddenly started viewing with a feminist critical lens as I asked myself, "why are all the scary devil-worshipping characters in films...women?" But really. Why are the villainous witches in this October classic the Sanderson sisters and not the Sanderson brothers? I did some research and what I found was unfortunate, but unsurprising. Remember The Crucible? In Puritan (but, let's be real, many) societies, positions of power were reserved for men because they believed women were more likely to fall into temptation. This is why, in the Salem Witch Trials, all of the dancing-with-the-devil accusations were against women. This is also why, in pop culture, male witches riding on broomsticks didn't exist until Harry Potter. Now that's what I call "a bunch of Hocus Pocus!"
3. Why is she always seen with a broomstick and cauldron?
The history of the witch's broomstick isn't as exciting as you may think. In the time of the Celtics, sorcerers were usually also the village doctor (or "witch doctor"). They brewed medicine in a cauldron-like pot, mixing herb concoctions to heal the sick. Just like any doctor, they also cleaned their area... with a broom. Not only that, but the association of cleaning supplies with female domesticity further exacerbated the image of a female witch with a broomstick (yikes). But why does the broomstick fly, do you ask? Well, there's many theories. Some anthropologists say that witch-doctors danced and jumped during Celtic rituals, and that image progressed from jumping to flying. Other historians say that the concoctions the sorcerers made were hallucinogenic. Because of that, they hallucinated the image of flight!
4. Why does she wear a long black hat?
You remember The Crucible, but have you heard of the Quaker hat? Probably not.
The Quakers were a religious group prominent in the 15th and 16th centuries and are, often, associated with the Puritans of Salem. In most paintings illustrating the Witch Trails, a certain fashion trend of that age is easily noticeable-- tall, black, flat-topped hats. Although these were typically worn by all Quakers (not just the ones they thought were witches) throughout time, those hats became associated with the Witch trials and, therefore, witches.
However, there is another disturbing explanation for the witch-hat that is rooted in racial discrimination. Witches are typically associated with the devil and, when Jewish people began suffering persecution in the Middle-ages, anti-semitics associated them with the devil as well. At some point between 1000 and 1300, Jewish men began wearing long black hats called the "Judenhut'' Unfortunately, anti-semitics began using art to illustrate the devil and witches as wearing a similar hat.
5. Why is she green?
Three words: Wizard of Oz.
Fun fact: this was actually the very first time a witch was depicted as green. Because of the influence of this movie, the Wicked Witch of the West became the muse of the modern witch-- green, wearing a black hat, and riding on a broomstick. This is when the popularity of the witch-costume began to develop into the Halloween icon of today.