Halloween is just around the corner. In honor of the season, we explore a figure that has been around for centuries: the witch. The witch has a complex past. In Europe, between the 16th and 17th century, between fifty and a hundred thousand people were executed under the motive of witchcraft, the vast majority being women. Today, this figure has known a resurgence in popular culture, and I largely considered as a symbol of feminism, revolt and creativity. The witch is an exceptional woman, who breaks the norms and is not afraid to position herself against the patriarchal society that oppresses her. What led the witch to this impressive evolution, from a menacing and cruel character to an icon of female empowerment?
A difficult start for the witch
For a long time, the witch was stuck in a binary structure: in fairy tales and legends, women were either “good” or “evil”. This reductive take on women is visible in many children’s works, like Disney films. Between Snow White and her evil stepmother, there is no doubt on which of the two is virtuous. Whether it be in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty, The Chronicles of Narnia or Hansel and Gretel the witch is vicious, if not murderous.
Nothing to do with our favorite characters from Harry Potter or Sabrina. Bad witches are not only bad morally, but also physically. They have a scary appearance, are old and repulsive: their physique mirrors their nature. On the other hand, the kind young women or fairies are beautiful and obedient, reflecting a masculine ideal of femininity. This is how the parameters of what is acceptable in terms of gender are established: a good woman is necessarily pretty, nice, and obliging, whereas a bad woman is ugly, selfish, and power hungry. Ursula in The Little Mermaid wants to reign over Atlantica in King Triton’s place, the Wicked Witch of the West resists the Wizard of Oz’s order and wants to avenge her sister’s death, for example. The woman who put into question the male authority in place, need to be eliminated, which is why the grand majority of these witch characters dies at the end of the story, making space for a happy ending.
Until she becomes a feminist icon
A tragic outcome for these feminine characters, whose main flaws are wanting to have their say in politics, and freedom. It comes as no surprise then, that the witch should evolve in keeping with women’s place in our modern society… She later becomes an independent, strong and nuanced heroine, who is met with huge success. This rewritten character inspired women: on Instagram, the hasghtag #witchesofinstagram has been used more than three million times to this day. Many women are interested in tarot, witchcraft classes, crystals and astrology. Spirituality and esotericism inspire curiosity and are a way to reconnect with the self and nature, a subject that is treated more in depth in Paulette’s Spiritualité magazine. If you want to learn more about witchcraft and magic, here are some modern-day witches you can follow on YouTube:
We must not forget that our perception of magic tends to be white-washed: many forms of witchcraft exist outside of the West such as voodoo, which tends to be viewed negatively – and wrongly so – compared to wicca, for instance. These practices have also largely influenced some Western rituals: in her music video “Brujas” (witch in Spanish), Princess Nokia sings ‘Tituba ! Voodoo slave girl who graced us // with her black magic // You made her a slave (…) Everything you got, you got from us.’ Witch hunts also affected women coming from minorities: just as feminism is intersectional, the political witch is too.
Article by Inès Huet