Shakespeare’s witches reflected the perceptions held by many people in Elizabethan era England as well as in other European countries. Some of those beliefs migrated to America with the early settlers and became part of our folklore.
The image of a witch that comes to mind for many Americans is that of the Wicked Witch of the West in the filmThe Wizard of Oz (1939). She had a homely green face with sharp features, and wore a pointed black hat with a wide brim, black dress and cape. She was an evil witch and had magical powers. This image frightened children for decades.
The wide brimmed black pointed hat is the most memorable feature of the witch, and it has been a mainstay of Halloween parties and trick-or-treaters for many years. What is the history of this hat, you ask? There is no clear answer.
Some say it is a conical hat, a style worn by both men and women in the Middle Ages, to which a brim was added.
Others claim it is derived from the conical hats worn by wizards and sorcerers who, like witches, were said to nave magical powers. Recent archeological finds in Bronze Age sites across Europe lend credence to this theory. The purpose of conical shaped vessels, made of gold and decorated with numerous astrological symbols, was previously unknown. Now, archeologists claim beyond a reasonable doubt that they were hats, worn by wizards of the period. The wizards’ knowledge of astronomy, the weather, when to plant crops, and so on elevated them above ordinary men, who believed their powers were extraordinary and even magical.
Another belief is that the hat originated in England in the Middle Ages, when witches were persecuted. The accused witch was forced to wear a hat with a pointed crown shaped like a church steeple so she would be readily identified as a witch. It was believed the association with the church, being a holy symbol, would help redeem the witch’s soul.
Finally, some suggest that the witch’s hat was created as an illustration for a children’s book.
While the pointed black hat is dominant in America and Great Britain, it is not universal in the witchlore of European countries. The headgear worn by those witches includes scarves, hooded cloaks, bonnets, or no hat at all. Despite their hats being different, witches across many cultures have several similar characteristics. They are generally unattractive old women with facial features such as pointed chins, crooked noses, and warts or moles. Their magical powers include flying, often on a broom, making potions to cure ailments and influence behavior, casting spells, and assuming the form of other creatures at will. Sometimes present is a familiar, such as a black cat.
Some of the witches found in European folklore are:
Baba Jaga – Popular in Polish and Slavic folklore, the Baba Jaga is an evil witch who flies on a broomstick and kidnaps young children. At times, however, she is said to offer advice and grant wishes to a fortunate few.
Bruja – One of several witches of Spanish folklore, the bruja preys upon people while they are sleeping. She can enter a room by going through the smallest cracks and crevices, and then crushes her victims by throwing herself on them. When the Spanish migrated to the New World – Mexico, Central America, and South America – they brought their witch folklore with them. These stories were readily absorbed into similar beliefs held by the native peoples and numerous variations and stories of witches evolved.
Bruxa – An evil Portuguese witch, similar in many respects to the Spanish bruja, who terrorizes children. She is able to transform herself into different animals and is linked to thelobishomen, a Portuguese werewolf. Iron objects (such as nails or scissors), garlic, and various incantations are said to offer protection against the bruxa.
Strega – An Italian witch, usually a hideous looking old woman, who casts spells and has magical powers. The strega can enter a room through keyholes or other small openings, usually at night. One way to thwart her is to hang a broom head over the keyhole, which forces the strega to count every piece of straw in it before she can enter the room. Hopefully, dawn will break before that happens.
Befana – Finally, a good witch! The Befana is Italy’s Christmas Witch, a kindly old woman who flies on a broom. The Christian holiday, Epiphany (January 6th), is the last day of the Christmas season. For many Italian children, this is the day on which they receive gifts. On Epiphany eve, the children leave out empty stockings and snacks for La Befana’s visit. If they were good, she will fill their stockings with candy. If they were not, they will find a lump of coal instead.
You can sometimes, but not always identify a witch by her black pointed hat. But don’t be afraid, because witches exist only in folklore and in the minds of superstitious people, right? Well, if you can’t answer that question with confidence, perhaps you should start carrying an iron nail and cloves of garlic in your pocket – just in case!
Poem of the Week, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), from Macbeth. http://www.potw.org/archive/potw283.html
Polly Singer Couture Hats and Veils, History of the Witches Hat.http://www.hatsandveils.net/blog/history-of-the-witches-hat/
The Telegraph (UK), March 17, 2002, Mysterious gold cones 'hats of ancient wizards’. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/1388038/Mysterious-gold-cones-hats-of-ancient-wizards.html
HubPages.com, Fashion History of the High and Late Middle Ages - Medieval Clothing. http://doloresmonet.hubpages.com/hub/FashionHistoryoftheHIghandLateMiddleAgesClothingo-the11th-15thCentury
Polish American Journal Today, FOLKLORE: Goblins, Ghouls & Baba Jaga. http://pajtoday.blogspot.com/2009/10/blog-post_5419.html
Answers.com, Bruxa. http://www.answers.com/topic/bruxa
The Olive Press, Why Witches Like to Fly High. http://www.theolivepress.es/spain-news/2009/10/28/why-the-witches-like-to-fly-high/
Akadémiai Journals Online, Witch or demon? Fairies, vampires, and nightmares in Early Modern Spain. http://www.akademiai.com/content/538482n81k751j02/
Italy Travel Escape, Italy’s Public Holidays: La Befana. http://www.italytravelescape.com/befana.htm