Witches in folklore and fairy tales

Witches are in the popular belief women with magical powers, which are supposed to be in the service of demons or devils. Her magic arts bring harm and ruin to people in many ways. For example, they are blamed for crop failures and natural disasters. It would also be in her power to strike man and cattle with disease or death and to turn people into animals. The origins of the European belief in witches lie in pre-Christian times. But it was only with the advance of Christianity that the image of the witch as a woman in league with the devil emerged.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel

One of the most famous witches in fairy tales. Illustration of Hansel and Gretel (Arthur Rackham)

The term has also been extended to refer to men skilled in sorcery, who are then called Witch or also Warlock can be called. In fairy tales, however, such characters are more often called "evil wizard", if the aspect of magical powers is in the foreground. If it is to be emphasized that it concerns a figure with bad intentions, rather of the "fiend" is spoken. (As, by the way, the witch is sometimes also called fiendess.)

Colloquially, the word witch is used as a swear word for a quarrelsome woman. In part, the aspect of age discrimination also plays a role (old witch) as well as the devaluation of women not considered "beautiful" play a role.

The image of the witch in literature

The idea of the witch as a malicious, repulsive being is reflected in her appearance. Especially in the Grimm’s fairy tales, especially in Hansel and Gretel, the witch got her still popular figure today. (The first illustration of the fairy tale witch is by Ludwig Grimm, the younger brother of Jacob and Wilhelm.) The pictures show an old, hunchbacked woman with a big, crooked nose, fishy hands, dripping eyes, etc. The witch’s companions are certain animals, which themselves have a dubious reputation. The most important are cats (usually black), ravens, owls and toads. Dogs also sometimes appear as companions of the witch, especially smaller breeds like Spitz or Poodle. According to superstition, the latter (especially when black) is in league with the devil.

A common accessory is the Witch broom, on which the witch is said to be able to fly through the air. To be able to fly, witch also rubs herself with a special Witch’s Ointment a. Using all sorts of herbs and dubious ingredients, she makes this ointment in her Witch cauldron here.

More rarely, the witch is depicted as a seductive woman (red, open hair, incompletely clothed). In more recent children’s, youth and fantasy literature, the witch has long since been rehabilitated. Rather, she offers an identification figure for stubborn girls and women striving for independence. The little witch in Otfried Preubler’s children’s book of the same name, for example, wants desperately to become a good witch. But in her zeal she does not consider that in the world of witches "good" actually means "evil. After clarification of her error she consequently stands by her own moral conviction. The witch, known from the radio play series of the same name and extremely popular in Germany Bibi Blocksberg is quite strikingly portrayed as a wild girl, always up for pranks, while her otherness remains rather superficial.

In the Harry Potter novels by the British author Joanne Rowling, on the other hand, there is indeed room for all kinds of witches. There are good and bad, adapted and extroverted, ambitious and negligent witches. Tradition-conscious conservatives regard themselves as "witch nobility" and feel superior to those who have normal people as parents.

Word origin and early word usage

The word "witch" is derived from the Old High German "hagzissa". It is considered likely that this word is composed of hag (Old High German for hedge or forest) and the Germanic/Norwegian tysja (elf or spirit). Originally, witch means "female magical being sitting on the hedge (or dwelling in the forest)". Similar ideas exist in very many cultures. There is also a widespread superstition that real persons (mostly women) are witches and are to be punished in a certain way.

Superstition and witch hunts

Demonization and systematic witch hunts, on the other hand, occurred only in Christian Western Europe, from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. There were no comparable excesses in Judaism or Islam, nor in the Orthodox Church. While the persecution of heretics accused of sorcery ("Hexerey") and devil worship also involved men, it is undeniable that the witch hunts also involved an appalling degree of misogyny.

The witch as temptress

One root certainly lies in the idea of original sin. According to this, the woman (Eve) is particularly susceptible to the whispers of the devil. In addition, there was the self-imposed abstemious lifestyle of the monks and priests. In the struggle for the suppression of sexual needs, women as temptresses became the handmaidens of evil, and ultimately the image of the enemy. But because the persecutions of witches in the long history of Christianity only lasted for a limited period of time (15 years), the witchcraft was not a "speciality" of the Catholic Church. to 18. Even though the Inquisition can be traced back to the 13th century and can also be limited relatively well (to Central Europe), this explanation is not really satisfying either. In particular, the witch craze was not a "specialty" of the Catholic Church. After the Reformation, it was carried out with at least as much zeal in Protestant areas.

