Welcome to the third installment of the (Bi)Weekly Witch Question! This feature was inspired by a massive list of questions that my dad sent me about witchcraft. The phrasing of these questions were adjusted, if they were changed at all, for clarity.
Feel free to ask any questions about witchcraft that you may have, and, if the question discussed here inspires you, respond in your own magickal journal (a prompt can be found at the bottom of the post). This week’s question addresses how witches are presented in popular culture, which, in turn, influences how non-magickal people view us.
Question 3: Are there really witches like the ones portrayed in popular media (e.g., Macbeth, Salem Witch Trials, Halloween, etc.)?
The short answer is no, witches are not like the way we are portrayed in the popular imagination. To illustrate, I’m going to take a moment to address a few of the major ones and add a notable example to the list.
Macbeth: The Macbeth witches are based mostly on other people’s portrayals of witches from that time period; the 2018 Witches’ Companion published by Llewellyn actually has an article about them specifically. The witches three seem to be an adaptation of the three Fates (Greek) or the Norns (Norse) that rule over people’s lives.
Salem: The people who died in Salem weren’t witches at all. The Salem witchcraft trials were one of the last gasps of witchcraft persecution, a European import. There’s a trend at the moment to declare oneself a “descendant of Salem” aka a witch. I find this obnoxious for a few reasons: first, as stated, the people who died in Salem weren’t witches. The other is that I’m an actual descendant of Salem, specifically one of the ‘bad guys’, Cotton Mather. I really do have Salem in my blood; if you don’t, then please don’t buy a shirt pretending to be like me.
Halloween: The witch Halloween costumes are usually based on the ‘crone,’ which is the wise, old form of a witch. The pointed hat is the ‘cone of power’ raised during a lot of magickal workings, and many believe that the classic, hooked nose is anti-Semitic in origin. Not surprising, really, since Sabbat is a Christian bastardization of the Jewish term Sabbath; witches and Jews were paired together as “heathens” by early Christians. The broom they usually have as an accessory is a besom, a magickal broom, though Christians also believed that witches flew on brooms (a common household item associated with women) to get to their parties with the Devil. For the most part, Halloween costumes of witches are witch stereotypes, just like costumes of nurses, nuns, clowns, and the like.
Harry Potter: HP is a particularly interesting one because there’s a lot of cross-pollination between witchcraft and the HP universe. Many witches really love the franchise, choosing Hogwarts houses, calling people “muggles,” and imagining their role within the world (Ravenclaw, forever). However, as much as JK Rowling borrowed from witchcraft and paganism, she has also publicly stated that there are no Wiccans at Hogwarts. In fact, Wiccans (the only government-recognized witchcraft religion) are the only religious group not at Hogwarts, according to Rowling. Witches’ relationship with Rowling’s franchise is and should be complicated by her willingness to make millions off of our mythology and practices while simultaneously excluding us from her fictional world, even as she rewrites our traditions. The fear that children will become witches because of Harry Potter is the height of absurdity, since actual witchcraft looks nothing like Hogwarts. In fact, it’s more likely to mean that people who want to be witches because of HP will try it out, and become disappointed when it’s nothing like the HP universe (because we can’t make things levitate, sorry).
There are so many other examples of witches in the media, none of them accurate: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Witches of Eastwick, The Wizard of Oz, Practical Magic, and The Craft (I was already a witch when this came out, and it was hilarious to me and my coven, who watched it in the theater) just to name a (very) few examples. Witchcraft in pop culture does a couple of things, it raises our profile, but it simultaneously exploits our culture for entertainment value. It’s cultural appropriation: our cultures is used, borrowed, and changed to entertain those outside of that culture. However, a witch’s relationship with individual shows, movies, or books may be different because, for some, that’s where they fell in love with the idea of being a witch. Some of the ones on the list here I actually really enjoy, too; I even read the first two Harry Potter books and admit that they’re really cute.
For your magickal journal: Did popular culture influence your ideas of what it meant to be a witch? Are there any witch movies or shows that are your sentimental favorites? Which ones do you like and why?
Image via 30 Rock