Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Changing Image of Witches

As I have previously mentioned, as part of my history AS Level I studied the European Witch Craze (1560-1640). It was one of favourite papers as I found the concept of a 'craze' fascinating. The witch hunts were highly localised, had varied causes and were mostly experienced as individual events, resulting in, on average, under 10 executions; the 'witch craze' was something subsequent historians have determined.

In order to pursue my interest in the European Witch Craze I visited the British Museum to see the 'Witches and Wicked Bodies' exhibition. The exhibition examines the portrayal of witches and witchcraft in art from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century.What interested me most about the exhibition is the changing visual iconography of witches. In the Middle Ages, witches were often portrayed as naked women, riding goats and surrounded by skulls and other symbols of death. Witches were pictured at sabbaths, raising the dead within magic circles, surrounded by demons or performing evil spells. They were often imagined riding on dragons and other beasts.

However by the end of the 19th century hideous old hags with distended breasts and snakes for hair were mostly replaced by sexualised and mysteriously exotic images of feminine evil. And by the 20th century this had developed into images of women with broomsticks, cats and elongated facial features. Modern witches come in all shapes and sizes (often quite beautiful), portrayed in a multitude of ways, however anyone who has watched Harry Potter will be familiar with the idea of cats and pointed hats as representations of witches. Modern imagery surrounding witches is focused more on childish entertainment than spreading fear, propaganda and warnings of witchcraft, which was the purpose of art portraying witches or witchcraft  in the Middle Ages.

The use of art was crucial in helping the European Witch Hunts develop into a Craze, as support from the local populace was needed in order for witchcraft trials to be successfully carried out, and word of mouth and art were the main methods of spreading ideas amongst a mostly illiterate population. Changing representations of witches in art may also have helped contribute to the end of the Witch Craze as images of witches changed from being harrowing and fear-inciting, to sexualised and intriguing.

To anyone who lives in London or can travel to London easily, I would highly recommend visiting the exhibition!