The western concept of witches, magic and sorcery dates back centuries. Witches were renowned for using magic potions, casting evil spells and consorting with spirits. Meanwhile, wizards and warlocks were also said to have supernatural powers. However, in Anglo-Saxon, the word wizard means “wise man,” while the word warlock means “deceiver.” So while society made clear distinctions between wizards and warlocks, witches were almost always portrayed as sinister or evil. Why?
The word witch comes from the Anglo-Saxon “wicca,” – one who presides over sacrifices. Like wizards and warlocks, women who were believed to have the power to manipulate the physical world could be either good or evil. But over time women who presided over “wicked sacrifices” came to be known as witches, while those who presided over “good sacrifices,” were knows as “priestesses.”
During medieval times the life span of human beings was roughly thirty years, with men having longer life expectancies than women; more on that in a moment. Additionally, men of the upper class were disproportionately long-lived because their diets were better than the common man. Consequently, “older aristocratic men” came to be associated with wisdom.
Old men were valued for their memories, sagacity and frequently had the ear of the leader or king. Also in those days most men grew beards as a sign of manhood, and the respect due the beard was greatly exaggerated if and when the beard was white because that marked the experience of age as well as stateliness. But what about women? First of all, they had shorter life spans than men because in addition to suffering through the living conditions of the times they also gave birth, and while there are few reliable statistics it can be safely estimated that one woman in three died during their childbearing years.
Historically, women spent most of their time in the company of infants and children and were required to amuse them with games and stories. Many of these stories evolved into folklore and become known as “old wives tales.” But women also passed on their home remedies and cures. Now due to their awesome responsibilities one might think women would be exalted because they exercised so much control over the family and human life in general; but home remedies can kill as well as cure.
Additionally, since women can’t grow beards, the lines and wrinkles of the aging process were more apparent than on a man. Add that dental hygiene was virtually non-existent in those times; few and far between could anyone found with a mouth full of teeth. Now this wasn’t so bad for men who could hide a craggy face and an edentate mouth behind a white flowing beard and therefore looked upon as wise, 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, the ‘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 in the absence of teeth, opposing gums become closer. We know too that noses change in size and shape as we age because of changes to the bone, as a result the nose and chin are drawn closer together for aging people without teeth, which is why the present day image of a witch has been caricatured by the personages in classic fairytales such as Snow White and Hansel & Gretel i.e., old, ugly women with curved noses resembling a pincers with their curved chins, Glinda the good witch of the north notwithstanding.
So the reason we see so few witches in modern western society today is because the hooknose, hooked chin caricature of feminine old age has vanished thanks to the miracles of modern dentistry.
Quote of the day: “There is no way of proving your point to someone whose income, position or ideology depends upon believing the contrary”—Sydney Harris