Witches in History

Broadsheet c1600 British Museum

Located in a dark room within Second Sight: Witchcraft, Ritual, Power are three small prints. They are easy to overlook. Monochromatic and diminutive in size, they are not as attention-grabbing as some of the much bolder images on display. But I would urge viewers to look for these prints, as they are responsible for establishing some of the most important imagery that we still associate with witches and hold the key to understanding Second Sight.

Hans Baldung Grien, The bewitched groom (c.1544),    Reproduced courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1917.

Hans Baldung Grien, The bewitched groom (c.1544), Reproduced courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1917.

Hans Baldung Grien, The bewitched groom (c.1544), Reproduced courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1917.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Circe with companions of Ulysses changed into animals (1650-1651).

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Circe with companions of Ulysses changed into animals (1650-1651).

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Circe with companions of Ulysses changed into animals (1650-1651).

Albrecht Dürer, Witch riding backwards on a goat (1501-1502), Collection of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

Albrecht Dürer, Witch riding backwards on a goat (1501-1502), Reproduced courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

Albrecht Dürer, Witch riding backwards on a goat (1501-1502), Reproduced courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

For most people today, witches are the stuff of Halloween or Disney. But only 300 years ago, witchcraft was a crime punishable by death. During the early modern period (1450–1750), 45 000 women and men were executed in Western Europe under legislation specifically against witchcraft. Another 45 000 were tried but not convicted. In the eyes of the law, and in much of society, witches were people who had made a pact with the Devil and who had then used their newfound demonic powers to harm their neighbours. Witches were most often believed to be women, frequently elderly, poor, widowed or childless. They were accused of killing children, making men impotent, ruining crops, causing storms and shipwrecks, attending the sabbath, and working together to cause evil and discord. Of course, most of these accusations were only true in the minds of accusers, but that didn’t stop the vast majority of men and women from believing in witchcraft.

But where did these ideas come from? Although witches were believed to exist in medieval Europe, it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the idea of witchcraft as a diabolical crime rose to prominence. Key texts were influential in establishing this concept, such as Heinrich Kramer’s notorious Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) of 1486 and a number of lesser known texts from the 1430s. But one of the main ways in which ideas of witchcraft circulated was through visual culture. In Second Sight, we are lucky enough to have three early visual depictions of witchcraft: Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat (1501–1502); Hans Baldung Grien’s The Bewitched Groom (1544); and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s Circe with Companions of Ulysses Turned into Animals (1650–1651).

All of these works feature aspects of the now stereotypical witch. For example, Dürer’s witch is depicted as a strong, muscled figure who looks wholly in charge while riding the goat. Her position riding backwards shows the inverse and unnatural role of witches in the world. Similarly, her hair flows in the opposite direction than it should, highlighting that she is outside nature. She is both physically repellent through her masculine body but also strongly sexualised. The distaff (a feminine object used to spin wool or flax) placed prominently between her legs, her long hair and open mouth (all signifying lust), and her suggestive grasping of the goat’s horn all associate her with transgression and sexual desire. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century treatises on witches associated them with deviant sexuality, with many authors describing the unnatural orgies in which witches were believed to partake. At the sabbath, witches were believed to engage in supposedly unnatural sexual acts with the Devil, with other witches, and even with their own children. This concept of the lustful witch is also visible in Grien’s The Bewitched Groom; although the witch is off to the side, her exposed breast is visible to all. Grien’s work also highlights anxieties about sexuality. Central to the piece is the bewitched groom’s prominent codpiece; this motif is echoed by the horse’s uncovered genitals, revealed through a brief movement of its tail. Although the witch is not central, it is clear that her presence is tied to dangerous sexuality.

Devil sees witches riding broomsticks in the night, 19th century etching by Richard Girling. Wellcome Collection.

Devil sees witches riding broomsticks in the night, 19th century etching by Richard Girling. Wellcome Collection.

Devil sees witches riding broomsticks in the night, 19th century etching by Richard Girling. Wellcome Collection.

Although lust and sexuality are both key themes in these works, there are also other prominent themes on display. Goats were not just symbols of lust but also of the Devil. The goat’s prominent position in Dürer’s work emphasises the witch’s links with diabolical agency. Other works from this same period portray the Devil even more prominently; sometimes as a man with hooved feet (such as in one 1495 woodcut by Ulrich Molitor), and sometimes as a demonic animal (such as in a 1566 English woodcut depicting the familiar spirit ‘Sathan’ in the form of a demonic dog). The trope of animal transformation is taken up in Castiglione’s work which is believed to illustrate the story of Circe the sorceress turning men into animals. This work reminds us that for people living in the early modern era, the human–animal boundary was less fixed than it is now. In witchcraft narratives, witches were often believed to either work with animals (often in the form of familiar spirits) or to actually transform themselves into animals. In some cases, witches were believed to turn themselves into cats; when these cats were attacked and wounded, the witch was later spotted with the same wound.

Black cats howl as naked witches ride into the sky. Wellcome Collection

Black cats howl as naked witches ride into the sky. Wellcome Collection

Black cats howl as naked witches ride into the sky. Wellcome Collection

While these three early prints in Second Sight may be small, they open up a whole new world, one in which witches were real and the Devil had the power to act in the world. I urge viewers exploring the exhibition to keep these ideas in mind and to enjoy how the featured artists have played with the stereotype of the witch.

Further Reading:

Zika, Charles. The Appearance of Witchcraft (London: Routledge, 2007).

Bio Notes:

Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and the author of Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2017).

She is interested in the intersections of supernatural belief, gender, emotions and print culture, and is working on a new project on early modern ghosts.

You can follow her on Twitter @drcmillar