Broomsticks. Pointed hats. Black cats. Pumpkins.
Halloween is upon us, and what would Halloween be without witches — these crones we love to hate? The cackling green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West. The hunchbacked hag with the wart on her nose who tempted Snow White to bite the poisoned apple. Maleficent, who could transform herself into a dragon. Or — my favorite — the hideously hairy Angelica Houston in The Witches.
History has given witches a bad rap. Mostly they were women skilled in the use of herbs for healing at a time when medicine was primitive and only men were allowed to be healers. Women healers were suspect as being in league with demons or devils. Globally, as many as 50,000 witches were executed over the centuries by hanging, burning at the stake, beheading, drowning or torture. The Inquisition, emboldened by Exodus 22:18 (Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.) enthusiastically hunted witches and devised gruesome and painful ways to kill them.
The last witch known to be executed was in 1810. A Native American man named Leatherlips, of the Wyandot tribe in what is now Ohio, was sentenced to death for witchcraft by members of his tribe and executed with a tomahawk. (Not all witches were women, though if we are to quibble, a male witch should be called a warlock.)
Nor were all witches ugly or wicked. Morgan Le Fay, half-sister of King Arthur of legend, was beautiful and a skilled healer — but don’t mention Guinevere! Circe, of Greek mythology, had vast knowledge of herbs and potions, but if you showed up uninvited at her private island she would turn you into a pig and serve you for dinner. The goddess Hecate was kind, beautiful and wise and is still considered to be the queen of all witches everywhere. And the Witch of Endor, in the Hebrew Bible, was allegedly able to commune with dead prophets and she ministered to King Saul on his deathbed.
“Season of the Witch,” for those who remember, is the title of a popular song written by Donovan and Shawn Phillips in 1966, sung by Donovan, and subsequently recorded by dozens of bands through the years. Regarded as a classic example of psychedelic rock, it has never fallen out of favor. This year, the phrase was co-opted by Publishers Weekly because of all the books about witches hitting the market in 2019.
The Jack-o’-Lantern is no less a Halloween icon, but did you know that the first Jack-o’-Lantern was … a turnip?! As the story goes, hundreds of years ago in Ireland (where there were no pumpkins), there lived a man named Stingy Jack. He was a drunkard, miser and mischief-maker who one day trapped the devil in a tree. Jack made the devil promise that, if Jack let him go, the devil would never claim Jack’s soul. But when Jack died, St. Peter would not allow him through the Pearly Gates because he had lived such a mean-spirited life.
Shunned by both heaven and hell, Jack’s soul wanders eternally. To light his way, he carries a hollowed-out turnip — the staple root vegetable in Ireland at the time — with a burning ember inside it. But to prevent Jack from causing mischief, on All Hallow’s eve (Halloween), households across Ireland would place carved, hollowed-out turnips lighted by burning embers at their doors and windows. When the Irish came to the Americas in the 1800s, they discovered that pumpkins were bigger, prettier and easier to carve than turnips, so the modern Jack-o’-Lantern was born.
To end this blog, here’s the chant of the three witches from Macbeth.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
If you’re interested in what the NY Times says about witches in the 21st century, this article appeared last week.