Inquisition and Hammer of Witches

In fact the Inquisition was only a mainspring of the witch hunt. This is to be seen above all as an example of mass hysteria and would not have been possible without a broad readiness for denunciation. Although the "witches’ bull" (Summis desiderantes affectibus, 1484) by Pope Innocent VIII. a crucial basis for the legitimization of violence. More important for the practice of witch hunts, however, was a commentary by the Dominican Henricus Institoris on the Bull of Witches (Malleus maleficarum, 1487). This treatise, known as the "Hammer of Witches," first provides practical instructions on how to recognize a witch. Following on from existing prejudices, the author then goes on about the inferiority and depravity of women. Finally he lists – in the sense of recommendations – sadistic torture practices. Although the work of art found neither ecclesiastical nor secular recognition, it was widely distributed among the people.

The fact that the witch craze had its sad peak during and after the Thirty Years’ War is surely no coincidence. In the face of destruction, epidemics and then also crop failures as a result of the Little Ice Age, people fell back on the scapegoat principle. Certain women were particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of this principle because of their occupation. Women who knew about medicinal herbs and other household remedies could easily go from being healers to witches. Midwives came into direct contact with the "evil juices" of the unclean woman giving birth; if there were even deformities in the infant, the midwife was directly suspected of being the devil’s handmaiden. It can be assumed that male elites felt threatened by women who had accumulated great knowledge in certain fields. But this also falls short as an explanation for the witch persecutions. For the denunciations did not come from the elite (but from the "common people"), nor were women restrained in doing so.

Criminalization and demonization of marginalized groups

The superstition associated with witches was also used to demonize social fringe groups. An example of this is the notion of the "witches’ Sabbath," which associates the belief in witches with the Jews. (Sabbath is the Jewish day of rest.) The witches’ sabbath is a festive meeting of all witches and sorcerers of a region with the devil; it takes place at night in a secret place. One of the most famous of these places is the Blocksberg (Brocken).

Sinti and Roma ("Gypsies") were also associated with witchcraft. Particularly in northern Germany, until the 19th century, Sinti and Roma ("witches"). In the 19th century, so-called "gypsy brooms" were set up in the store doorway. The broom as a symbol of the witch should prevent Roma from entering the store. In European fairy tales, too, "gypsies" are sometimes mentioned in connection with witches and sorcerers; moreover, as a characteristic of fairy-tale characters who are in league with evil, sometimes their black or. blackened face mentioned.

Witches in fairy tales

What does this dark chapter in the history of Central Europe now have to do with our fairy tales? After all, the writing down of the orally transmitted texts by the Brothers Grimm took place decades after the end of the witch craze. The materials themselves, on the other hand, are much older. Witches therefore often occupy the role of (female) evil in German fairy tales, as they are prototypes typical of the region and time in which they live.

Illustration by Heinrich Vogeler of the fairy tale Jorinde and Joringel

The witch living alone in her castle in the forest enchants young girls into birds. Illustration by Heinrich Vogeler for Jorinde and Joringel

In related French or Italian fairy tales one often finds the man-eater (ogre, orco) or the man-eater instead of the witch. (Compare for example The Little Thumb with Hansel and Gretel). In other fairy tales like Snow White, the heroine’s enemy does bear characteristics of a witch (older woman with magical powers). However, it is either not named as such at all or only relatively late ("… who was in reality a witch…"). Motifs, such as the punishment of Snow White’s wicked stepmother, who has to dance in the fire, could go back to real events. The "trial by fire" was actually used to determine whether the accused was a witch. At the time when the Grimms created their collection of fairy tales (the first edition was published in 1812), the last witch trials were only a few generations ago. It is likely that reports of such martial acts continued to circulate for some time and were mixed with the older fairy tale material.

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