There are few characters in the world quite so well known as the witch. From the time we are children we’re terrified and dazzled by the powers they possess. Whether it is the old crone and her broomstick or the beautiful good witch with her wand, everyone knows that no Halloween costume party is complete without some kind of witch in attendance.
But when did this fascination begin, and how has it evolved to become the current image of the Halloween witch? There are stories and legends involving witches that date back to medieval times when Europe was overrun with a great fear of witches. It was believed that these practitioners of magic were able to do things that were unnatural to affect other people or their property against their will. Many women were persecuted and tortured as witches. They were blamed for natural disasters or sicknesses that befell their villages and were consequently burned at the stake as punishment.
Generally, we’re told now that it was wise-women who bore the brunt of the fear and hatred of others. Women who had knowledge of herbs and healing techniques were often respected for what they could do, yet that respect often carried with it a certain degree of fear as well. Such magical arts were rarely understood by those who did not study them, so the witch’s abilities seemed supernatural, and anything supernatural was to be feared. Therefore when something bad would happen it was quite easy for that mild fear to turn to blame. As the religions of Christianity and Islam began to grow, it became widely accepted that witches were minions of the Devil, fooling people with their supposedly good works in order to later steal their souls.
Looking back on these claims now only increases the allure of the image of the witch, because it enhances the mystery surrounding who they really were and what they could honestly do. Were they truly innocents who were unjustly accused, or were they vicious, conniving women who enchanted and tricked people to get what they wanted? Did they really communicate with the dead or do the devil’s bidding? What control did they possess over the world around them? Could they defy gravity and fly on broomsticks across the moonlit sky? Which are just stories and which legends are actually steeped in truth? We are left with so many questions in regards to these figures that it is inevitable for a bit of fear to mingle in our perception of them.
This uneasiness with the idea of the witch has more or less molded the image that we hold today of the old woman with green skin and a long nose sporting a hairy mole somewhere on her face. It was common, even before movies began to portray witches in this manner, to depict them in stories as haggard old ladies with no teeth, hunched over, with scraggly hair. A story was always considered to be more frightening when the antagonist was ugly or otherwise repulsive. It is believed that the green skin of the witch actually evolved from the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz”, in which the Wicked Witch of the West had a green skin tone, lending even more to her appearance the feeling of something unnatural.
Some might believe that witches are only associated with Halloween because they are scary, but this is not the case. In fact, it was witches and other pagans who are mostly responsible for bringing Halloween or All Hallows Even into existence at all. October 31st and April 30th are both celebrated by the pagans as holidays. The celebrations revolve around the changing of the seasons. Samhain, which is the pagan celebration that takes place on Halloween, is associated with death (and therefore fear) because it is the end of the summer. It signifies the time that the earth will be entering the cold season of sleep. Beltane, celebrated on the last of April, is the observance of the earth returning to life. Coincidentally, in some countries in Europe, like Sweden, children are known to dress up as witches on Easter, rather than Halloween and go from door to door trick or treating.
There is a great deal of history and meaning behind the current connection between Halloween and the witch. Even though the witch is no longer considered to be evil just because she is a witch, that small touch of doubt in her intentions is always enough to maintain a special spark of uncertainty that keeps us wondering. She is the perfect symbol for Halloween.