Folklore tells us that witches and witchcraft permeated life in the western world since ancient Rome. Why then is there such a paucity of witches in modern society? Considering that today is Halloween I decided to investigate the matter and offer a possible explanation.
The western concept of witches, magic and sorcery dates back centuries. Witches are renowned for magic potions, casting evil spells, using their supernatural powers to control the forces of the universe, and consorting with spirits.
Wizards and warlocks were said to have supernatural powers and they also consorted with the spirit world, however, in Anglo-Saxon, the word wizard means “wise man,” while the word warlock means “deceiver.” Societies made clear distinction between wizards and warlocks, but why are witches almost always portrayed as sinister or evil (Glinda the Good Witch of the North not withstanding?)
The word witch comes from the Anglo-Saxon “wicca,” or one who presides over sacrifices. Like wizards and warlocks, women who had the power to manipulate the physical world could either be good or evil, but over time a woman who presided over “wicked sacrifices” came to be known as a witch, while one who presided over “good sacrifices,” came to be called a “priestess.”
When these legends arose centuries ago the life span of human beings was about twenty-five to thirty-five years and men had a longer life expectancy than women. Men of the upper classes or aristocracy represented a disproportionate number of the long-lived men simply because they were better fed than the common man. It followed that these “older aristocratic men” came to be associated with convention, law and wisdom.
In pre-literate societies these old men were valued for their memories and their wisdom and were often chosen to rule their tribe or clan; and if not, many at least had the ear of the tribal leader or king and were considered valuable members of their societies. A prime example is “Merlin” of King Arthur’s Court. In those days most men grew beards because it was a sign of manhood, and the respect due the beard was magnified when the beard was white since this also marked experience of age as well as stateliness.
But what about women? In years past women had shorter life spans than men because in addition to suffering the risks of famine and disease just as men did, they also had one more factor militating against a protracted life—childbirth. Women may be superior biological specimens because of their extra chromosome, but that wasn’t the case before modern medicine reduced the threat of death during childbirth.
Historically, the woman’s role in male dominated societies was one of being a baby-making machine. Women spent most of their time in the company of infants and small children and were required to amuse them with games and stories, which evolved into folklore and “old wives tales.” They also passed on their home remedies and cures.
In light of their awesome responsibilities one might think that women would be respected because they exercised so much control over the family and human life in general; but home remedies and cures can kill as well as cure.
Since women do not grow beards, the lines and wrinkles of the aging process were far more apparent on a woman than on a man. Add to this the fact that dental hygiene was virtually non-existent in those times and scarce was the person with a mouth full of teeth, especially anyone over the age of fifteen. This was not so bad for men who could hide a craggy face and an edentate mouth behind a beard and were looked upon as wise if the beard was white, but women were not so lucky.
Because of their unseemly appearance, many societies looked at these near toothless old women with a degree of fear, which was further exacerbated if they happened to engage in curious or questionable remedies that frequently caused as much harm as good. As a result, those remedies and ‘medicines’ that caused harm or death came to be known as magic potions.
Now comes the interesting part. Caricature is defined as: “The art or process of producing pictures or descriptions that ludicrously exaggerate the prominent features, peculiarities or defects of persons or things.”
With that in mind, let’s examine the physiological fact that opposing gums become closer when the lack of teeth can no longer keep the gums apart. The result is that the nose and chin come closer together, which is why the present day image of “the witch” has been caricatured by the personages in classic fairytales such as Snow White and Hansel & Gretel, not to mention Shakespeare’s Macbeth, i.e., old, ugly women having curved noses approaching their curved chins.
Therefore, it appears to me that the reason we see so few witches in modern western society is because the hooknose, hooked chin caricature of feminine old age has vanished thanks to the miracles of fluoridation and modern dentistry.
Next Halloween’s commentary will trace the evolution of fashion in the coven from the woolen sackcloth commonly worn in 10th century Europe to the trendy look of the panne velvet robe with full sleeves, open neckline and matching hood usually associated with the sartorially aware sorceress from the mid 1600’s to the present day.