Social Metamorphosis of Witchcraft and Its Depiction in Popular Literature
Society and ideas change over time and endeavoring to understand the ideas of the past and the importance behind these changes. The concept of the witch within the contemporary imagination is an easy picture. A small child in a pointed hat on Halloween night, the popular television teenage witches of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Disney style Twitches. Modern portrayals showing magic as fun and fantastical to open the mind to a world of imagination. These witches personifying the bildungsroman fantasy in both popular culture and contemporary literature. Then the witches of history the victims of mass execution suffering within a paranoid society of a past era.
The witches of history believed to be dangerous cannibalistic women and creating disease, hunger, and disaster to all in their path. This comparison allows for a deeper understanding for what builds contemporary societal ideas. The difference between the historical and contemporary witch starts with how the witch craze itself came to start and the reasoning behind its conclusion including gender, religion, agriculture and the breaking down of communities of the early modern period. This idea is continued with the potential reasons why the witch hunts came to their conclusion. Thus, presenting the views of the past within the witch stereotype. Understanding why this negative and dangerous reality of witches underwent such a huge societal transition. Fundamentally to determine the evolution of the historical idea of the ‘ugly’ and persecuted witch from a real danger into the contemporary fantasy style.
Throughout the historical stages, there have consistently been tales of wise women, magic and other mystical beings specifically witches. Normally people of this sect were older, and female believed widely to have powers beyond the usual individual. Witchcraft and witches of this pre-witch craze era labeled witchcraft as superstition. This is represented within Carolingian law imposed by Charlemagne on the newly Christian people of Saxony within Charlemagne’s Capitulary for the Saxons “If anyone, deceived by the Devil, shall believe, as is customary among pagans, that any man or woman is a night-witch, and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed.”. Within the beginning of the witch craze historical accounts dictates that the changing idea of witchcraft into Satanic worshiping witch, started rising within the late thirteenth century.
Circumstantially starting with the Catholic Church creating the dichotomy of magic. The dichotomy of magic presented is essentially the separation between the pure magical abilities of those associated with the church, such as saints and priests, and those practicing supernatural abilities outside of the church which could be labeled as witchcraft. In this interpretation witchcraft was correlated as an opposite to the church and to God as an entity thus creating a correlation between witches and witchcraft with the Devil. Thus, any kind of unexplainable negative circumstance could be deemed the actions of vengeful witches. The foundation behind the witchcraft stereotype with how the witch craze and the idea of the witch expanded across Europe and beyond. The start of the European witch craze is based upon a collection of potential understandings. According to historians Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane witchcraft in Europe was “endemic rather than epidemic.
Witchcraft accusations were the village’s reaction to the breakdown of its internal community, coupled with the emergence of a newer set of values that was generating psychic stress.” (Hall 1985). Within this understanding the witch craze was a condition of its society. The breakdown of the community was taking place with tensions regarding the climate, the economy and changing social standards. Within this period a “Little Ice Age” was taking place. This little ice age was a period of cooling that occurred in a broad perceptive from 1300-1850. This period followed the Medieval Warming Period dropping hemispheric temperatures. This little ice age prompted large problems within Europe at this time creating massive crop failure and livestock deaths leading to great famine, demolishing agriculture, and largely inflating the prices of food across Europe (Oster 2004). During this time the reasons for climate change were a mystery leading to the need for a scapegoat to aid the public of this time toward a level of comprehension. This theory holds further credence as the coldest temperatures within the little ice age coincide with the reinvigoration of witch trials within the 16th and 17th century. People wanted to know why misfortune in the form of deadly climate changes was befalling them. Thus, witches became a pre-existing and easy target. Older women, and widows created a large majority of those persecuted as witches this majority is based on the idea that these groups were “marginal, dependent members of the community” (Hall 1985), that makes them less likely to have great connections or wealth that would defend them from witchcraft accusations in the community.
