The specter of the witch haunts both fact and fiction. She is all at once wizened hag, poison apple in hand; learned spinster, married to her books; and enchanting seductress with bared breasts and hypnotic stare. Although she may inhabit the same pop culture pantheon as vampires, zombies, and werewolves, the witch has long been a symbol of fear not because she can harness forces that transcend this mortal coil, but because she embodies the a powerful femininity free from male influence or ownership. Indeed throughout history the figure of the witch has both challenged and reflected patriarchal narratives about female power, making her one of the most enduring feminist icons of all time.
Originating in the Mesopotamian myths of Inanna, in the Hindu stories of Kali, and in the Greek tales of Hecate, the legacy of the witch stretches back thousands of years. These goddesses had the ability to give life and to take it away, and they were worshipped for it. Although female generative capabilities have always been suspect, once monotheistic religions gained greater prominence—thereby consolidating belief around an omnipotent male deity—women were cast more frequently as “other,” and as villains.
Between the 14th and 18th centuries in Europe, thousands of people accused of witchcraft were put to death in a Catholic church-sponsored inquisition. Although men also caught the wrath of this mass panic, a majority of those tortured, sexually abused, and burned at the stake were women. These were healers and midwives with intimate knowledge about sexual reproduction and the human body who threatened to educate a highly uneducated populace. They were women who raised suspicion by amassing too much land, wealth, or influence. They were mothers, sisters, and daughters who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they were punished for it.
While far fewer women were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death in North America, the Salem witch trials that occurred between 1692 and 1693 have inspired a great deal of art and debate over the past 300 years. What exactly went on in the small New England town is frequently revisited by scholars and historians alike, but what we do know is that when a group of young girls began to exhibit strange behavior, the blame was placed on witchcraft, and three “witches” were immediately singled out: a poor, homeless beggar; a widow who hadn’t attended church in years; and a slave from Barbados. The situation quickly escalated into something far more complex, but Salem is one more example of how women—and in particular those on the margins of society—have been persecuted (generally by men) under the guise of witchcraft.
These are only two major moments in the history of the witch, but her stories are numerous, and infused into the annals of almost every culture and religion around the world. It is most often her Euro-American lineage, however, that has been mined for entertainment in the West. And given her history, it makes sense that when the witch first began to capture the public’s imagination onscreen, depictions relied upon male fears of female sexuality or simplistic tropes of jealous, aging women pitted against pretty, young ingénues. (See: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and The Wizard Of Oz.)
As the feminist movement gained visibility, more complex expressions of the witch began to appear. No longer was the narrative of the witch written solely by men: her story finally started to be retold and reframed by women, too. The first major pop culture witch in this category was Samantha Stephens from Bewitched, who appeared one year after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, highlighting the plight of the white, middle-class housewife. Despite its bourgeois “white feminist” trappings, the show, written by self-described feminist Barbara Avedon, presented an alternate vision of gender roles and power through magic for women struggling to break free from domesticity.
Continuing this trend in recent years, J.K. Rowling approached the witch archetype in her Harry Potter series with reverence for the scholarship required to be a practicing witch, defying stereotypes in her nuanced representation of Hermione Granger. Similarly, screenwriter Linda Woolverton updated Sleeping Beauty to humanize the story of its witch antagonist in a 2014 adaptation for Disney’s Maleficent, a film which breaks through the “good witch/bad witch” binary once and for all.
Granted, contemporary television and film still employ dangerous clichés about femininity to sell a less political and more palatable version of the witch, but the rise of feminism in popular culture has made these choices less viable. From The Witches Of Eastwick and Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Penny Dreadful and American Horror Story: Coven, depictions of the witch have simultaneously opened old wounds of female oppression, and helped raise awareness about the egregious wrongs women have endured throughout history—many of which continue to this day.
Accusations of witchcraft were once used to police female behavior (and still are in a staggering number of countries around the world), but now more than ever, witches have become symbols of women rising up against the odds. As long as reproductive rights, wage equality, sexual freedom and sexual assault remain major issues in feminist struggle, the witch will remain an archetypal expression of our frustrations and of our strides for power beyond patriarchy.