Pointy hats, black cats, toads, frogs, creepy potions and flying brooms have dominated our views of witches for hundreds of years. The witch is such an interesting piece of myth that new legends and standards are being invented all the time. Purple eyes, green skin, twitching noses and flying vacuum cleaners have all become recognizable just in the last century. Since Halloween and Samhain are fast approaching, let’s look at where some of the myths that make up witchy halloween costumes come from.
Eye of Newt and Macbeth’s Witches
“Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble” may be one of the first things people think when you mention witches. The three nameless crones from one of Shakespeare’s most infamous plays create a devilish potion to wreak havoc in Macbeth’s life with a host of disgusting ingredients, aided by none other than Hecate – the Queen of the Witches. One ingredient that always seems to stand out is Eye of Newt. Eye of newt is the most common witch’s brew ingredient in children’s stories and jokes about witches. What many people don’t know is that Eye of Newt is an old folk name for a totally common herb in magical and mundane lives – mustard seed. Mustard seeds were thought to be an ingredient in spells to cause strife, confusion and discord – which this brew certainly did for poor Macbeth. In fact, many of the ingredients in this brew are real herbal ingredients that many ancient and modern witches have used. Wool of Bat is holly, tongue of dog is houdstongue and toe of frog are sweet little buttercups. The image of these characters who aren’t even given names is incredibly well planned out and researched – though by whom is still a mystery. The writing structure and historical and mythological accuracy is not quite Shakespeare’s style. A ghost writer has always been suspected, and some believe that Shakespeare stole this list of ingredients from a real witch, and this is the source of the curse that haunts the actors of this play.
If you’re looking to incorporate Eye of Newt into your magick get your hands on Black Mustard seeds. In addition to apparently helping to increase fertility and sexual arousal, mustard seed is used by various cultures for magickal purposes like protection of the home and protection during travel.
You can find an entry for it in the Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs and you can buy it from Richters Herbs! Use THIS LINK and help support the podcast and blog!
A Witchy Wardrobe
If clothes make the man, as Mark Twain would say, than the hat definitely makes the witch. The high, pointed black hat is such a staple in the witches myths that without it Halloween itself would be totally incomplete. Tall black hats were a common fashion statement all over the world and throughout history. For much of history, they weren’t associated with witches at all, but noble people, farmers and even the pious. Most depictions of witches from classical antiquity depict witches with long, flowing, wild hair that is unkempt and dirty. Because a woman’s sexuality was seen as obscene and devilish, this tempting, flowing hair was a sign of a woman without morals. Many witches were also depicted nude for this reason. Somewhere along the way, witches began wearing black dresses and robes, thick, black boots with buckles and the iconic pointed black hat – think Wicked Witch of the West. The most popular theory as to why comes from an unlikely, though not surprising, source. Quakers and puritans believed in dressing modestly – colours that didn’t stand out, styles that covered your body and buckles that kept everything tight. Plain black dresses that covered from neck to ankle were common for these women, and the hats and boots were a common fashion statement for puritan and Quaker men. (Women usually wore bonnets instead of hats). During the height of religious discrimination in the colonies, Quakers were shunned by the puritans and increasingly thought of a heretics and even witches. When the black hats and clothes began to fall out of fashion, the Quakers just didn’t get the memo and continued wearing it – especially the hats which became popular with all Quakers. Though the hats were blunt or rounded on the top, this hat became associated with evil and the point was added in rumour and artwork to solidify its connection with the devil and evil. Luckily the witch’s wardrobe has been updated since then and is a bit flashier, though it still includes these classical elements.
Turning Men into Toads, Frogs & Beasties
The fairy tale of a princess kissing a frog, having him turn into a prince and them living happily ever after as a reward for her selflessness is a common one at bedtime – but why did that nasty old witch turn that poor poor prince into a frog anyways? First you have to remember that fairy tales are actually horrifying, and there’s no way it was that simple. In the original tale, recorded by the incomparable Brothers Grimm, the princess threw the frog prince against the wall in disgust and it activated his transformation – he got what he’d deserved. In Beauty and the Beast, the young prince was transformed due to his treating the witch with disrespect and cruelty. He acted like a beast. Toads and frogs were slimy, small and in short – pests. This often reflected the behaviour of the man himself, and not really the witch. All of these witches got their brilliant feminist ideals from one very special witch in Greek Mythology – Circe, the goddess of magic and daughter of Hecate herself. Circe didn’t take disrespect from men lying down, and often turned disrespectful and lusty men into animals – pigs being her favourite. Circe’s island was inhabited by dozens of animals of all kinds, all people who’d crossed her path when they shouldn’t have and ended up in a kennel. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s crew falls prey to Circe after feasting and drinking and lusting after her without offering up even a thank you. Odysseus has to consume a holy herb named Moly (yes! THE Holy Moly!) to help him resist her magic and is warned that she will try and steal his manhood, literally. He spends a year on the island wearing Circe down, before she eventually agrees to let him and his crew free and even offers up directions into the underworld and through the lair of the sirens. What a gal.
What are your favourite or least favourite witchy myths?
Check back later this week for Part 2 where we cover familiars, flaying brooms, Elizabeth Montgomery’s trick nose, and The Wickedest Witch of All.