Another reason that older women and widows were targeted was due to the reliant nature of their circumstances. These sects of women would more than others must doubly rely on the surrounding community for necessities of life. Many witchcraft accusations were within a community with guilt and paranoia combining. If a less than generous neighbor refused to aid another member of a community, particularly an outsider, any misfortune that befell the neighbor or their household would be blamed upon the slighted. Thus, a cycle of guilt and dependence created a partial portrait of the witch as an old and ugly outsider vengefully inciting misfortune unto others. The idea of the scapegoat phenomenon taking place in relation to economic conditions is not isolated as was seen in the Hovland and Sears study titled “Minor Studies of Aggression: VI. Correlation of Lynching’s with Economic Indices” which suggests a negative correlation between lynching’s of African Americans and economic stability during this time. The idea of scapegoat killings continues into recent history as well for example in Tanzania where it was found that extreme rainfall resulting in droughts or floods causes a large increase in the murder of supposed witches (Miguel 2005). The Tanzania killings vastly are committed against elderly women, those most dependent on the will of others, by their families. The idea of the power that the idea of the scapegoated witch holds is further cemented as these killings take place vastly in poor areas dominated by agriculture which is correlated with the weather. As the people in these areas face economic and weather-related conflict the dependent elderly woman is to blame and is executed. Individuals in the early 2000s Tanzania, the 1940s South, and the early modern witch hunts all are related through the victimization of those in the community that is easily blamed, the oppressed, and marginalized. Thus, highlighting the repeated nature of attempting to place blame on a marginalized and oppressed population in times of hardship. In a setting devasted by famine, crop failure, a cooler climate individual was desperate for answers and thus a scapegoat of the witch was created to attempt an explanation for such widespread and horrific conditions of the time.
As Enlightenment-era thinking came into action scientific and philosophical changes began taking place. The decline and end of witch-hunting in one perspective was related to “the rise of modern rationalism, advances in science, and the triumph of the belief that the natural world was a machine that operated in accordance with natural laws” (Levack 2013). Essentially the rise of the Enlightenment era of scientific discovery and the overall rejection of superstition at least in part led to the decline of the witch craze. The idea behind this decline being a rejection of witchcraft due to scientific discovery and rational thinking lends itself to the conclusion that the scapegoating of individuals labeled under witchcraft declined in part due to greater knowledge and evolving interpretations of the natural world and its laws. With technological advances, improvements in agriculture and a rising life expectancy the need for a scapegoat to attempt to rationalize misfortune aided in the decline. Thus, a historical standard and stereotype of the ugly old woman witch causing mass destruction in part leaves the sphere of the dangerous reality and into the realm of superstition.
Within the contemporary context witches have a much more beautiful visage and lean into the realm of fantasy in the current pop-culture climate. The correlation between the dangerous ugly old witch of history and the current magical beauty takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Halloween at this period was a holiday of romance and parties, not unheard of in the modern sphere. In the early 1900s the idea of the “New Woman” appeared. This is a woman who wants to be able to have the same span of opportunities typically assigned to men; to be able to marry, work, and divorce as she sees fit. The New Woman was a symbol of “new female political identity “(Tusan 1998), within the turn of the century instead of a masculine and overtly sexual being that was presented as a counter to the changing ideas and individualism for females and feminine independence. In 1893 the New Woman was described in the terms of “the woman suddenly appears on the science of man’s activities, as a sort of new creation, and demands a share in the struggles, the responsibilities and the honors of the world, in which until now, she has been a cipher.” (Woman’s Herald 1893).
Women wanted power and the idea of the witch allowed for this changing idea of feminine power as women actively began seeing the historical witch as a powerful entity separate, and in some interpretations an antagonist to the patriarchal society present. Fundamentally the witch as a symbol for feminist ideals was due to the witch having internal power and strength. The witch did not have to rely on the ideas and decisions of man but instead could manipulate the natural and unnatural to her own will by her own power. As this strength related feminist perception of the witch grew so did the change in the depiction of the witch. Thus, leading to the shift from the old and ugly witch into a beautiful but powerful entity showcasing that internal feminine power did not necessarily have to be ugly. The furtherance of the child witch is seen later in after the baby boomer generation aided Halloween is becoming a commercialized holiday.
A social metamorphosis is created in history with the witch. The ugly dangerous outsider coded as the witch undergoes a transformation. A quirky cute and attractive witch takes its place in popular culture and contemporary understanding. Women taking on the mantle of the witch and seeing themselves; persecuted and oppressed for mere existence in a society that does not accept deviance. In essence, the creation of the ‘New Witch’ known today is a reappropriation. The witch taken by feminists and reborn allowing for a woman with power, a force that does not rely on patriarchal competency or acceptance. Why the ‘New Witch’ is beautiful is because woman at the turn of the century and into the present day adopted the witch as an ideal. A beautiful and naturally powerful entity that would not bend to societal standards.
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