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Tricks and Treats

Which Halloween witch is which?
Should we still embrace the cackling image?
Tuesday, October 31, 2000

For the past two years, I've been working on a book about witches, and during that whole time, I've kept a Halloween witch's hat hanging on a closet knob in my study. More than just bad housekeeping, its presence represents a suite of questions that troubled me when my research began and that, despite all I've learned, still hasn't been neatly settled.

When we dress little girls in witch hats and capes on October 31, exactly what are we dressing them as? Do they somehow represent the witches who died, so long ago and so terribly, during the witch hunts? How could that darkness have turned into innocent fun? Might we inadvertently be mocking an old, but unforgotten, crime against women?

These questions did not trouble me 10 years ago when my daughter was a child, and I tied this self-same witch's hat under her warty chin. Instead, as I watched her make fearsome faces and show off her blackened teeth, I was reminded of how much I, too, had loved being a witch. For me, there had been real magic in the witch's black garb -- the crepe-paper cape that swooped back from my shoulders with the rustle of wild, black wings. The tarpaper hat (made by my mother's own hands) that rose to a needle-sharp peak. This was power-dressing for pipsqueaks. Best of all, the witch's angry power was expressed through complaints and sneers, an approach to life for which, at the time, I seemed exceptionally well-suited. I revelled in the freedom of the cackling, cursing witch.

For me and, I think, for my daughter, the witch persona offered a moment of playful liberty. But for those shadowy others, so long ago, taking on the likeness of the witch had been fatal. Through my reading, I have become painfully aware of the witch craze, the spasm of violence that seized western Europe and its North American colonies between about 1450 and the late 1700s. A total of between 50,000 and 100,000 people were tortured, hanged and burned as witches during those years -- 80 per cent of them women and girls.

The sexual bias of the body count surprised no one at the time. The idea of the witch, as it had been conjured up in learned books and sermons, rested squarely upon the doctrine of women's profound inferiority. According to theologians Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, whose Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches (first published in 1486), set the pattern for the witch craze, women were imperfect animals compared to men, with a full run of intellectual, spiritual and moral weaknesses. Like Eve before them, they were easy targets for the Serpent, who preyed on their insatiable lust and made them his instrument in humanity's ruin. Yet far from acknowledging their feminine defects and vulnerability, women stubbornly refused to bow to the guidance of their husbands and priests.

As the witch-mongers saw it, any woman who resisted control -- who was angry, resentful or rude -- was immediately under suspicion of leaning towards Satan. And this, of course, was the final step that defined her as a witch. By devoting herself to the Devil, she acquired the power to fly around at night, ruining her neighbours' crops, souring their cream and visiting them with impotence and disability. In courts across Europe, witnesses solemnly testified about women who, with the aid of the Devil, could turn into hounds and hares. They swore that, on such-and-such a day, Goody Jones was seen in two places at once and that the old beggar Granny Smith had pinched and pricked her victims in the form of an apparition. These facts were duly considered by judge and jury, and the accused lived or died by the verdict.

But over the course of three centuries, doubts began to mount, and by the early 1700s, the educated classes had lost their enthusiasm for spectral evidence and flying pitchforks. A new task presented itself. How could the law-makers and clergy bring the witch-hunting craze to a close without drawing shame on themselves or provoking a crisis of confidence in the legal system? The solution, once they'd fallen on it, seemed obvious enough -- the tried-and-true tactic of blaming the victims.

Forget the learned ravings of Kramer and Sprenger, forget the calm efficiency of the courts that had sentenced witches to death. Think no more of the thousands of pages of closely reasoned witch-theory that had spilled from the learned pens. Suddenly, none of this scholarly outpouring had the slightest importance. There would never have been a witch-craze, the authorities now declared, if it had not been for the demented beliefs of ignorant country women. The poor old souls who confessed to being witches had actually been half-mad, their minds awash in dreams and illusions. The figure of the witch was quickly transformed into an amusing fantasy -- the perfect get-up for a masquerade party. In 1724, for example, a gentlemen amused the company at Windsor by showing up for a masquerade wearing the apron and the tall pointy hat of an old-fashioned country woman. By the end of the century, the witch had been fitted out in her complete party-time kit: haggard face, black cape and buckle shoes. The stereotype of the Halloween witch had been set.

Tens of thousands of women and men had died appalling deaths, and this was the way their suffering was commemorated. To this day, we unwittingly perpetuate this travesty each Halloween when we send our daughters out into the dark on their broomsticks. Does their innocent pleasure in being bad help to take back the night? Or are we unwittingly enveloping our little girls in a cruel old stereotype that -- despite the passage of years -- still brands angry, rebellious women as evil? I'm not sure, but I do think it is time to give the Halloween witch a rest. As of today, the hat has gone to the back of the closet.

Candace Savage will not be dressing up as a witch in Saskatoon. Her new book is called Witch: the Wild Ride From Wicked to Wicca.

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