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Where does our current image of witches and witchcraft come from?


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The Conversation

Jesús M. Usunáriz

Full Professor of Modern History

In plenary session of the Executive Council XXI century, we share, in the collective imagination, different ideas about witches. The most common and common, the most traditional, is the one that identifies her as an old woman, alone and disastrous, capable of doing evil deeds. This woman can even kill her neighbors, and especially children, especially defenseless newborns.

She also has magical powers: she causes storms, transforms herself into different animals and can even fly, either on a beast or on a broom, after smearing herself with an ointment of unknown composition, but whose recipe is sure to contain toad. Flying, he goes to the coven, to the place of meeting with other witches and witches, where the Christian God is denied and the devil is worshipped.

Alongside this classic vision of the witch, there are others. Among these, the one that has turned her into an identity icon: a wise woman, a connoisseur of the secrets of nature, an experienced healer, heiress of an old sect related to fertility rites considered pagan and, for that reason, persecuted and repressed by ecclesiastical and civil authorities. Thus, from this perspective, the witch has gone from being a frightening, if not terrifying, character to a symbol of rebellion and resistance.

However, these two ways of representing the witch, nourished by the cinema, have a foundation that responds to specific historical moments and different cultural circumstances and periods.

An image inherited from medieval and modern centuries

It was in the middle of the 14th century and in the decades of 1420 and 1430 when the trials against witches and sorcerers began in Alpine areas of France, Switzerland and Italy. At that time, there was already talk of secret meetings, night flights, transformations into animals, magic spells and child sacrifices.

The appearance of the printing press undoubtedly contributed to the dissemination of this image among the most educated sectors. From there, through sermons, the public reading of sentences, or stories and rumors, it spread to the majority of the population.

In this climate, one of the most important treatises for the whole of Europe was the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486 by two German Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, which would reach thirty editions. This book contributed, thanks to the thesis and descriptions compiled in its pages, to forge the image of the perverse witch, repeated in various works on magical arts at the end of the 15th century.

Thus, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, writers such as Martín de Castañega, Pedro Ciruelo, Paulus Grillandus, Jean Bodin, Pierre de Lancre, Francesco Maria Guazzo and Gaspar Navarro, among many others, described in detail the alleged perfidious customs and actions of witches. They did so on the basis of judicial testimonies obtained many times under torment in the numerous episodes of witch hunts that Europe experienced during these centuries.

These treatises included, as in the books of the pioneer Ulrich Molitor, Lancre or Guazzo, revealing illustrations of the fantastic world of witches. An image that, with different nuances, would appear in paintings and engravings such as those of Baldung, Dürer, Brueghel the Elder, David Teniers, David Rijckaert and many others.

A nineteenth-century reinterpretation of the witch

Witch-hunting throughout Europe went into decline in the second half of the 17th century until it almost entirely disappeared. However, at the end of the 18th century, there was a growing attraction among European elites to the world of magic.

The Spanish case is very interesting. Artists and writers such as Francisco de Goya, Leandro Fernández de Moratín or, later, Juan Antonio Llorente, contributed to revitalize the traditional image of the witch. They used it to harshly criticize popular superstition and ecclesiastical institutions, especially the Inquisition, something that was widely disseminated.

Later, intellectuals, also attracted by the folklore and popular traditions of Romanticism and the construction of a national spirit, began a work of recovery of tales and legends, in the wake of the compilations of the Brothers Grimm in Germany.

In Spain there were many stories about witches that appeared in magazines and newspapers, or in books aimed at the general public, such as La tía Marizápalos. Cuentos de magia y encantos aumentados con el arte de hacer todas estas maravillas (1840) or the Cuentos fantásticos y sublimes (1841). Others, although they had as reference letter that horrible image of the evil witch, also served as a claim to create and vindicate local myths and with them the antiquity and historical continuity of a people, as in the stories collected in the book Leyendas vascongadas, fruit of the ingenuity of the Guipuzcoan Jose Maria de Goizueta (1851). And so, until today.

A rebellious witch

At the same time that the image of the traditional witch served to criticize superstition or to revitalize national spirits through the forging of legends and myths, there was another way of contemplating her. I am referring to the one inaugurated by Jules Michelet, in his book The Witch ( 1862). In it, this figure, the wicked and marginalized woman becomes the symbol of the struggle of the oppressed, heirs of an old religion, where she occupied a privileged place as a wise healer and as the protagonist of the Sabbath, understood as a moment of liberation for persecuted women.

Michelet's influence would be felt both in the literary world, for example in some of the texts of Pío Baroja(The Lady of Urtubi). Also, later, in the work of the anthropologist Margaret Murray, who associated witchcraft with the persistence of old fertility cults supposedly present since the Paleolithic.

Both renewed ways of contemplating the phenomenon of witchcraft (those of Michelet and Murray) are to a large extent those recovered and reworked by the feminist movements of the 21st century.


Reality or legend?

Certainly, witch-hunting was a sad reality in Europe. subject But we must not forget that the witch, whether seen as a terrible woman causing all kinds of evils, as a symbol of superstition or as a rebellious heroine, was, above all, the result of the need to provide answers to a population anguished by inexplicable events.

This demand was enriched by the imagination of inquisitors, judges and writers and, sometimes, by that of historians and anthropologists, adapted in each era to the interests and concerns of certain elites or ideological groups and to the fashions and tastes of a population always attracted by the magical and the mysterious.