It’s that time of year again when we carve pumpkins (well I am English and I don’t have children so I half heartedly entering into some form of pumpkin carving activity) and send children out to threaten the neighbours dressed as ghouls or ghostbusters or kittens (depending on their preference) to either gain candy or egg someone’s house (not that I have ever seen anyone deny a child candy or seen a house egged where I live). These days there is little to no fear of witches and the repercussions of crossing one, but there was a time when women (and some men) with familiars were revered and feared.
Most people think of witches and think of the persecution of them, with the witch hunts that are quite notorious and the ill treatment of anyone proclaimed a witch – I am sure that we are all familiar with the ludicrous test of dunking, where if the women on trial floated she was a witch because he had denounced baptism where as if she sank she was innocent…or the baking of witch cakes – a bizarre practice of taking the urine of said witch, mixing it with rye meal and baking it into a cake. The cake was then fed to the witch’s familiar in the hope that it would speak the name of the witch. Before this though, witches were considered a valuable member of small communities across Europe, with their knowledge of healing herbs and medicinal recipes along with created amulets and offers of protection charms.
The change in attitude came about in 1486 when a publication written by two Dominican inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, called ‘Hammer of the Witches’ came about. The book associated witches with the Devil and sealed the link between witchcraft and women. The book was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1490, but for more than two centuries continued to be used by both Catholics and Protestants. Under this new era of suspicion an array of lurid tales of witches came about, particularly the idea of the nocturnal meeting of practitioners of witchcraft, known as the witches’ sabbath grew in popularity, complete with the beliefs of human sacrifice and allegiance to Devil. Familiars, the animal helpers of witches were said to drink the witch’s blood and speak to them. Attack enemies and do their bidding. It was also around this time that the thoughts that witches could fly around on broomsticks came about.
In 1521 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull condemning witches to death and in 1542 Henry VIII issued the first anti-witchcraft act. In the early 1600’s the persecution of witches peaked, and James I allowed confessions by torture.
This pretty much set the common thoughts of witches today, the iconic image of the old hag with the black cat and a broomstick.
This engraving shows the procession of a witch through a dark and menacing underworld created somewhere in the early 1500s, she is pulled on a chariot made from the carcass of a monstrous creature. The witch is accompanied by men, children, animals, and instruments. Iconographically these recall scenes of Bacchic parades (festivities worshiping Bacchus the wine God). Stylistically the horizontal arrangement echoes processional reliefs found on classical sarcophagi.
This print was engraved by Agostino Veneziano, but based on an original design by another artist whose identity has been open to debate and even now it is argued over. The subject of the print is also unclear, there is no known reason for the procession, but what we do know is this was created at a time when the feelings towards witches were changing. Attempts have been made to identify the figure with a specific textual source, or as a particular witch such as Erichtho, Hecate or the witches of the ‘Furious Horde’, but no single theory has proved convincing.
The mysterious work appears to hedge towards the witches sabbath, and the ability to control animals, people and the dead. The witch, on the back of the skeletal creature looks wanton and wild, while her associates pull her forward.
Despite the unclear meaning of this piece, I really love it, it shows how beliefs change so quickly, and the fear that was drummed up though the publication of one book. With so many uneducated people it was easy to see why the masses turned to this train of thought, these women had knowledge and healing powers…how did they get them?
Thankfully for those who still feel they follow witchcraft and have a belief in this activity, social feelings on witches have relaxed somewhat now and we no longer dunk or make witches eat urine cake.
No matter what you are doing today, have a very spooky Halloween.
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