Why do witches have such a bad rap?
Think about it. When most people imagine a witch, they bring to mind a picture of an old woman, green skin and warts, black clothes and a pointy hat. Most of the time the image is accompanied by a twisted broomstick or a glowing cauldron. Their only companion is a cat or a bird, usually a raven or a crow, and for whatever reason, they are hell bent on somehow disrupting the lives of the local villagers either through general curses and hexes or outright kidnapping. Because if there’s one thing witches love, it’s luring children into their lair because… um… reasons? I guess, if your name is Hansel or Gretel, it’s because she’s hungry. I don’t know.
With the rare exception, literature portrays witches as the villains of the story. At the very least, even if they aren’t the outright antagonist, they may be painted as mysterious figures who aren’t ‘evil’ per se, but certainly don’t walk on the light side with the hero or heroine. In recent years, there have been a few more positive depictions such as in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Charmed. Novels like Harry Potter have also done a lot to cast magic in a more favorable light (no pun intended). But, still, when we think of witches, it’s not Hermione Granger, Willow, or the Halliwell sisters who jump out at us. Yet, it is in these strong, female characters that I think we find our answer.
If we look into the history of witch hunts and executions since the fifteenth century, documents suggest that roughly 12,000 witches were executed (though it’s likely the actual number is greater). Of those put to death or accused, seventy-five percent of them were women.
“But Celia, men can be witches, too!” I imagine you saying. And you are absolutely correct. Men were not immune from accusations or executions, but let’s look back at how men were portrayed in fiction. Merlin is, perhaps, one of the most famous magic users in written and oral tradition. The court magician and advisor to the legendary King Arthur, his purpose was righteous and good. He is certainly a witch, but he is never called that. Morgan Le Fay, or Morgana, is also a witch… and she’s regarded and treated as such. She is a powerful, intelligent woman and therefore she must be dangerous.
It’s not likely that every person put to death was a witch, particularly with the stigma associated with being so called. There was a greater emphasis on the dangers and perils of ‘consorting with evil spirits or the devil’, so those who did practice would have done so in secret or else have been assured enough of their safety to be more open about it. That means that the witches who were put on trial were likely just people whose death or guilty plea profited the accuser.
In short, the reason we have come to view witches as ‘bad’ or ‘wicked’ isn’t just because of fiction or the portrayals we see on the big screen. It’s because the term was taken and twisted to mean something entirely different. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the witch hunts were a means of control and the targets tended to be outspoken, wealthy, influential women. Women had their place, and the more societal power they held, the more dangerous they were and therefore the more threatened some men felt by them. Essentially, being a witch meant you somehow challenged patriarchal structures rather than practicing actual magic.
In some ways, this is why modern witchcraft is viewed as such a liberating movement. It’s not just about embracing the magic inside you, but you are also breaking away from the status quo. While it’s true in the west we no longer have to worry about going to court because our neighbor accused us of being a witch, it’s still a controversial thing. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have lectured me about the state of my soul and that it’s not too late for me to turn back to the light. So make no mistake, being a witch today still takes courage because there are so many who believe that witches are bad.
So what can we do to change the perception? Honestly? Who cares what they think about us? We know what it means to be a witch, we know who we are and what we are about. It is not our job to change society’s view of us, and even if it were, there is something to be said about yelling at a brick wall. At the end, nothing’s changed except your throat hurts a little more. In the end, you owe nobody an explanation, and being who you are and recognizing the strength inside of you is always going to upset somebody who believes you should be quiet and color inside the lines.
Maybe, that’s exactly why witches have a bad rap: because we walk our own path and don’t apologize for it.