Sunday, January 25, 2009

Witches and Ghosts

I am delighted to have recently acquired this original 1864 American image of a witch. Published as an historical “view” from 1690 Salem Mass, the depiction of a flying witch in this image says much more about Americans’ idea of a witch at the time of the War Between the States than it speaks of anything Cotton Mather might have had in mind in pre-Colonial America.

In each of my four books based on Appalachian and Southern States folklore, I have included a few stories of witches and witchcraft. I do not believe that witches are ghosts, of course. But the folklore of the witch in American life accepts the idea that witches communicate with and sometimes control people and animals who dwell in the spirit world. Or vice versa.

The 1864 depiction of an American witch includes a very traditional Victorian idealized image of children. Are they being abducted or rescued?

Two important things to notice here:

1. One is the depiction of human flight in 1864. There were no airplanes in 1864. It is interesting to me that the broom is business-end forward and it appears to propel itself in flight, with the witch holding on for the ride. The witch is not so much “riding” the broom as she is being dragged through the sky holding on for dear life.

In short, the broom could fly. The witch, not so much. In early Appalachian folklore of the American witch, witches fly all by themselves. They do so by covering their naked bodies with grease and, in two 19th-Century accounts I have read, by slipping up the chimney and into the sky with the smoke from a fireplace.

I don’t know if this idea of greasy witches is a concept of witchcraft, though. It seems to have more to do with the concept of aviation that a greased human body can slide through sky.

Also note the flowing robes of the witch herself. This would change into a cloak or a cape in later American images of witches in flight. Another fifty years later, this cape would be borrowed by the artists and writers who created American super heroes such as Superman and Batman. Witches were there first.

Ghosts, by the way, don't need a silly cape or cloak to fly. They don't need brooms to ride. Casper gets around real well on his lonesome.

Witches and Horses.

2. In the upper right corner of this 1864 witch scene, a flying horse is hidden in (or emerging from) the clouds. A human form is being held close to the horse. Perhaps this person is clinging to the horse itself. One of the accepted 19th-Century folk believes of the American witch is that witches changed people into horses while the people were asleep in their beds and rode the horses on wild escapades through the night.

People used in this way by witches woke up sore, tired, thirsty and covered with bramble scratches. They could get very little work done during the course of their days unless the witch’s spell was broken. Apparently, witches had somewhere to ride horses to every night.

The more common depiction of the American broom-flying witch is firmly established by 1900 or so as a witch straddling a broom (business-end of the broom behind her) with a black cat coming along for the ride. By 1905 or thereabouts this image is so closely associated with Halloween that many people refer to a witch thus depicted as a Halloween Witch.

It is interesting to me that later images of American witches show them in pointed pre-Colonial style hats, while earlier depictions of American witches do not.


Curious Curandera said...

Love your blog!

Byron said...

Thanks for listing me on your blog roll! And I love this witch image. The children look a little concerned to be so high up--or do they look inconvenienced? But they don't look scared, do they? Isn't that interesting?

Seems like you are gathering steam for the new witch book, Randy.

We had a sweet young man in the store last week who was from Wales. Our postman was teasing me about being a wtich and the young Welshman asked what kind of witch I was. Why, the village witch! He laughed--seems like AVL is a pretty big village!